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Jul 19, 2019

Kopitiam - Great Hangout for Retirees

Nostalgia is revisited in this photograph.  Remember these traditional biscuits which used to sell them for 5 to 10 cents each.  And the old-styled cup and saucer evokes a feeling of nostalgia.
[Source:  National Library Board]

In The Straits Times, 21 January 1998, Lee Kip Lee wrote Kopi Tiam memories:

I refer to the report "East Coast goes Upper with hip businesses" (Sunday Plus, Jan 4) which had a photograph of Jin Wee kopi tiam.

It is the place to go for elderly readers who wish to make new friends of their age.

Unlike the noisy, open coffeeshops in HDB estates, Jin Wee is on the ground floor of a terrace house.  It is run by two brothers, whose wives cook the meals it serves.

One of the highlights of my two years' sojourn in Siglap was to be able to frequent it in the mornings, between 9.30 and 10.30, to have coffee and natter with other retirees at our own special round table.

Visiting Jin Wee was like walking into the privacy of one's own clubhouse where, besides the regulars, I could meet a long-lost classmates who had cycled to Jin Wee (yes, lots of old fellows cycle with impunity in Katong and Siglap) after a walk at the East Coast Park, or recognise another childhood friend, despite his stoop and grey hair.

We were a diverse group who developed a bond of friendship and tolerance which permitted one of our "members" to insist on paying for everyone's drinks every day, on the ground that they were paid for out of his four-digit lottery winnings.

There were anecdotes recalled of groups of youths in the 1930s, living in the Makepeace and Hooper roads government quarters and raring for a fight with "invaders" from Katong; and of groups of adventurous Singapore Harbour Board shipyard apprentices spending their Sundays hiking from Pasir Panjang over a ridge up to St Joseph's Church in Bukit Timah, with tins of sardines, corned beef and bread for their meal.

New look, same food at kopi-tiam near you

The Straits Times kopi-tiam check article by Mathew Pereira and Stephanie Tham on 20 June 1992.

Muslin vs machine

The neighbourhood kopi-tiam is alive and well.  But it has a new look.

Far from disappearing, it has kept up with the times by renovating its premises and offering more hawker fare.

Most coffeeshops have said good-bye to bentwood chairs and marble-top tables with spittoons under each table though some old-time shops remain, especially in the Chinatown area.

Coffeeshop along North Boat Quay c1986

The Straits Times check 25 coffeeshops in Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio, Chinatown, Whampoa, Commonwealth Crescent, Bukit Gombak, Bishan and Tampines.

Most still serve kopitiam fare.  But on bright plastic tables and chairs and with better lighting and more fans.  In place of mosaic flooring, the shops have ceramic tiles.

Their operators said they keep pace with customers' tastes.  Younger people are more fussy about cleanliness, said Mr Goh Eng Soon, 38, who runs Hoi Yin Pow Dim Eating House in Ghim Moh.

Said Mr Goh:  "The old kopitiam does not work anymore."  Nobody wants to eat at a table with a spittoon underneath and where the floors are brown with age, he said.

After he spent about $40,000 on renovations, many long-time Ghim Moh residents who had never dropped in before became regular customers.

To Mr Don Foo, 36, who owns Ming Ju Restaurant at Ghim Moh and a Clementi West coffeeshop, change was a matter of dollars and sense.

"Customers will only walk into the shop if it is clean," said Mr Foo.

The old toilets were "frightening" before the $100,000 renovation, he said.

Now the shop draws more customers.  He also collects more from sublets.  The 10 vendors to whom it is sublet used to pay $400 to $700 per stall.  Now they pay $1,000 to $3,000, he said.

Mr K. Chandra, 32, runs his father's coffeeshop, Sri Karumanan Villas Restaurant, in Hillview Avenue.  He said many operators were told that the Ministry of Environment (ENV) had given them till 1993 to renovate.

Not so, said ENV.  It said owners had been encouraged to renovate and upgrade but there had been no talk about any regulation.

Customers confirmed that cleanliness was important.  Miss Angeline Chan, a secretary in her thirties, said:  "These renovated shops do not feel greasy or slimy."

Teacher Derek Chew, 37, said: "The traditional kopitiam is different from the romanticised ones you see on TV or along Orchard Road.  They were dark, dirty and even smelly.  No one will miss that."

But unhygienic or not, some swear by breakfast at the old-style kopitiam.  It is these old faithfuls who keep the originals alive in older estates such as Balestier Road, Whampoa and Chinatown.

These continue to be informal meeting places, especially for retirees.  But even their operators say it is a matter of time before they die out too.

