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Sunday, October 08, 2006
The Story of Mr Tan Pan Beng
Once a month, I follow some Christian friends to visit the old folks at the Lentor Residence. Recently I discovered that one of the residents knew my father. Like my dad, Mr Tan Pan Beng was a member of the Serangoon Garden Citizens’ Consultative Committee for a number of years. Initially, I was a bit suspicious of this 80-year old’s ability to remember things from such a long time ago. But when he was able to describe our kampong, as well as tell me the name of the other village representative from Lorong Kinchir, a certain Mr Low Thiam Aik, I was convinced, and of course thoroughly amazed. In fact he could even recall one occasion when he visited our kampong to mediate in a dispute between us and our tenant, a certain Mr Tan Kuan. And so, I asked him to tell me a bit of his life to share with you on this blog.
(Note: What I report here is merely what Mr Tan told me in Mandarin. I did not verify the accuracy of the facts he narrated)
Mr Tan Pan Beng was born in 1927 in a small Malayan town known as Paloh, situated 10 miles or so north of Kluang in Johor (see map here). Like his father before him, Mr Tan was a pork seller. In 1943, and at the tender age of 18 (yes I know the numbers do not quite add up, but I quote what he told me), Mr Tan joined the underground resistance forces to fight the Japanese occupying army(possibly the MPAJA or Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army). They engaged mainly in guerilla warfare, and operated in squads of about 9 to 10 men. This he did for two years until the war ended in 1945 with the surrender of the Japanese. Then, at the age of 20, he was asked to join the army (I think he was referring here to the communists who fought the British after the war). He was reluctant to do that, and so he decided to come to Singapore. At that time, Singapore was part of Malaya, and so he did not actually migrate to another country.
For a few years in Singapore, he worked as an employee for another pork seller. Later, he began to operate his own itinerant business selling pork in the Serangoon Garden area from a bicycle. When the Serangoon Garden market was built in 1962, the government offered him a stall which he operated until his retirement. The rental then was about $5 a month. At that time, he stayed at a kampong in Yio Chu Kang, near the Kok Wah Theatre. Young people would probably not know where that was. It was at the junction of Yio Chu Kang Road and Upper Serangoon Road. He bought his pigs from local farms which were quite plentiful in Singapore those days.
As I reflected on this fact, I realized that I very likely could have patronized Mr Tan’s stall. You see, during the sixties, for a short period, and for reasons I cannot recall, I was tasked by my mother to cycle from our kampong in Lorong Kinchir to do simple marketing in the Serangoon Garden market. I learnt how to buy a few basic items like pork, bean curd (tau kua), bean sprouts (tau gay) and noodles.
I am also reminded that my father did try his hand at rearing pigs for a short while to supplement our income. We only had 2 pigs and after that we stopped. Presumably, it was too much work and not cost effective. Of course we did not slaughter the pigs ourselves.
When the PAP (People’s Action Party) came into power in 1959, Mr Tan joined the Serangoon Garden CCC. He recalled that the first MP (member of parliament) he served under was a Mr Liang Jing Sheng (pronounced in Mandarin) who later left to join the Barisan Socialis. I checked the internet, but was not able to find anyone in the Barisan Socialis by this name. I suspect it was somebody called Dr Sheng Nam Chin. His fellow CCC members, like my dad, were from the surrounding kampongs like Cheng San, Hwi Yoh, Yio Chu Kang and Ow Kang (Hougang).The next MP was a Mr R. A. Gonzales, followed by Mr Rodrigo and Dr Lau Teik Soon. If Mr Tan is right, then I have made a mistake when I told you earlier that we had a MP by the name of Tan Kia Gan (my eldest brother Chun Chew; the one with the supposedly ‘elephant’ memory, to be blamed for this misinformation .. haha) Mr Tan continued to serve all the way until 1997 when he was asked to join the Aljunied GRC (Group Representative Constituency). He declined saying that he was getting on in age and could not speak English.
Photo from the National Archives of Singapore showing member of parliament, R. A. Gonzales leading members of the Serangoon Garden Citizen’s Consultative Committee in a ‘gotong royong’ project to repair Cheng San Road.
Altogether, Mr Tan had 6 children; 3 sons and 3 daughters, and 8 grand children, the oldest of which is in his thirties and married with children; which meant that Mr Tan is a great grand father. He said his children did not excel in studies and consequently were in the pork business like him. His is widowed. His wife passed away about 10 years ago. Except for a problem with his leg, he was mentally alert and could move about on his own with the aid of a walking stick.
I think it is really fated that I should meet Mr Tan Pan Beng and share this story with you. One thing I learned from this story is that, one does not have to be in a highly ‘intellectual’ job to have a good healthy brain; and pork apparently is not so unhealthy a food after all.