Growing up in old Singapore

LIFE was hard but livable a half-century ago when most of Asia was under the white man’s thumb. I was born in 1951 in an Indonesian island about two hours’ sampan boat ride from Singapore, then a so-called “crown” colony of the British, meaning that its ruler was a blonde-hair maharani residing far away across the seas.

When I was four, my father brought me to Singapore. I recall vividly riding a narrow rocking single-engine wooden boat with him and a boatman, in a sunless sea heading towards the distance red gleam of Clifford Pier (known among the Chinese as Hung-tern ma-tou 紅燈碼頭 or “red-beacon pier”). My father told me years later that the red light served as a navigation beacon guiding boatmen from Indonesia who came quietly in the night to do barter trade.

I lived with my mother and a growing brood of more and more sisters each year. At first we lived in a single room cubicle in a Chinatown house owned by my mother’s mother. My father continued to live and work in Indonesia, as a clerk in a Chinese provision and grocer shop. His own parents were from Yong-moon village in Moy-yan county in southern China. Moy-yan (“Meihsien” in Mandarin) is the urban centre of the Hakkas, a sub-ethnic tribe of Chinese from the north who moved south of the Yangzi River and was regarded as unwelcomed guests 客家 (“hakka”) by the sullen local Cantonese and Hokkien inhabitants.

It would sound dramatic to talk about life in an “oppressed” colony, but in reality the British officials were placid, laidback and believed in leaving the natives alone to mind their own business. The only oppression, according to my father, was to stand to attention and always answer “Yes sir!” when a white man talked to you, and to pay protection money to street thugs.

In 1959, when I was eight, and in Primary 2, Singapore achieved self-government with Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister. The British let him manage the place as best as he could, while they took care of outside defence. There were 250,000 British soldiers and sailors sprawled in comfortable cottage-style houses (each fronted by a porch and garden) in Singapore. North of the island was a gigantic naval base, home of British warships in the Far East. But imperial pretensions were expensive to maintain and England was slowly spiraling downhill. In 1967, the anti-imperialist socialist Labour government decided to pull out its armed forces from Singapore. In alarm, Lee rushed to London and persuaded then prime minister Harold Wilson to delay the timetable because almost half the local population depended on the British army and navy and their families for livelihood.

The scene was similar to one more than a millennium ago when the Romans began pulling out their legions from their British province (around 410 CE) despite the pleas of the locals asking the troops to stay put to repel the murderous Anglo-Saxon invaders from Germany. The legions left, the invaders came and the inhabitants were indeed massacred. The land was renamed “England” (land of the Angeles), and centuries later, the English proceeded from there to conquer the rest of the world.

At first, my father’s wage from the provision shop was 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, the shop was closed because of more frequent cycles of anti-Chinese rioting and killing all over the Indonesian archipelago. My father moved back to Singapore and became a street hawker, selling shoes and Japanese flip-flops. Yes, in the mid-1960s, cheap rubber and plastic goods like sandals and utensils were made in Japan, while electrical appliances, cars and chocolates came from Germany, England and the United States.

Selling Japanese slippers did not bring in enough cash to feed his family, so my father switched to operating a cooked food pushcart on the streets. We were really really poor, like most folks in Singapore. Ten of us – parents, six sisters, a brother and I – squeezed into an apartment consisting of one bedroom, a half-living room and a half-kitchen. The $20-a-month rented flat in St Michael’s Estate (many parts of Singapore had Anglophile names that were impossible for locals to pronounce), was part of Lee Kuan Yew’s emergency public housing for the masses.

Actually, without Lee’s efficiency-driven and hard-headed government policies (they locked up secret society thugs without trial), things could be far worse. His government also provided free or very cheap schooling.

Each year in school, I would fill an application form listing how much my family spent on bus rides, rice, vegetables, firewood, and clothing, in order to receive free textbooks and waiver of school fees (which were already at a minimal amount). I also needed to write an accompanying cover letter persuading and begging the school authorities that I deserve the use of the free textbooks. Thanks to the need to craft such letters, I developed the skill of churning out “compelling” texts at an age when other classmates were still learning reading, spelling and dictation. Far more important, my writing skill eventually turned into a cash cow that enabled me to get a well-paying job as a newspaper journalist as well as getting freelance writing assignments at attractive fees.