Mr Thiang Swee Ping, 44, is a helper at Sin Wah Coffeeshop in Chinatown.  "People now want variety.  They want an air-conditioned place.  They want a cleaner place," he said.

"This place is clean.  It is only that it is old," he noted.  Sin Wah opened in 1941.

Business was definitely down, he said, adding:  "The old customers are gone and there are not that many passers-by these days.  Soon people will be calling these new eating places kopitiam.

For kopitiam regulars, the upgrading will be sad.

Retiree Ong Beng Chooi, 84, has been a customer of Hock Seng Coffee Shop at Commonwealth Crescent for the past 20 years.

"Not only is this place familiar, the coffee is still good too.  The atmosphere here is informal, relaxed and friendly.  It would be a shame if the place was upgraded and renovated," he said.

Mr Chew Wee Jim, a 72-year-old retiree, also has fond memories.

"It's a place where the old people can just sit around and chit-chat.  We feel uncomfortable in the newer establishments," he said.

It is not only elderly retirees who will mourn the passing of the old-style kopitiam. 

Technician Anthony Yip, 28, said:  "The kopitiam atmosphere is different.  While I do not go to a kopitiam often, it will still be sad to think that I will not be able to visit one at all."

Kopi tiam keeps up with the times

The pride of Nam Chuan coffeeshop in Block 186, Toa Payoh Central, is the $20,000 Cantilever machine that dispenses 10 types of soft drinks.

Each glass is filled within three seconds, about twice as fast as conventional machines.

Its operator, Mr Ng Chiow Tong, 52, made the switch to save labour and compete with the brighter, brasher fast-food newcomers in the HDB block.

His coffeeshop gleams with Italian ceramic floor and wall tiles, more fans, lamps, lighted colour bill-boards and pennants advertising fizzy drinks.

And a new lighted sign-board replaces the old wooden one.

"My business increased by 30 per cent after I renovated the shop to attract the young and catch the MRT commuters," Mr Ng said.

His shop used to be dark, with tables and chairs arranged haphazardly and stalls crowding the front.  And the damp gunny sacks he used to absorb water seeping from his old refrigerator gave it a malodorous air.

He has gotten rid of the 300 stacked cases of bottled drinks which used to take up one fifth of his coffeeshop's space.  The cannisters for his drink-dispensing machines now only take up 1 per cent of the space, and he now uses the Public Utilities Board's piped gas.

A manager of Fraser & Neave, a major supplier of soft drinks to coffeeshops, said more ageing shops, such as those in Toa Payoh and Ang Mo Kio, were renovated last year.

At the 18-year-old Kian Seng Coffeeshop in Block 17, Toa Payoh Lorong 7, 62-year-old Ah Or has also thrown out his charcoal bread griller, scratched marble tables, rickety chairs and wooden crates.

In their place are drinks and ice-dispensing machines and a smokeless Japanese gas grill for toasting bread.

Ah Or - less well-known as Msr Chua Kian Seng - dug deep into his savings and borrowed for the $200,000 renovations.

Said Ah Or:  "When your customers are wearing new clothers, your shop must also look new.  Before the renovation, at the end of 1986, my place looked dirty, the mosaic tiles were chipped and the furniture was old."

New tables and chairs

The kopi tiam owner, who started from a small shop in Jalan Sultan in the early 50s, said his drinks business has improved by 40 per cent since the beginning of last year.

The new tables and plastic red chairs in neat rows add cafeteria slickness.  "We broke down the store-room, so it's brighter and more spacious," said Ah Or.  "I put in extra furniture and two more stalls.  We can now seat 110, where before we could seat only 70."

The food stalls which used to line the shop front have been pushed to the back, where a new ventilation system sucks smoke out of the shop.

Customers seem to like the change, but some stallholders find the modernisation hard to stomach.

Their coffeeshop operators have raised their rents to recover renovation costs, and bring it in line with rates charged by operators in newer towns.

Stallholders complain that the new rents eat into their profits.  Some also cry foul because they say, the operators still pay lower rent for the whole renovated coffeeshop than the newer coffeeshops.

When one coffeeshoop raised its rent for a noodles stall from $500 to over $800, most of its old stallholders left.  But then there was a scramble by new applicants for the vacated stalls.

The coffeeshop operators feel the raise is justified, as a renovated shop attracts more customers.  They also say they have to pay higher bills due to more fans, lamps and machines.

But one thing still has not changed for the evolving kopi tiam - the aroma of coffee and the chatter.

Mr Ng still serves his brew for takeaways in empty milk cans, as well as in styrofoam cups.

