Greetings from Adelaide!
I started to write my memoirs of life in a kampong more than fifteen years ago but had put it on the back burner numerous times. However through Facebook I was fortunate to become friends with persons with similar interest in Singapore’s nostalgic past. On my visits back to Singapore I was privileged to meet and chat with two bloggers who have inspired me not only to contribute with posts and comments on fb but also rekindled my interest to finish what I had started. I like to extend a big THANK YOU to Jerome Lim and Lam Chun See. I also found Chun See’s book “Good Morning Yesterday” an inspiration. Here is a snippet that I penned recently that I like to share on their blogs.
For the past month or so I have been watching an interesting TV series – “The Brain”. This series from China showcases the unbelievable potential of the mental abilities of the contestants. Witnessing their mental recall capabilities was jaw dropping for me! Fast approaching seventy my memory recall does pale in comparison – only a slight fraction of theirs indeed.
Often I do question my memories of the “old days”. I deliberately left out the adjective “good”. I acknowledge that life was simple but challenging then, especially for those of us from humble beginnings. Reading the many posts and comments on the various Facebook group pages, I realised that there are many out there who remember their own “rustic” years. However nostalgic emotions sometimes do tend to colour our memories. Maybe we were young and saw things through childhood innocence.
Perhaps too as kids we were protected by our parents, who in their little ways tried their best, as we were growing up, not to make us feel that we were poor. I may be wrong but I also feel that the society then was different. I don’t recall being snubbed by “the rich”. Maybe we knew our places and accepted each other. A leveller at that time if I recall correctly was the beach. The rich would drive their cars right up to the beaches like Tanah Merah, Changi etc . The other families would arrive by bus with their home cook meals and simple unchilled drinks etc. But all the kids would have the time of their lives till it was time to return home either by car or bus, all sunburnt.
Having spent twelve years in the same school I should have more vivid memories of my school days. But all I have are snippets here and there and a few photographs as reminders. But what I clearly remember is that the majority of my schoolmates came from similar “rustic” backgrounds. Personally I was taught not to feel sorry for the limited “pocket money” I took to school each day being often reminded that some of my classmates had to contend with so much less. Looking back I often chuckle when I recall that if you dropped your coins through the holes in your pocket that were caused by the marbles you carried – the response would be “tough”. You learnt the hard way to cherish the few coins you were given. When the time came for school fees to be paid, the notes were carefully wrapped in a knot tied at the corner of a handkerchief. This was to ensure we did not lose the money easily.
For sure there would have been more memorable moments of those carefree schooldays but I cannot recall as much as I would like to. However there is one incident that has always been dominant in my mind and I am reminded of it whenever I witness poverty either first hand or on TV.
This occurred while I was in primary school. It was a normal “recess” break and the “monitors” or prefects were diligently performing their duties to ensure order and that we were safe in getting our hot meals to the tables in the tuck shop / canteen. We were all having our meals when suddenly there was a shout followed by a commotion. Looking out we saw the prefects running out and chasing a student. They soon caught him and brought him back to the canteen. Then we realised what had happened.
The student was a classmate and his family, if I remember correctly, had a farm in Ponggol. On that day he did not have any money for a meal and probably did not even have breakfast at home. Unknown to us, this perhaps could have been the norm for him for most of his school days. But on that day the pangs of hunger overcame him and drove him to snatch a large triangular “curry puff” from the Indian stall that also sold bread, Indian cookies and of course our favourite “kachang puteh”.
As he was brought back to the canteen I witnessed the humiliation on his face and that expression I will never never forget! He was made to face the Indian stallholder probably to apologise and perhaps make arrangements for reimbursement for the curry puff. This was witnessed by everyone in the canteen.
What ensued always stands out from this unfortunate incident. I witness compassion. The Indian kachang puteh man, who possibly was by no means rich, looked at the poor unfortunate boy and saw the anguish on his face. Then in a typical Indian manner with a slanted twist of his head and a wave of his flat palm rolling at the wrist he signalled that it was okay – he did not want any payment and allowed the boy to keep the curry puff. The boy was then marched to the principal’s office and what happen after I cannot recall.
These are two striking lessons I learnt from this unfortunate incident that I will always remember. Firstly how hunger can drive good persons to do things in desperation. I can understand when I read about people doing things they normally would not do, when they become desperate especially on seeing their children crying in hunger.
On the other side I also learnt that day that you do not have to be rich to be compassionate, understanding and benevolent. Perhaps this is in fact the essence of the “kampong spirit” that in our memories was prevalent in those days. I must confess that I often chuckle when I read of attempts to recreate this spirit which I feel was lost with the eradication of kampongs. It was the environment of the rustic surrounds and firsthand observation of the everyday struggles of most families that were the basis of this spontaneous compassion. Observing the elders of the household – our parents, grandparents etc. and their empathy for the neighbours perhaps also does flow down and shape our own behaviour towards others. In addition experiencing the kindness our neighbours extended to our own family completes the cycle of goodwill.
The whole world has changed and with the current abundance of affluence and affordability the plight of those in need are often not obvious. The average person cannot relate to this and thus perhaps the spontaneous responses that were around in the past are not forthcoming. These are my perceptions. I may be right or completely wrong so I will leave you, the reader to make your own judgement. In my heart I will always cherish the lessons I learnt in the tuck shop.