Friday, November 27, 2009

How the British withdrawal affected our family – Lam Chun Chew

I was approached by historian, Dr Loh Kah Seng, through my brother Chun See, to recall our experience of how our family was affected by the British military withdrawal from Singapore. My father worked at the British Naval Base in Sembawang most of his working life. I would like to share with readers what I wrote to Dr Loh via email. But I am afraid you are going to be disappointed if you expect tales of severe hardship and struggles arising from this ‘tragic’ turn of events in our family’s history.

A page from: SINGAPORE, An Illustrated History 1941-1984, Ministry of Culture

The irony was this. There were many retrenched base workers having a hard time, but not for my father - the opposite was true. All these years, right from prewar days to his 'golden handshake', he led a tough life - Japanese occupation, staying in a kampong, looking after a family of 7, while sustaining on a small income. This was especially so when two of my younger brothers were going to the university.

But things changed after being retrenched. He received a decent five-figure retrenchment cash benefit which included salaries accrued during the war years. The timing was perfect with all his children coming out to work, the family was in fact very much better off after his retrenchment (or retirement).

During those hardship years (before his retirement) in the sixties, I worked in the PSA as an operations staff and my sister was a primary school teacher. In short, we helped to supplement my father’s meagre salary during the lean years. To be fair to my father, I was not good in my studies like my younger brothers, hence had to start working after my 'O' level and this was a natural course of action taken by me (and many of my contemporaries in those days).

As for my father’s reaction to the ‘bad news’, he did worry a bit for Singapore when the British decided to leave Singapore, but had a great confidence in the Mr Lee Kuan Yew government to solve Singapore problems. However, he did criticize the government for acting tough to the British at first, and later on pleading with them to delay leaving Singapore.

The retrenchment benefits were given quite fast to him - a matter of months. He was not asked for retraining to other jobs. Upon retirement (or after being retrenched), he worked a year or two in his friend’s accounting firm and later on left to work in a timber firm for a couple of years and fully retired at the age of 60. Since he worked in private companies he was unaware of matters pertaining to other retrenchment workers.

As far as I know, he was not offered to migrate to UK. Anyway he was deeply rooted to Singapore.


peter said...


It is very true that in our generation, being the eldest we sometimes make sacrifices for our family. In your case you recognise that your were not the brainy sort and had to go out to work as soon as possible to supplement the family income or to "bring home the bacon" if you become the sole bread-winner. I feel that is a personal honour and a sensible thing to do.

Nowdays there is a section of Y generation who insist despite their family financial circumstances to continue studying if their grades tell them that they would be better off earning a living than in ITE as a minimum.

Even some Y generation also insist that their parents pay for their full board and lodging when they are sent overseas because they can't make it through the Singapore education system, or so desire the "foreign branding" tag.

I can tell you for sure from my personal experience this was what my in-laws told my children that Singapore's National University S'pore is lousy/qualifications are too common and nothing beats being educated at LSE (London School of Economics) or enrol in some American high schools so that they can become like Tiger Woods

Now the those aunties and uncles have to look after themselves because their children "got wings to fly".

Zen said...

Peter - Your observation on the modern generation is indeed sharp. Now it is the other way round. Parents make a lot of sacrifices for their kids. Around the year 2002 we sold our HDB 5-room flat for some $300k to a couple who wanted to down-grade from their executive flat. The reason for their decision surprised us. By selling their flat they could raise some $100k-plus to finance their son to study in an Australian university, and this was not because their son could not enter a local U, but he wished to join his former school mates studying there! They have another son who is equally good in studies, waiting in line. The couple who operate a mini-mart may have sleepless nights. Sometimes I wonder whether the present parents making such sacrifices for their children are doing the right thing or not.

peter said...

Whether today's parents are doing the right thing or not always raise contentious debates.

There is the moral/parental responsibility part of the story about giving love and affection to your children, and giving them the best so that they can be leaders of tomorrow/survive betetr tomorrow. So one ends up paying for tuition (when it is not necessary at primary school), go on overseas holiday (where must have snow or can buy the latest computer game), buy the latest Mazda RX8 (because you don't want him/her to sweat in crowded MRTs or be late for the examinations), become limo driver and in the process clog up Singapore's roads early in the morning, ect.

I possibly can think of more but the question is: Do children feel satisfied and grateful for what their parents have done for them? Why do they need to talk back at their parents? Why do they feel ashamed of their parents when parents can't provide (more than necessary)?

Well it could be too late to change such attitude when children become young adults. Any form of reproachment by parents usually end up with quaarels.

I once overheard my neighbour scolding her 13 year old son. I heard:

" You crazy, don't want to study, play computer games......You how much tuition I spend on you, S$1,000/month......when father and mother come home from work, you go to your bedroom and close the door like very busy......" She went on rattling and finally breaking down in tears. The son just looked the other way out of the window.

Lam Chun See said...