Cigarette butts and footprints still dirty the floor which is washed before closing time, but Mr Ng said laughingly:  "If my shop is clean the whole day, I'll be worried."

The evolution of the kopitiam in Singapore

MUM's the word for coffeeshop

Modernise. Upgrade. Mechanise.  (MUM).

Be more hygienic.  Be more efficient.  Be better managers.

Pity the coffeeshop owners whose cup runneth over with exhortation.

He had more of the same served at an exhibition on modernisation of coffeeshops.

Dishing it out to the Foochow Coffee Restaurant and Bar Merchants Association  and the Kheng Keow Coffee Shop Owners' Association was Mr Teo Chong Tee, Parliamentary Secretary (Environment and Social Affairs).

Mr Teo began in reflective mood.  The coffeeshop, he said, used to be a forum where people discussed social and political issues.  It was also a meeting place where people exchanged information.  

Now, he said, most people go to a coffeeshop just to eat and drink.  And coffeeshops face stiff competition from fast-food shops and hawker centres.

Then he pitched them the MUM formula:  modernise, upgrade, mechanise ...

Whether they will depends on many factors, the main one being uncertainty.

As many as seven in 10 coffeeshops will be affected by urban renewal, according to an official of Kheng Keow Coffee Shop Owners' Association.

"Modernise?  What for?" said the owner of a coffeeshop in North Bridge Road asked whether he planned to apply the MUM formula.

The shophouse was a pre-war building which he paid nominal rent, he said.  He had no idea whether the government would acquire it.

He had once thought of renovating the place and widening the passageway to the back so he could put in more tables.  "But if I want to knock down anything, I have to pay tea money to the owner."

Besides, it might not pay as people were moving out to housing estates and nany of the new buildings that had come up in the area had their own food and drink outlets to serve office workers.

His regular customers might object to machine-brewed coffee, he said.  They wanted their coffee the way it had always been made - by hand.

And he might also have to raise prices - which could put regular customers off.  Or extend opening hours - which would worsen the problem of finding workers.

Who wants to work in a coffeeshop for $200 when they can work in an airconditioned factory for $400 or more?

None of his sons wanted to take over the business.  And his daughters were all married and working elsewhere.

What he might do, he said, was transfer the shop to someone else, and help him run it.  Or, as  both his sons lived in Ang Mo Kio, he could live with either of them and work in one of the coffeeshops there.

Mr Teo would have told him that he need not fear customers shunning his shop if it went self-service or served machine-brewed coffee because some owners who have done so report better business.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 30 October 1983]

Traditional Kopitiam fare with nostalgic memories

The old-styled cup and saucer evokes a feeling of nostalgia.  [Courtesy of the National Library Board].


Jul 6, 2019

Sweet family bonds

Phyllis Phua (seated left, in pink blouse) with her grandfather, Mr Lao Song Khong, 78, and three generations of their family.  Mr Lao sold desserts like tau suan (whose ingredients of split mung beans, sugar, potato flour and pandan leaves) when he was a teen to survive the hungry years of the 1940s.

By Phyllis Phua

[Source:  The Straits Times, 29 October 2011]

Phyllis Phua, 16, is a Secondary 4 student of Pasir Ris Secondary.  She wins $100 in shopping vouchers and an iPod Touch 8GB.

My grandfather Lao Song Khong came from China to Singapore with his mother in 1938, when he was five.  In 1946, his mother managed to get a pushcart and became a street hawker near Read Bridge at Boat Quay, selling four varieties of desserts all boiled into a sugary soup.

They woke at about 6am for breakfast before buying ingredients for the desserts.  Once home, they would prepare Teochew fried yam in sugary paste, which is rarely sold now.  They also made red bean soup, cheng tng and tau suan.

After a simple lunch, they would load the desserts onto charcoal stoves in the pushcart and trundle it down the street.

Grandpa, who was in his teens then, helped his mother serve customers and was utensils.  They sold desserts till about 10pm, before packing and folding their cart and calling it a day.

By the time they reached home, it was already nearing midnight.

Although life was difficult, they made a decent living of about $7 a day, which was enough for Grandpa, an only child, and his mother.  His father had died during World War II, so mother and son depended on each other.

He was about my age when he sold desserts but his life was clearly harder than mine.  It was tougher to earn a living in the past, when manual labour was common.

Still, Ah Gong cherishes the bedrock values and kampung spirit of those days. 

People were friendlier and warmer, he says.  Neighbours were like family, helping one another and celebrating Chinese New Year together.  Food was tastier, and furniture was more durable.

Thinking about the lessons from his simple life, he says in Teocher:  "We cannot steal, rob, bully, trick or cause harm to others for personal gain.

