Growing up under the British crown
LIFE was hard but livable half a century ago when most of Asia was under white man's rule. I was born in 1951 in an Indonesian island about two hours boat ride from Singapore, then a British "crown" colony.
When I was four years old, my father brought me to Singapore (I remembered vividly riding in a narrow rocking sampan — wooden rowing boat — with my father in a charcoal dark sea). I lived in Amoy Street in the heartland of Singapore's Chinatown, with my mother and a growing family of more and more sisters each year. The three-storey house was owned by my mother's mother, with about 30 Hakka families squeezed inside its sunless cubicles. My father, meanwhile, continued to work in Indonesia, keeping the accounts and inventory in a Chinese provision shop.
Although we were a subject people under a foreign rule, the British were fair, democratic and believed in leaving the "natives" alone to run their own business. The only oppression, according to my father, was to pay protection money to street gangsters.
On June 3, 1959, when I was 8, and in Primary 2, Singapore achieved self-government with Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister. The British let him manage as best as he could, while they took care of outside defence. There were 250,000 British soldiers with cute English cottage-style homes sprawled across the little island, and their battleships were anchored at a giant naval base in the north. When the Labour government wanted to pull out all British forces in 1967, Lee rushed to London and persuaded then prime minister Harold Wilson to delay it because almost half the local population depended on the white man's army and navy for livelihood.
At first, my father's wages from the provision shop were sufficient for my family to be comfortable. I remembered he gave me a costly Parker fountain pen when I was in Primary 4. By the time I was in Primary 6, my father lost his job because of frequent anti-Chinese riots and killings in Indonesia. He moved back to Singapore and became a street hawker, selling shoes and Japanese slippers (in those days, Japan made most of the cheap goods, like slippers and plastic utensils). Later we operated a cooked food pushcart along the streets. It was hard work and we were really really really poor. 10 of us were squeezed into an apartment consisting of one bedroom, half a hall and a tiny kitchen. It was Lee Kuan Yew's massive public housing of instant accommodation for the poor.
Actually, without Lee's honest, efficient and hard-hitting government (he locked up all the secret society thugs without trial), things would be far worse. Each year in school, I would fill up an application form listing how much my family spent on bus rides, rice, vegetables, firewood, clothing, etc., in order to receive free textbooks and waiver of school fees (which were already a minimal amount).
As soon as I was 18, I was enlisted in National Service. Within a year, I was selected to be an officer cadet with a princely salary of $350 (school teachers were getting $199 then). I immediately persuaded my father to stop working as a hawker. The training was tough but the instructors were reasonable and in 10 months I passed both the infantry course in SAFTI, Jurong, and the Combat Engineers' course in bleak Blakang Mati island (now saccharine Sentosa). When I was to receive my officer's commission at the Istana presidential palace, I took my father along to mingle with the high and mighty of the land. (My mother died a year before, when I was 19.)
Today, after 30 years, I still keep the sword presented to me by the President, but following Lord Buddha's precepts, I have stopped displaying it.
Life's petite luxuries
Life was really tough financially but we survived and thrived. While growing up, I was deprived of many things. I didn't have the opportunity to fly in an aeroplane or go on vacation during the year-end school holidays. But I did have my share of petite luxuries.
My father took me to the Great World and New World carnival parks, and my mother took me to see the fantastical stone sculptures of Haw Par Villa park during Chinese New Year. I was also my Granny's favourite companion whenever she went to the movies, ate durian and mangosteen at curbside stalls or attended Bodhisattva Guanyin's festivities in the temple. I was said to be quite sickly when young, so Granny put me up for spiritual adoption by the Bodhisattva.
Thanks to the Bodhisattva's mercy and compassion, I grew up healthy, with a modest measure of intelligence. But I'm ashamed to say that as a teenager, I was much taken in by born-again Christian student leaders from the Youth for Christ and Billy Graham Crusade movements to forsake Granny's faith. After spending the best part of my youth in this religion, the scales finally fell from my eyes (in the words of another intellectual harlequin, Paul of Tarsus) and now I am back in the faith of my mother and my mother's mother.
Struggle for independence
Don't believe a word when you read post-colonial narratives about the "struggle" for independence of the 1950s and 1960s. The natives were far worse off under their own rulers before the British came, and most of them are far worse off after the British left. Of course many Englishmen believed all non-whites were racially inferior and forbade them entering their clubs and parks or dining with them (except when the natives were in England where they were allowed to address Parliament). These were the "injustice" imposed on the natives, as described by E M Forster in A Passage to India.
As proof of British benevolence, look at Singapore. Before the British set up the colony, it was a deserted island full of jungle, malarial swamps and tigers. The moment the British started a settlement and a port, Chinese migrants came by their thousands, and continued to flock to Singapore until 1949 when Mao's Red Army conquered the mainland and closed the door to emigration.
However, I am upset with the British on two counts: they shot dead all the tigers in Singapore (inclduing those that hid under the billiard table in Raffles Hotel), and they introduced opium to the Chinese. Also, they didn't want the locals to study their language or eat butter scones or go to their churches or celebrate Christmas or shop in their department stores. Alas, we, the yellows, tans and blacks, were the ones who forsook our cultures and heritage, and rushed to their churches, lit up Christmas trees, ate sour strawberry with milk, learnt and wrote better English than the English, and worshipped their bearded god more fervently than they.
Death is an inconvenient fact of life
Life is short and capricious. Before we get too old and foggy, it behooves us to re-look any long-accepted teachings and evaluate them based on careful study and unbiased investigation, and not because we find their message comforting.
I love the tuneful Christian hymns, carols and spirituals, and used to take consolation in singing them in "seasons of distress and grief". Many passages of the bible too offer similar consolation. In this way I was beguiled into the religion. Dear reader, I'm not trying to convince you to depart from what you believe but it is important that you spend your time wisely.
Take up meditation so you know how to tame your mind, and be calm, confident and concentrated when death comes. Training your mind to gain inner insight and detachment and stability is life's only priority. We must not allow ourselves to die like a whimpering kid being led into a demon-haunted darkness! Die with clarity and calm abiding is the least that we can do for ourselves.
Socrates says in the Republic: "When a man thinks himself to be near death, fears and cares enter into his mind which he never had before. The tales of a world below, and the punishment which is exacted there of deeds done here, were once a laughing matter to him, but now he is tormented with the thought that they may be true.
"Either from weakness of age or because he is now drawing nearer to that other place, he has a clearer view of these things. Suspicions and alarms crowd thickly upon him, and he begins to reflect and consider what wrongs he has done to others. And when he finds that the sum of his transgressions is great, he will many a times like a child, start up in his sleep for fear, and he is filled with dark forebodings."
— Francis Chin, 2005, revised Aug 15, 2007