Among the more than 1,000 members of Singapore's pioneer generation who were at the Istana yesterday morning was an army officer who trained the first SAF regulars and NS men, a hotelier who raised millions for the Community Chest, a teacher, and a prison warden who touched many lives.

Yet they all said they never thought they were doing anything out of the ordinary, much less lifting the next generation of Singaporeans on their shoulders, as it said in the invitations they had received to yesterday's tribute ceremony.

Instead, they were merely doing their jobs and finding solutions to things that went wrong.

Retired Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) colonel Goh Lye Choon, 73, was one of six platoon commanders who started the first national service battalion in 1967, and one of the first to train officer cadets, including a young Ng Jui Ping, who later became chief of defence force.

He also lived through some of the nation's darkest days.

In 1964, in the midst of Indonesia's Confrontation against Malaysia, Mr Goh received news that eight soldiers had been ambushed and killed by Indonesian special force agents in Kota Tinggi, Malaysia. Singapore was part of Malaysia then and three teams were sent to evacuate casualties and search for the enemy. Mr Goh volunteered to be among them.

"My old officers who worked with me in the earliest days were going to get involved without an officer commanding (them). So I volunteered to be the commanding officer, I wanted to serve with them," he said.

It took three months to complete their mission of hunting down the Indonesian enemies, 36 of whom were eventually killed.

Pioneers like him who protected Singapore during Konfrontasi were among those who came in for special mention in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's tribute speech yesterday.

Mr Lee also spoke of the pioneers who served as some of the first regulars and NS men, building up the SAF and Home Team.

And he honoured heroes who fought different battles - leading community service efforts and moulding the country's young minds.

He mentioned mothers and housewives, Samsui women, farmers, traders, teachers, doctors and nurses who went to villages to teach about health and hygiene; civil servants who built homes, roads and drains; and grassroots leaders, unionists and political leaders who rallied Singaporeans to a common cause.

Veteran hotelier and former Community Chest chairman Jennie Chua, 70, said: "We didn't plan... to carry the future generations on our shoulders, like the invitation card said. We had dreams, we had fire, but we didn't expect anything... When things didn't go right, we found a way around it and we just went on."

Ms Chua, the former general manager of Raffles Hotel, was appointed ComChest chairman in 2000. She led the organisation till last year, spear-heading efforts that raised tens of millions of dollars for the needy each year.

Her involvement in community work grew out of "my experiences having gone through hard times growing up", she said.

Former Member of Parliament and school principal Wan Hussin Zoohri, 76, said of his three decades teaching Malay and history at Sang Nila Utama Secondary and as principal of Tun Seri Lanang and Mayflower secondary schools: "We went through the ups and downs of nation building in the early years and it was about educating the young. Many of the students I taught have now gone on to become leaders in their own fields, be it lawyers or engineers... it makes me happy just when they call to tell me how they are doing," he said.

"After all the years of sacrifice, this gesture is most welcome and long overdue," he said of yesterday's tribute and package.

PM Lee said the tribute party for the pioneer generation was a "modest gesture".

While it was not possible to invite the hundreds of thousands of pioneers still alive, those present represented the many individuals who had contributed to the country in various ways, big or small, he said.

Technician supervisor Ong Soh Ha, 78, has spent close to half a century involved in grassroots activities in Telok Blangah. He was also a volunteer with the People's Defence Force back in the late 1950s, and patrolled the Tanjong Pagar port to keep it safe from would-be saboteurs.

Of his volunteer and grassroots activities, he said: "I do it because I support Singapore. The Government built up our country - the roads, the buildings - and I wanted to help them as a Singaporean."

Mr Ellappan Parasuraman, 78, worked as a project engineer for ST Electronics and helped develop communications systems for the air force and navy.

He described yesterday's tribute as "wonderful" and said he was grateful for the help he will receive from the Pioneer Generation Package.

The Government's "modest gesture" also left a deep impression on retired prison officer Saman Ismail, 65. He was among the first batch of men to enlist for NS, where he learnt discipline and teamwork.

"I benefited physically and mentally. I could contribute to the defence of my country for two years," he said.

That experience of serving Singapore spurred him to join the civil service, and he spent four decades in the Prison Service. He is glad to have played a part, from his post "on-the-ground" dealing with prisoners, to shifting the focus from incarceration to rehabilitation.

Asked how he felt about the nation honouring his work, he teared and said: "I feel very honoured, very happy. After retirement, you think you have already done everything and every day is the same. Out of the blue, to think that they recognised what I have done after many years of service, it really lifted me up."