"We have to depend on ourselves and the morally upright.  If we see others in need, we do our best to help them."

Grandpa folded up his dessert cart at 20, when his mother died of tuberculosis.  After that, he took up odd jobs and worked in an ice cream factory, before driving taxi for 30 years.

Grandpa is now 78 and widowed.  Although he was an only child, he has raised his own loving family.

With his expert cooking skills, his family of four children and eight grandchildren have the sweet pleasure of eating his delicious desserts, which also include barley with gingko nuts and water chestnut soup.

Indeed, our family bonds are strengthened because of the times we share while enjoying the desserts of old Singapore.

Read Bridge, originally known as Merchant Bridge, was renamed in honour of prominent businessman William H Read.  The bridge crosses the Singapore River at the uppermost limit of Boat Quay.  [Source:  National Archives of Singapore].

Jul 2, 2019

Singapore - A Melting Pot

Racial harmony does not just exist among friends; at times, it extends to the family as well.

Here, correspondent Leremy Lee offers a glimpse into his mixed-race family.  In this photo, some members are dressed in different ethnic costumes while attending their Indian relative's wedding.
From left:  Miss Lynn Lee, Mr Lee's sister, who is Chinese-Indian; Ms Lina Siew, Mr Lee's Chinese-Indian cousin; and Madam Vina Kalwani, Ms Siew's mother and Mr Lee's aunt, who is an Indian.

With courtesy of The Straits Times, 14 July 2014, through a gallery of visuals, IN Crowders and staff writers show what racial harmony means to them.


Take a photograph of a typical scene in Singapore which depicts a harmonious multiracial society.

Write a caption for the photo after you have printed it.  Devote a board in your classroom for this activity.

Then, as a class, reflect on these two questions:

What impressions do you think Singaporeans will have of the photographs you have taken in 30 years' time?

What impressions would you like them to have


Encourage students to write their own captions to the photographs they have taken.

Teachers can also discuss other daily occurrences surrounding youth that they may not have noticed or have taken for granted.  You can use photographs or stories that are published daily in The Straits Times to aid your discussion.

These anecdotes or photographs can be compiled for the class noticeboard.

Race and religion in Singapore are, more often than not, intertwined - Chinese, Malays, Indians and other races co-exist cordially with Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity among some of the major religion in the country.

Singaporeans are both respectful and open enough to welcome one another or be welcomed by others into different worlds.

Here, journalist Ang Yiying captures two Chinese women offering prayers at the Sri Krishnan Temple, a Hindu place of worship at Waterloo Street, while an Indian man sits at the side.

On a little street in Singapore for worship at this blog .


Correspondent Laremy Lee catches two Youth Corps Singapore projects that benefit their community.


IN Crowder Wong Yang, 15, spotted enlarged models of a layang-layang (kite) gasing (spinning top) and capteh all races played these games in their childhood with friends from different races.


IN Crowder Eloise Lim, 15, a Year 3 student from Temasek Junior College saw Nike and Neil cycling happily at Bedok Jetty, East Coast Park.  They obliged when she asked to snap a picture of them for this paper.

When she asked for their races, however, they declined saying:  "We are from different races.  However, we won't give our races, as racial harmony means everyone should be equal."


Basic Military Training graduating recruit Abu Bakar As-Siddiq Azmi, 23, of Kestrel Company doing a back somersault in elation as his fellow recruit Muhammad Zulkifli Masod looks on, after
ground, or religion.


Former national player R. Suriamoorthy still possesses the skills from his days as a midfielder in the 1980s, as he juggles the ball on the new pitch of the National Stadium during an event last month, which brought together past and present Singapore footballers.

Football is a common sport played by boys - and girls - of different races in Singapore.

Chinese Singaporeans confident of culture and aware they differ from Chinese elsewhere.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 20 May 2017]

Singapore is not a melting pot, but a society where each race is encouraged to preserve its unique culture and traditions, and appreciate and those of others, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

No race or culture is coerced into conforming with other identities, let alone that of the majority.

In fostering such an approach for a multiracial, multi-religious society rooted in its Asian cultures, Singaporeans need the arts and cultures "to nourish our souls".

"We don't wish Singapore to be a First World economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well off but uncouth.  We want to be a society rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and as Menvius said, where we treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children ad our own.'


SIA air stewardesses at Singapore Turf Club for this year's Singapore Airlines international Cup and KrisFlyer International Sprint in May.

The flight attendants, who are of different races, are wearing their uniform - the iconic sarong kebaya, a traditional South-east Asian costume.


