Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Can Young People of Today Survive the Kampong Days?

Next week, my teacher wife will accompany some female students to spend a few days at some ‘adventure village’ in Johor, Malaysia. At the same time, my son will also join a group to spend 10 days in a remote mountain village in Kunming, China for some kind of community involvement project. I think the idea is to expose the kids to kampong life and maybe toughen them a bit. All these remind me of a question put to me by some young people a few months ago.

I was being interviewed by 3 final year students from the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media. They were producing a video of Singapore’s last kampong at Lorong Buangkok and wanted to interview people who grew up in a kampong. They interviewed me and my friends Chuck and Peh, both of whom also grew up in kampongs. One of the questions they asked was if we thought the young people of today would be able to survive the kampong life of the 50's and 60's.

Even as I reflect on this question, it occurs to me that it was a strange question. These young people must have heard many 'horror' stories of conditions of the old days, and repeatedly been told that compared to their parents, they are soft and so on. Thus they have begun question their own 'toughness'.

For the record, my answer was 'no problem'. Of course if you were to dump them suddenly into those types of conditions, 'cold turkey', they will find a great deal of discomfort. But I believe young people of any era are adaptable and innovative. Give them a bit of time, and they will certainly be able to adjust ….. although I simply cannot imagine how my two girls can cope with the mosquitoes of my kampong days.

But if the question had been, "Do you think the young men of today can survive the NS (National Service) training of the early days; i.e. the late 60’s and early 70’s?" I may have some doubts. Certainly the incidence of breakdowns and attempted suicides would be higher. The physical and mental abuse of those days were really quite terrible.

I recall a conversation with a regular officer of the SAF. This was probably in the late 80's or early 90's. He told me that he couldn't understand why the number of attempted suicides among recruits had gone up in spite of the easing of many of the pressures imposed on them. I guess only the professional psychologists can figure that one out; but our conclusion was that it was probably due to the fact that many young men came from small families nowadays. Most families I know nowadays adopt the NTUC principle – Never To Use Cane. In my home we used to have a cane, but I mostly used it to make noise only; like beating the table and chairs in a show of force. As for the schools, I believe any teacher who lays a hand on the students the way our teachers did would probably lose his or her job, or worse.

Photo from: Singapore, An Illustrated History, 1941 ~ 1984, Information Division, Ministry of Culture
Related post: Pay Correct Sir
Reference article: here


aiyah nonya said...

Hi !

Survive in the kampong ?
Ya you are right they will be able to adapt after afew days. It is either join in the fun or be miserable through out the whole trip.

But it also depends on the individual. Some are adventurous and some die die must have clean water, electricity and most of all excess to a computer.

The nearest I ever got to a kampong life is when I visited my brother, who used to work in an estate in Lahad Datu, Sabah. We had to adapt to some changes. No night live, no land lines or signals for the cell phones. Electricity run by generators. 6 hours drive to and fro to the nearest town. And each time we went out you get a all over body massage from the ride (about 3 hours to and fro). Water was pumped from the pond and it was yellow in colour.

All in all it was a good experince for me. But I don't think I would want to stay there for long. For a visit it is OK. But for those like my brother, he trives in those conditions.
Another brother of mine left more or less this type of conditions after being there for 3 months. Asked for transfer to an estate nearer to town. Later on he got transfer back to the office. And he is very happy there. For him those 3 months were a nightmare.

JollyGreenP said...

This puts me in mind of when we returned from Singapore to the UK and my father left the Air Force shortly after. We moved to a village just a mile away from my father's last posting. He bought a very old house that was in need of much work. There were no flushing toilets, out in one of the sheds was a chemical toilet known as an Elsan into which you poured some disinfectant. Eventually the inevitable would happen and the Elsan would be full. Disposal was by two of us carrying the large heavy bucket on a pole out into the back garden, dig a pit 3 foot deep and empty the bucket (about 15 gallons, into the pit and then fill the pit in. My brothers and I soon learned to hold the need to go the toilet until we got to school to ensure that the frequency of bucket emptying was reduced to the minimum.

There was no hot water system and for a bath we would fill up the Burco wash boiler and sit in front of the fire in a zinc tub when bath day came round on Sunday. We were allowed 2 buckets of hot water from the boiler and made it up with cold water to the right temperature. The boiler was then refilled to warm up for the next person. My father being a big man was of course allowed the boiler full as he had his bath last.

The electricity supply was not reliable and we used to suffer brownouts when demand was high this was noticeable on Sunday afternoons when everyone would be watching the Sunday afternoon film. You could gaurantee that as the film started the picture would start to fade in and out.

The house we had moved to was small and my bedroom was under the eaves of the house with a low sloping ceiling. If you sat up quickly in bed you banged your head on the ceiling.

All of this was a far cry from the spacious and comfortable bungalow we had lived in at Meteor Road RAF Tengah. However, we did adapt to this change in lifestyle and very quickly. In many ways we saw it as an adventure that we hoped was only going to be temporary. Over a period of four years my father had the place renovated, the first job being the creation of a flushing toilet, still outside in what had been one of the pig styesbut a welcome relief from dragging that bucket out on a pole a tipping it in a pit. My nose wrinkles even now thinking about it!

peter said...

