The Singapore Memory Project (SMP) is a nationwide movement which aims to capture and document precious moments and memories related to Singapore. This project aims to collect 5 million personal memories as well as a substantial number of published materials on Singapore by 2015. These memories will enable future generations of Singaporeans to understand the collective journey of our nation and the many facets of the country we call home.
For the month of November, the SMP has hosted a series of roadshows called “KopiTimes” at selected coffeeshops around Singapore to collect the memories of the pioneer generation. The seniors got to enjoy a free cup of coffee for sharing their memories of Singapore. There’s no place like the coffeeshop for recounting great memories over a hot cup of kopi.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank National Library Board for inviting me to show support for their new campaign “KopiTimes”. I lent my support to them over the weekends last month in these memory documentation sessions with our pioneers. Having a general revival of interest in the country’s history has led me to ask critical questions about the untold past with the pioneers at the kopi sessions. Here are some stories of the old Singapore collected from the four seniors, which I have truly enjoyed listening and talking to them.
During the conversations with them, I must say that there is widespread common nostalgia for the ‘good kampong days’ among the elderly people, which, really, is ‘an intrinsic critique of the present by the ordinary people’ – of the more regulated and stressful living in present-day Singapore – and which belies a desire for ‘recovering control over daily life within the present zone of material comfort’.
The articles that i have written for KopiTimes have been uploaded on the Singapore Memory portal. The links to them are as follows:
- Mdm Salmah Bte Abdullah (Link)
- Mdm Cheng S C (Link)
- Mdm June Chiew (Link)
- Mdm Doris Teo, Mdm Lim (Link)
1. Date of interview: 8 November 2014
Coffeeshop Location: Blk 669 Clementi Avenue 3, See Lam Hern Coffeeshop
Pioneer’s name/age: Mdm Salmah Bte Abdullah, 81 years old
Mdm Salmah, who is in her eighties had been through the 1964 racial riots. She related her experiences in a mixture of English, Malay and Hokkien. Madam Salmah showed amazing zeal and enthusiasm to narrate her story during the interview. Her accounts include her experiences as one of the on-lookers during the Prophet Muhammad’s procession and life during the curfew period. It sheds some light on lives of the civilians and the problems they encounter during that period of time. She also shared with me her personal reactions and feelings towards the riots and the reactions of the neighbours and friends. She claimed that the current generations are very much oblivious to the challenges that Singapore had to go through during our pre-independence period. Life was hard then and tensions were fraying every single day.
When the riot happened, local people, not only the Chinese and Malays, got panic and began to look for a safe place to hide. The situation went out of control and many people were injured, so, the government decided to impose a curfew a few days after the riot. It was from dawn till dusk and nobody was allowed to go out during those period of time. Work had to cease for days and people were terrified to even leave their homes. According to Mdm Salmah, she said that her friends and neighbours were worried, as they were afraid that they might be attacked by the other race. However they need not search for a refuge, because the whole street was all Chinese occupants. During the riot, residents living along that street took turns to patrol and looked out for any troublemakers. Her neighbours were very cooperative and helped each other during that difficult time.
Her story had certainly heightened my awareness of the severity of the 1964 racial riots and subsequently tightened my understanding on the birth of Racial Harmony day in Singapore.
Singapore’s road to independence is not a smooth one. We should never take the success of present Singapore for granted especially people like us, who have not been though any riots and instabilities. The annual Racial Harmony Day is a reminder to the young generations that race is always a sensitive issue in Singapore. A wrong gesture or speech may lead to a serious matter like the racial riot in 1964, which caused innocent deaths and injuries. Hence we must always bear in mind that living in harmony in a multi cultural country like Singapore is a gift and should not be neglected and taken upon lightly.
2. Date of interview: 15 November 2014
Coffeeshop Location: Blk 5 Banda Street Chinatown, K88 Coffee House
Pioneer’s name/age: Mdm Cheng S C, 74 years old
Mdm Cheng’s story brought a trip down the memory lane to a lesser-known fact of life in Singapore – the night-soil bucket system.
Mdm Cheng related to me that during her childhood days, toilet was a small attap and wooden structure a short walking distance at the back of the house. Going to the toilet in the night to do the "big business" was a problem as it was dark at night and the walk to the toilet rather eerie and quiet. If one had to go to the toilet to find relief, a small kerosene lamp or lighted candle would help. Using a torchlight would not be practical and useful as it would not give a bright enough shine to cover a big area. So for those who feared going in the dark and quiet in the night to get to the toilet, they would do their big business at home using a spittoon.