Jun 30, 2019

The spirit lives on

[Source: The Straits Times, 10 November 1982]

By Irene Pates

'Learning, the principal of St Nicholas reminded her students, constitutes only a part of the personal quality, and in life she would have them remember the spirit of St Nicholas:  "A spirit ... of strong convictions, high ideals, devotion and simplicity"'

Ten years ago, a six-year-old girl started her first day at St Nicholas Girls' School.

For more than a week she sat somewhere in the back row, and during Chinese and civics lessons she sulked.

She knew no one in class, but what made her feel so morose was that while all the other girls responded to the teacher's questions with an enthusiastic "yes" or "no", she had no idea what was being said because she did not understand a single word of Mandarin.

She did not know how to say "yes" and "no" in Mandarin, although she was soon to recognise these words by her classmates' enthusiasm or lack of it.

Her parents had decided to send her to St Nicholas Girls' School for several reasons.

Both of them had been brought up in the tradition of mission schools.  Both had been educated in English.  While her father could read and write elementary Chinese, her Straits-born Chinese mother was not even able to write her surname in Chinese.

Both had had fairly traditional Chinese upbringing.  Her paternal grandparents had come from Shanghai in 1939.  Her mother is Peranakan, whose ancestors had settled in Malacca centuries ago.

Her parents realised that there are many universal values taught in all schools and that traditional Chinese teachings or Confucianism has no monopoly on what is good and worthwhile in enduring values.

However, they wanted their first child to be at home with both English and Chinese.  They realised also that in an age when children were given more freedom because of Westernisation, a Chinese education could help to temper in their daughter the possible adverse effects of so much exposure to a Western way of life.

Their little girl came from a home where English and Cantonese were spoken.

She recovered from that initial culture shock, or rather, language shock, of her first few days at school.

She soon learned enough Mandarin to understand her teachers in class.  But during recess she was more friendly with those girls who spoke English or Cantonese.

This proved to be short-lived because she found out soon that the principal wanted the girls to speak only English to each other on certain days, and Mandarin on other days.

The St Nicholas girls love their principal and they obeyed.

Thus her exposure to Mandarin was increased.

The first few Chinese dictation exercises that she brought home for her parents to initial were merely a series of triangles, topped by the teacher's nought.  She found learning to write Chinese characters very difficult.  She did not know where to start.

Her mother, a teacher, made an arrangement with one of her pre-university students who had attended the Catholic High School.  She would give him and a group of students extra help in the General Paper after school hours.

He in turn would help his teacher's daughter with Chinese.

Being helped in Mandarin by a gege (big brother) whom she liked did the Primary One pupil a lot of good.

He made sure that she learned to write Chinese characters with the correct strokes and in the proper order.

She began to show some improvement in class.

Soon her father was left behind by his daughter in Chinese.  As her Chinese outpaced his, he could no longer give her very much help.

Then followed a short period when she had the help of a home tutor, but her parents felt that she had to learn to work on her own.  Her teacher in school was always available when she needed help.  So private tuition was discontinued.

So the years went by and then it was time to decide on the school that she should attend after Primary School Leaving Examination.

Initially, her parents had thought that she should attend an English secondary school.  She had the advantage of an English-speaking home environment.  The six years' education in the Chinese medium would give her a head start with Chinese as a second language.

However, so pleased were her parents with the care that she had been given by her teachers in her six years at St Nicholas, that they hoped she would qualify to be able to continue her secondary education in the same school, which she did.

This 16-year-old schoolgirl and her classmates attended the Graduation Ceremony 1982 of the school.  Graduating with them were the pupils of the Primary Six classes.

The principal, Mrs Hwang nee Lee Poh See, describing hereself as "a mother reluctant to see her children go", spoke of the St Nicholas spirit that had infused all of the girls in her care.  It was this spirit which helped them through their school days. 
She recalled the times when, putting the welfare of the group as a whole above individual excellence, the girls would stay in school after class in order to help one another.

In Chinese, for example, those who were more fluent would help the less confident ones.

Learning, she reminded them, constitutes only a part of the personal quality and in life she would have them remember the spirit of St Nicholas :  "A spirit ... of strong convictions, high ideals, devotion and simplicity."

Half the hall was filled with parents which as Sister Celine, the guest of honour, said, was testimony to the care and concern that these parents had for their daughters.

The parents sat in the school hall and watched each girl go on stage to collect her certificate.  To Mrs Hwang and her teachers, these girls had been their children - some for a period of six years and some for 10 years.

As the parents looked out, they saw, through the arched doorways, the school field and the grass that struggles to grow despite the weight of more than a thousand white canvas-clad feet at morning assembly.