In 1970, when I reached 18, I was called up for National Service and sent to the Combat Engineers camp in Pulau Blakang Mati (the name in Malay means “Island of Death from Behind”, which was subsequently renamed Sentosa, which sounded nice but moronic and meaningless), Within a year I rose from recruit at $90 monthly pay, to private to corporal and then got selected to be an officer cadet with a princely salary of $350 (school teachers were getting $190 then). I immediately persuaded my father to stop his backbreaking pushcart hawking as my new salary was adequate to support the entire family. (A lunch-time bowl of noodle soup cost 20 cents in 1970, compared with $2 in year 2000.)

The training was tough but I wasn’t. Still I performed reasonably well because the instructors were mature and fair-minded in their assessment, and in 10 months I passed both the infantry course in SAFTI, Jurong, and the Combat Engineers’ course back in Blakang Mati. When I received my officer’s commission and chrome-plated sword 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 have the sword presented to me by the president, but having adopted Lord Buddha’s Five Precepts of peaceful action, truthfulness, compassionate livelihood and non-violence to all living creatures, I have stopped displaying this symbol of military force.

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was really tough financially but my family and my other relatives all survived and thrived. As a child, I didn’t have any luxuries. I didn’t have the chance to sit in an aeroplane or go on overseas vacation during the year-end month long school holidays. But I did have my share of petite joys: My father took me to both the Great World and New World carnival theme parks where I got to ride painted ponies and ghost trains, and my mother took me to see the fantastical stone sculptures of Haw Par Villa park on Chinese New Year and other festive holidays. I was also my Grandma’s favourite companion whenever she went to see pictures (movies), ate durian and mangosteen at curbside stalls in Chinatown back alleys or attended Bodhisattva Guanyin’s 觀音菩薩 birthday celebrations in the temple. I was said to be sickly when young, so Grandma put me up for spiritual adoption by the Bodhisattva.

And thanks to the Bodhisattva’s protection and compassion, I grew up healthy, with a modest measure of intelligence. But I’m ashamed to say that as a teenager, I was dumb enough to be taken in by born-again Christian student leaders from the Youth for Christ and Billy Graham Crusade movements. I forsook Buddha’s holy Dharma and worshipped a Middle Eastern god foisted on us by white missionaries. After wasting the best part of my youth in this religion, the scales finally fell from my eyes and now I am back in the true faith of my mother and my mother’s mother.

Today, much older and more critical and mindful, I would wonder in disbelief whenever I heard of friends or acquaintances who in maturer years suddenly  adopted the Christian religion (so that when they died, their newspaper obituary would declaim with pride that the dead chap had “fought the good fight and run the race” and that he or she was now “called home to be with the lord”, which seemed surprising when you consider that most of these individuals were not really fighters or runners, nor were they homeless during their time on earth).

A younger cousin used to laugh at my attempt to convert him to Christianity in our student days, but today he is a fervent believer and even serves as an “elder” of his church. When his father died in 1989, my cousin claimed the old man became a Christian on his deathbed. I found that difficult to swallow because I knew my eminently sensible uncle hated the born-again cant. But during his funeral, his son compelled everyone present to sing hymns and prayed around the coffin.

People like my cousin become more blindsided as they grow older. Ironically it was bible professors from America who opened my eyes to the fiction behind the Christian scripture. After secondary school I wanted to be a missionary, so I went for private tuition in theology and in-depth bible study and even New Testament Greek with one of these scholars, Dr Andrew Way, at his home in Bukit Timah, a residential district in central Singapore for rich folks. He told me emphatically that most of the stuff in the bible were just fictionised accounts and myths. “Do you honestly believe a chariot of fire flew down from the sky to take the prophet Elijah away?” he asked (see 2 Kings 2:11). Although I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the faith, part of me agreed that it was most unlikely a chariot of fire could be hovering above the clouds, ready to ferry prophets away from earth.

But the church offered secure, comfortable livelihoods, so most bible scholars – although critical about chariots of fire and other tall tales – simply went along with the doctrines and articles of faith. (Latest technology update: With the International Space Station hovering above us now, it will not be long before we have chariots tethered to orbiting statellites, to offer a similar ferry service.)