Chun See:

I just bought this book "Under the Banyan Tree" and reviewing through the photos in that book (and of course Tan Wee Kiat's name was singled out by his former students), the first question would have been

"Can today's generation of students adapt to the school conditions of the 1960s?"

Just looking at the photos and commentaries like

1. Dirty looking tuckshops (for canteen) with food vendors not washing their hands after doing their business

2. Peeling-off paints, wooden floors coated with 150 years of dust, celing lights that don't work and falling window panes

3. Climbing up to the 3rd floor of the school building to gain a good vantage ogling at women sun-bathing at the Britannica Club.

Wee Kiat: How come you wore a mortar on your head when you posed for the staff photo? Seems you were a very nice chap when dealing with students who excused themselves in pairs to run to the tuckshop during lesson time.

household name said...

I agree that given time, people will adapt. We have people choosing to go to a more 'ulu' places to teach, do mission work, etc. But of course it's different if you personally choose to live with mosquitoes, non-flushing or non-existent toilet facilities and such. I guess students who go on these trips often don't have any choice. Nor do our young men in NS. So maybe things won't be too palatable for them.

The question by Peter about whether students today can adapt to school conditions of the past is interesting. Physical conditions aside, I think they would have problems dealing with some educational approaches of the past, e.g. strict discipline, unquestioning respect for authority, etc. But I have to say that though I went to a school with creaky floorboards and wooden desks and chairs that could give you splinters (and also some strict teachers), I enjoyed school. I don't know how many children can say that with certainty today, with their lovely physical environments, more liberal attitudes towards education, etc.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks to Aiyah Nonya and Jollygreenp for sharing your experiences. AN's story reminds me of my wife's cousins whom I met recently in Ipoh at my mother-in-law's funeral (sigh .. we seem to only meet on such occasions). They are from a remote part of Malaysia north of Gerik. Each time they come to the city, they felt really uncomfortable with the heat and the poor quality air. They oculdn't quite describe what the problem was and couldn't wait to return to their kampong.

Lam Chun See said...

About this comparison between school life for our kids today and our time, I believe it was discussed in one of the other blogs. (LKK? HH? Chris?)

Personally, I prefer our era. Life nowadays too stressful for our kids. So many things competing for their time. In Spore, schools are under great pressure to deliver on a whole slew of KPIs (key performance indicators) and and have to achieve 'excellence' in this and that - and thus put a lot of pressure on the teachers and students.

zen said...

Recently there was a report that a young Panda borned and bred in a zoo environment. The authorites wanted to test whether this younster could survive in the wild. The result was this Panda being attacked by wild Pandas. It nearly and was brought back to the zoo. Adaptation takes time and sudden shift to a new environment can cause more harm than good to people wanting to do so.

fr said...

Life nowadays too stressful for our kids. Adults as well. In the 60s I think most of us were not too worried about doing well in exams. There were also no projects, compulsory ECAs….after the half-day in school we were quite free. For workers there were no appraisal reports, ranking, performance bonus etc.

Although now NS recruits have an easier life in the army compared to the early years, they live in a more pressurized society. This could have contributed to the higher no of attempted suicide.

Young people will be able to survive kampong life. For some reason if they are stuck in a kampong and no idea how long they will have to be there, I believe they will get used to it in about 3 months. Some people think they cannot live without this or that (aircon, handphones, etc) but if they really have to, they can survive without those things.

Chun See is right that teachers are not allowed to lay their hands on students. In fact schools are very reluctant to use the cane, usually as a last resort and usually inside the principal’s office in the presence of another teacher, or in the classroom.

Brian Mitchell said...

What an interesting blog and set of responses! I would only reflect that I think most young people could adapt (under protest) to poor physical conditions if necessary (after all its the love and care of the family that is of most importance and that was surely present in Chun See's Kampong upbringing). But young people are a lot more protected from what is taken to be an increasingly stressful and dangerous world so maybe they might need longer to develop the resourcefulness that probably developed early among the Kampong children

zen said...

It is the mental pressure, more than the physical one, that drives a person crazy. Of course different peeople have different threshold of tolerance. To have a peace of of mind, some just exit from the so-called maddening world into a sort of 'shangrila' of their own. In the Chinese world, particularly in olden time, a person would retreat to a monastery or nunnery, shaved of all his (or hers) hairs, as a sign of forsaking the world of desires, the source of all troubles, so as to have a peace of mind. I am referring to buddhist practice, which many people describe it as a defeatist attitude.

Victor said...

Just as I read this post, I also read the sad news of 3 people who died from trees falling on them in separate recent incidents - 2 were Singaporeans and 1 was Malaysian. Of course, these are extreme examples because they were accidents and acts of nature. They might not be considered as part of the dangers of living in a kampong.

What Zen described about the panda borned in captivity also happened to baby orang utans in Indonesia which were confiscated from their owners who were keeping them illegally. The animals had to be taught the life skills in the wild before being released back into the jungle with any chance of survival. I think it's the same with young people who wants to live in a kampong for a prolonged period. They will survive but they need to learn how first.

Lam Chun See said...

My wife got back from camp with a a pretty bad skin rash problem, apparently from the dirt. Mind you, she grew up in pretty rough conditions in Ipoh.

Does that mean that if I could be transported back in time to my kampong of the 1950's, I won't be able to survive?