Beyond the field is the old chapel and the playground.

In the school hall the old ceiling fans stirred the air.  Some lights were on.  Not many schools have such old ceiling lights.

All these would be changed when the new school at Ang Mo Kio is ready and St Nicholas Girls' School, so long at Bras Basah, will be resited.

How many more graduation ceremonies will there be in the old school hall?

Meanwhile at this ceremony for the pupils who would leave at the end of 1982, pupils parents and teachers together sang:

My friends and my teachers,
These old crumbling walls,
Creaky floor boards,
Echoing rooms,
Everything old and familiar ...
I'll take with me memories,
Memories to treasure
Memories to dream by
To staunch the tears.
And when these girls leave, they will also take with them the strength of the St Nicholas spirit, acquired during their school days.

I know it because that little girl who was so unhappy 10 years ago is my daughter.


Jun 21, 2019

Outram and 30 years after

Outram Secondary School's class of '62 had its first reunion.  YEO TOON JOO, member of that class, looks back on its peculiar situation then.

[Source:  The Straits Times, 10 September 1992]

'The students were caught in the transition from one government to another, when new education policies were still in gestation, and no provision had been made for their continuing education'
- Mr Boon Oon San, a former Outram teacher

One became a fighter pilot, another a World Bank consultant; others became a top civil servant, a newspaper editor, school principals, financial controllers, bankers and successful entrepreneurs.  Two did very well in their GCE A levels and became President's Scholars.

But all were not deemed qualified to enrol for pre-university studies - including those with seven or eight distinctions in their final examinations in Secondary 4.

"I suppose it was because we were guinea pigs in a new education concept," said one of them, now a communications consultant.

The 1962 batch of Outramians had opted to join Outram Secondary School, the Ministry of Education's first commercial secondary school which prepared students for the London Chamber of Commerce Intermediate School Certificate, in 1959.

While their LCCI school certificate was considered good enough for them to teach commercial subjects in the ministry's secondary schools, they were not allowed to sign up for the Senior Cambridge School Certificate (O Level now) without first passing a qualifying test, or repeating Secondary 4 in a grammar school or in the Adult Education Board's night classes.

Said Mr Boon Oon San, an ex-Outram School senior teacher, who later become a sports officer in the Ministry of Social Affairs: "From our understanding, Outram was set up as a commercial school in the mid-50s to feed the business world with people trained in bookkeeping, typewriting, shorthand, commerce and other commercial skills.

"Unfortunately for those students then, the concept was launched by a previous administration during its short term.  Singapore received self-government and a new administration in 1959.

"The students were caught in the transition from one government to another, when new education policies were still in gestation, and no provision had been made for their continuing education.  Many students who had wanted a higher education were left in the lurch."

That was 30 years ago, when those students found themselves at the end of their school career with a school certificate that opened many doors to the commercial world, but proved worthless for higher studies.

The 1962 batch of Outramians will meet for their first reunion next Saturday (12 September 1992) to catch up on the lost years, some spent in the wilderness of finding their true calling, including going back to school to unlearn their commercial studies and find a new tack in the academic field.

One alumnus, Mr Tan Ah Ung, after securing his LCCI school certificate, decided to be a pilot.  He was rejected despite obtaining good passes in the Cambridge and Higher School Certificate examinations, and holding a private pilot licence.

"I was told I had to have at least one science subject, even if it was just General Science," said Mr Tan.

So he went back to night classes again and ended up with a second HSC, in Science.

And he joined the Singapore Air Force as a fighter pilot, a long way from a commercial career envisaged by Outram.  Mr Tan now flies for Singapore Airlines.

Two others - Mr Frankie Tan Leng Cheo, a financial consultant, and Mr Koh Cher Siang, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development - excelled in their Cambridge and A levels, and went on to become President's Scholars.

They pursued tertiary education in totally unrelated fields.  But Mr Tan switched to accountancy after his BA (humanities).

Mr Tan, who obtained his post-graduate diploma in business law at the age of 45, said:  "We were the underdogs.  But though we were not given a foundation in academic subjects, many of us were resilient enough to handle all sorts of subjects - and do well."

Outram is Singapore's second oldest school.  Set up as a primary school in 1906, it was the feeder school for Raffles Institution, Singapore's oldest school.

In the mid-'50s, it introduced Secondary 1 classes, initially in the academic stream and then in commercial studies.

Mr P.T. Hong, principal in an international accounting firm who specialises in corporate restructuring and insolvency, said:  "Like many of my classmates, I signed up for Outram even though I had no clue as to what bookkeeping was.  We had three streams to choose from:  technical, grammer or commercial.

