As a people, we Singaporeans are the most pragmatic creatures on the face of Earth. It is said that the ever-polite Japanese will never say "no" to your face, preferring terms such as "it will be very difficult". We Singaporeans prefer to put matters to rest with the more definite "you wait long long ok". And at times, we exploit history to our advantage. For example, instead of using a rather meaningless phrase such as "go fly a kite" to a customer who insists that chendol should cost no more than $0.50 a bowl with 2 atap-chee some more, Ah Ter the hawker can express his feelings with a more relevant "Last time policeman wear shorts".
The truth is, Singapore policemen did wear shorts at one time. In fact, according to the more mundane annals of Wikipedia, they wore it for a long long time, from 1945-1971. I suppose that was the wisest thing to do, since the men-in-khaki were expected to meet their KPIs by running through the kampongs to catch thieves. With the air-conditioning these days, it is more sensible for our men-in-blue to be clad in warmer clothes lest they catch a chill from the police cars and shopping centres they have to jargar. Anyway, the kampongs and their muddy roads have long disappeared from our landscape.
I had the privilege of witnessing our policemen running in their shorts, not chasing thieves, but shouting after scampering unlicensed hawkers who were surprising adept in spite of all the flying pots and pans in their wake. Those days, policemen were known as tei-gu, which I had thought meant "tea-pot". Why? Dunno. As a kid, I thought it was because they will have a tea party with whoever they catch. Being a World War II survivor, my father took particular delight in relating horror stories about how the Japanese administered their infamous water-treatment on their hapless prisoners. I imagined that the tea-thing was just a watered-down version where they used a kettle instead of a hose. And tea was served in place of non-potable water.
Yes, the memories of the terrible war were still fresh in everyone’s minds in the 60s. I was born in 1966, shortly after my family moved from the kampong home in Bukit Timah, which we had been sharing with my uncle’s family, to a 1-room ground floor unit at Unit #01-33 Block 8 Mattar Road. So my only recollection of the kampong was from the occasional visits we had to our uncle’s place. I was, I supposed, one of the pioneering pure heartlanders of Singapore who never lived in kampongs.
As far as I remember, I was allowed to freely roam the neighbourhood, and so the memories of Mattar Road Chap Lao (10-storey Mattar Road flats) were forever etched in my mind. There was this invisible boundary that my sisters and I never strayed beyond, lest we get caught by workers looking for little children’s heads to strengthen bridges and stuff. Such fears were, by far, more effective at keeping us in check than any child fence that the best producer can hope to manufacture. My mother used this to great effect, probably because she believed in the stories herself.
As we stayed on the ground floor, we had a proper area to hang our clothes to dry instead of just sticking our tekkos into cylinders jammed into walls like everyone else on top of us. That same area was great for baking Chinese New Year goodies – love letters and nian gaos – and for occasionally fattening skinny hens whose destinies were to lie simmering in front of alters before making that final trip down to our tummies. It was in this area, as some of you might recall, that I showered tender loving care on my first pet – a bright yellow chick – and grew her into a plum and handsome hen to my great pride (and my family’s glee). When she disappeared one day and showed up on our dining table that very night, I stuck to my vow of never eating chicken again for a unmatched record of 7 days.
A stone throw’s away lies a wet market with a small store that sells kway chap and bi tai mat (some kind of macaroni soup), right beside the cages of miserable hens clucking in horror as they watched another of their cohort get her throat slit and blood drained into a bowl. The wet market was also right beside a rubbish dump, which had a drain that all men and boys in the area freely used as their community toilet. I don’t think the health inspectors these days have a Level low enough to award to the hawkers there, but still, here I am all these years later still kicking despite my early encounters with the most exotic of bacteria.
By now, you are probably wondering where I’m headed with all this. It’s just that the memories of my early childhood remain clear and vivid in my head. I remember the lantern festivals, the durian seasons, my first ride in a car (was my last too in that car after I threw up from motion sickness), my first day to kindergarten, my favorite blanky which had large holes from all my peeling, my parent’s bed and that very fun mosquito net, the ceaseless chugging of my mother’s sewing machine, my first visit to the New World night scene (after which I had nightmares for a number of nights from witnessing what I thought was a talking human head on a plate), the marble games, kuti-kuti challenges, the spider fights, the yummy syrupy ice balls, the tikam store that cheated me of a piece of bubble gum with tatoo wrapper, and on and on. No, I did not have tuition or enrichment classes in math, languages, science or music. Never even came across the term tuition during my Primary school days. The closest to technology we had was a portable radio operated by red Ever-Ready batteries (with the cat going through the 9’s). So we were financially poor then, but the experience has given me an incredibly rich plethora of priceless memories.
As parents now, I wonder what kind of memories we will be giving to our children. Will they just remember the piano, phonics, math, and Chinese lessons we put them through? Or the Nintendo games and Kung Fu Panda movies they used to love so much? Even more sobering, will they be able to survive in the environment that we ourselves have gone through in the 60s or 70s, when policemen used to wear shorts?