I think Peter has raised a rather controversial topic. Personally, I think it is over-generalization to say that today's kids are 'spoilt' compared to our time. Times have changed and conditions also vary from family to family.

If I use my own kids as an example, in terms of material possessions such as the latest mobile phones, clothes, holidays in exotic places, computer games etc, they are practically 'deprived' compared to ave Sporean kids. Yet when it comes to playing chaffeur to them, they must be among the most 'spoilt' in this country.

We have to assess each situation/kid on a case by case basis. In my assessment, I don't think fetching my daughter for her language classes or my son from his kayaking trg or even his army camp is pampering. I can see for myself just how busy they are (not with shopping or movies or computer games) and since I have the time, and I want to make full use of that over-expensive car, so why not. Plus I find that it is an excellent way to find out more about them and their friends - yes I also give their friends a lift along the way.

As for overseas education, we told them as far as possible, local u. Only if they can't qualify, then we will tighten our belts and send them overseas. And no private tuition at all.

peter said...

Yes I agree that everything is 'relative" and "subjective"; the best tools for the best situation.
In my time as a growing-up teenager, I fuzzed over why my father fetch me from place to place when I could have easily taken public transport - i.e. buses mind you not taxis and lots of freedom. When it was my time to become a parent, I found the answer; it's a parents' responsibility although it may not be mandatory for parents to do such things. Then it dawned upon me that I should do "some little things" to cheer up the old man and it was those "little things" that I faithfully did until he passed on.

From my father's last words, he said what I did was "Ho How Soon". He did not expect it because he just did his job as a parent would have done. Maybe I appreciate what my parents did for me and my siblings.

Zen said...

One day my sister rang me up saying that her son was admitted to nanyang poly at AMK. As they are staying at Mt Sinai road, she worried that her son had to travel long distance to poly and thought of shifting house to somewhere near the institution just to make life easier for him. I remarked that she must be joking, reminding her that her son was about to join NS soon and he not tough enough to endure the perceived long journey by MRT! I added that the train journey only takes about 20 to 25 minutes from the Ghim Moh station to AMK in the morning (speaking from personal experience). What was all this fuss about?

Edward said...

Yes, Chun See, every family’s circumstance is unique but it is also fair to say that in general Singapore’s population is economically better off today than in the colonial and early post-colonial era. In those days it is not uncommon for children from less well-to-do families to assist their parents financially. In my family, my brother went to work after he completed his O levels. He wasn’t the academic type, so work was the only option available after secondary 4. On my part, I gave private tuition to a number of kids around the estate during my secondary school days. Both my brother and I contributed our income to mom. I didn’t see it as a sacrifice, more like a duty to our parents. Singapore was then much less materialistic. In the early years we didn’t own a television, so we went to our neighbour’s home to watch our favourite evening programs. Computers, mobile phones, ipods etc – all these fancy electronic gadgets didn’t exist so we weren’t exposed to the need to own one. In comparing the two eras we should consider that the “material conditions” differ. Parents can be under pressure to provide for the material needs of their children but the children are also pressured by mass marketing and social norms. In a sense I do sympathise with a child who doesn’t have an iPod when everybody in his (or her) class owns one. I can understand why that child might feel deprived. Of course if the parents cannot afford expensive toys then I’d be critical of the child who insists on having one. The line that delineates what is excessive and what is reasonable is not always clearly defined. Both parents and their children have a duty and responsibility towards the family, in accordance with their position and the stages of their life. Fortunately I have never been chauffeured when I was young and I do not chauffeur my daughter around for the simple reason that I don’t drive. So I’m still relying on my “number 11 bus” (meaning my legs!)

Icemoon said...

Zen, maybe Pat has not taken MRT for ages, haha.

It is quite a surprise to hear Peter has siblings. After all he has not mentioned any in his stories (we always hear cousins).

Zen said...

Icemoon - You are wrong. My sister pat do take public transport, mainly MRT, all the time even now despite her retired husband having a car. I can understand nowadays most families have only one or two children and parents doting on them are quite natural. Presently Kids are under tremendous pressure to keep up with their peers. My former boss told me that he had to buy a pair of branded shoes (few hundred dollars) for his son who kept on bugging him that some of his class mates were having them. Even in my time, one-up-man-ship was quite common. Take for example, my cousin (a few months older than me) attended a very prestigious local school, told his father to drop him a short distance away from the school entrance so that his well off school mates, arriving in mercs, bmw and the likes could not see him in his father unbranded car! My cousin, in short, had inferiority complex, but actually his father was not doing too badly, being a departmental head n a johore ministry and his mother a dental surgeon of Johore general hospital. Later on my cousin was one of the five top students in his school scoring 8 distinctions in his O-level exam, a national record at that time. Today he is a retired gynecologist residing in Australia.

Lam Chun See said...

Oh dear, I accidentally deleted my links list!

Icemoon said...

No worries Chun See. Google has cached it. Search for your british withdrawal article in Google and rebuild your links from there.