"I had no interest in the first two.  Commerce seemed the best bet as it offered the promise of finding employment more easily with an LCC, and that was important in Singapore then as jobs were scarce."

Human resource consultant and headhunter Lee Siong Kee, who was head prefect, said:  "Because of the training at Outram, we were able to fit into clerical and accounting jobs on day one of employment.

"Outram students established such a good reputation and were so much oin demand that emloyers were contacting the school to 'reserve' its graduates."

School principal A. Rahman Ibrahim, who started working life as a secretary and advance in education through private study and a scholarship, said:  "I have no regrets over having been one of the pioneers.  At that time, there was scope in the commercial sector."

The commercial background came in useful for another alumnus, Mr Safdar A. Husein, when he was studying business administration in London.

"Because I could type, I was paid double the rate of other temping students in summer holiday jobs.  Knowledge of bookkeeping, commerce and typing is very useful in my vocation as a businessman.  But, on hindsight, I would really have liked to be a doctor."

Outram produced a number of other interesting graduates, including former banker Fock Siew Wah, the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation chairman, who belonged to one of the earlier batches of commercially-trained Outramians; Mr Wong Kan Seng, the Minister for Foreign Affairs (1963 batch), and the former MP for Paya Lebar, Mr Philip Tan Tee Yong (1963).

Those who went into accountancy were able to pursue tertiary education abroiad, soe going to Australia where they needed only a year to matriculate.  Most had to repeat Secondary 4 in order to go on to A levels and the then University of Singapore.

At the turn of the '60s, the experiment with LCC was dropped, and the school offered O and A levels, while maintaining its commercial bias.

Today, Outram offers science, arts and commerce for O levels but commerce for A levels.

Fellow Outramian friends to remember

Any fellow Outramians who remember Peter Yeo Toon Joo in this photo taken during his youth? I sought his consent to post his schooldays photo to our Facebook group and I wrote: "Hi Peter, your grandkids in the latest FB profile photo show them taking after good-looking grandfather. Grandchildren resemble grandfather, the best blessing. Peter replied: "Hi James. By all means. Pity though I had lost most of my photos of my youth. This one was actually sent to me my niece." Thank you for sharing your fond memories, Peter. God Bless.

Tan Ah Ung was 2 years my senior in the Junior Red Cross Cadet Unit No. 10.  He is a friendly guy with a witty sense of humour ... fond, unforgettable schooldays memories of our friends of Outram Secondary School at the old school building at Outram Road.


Jun 15, 2019

Merlion Musings

The Merlion may be dinky, but it carries Ong Sor Fern's childhood memories.  She wrote in The Straits Times on 12 March 2000.

When does a tourist trinket become a national icon?

She was musing over that mysterious transformational process recently after the Merlion's unfortunate encounter with nature.

A friend had sent her a text message the evening the Merlion was struck by lightning.  The brief SMS, to the point and short on details, prompted apocalyptic visions of destruction and wreckage.  She envisioned a statue shattered beyond repair and her gut reaction was dismay.'

Now, the Merlion is not something she have regarded with reverence thoughout her life, although it has been a constant presence.

She remember as a child being taken on outings to the Esplanade and seeing the statue.

One particularly vivid memory centres on the inevitable kids' drawing competition where her sister and her dutifully sketched the Merlion, spitting water as per countless postcard images even though the tap was turned off on the day.

In fact, as she grew older, the Merlion became something of a cliché as she learnt more about its provenance.  After all, it is hard to respect something created by a tourist board as a logo and marketing gimmick.

She was not the only one to have doubts about this "national icon".  As a young reporter, she interviewed one of Singapore's premier poets, Dr Lee Tzu Pheng, who had then just published a new collection of poetry, Lambada By Galilee.

In it was a poem The Merlion To Ulysses, a tart response to Professor Edwin Thumboo's landmark 1977 poem, Ulysses By The Merlion.

Dr Lee had said: "I'm very uneasy about seeing the Merlion as a national icon.  We need something that has really evolved rather than something that's chosen by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board."

And yet, over the years, the Merlion has insinuated itself into Singapore's consciousness.  Just look at the recent uproar over the lightning strike as Singaporeans speculated about the fengshui implication of the incident and whether to repair the statue of leave it standing proudly with its newfound scar.

It has become, thanks to the Singapore Tourism Board's relentless efforts, what it was supposed to be - a tourist icon.  Even in other countries, the Merlion is instantly recognised as a symbol of Singapore.

She remember gaping at a television advertisement in Japan's last year:  An airline was advertising its flight to Singapore by portraying a Japanese salaryman getting drenched by a man-sized Merlion installed in his living room.