Mdm Cheng claimed that that would be a better option as the next morning the contents in the spittoon could be brought to the toilet to be emptied. It is interesting to note that if you were half way through your business, and the night-soil carrier arrived to replace the bucket with an empty one, you would have to be fast enough to get out of the toilet before he replaced the bucket. Otherwise you would have to shout aloud to him to wait till your job was done. Occasionally one would be faced with an awful sight of flies buzzing around the human waste, and a few days later, the thousands of crawling maggots. This would happen if the night-soil carrier, for whatever reason, did not turn up for work for a few days.
In the early days of Singapore, the night-soil bucket system was manual and relied on close human contact with the waste. The collectors usually arrived at individual households with empty buckets, carried on his shoulders using a pole, to exchange for the filled ones. The collectors then took these buckets to the collection centres. Since the collection was done mainly at night and the filled buckets were covered with soil to lessen the smell, hence the name “night-soil”.
Singapore was an early implementer of the concept of ‘Sanitation for All’. This made a major difference for our public health and hygiene. To meet the growing demands of the rapid housing and industrialisation programmes, it was in the late 1980s that the century-old night-soil bucket system was phased out and replaced with the alternative on-site sanitation system island wide.
3. Date of interview: 23 November 2014
Coffeeshop Location: Blk 711 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8, S11 Coffeeshop
Pioneer’s name/age: Mdm June Chiew, 67 years old
Mdm Chiew shared with me of her fond childhood memories where taking a trishaw to school was a daily routine for her. The three-wheeled vehicles, which had evolved from rickshaws, were one of Singapore's earliest modes of public transport. Soon after rickshaws were phased out in Singapore, trishaws began to take off despite being bulkier and less easy to manoeuvre. A three-wheeler with a bicycle attached at one side, it was a lot faster and more stable than the rickshaw.
Mdm Chiew related to me that she used to mainly take trishaws to go to school or to another person’s house. The trishaw would seat two people comfortably, but kids would squat in front if there were no more space. They took the trishaws because it was cheaper than taxis, which were not plentiful then, and it was faster than buses and more convenient. Back then there wasn’t school buses or at least it wasn’t readily available, and if it were a very long way to go – parents would hire a trishaw to ferry their kids to school in those days.
Apart from ferrying customers for the whole day under the hot sun, trishaw riders also had to deal with hazardous road conditions. Despite the very hard manual work, it was an honest way to make a living and trishaw riders provided an invaluable service to the public. It was common to hitch rides to school or to the market, and the trishaw was a ubiquitous sight on the streets through the years. Mdm Chiew also shared that in those days; one could still flag down a trishaw at certain places, very much like a taxi. Taking the trishaw was not dangerous at all.
While the main mode of transportation in Singapore today is by car, train or bus, the trishaw remains an important heritage icon that the public is keen to preserve. Today, trishaws offer novelty rides to tourists that take them through the small street lanes in Bugis, Little India and the Singapore River.
4. Date of interview: 29 November 2014
Coffeeshop Location: 936 East Coast Road, LTN Food Village
Pioneer’s name/age: Mdm Doris Teo, 60 years old and her mother, Mdm Lim 87 years old
Mdm Lim through her daughter, Mdm Teo related to me about how their whole family used to stay in a kampong located at Geylang Lorong 3 in the early 1950s. In those days, the Singapore City were filled with settlements of unauthorised wooden housing called kampongs (villages), home to autonomous communities of low-income families. However in 1953, there were two eventful kampong fires which broke out in Geylang that year – at Lorong 3 and Aljunied Road, where estimated over 2,800 and over 1,000 people respectively lost their homes. Mdm Teo was only two months old when the fire took place. Mdm Teo and her family of eight were then relocated to low-cost houses built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) at the Upper Aljunied resettlement area for 12 years until 1965.
Such semi-permanent housing, which could last only 40-50 years compared to 60-100 years for permanent housing, were meant to be constructed quickly and cheaply and rented out to low-income families. By the end of the 1960s, the urban landscape of the newly-independent Singapore state was dominated by high-rise blocks of modern flats clustered in planned public housing estates built by the government. Mdm Teo and her family were again relocated from the Upper Aljunied resettlement area to the first batch of flats in Circuit Road.
Modern Singapore was born out of fire, and consequently the kampong infernos hold an ambivalent place in contemporary society. As historical events, the fires belong to the past but they remain in the present as personal and social memory. The conflagrations and the emergency public housing, which followed in their wake, helped to create the disciplined, modern nation-state of today, yet they are also an integral part of present-day critiques of both the government and the high modernist philosophy of development, which it has robustly implemented.