I could have stuck to my bible training and obtained a doctorate in divinities. I would now have migrated to the US to be a well-paid lecturer in some Evangelical college in America or a fiery preacher with Campus Crusade for Christ (like one of my school’s bible club leaders, Victor Koh), chanting praise-the-lord mantras, and helping in election campaigns for Republican presidential candidates. Instead I shrugged off the religion like a useless mantle, and returned to studying Buddha’s holy teaching which I found to be sensible, rational and practical. The sutras comprise passages of detailed analyses of our mental states, cause and effect of our action and exhortation to good behaviour. Here is a selection from Buddha’s actual words:

If anything is to be done, let a man do it with all his might. A thoughtless, careless pilgrim only raises dust on the road.

An evil deed is better left undone; for a man repents of it afterwards when it brings sorrow. A good deed is better done, for it never brings repentance or pain.

Like a border town well-guarded with defences within and without, so let a man guard himself and let not a moment pass in carelessness. Those who thoughtlessly let their life pass by in carelessness will only suffer in hell.

(Dhammapada 313-315)

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 despots before the British came. Of course most Englishmen (except Rudyard Kipling, EM Forster and George Orwell) believed all non-whites were racially inferior and forbade them entering their clubs and parks or dining with them (unless the natives were in England where they were then allowed to address Parliament). These were the “injustice” imposed on the natives, as described by Mr Forster in his overly hefty novel, A Passage to India. For an unflinching account of white racism and bigotry, though, read Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934).

As proof of British benevolence, look at Singapore. Before the British set up their trading post, it was a island of dense jungle, malarial swamps, pirate hideouts and tigers (no, there weren’t any lions, and calling Singapore the Lion City was a typo error). 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 several counts: they shot dead all the tigers in Singapore (including 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 sit on their church pews or celebrate Christmas or shop in their Robinson department store. Alas, we, the yellows, tans and blacks, were the ones who forsook our cultures and heritage, and rushed to their churches, lit up their Christmas trees, ate their sour strawberry with milk, and wrote better English than the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), and worshipped their god more fervently than they.

Death an inconvenient fact of life

Life is short and capricious. Before we grow old and foggy, it behooves us to re-look lifelong teachings and evaluate them based on careful study and unbiased investigation, and not because we find their message comforting. Don’t be like the pre-war China author Lin Yutang who once explained in an early book why he wasn’t a Christian and then in old age reverted to one because he found the religious rites assuaged his grief over his beloved daughter’s suicide.

I loved the tuneful Christian hymns and the rable-rousing black spirituals, and used to take consolation singing them in “seasons of distress and grief”. Many passages of the bible too offer similar comfort. In this way I was beguiled into the religion.
“Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth,” the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament says, but it overlooks the inconvenient need to investigate whether there is a creator in the first place, and to sift facts from fiction, no matter how comforting and comfortable the beliefs are.

Even more disturbing, the same author, who was rather cynical about life and fate, went on to state:

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them. (Eccle 9:10, 11, 12).

In plain words, “Whatever you want to do, give it your best shot because after you’re dead, there will be no more activity or planning or knowledge. In life, things seldom turn out the way you expected. You were swift, but events overtook you, and you lost out in the rat race. You were trained as a warrior but were defeated in battle. You were well-educated and smart but you didn’t enjoy material success. Life’s outcomes therefore depend on circumstances and luck, not on your merits. And usually because of bad circumstances, we suffered like fish and birds trapped in the net.”

Spend your days therefore sensibly and prepare well physically and financially, so that when bad times hit you without warning, you still have good health and a bit of money to tide over. Engage in contemplation and meditation to develop insight, detachment and emotional stability.

Nothing else matters. We must not allow ourselves to die like whimpering slaves being led into a demon-haunted darkness! Dying with clarity and calm abiding is the least that we can do for ourselves. Do it.

Sum of all fears

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.


Caption for photo above: Outdoor washing in Boh Suah Tian village, Seletar, a rural countryside north-east of Singapore. The photo was shot in 1979 when I was doing a newspaper documentary on life in rural Singapore.

— Francis Chin, first published in 1979, updated September 7, 2015


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In Singapore not too long ago, roadside wells provide water for bathing and washing clothes. Picture of Boh Suah Tian village.