In a way, the creature's unnatural birth mirrors Singapore's own origin as a territory thrust traumatically and unexpectedly into nationhood.  As a country, the Republic was created out of sheer willpower and deliberate design.  So it seems somehow apt that this island state is represented by a creature stitched together by a combination of pragmatism (marketing), plagiarism (of world myths) and perspiration (it took three months for craftsman Lim Nang Seng to build the statue).

(Photo above:  Lim Nang Seng at his worksite with one of the Merlion statues (background) sculpted by him in 1972.

Unlike other national icons which tend to start life celebrated then deteriorate into neglected cliché, the Merlion has travelled a reverse trajectory.

As the years have gone by, it has become the centrepiece of a vibrant literary subculture, thanks to Prof Thumboo's inaugural poem, etched onto a plague which still accompanies the statue of the Merlion Park.

After Dr Lee's first published riposte, succeeding generations of young poets have written about the Merlion.  In fact, it is something of an in-joke in literary circles that every aspiring poet must write a "Merlion".

But not all the poems are as salutary as Prof Thumboo's celebratory description of "this lion of the sea/Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail/Touched with power, insistent".

In the poems of younger poets such as Daren Shiau, Alfian Sa'at, Alvin Pang and Gwee Li Sui, the Merlion has become a prism with which to examine national identity, to satirise Singapore's insecurities, to critique the country's head-long rush into the future.'

Ironically, by virtue of its own superficiality, the Merlion has inspired thoughtful literary reveries that have invested this awkward half-lion, half-fish creation with meaning and depth.

Perhaps she was getting sentimental as she get older and the familiar geographical landmarks of her childhood vanish in name of progress and urban redevelopment.

But nowadays, when she see the Merlion, she no longer see just a tourist icon.  It has become a carrier of her childhood memories.  Her perception is also coloured by the poems she have read, which provoked her into thinking about the statue in new ways.

Where once she was mightily irked by the decision to move the Merlion from its old location to its current spot, now she see the move as an embodiment of Singapore's supremely pragmatic approach to all problems.

This latter approach might seem callously efficient, but it is this clear-eyed attitude that has helped Singapore survive all manner of storms and could be the one thing to pull us through the current economic doldrums.

After the lightning strike, she now see the Merlion in a new light, no pun intended.  It may be dinky.  It certainly is fake.  But heck, it is our creation and she have learnt to embrace it, warts and all.

Ulysses by The Merlion by Prof Edwin Thumboo
For Maurice Baker

I have sailed many waters,
Skirted islands of fire,
Contended with Circe
Who loved the squeal of pigs;
Passed Scylla and Charybdis
To seven years with Calypso,
Heaved in battle against the gods.
Beneath it all
I kept faith with Ithaca, travelled,
Travelled and travelled,
Suffering much, enjoying a little;
Met strange people singing
New myths; made myths myself.

But this lion of the sea
Salt-maned, scaly, wondrous of tail,
Touched with power, insistent
On this brief promontory...

Nothing, nothing in my days
Foreshadowed this
Half-beast, half-fish,
This powerful creature of land and sea.

Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium's.

They make, they serve,
They buy, they sell.

Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Search for a centre;
Have changed their gods,
Kept some memory of their race
In prayer, laughter, the way
Their women dress and greet.
They hold the bright, the beautiful,
Good ancestral dreams
Within new visions,
So shining, urgent,
Full of what is now.

Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirits yearn again for images,
Adding to the Dragon, Phoenix,
Garuda, Naga those Horses of the Sun,
This lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.

Group photograph of Miss Universe 1987 contestants at the Merlion Park

Construction of Singapore's tourism symbol, The Merlion in 1972

The schoolchildren have fun at the Merlion Park

Above:  This is a photograph of Teng Hwee Tiang's two daughters standing in front of the Merlion cub at Merlion Park, dressed in identical red tops and brown shorts.  The Merlion Cub measures two metres high and is located 28 metres behind the Merlion, standing guard at the mouth of the Singapore River at Merlion Park.  Photograph donated by Teng Hwee Tiang and displayed at the Heritage Roadshow 2008.

Below:  Merlion Park is a Singapore landmark and major tourist attraction, located near One Fullerton, Singapore, near the Central Business District.  The Merlion is a mythical creature with a lion's head and the body of a fish that is widely used as a mascot and national personification of Singapore. (Source:  Wikipedia).

With the courtesy of the Singapore Memory Project to post my personal fond nostalgic memories of the Merlion Park here .

The photo below of my son and daughter taken in 1986 at the Merlion Park, Singapore.