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Location: Singapore, Singapore

A "recycled teenager" learning to blog.

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.


Jun 8, 2019

Playing with the past

Exhibition of playsets invokes sense of nostalgia at bustling Raffles Place.

Report by Law Zhi Tian (Source: The New Paper, 19 March 2013)

The fondest memory of Singapore's parks for Mr Teo Hong Mong was the time he took his cousin, who once lived here but had moved back to China for more than 50 years, to revisit their childhood playground, the Singapore Botanical Gardens.

He said: "Back then, it was one of the biggest parks in Singapore and we used to play by one of the trees.

"Fifty years later when  we came back, the tree was still there!  Now in Singapore, usually after 50 years, there is nothing left to remember."

Tree Planting Campaign

On June 16, 1963, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched the first Tree Planting Campaign by planting a Mempat tree at Farrer Circus.

Half a century on, NParks, with help of many companies, schools and communities over the years, has planted about 1.4 million trees throughout the island.

Director of Parks Chia Seng Jiang, 52, explained the rationale of bringing the playsets of yesteryears into the city.

He said: "Once upon a time, we were all young, and parks and playgrounds gave us moments and momories that will last a liftetime.

"We want to bring them back into the city and evoke some nostalgia in a place like the Central Business District, which is why we chose Raffles Place."

Aside from the playsets, traditional games such as pick-up sticks and yo-yos were also placed around the display area for people to play with.

In addition, there were two huge blown-up photographs providing people with a glimpse of Raffles Place in the 1920s - a commercial square lined by grey buildings and rickshaws with scarcely any trees then.

Alongside "Playsets of Yesteryear", NParks also launched an iOS application, sParks, to allow people to navigate through park trails and park connectors, as well as learn more about the flora and fauna there.

Nparks plans to plant 1,963 trees by the end of the year, of which 40 per cent have alreadybeen planted by various corporate organisations, non-governmental organisations and primary schools.

For livening up Raffles Place, a place he visits once a month for recreation, Mr Teo gives NParks a thumbs-up for their efforts.

He said: "I feel like writing a sign saying 'Don't remove this park from Raffles Place!'  I've never seen it being so beautiful before."

A group of schoolchildren playing a  game of  'chapteh'.

The 72-year-old retired engineer received a pleasant surprise when he walked past Raffles Place Park.

The usual patch of grass in front of Raffles Place MRT station was jazzed up with flora and something unusual - set of park benches, swings, see-saws and merry-go-rounds.

Brought in from parks all over Singapore such as Fort Canning Park, the swings and park benches were an instant hit with the busy office crowd.

Many people slowed to snap a photo, chat with friends on benches under the shade of trees or even try out the swings - all in their office attire.

The sight of young and old on playground equipment in the middle of the business district injected a sense of lightheartedness during the bustling lunch hour.


Jun 1, 2019

Growing up in a Boon Lay farm

Mr Winston Chai, a kampong boy at heart, cherishes his childhood memories of open spaces and communal living in Jurong.

[Source:  The Straits Times on 17 February 2013.  By Teh Joo Lin]

When his science teacher taught the class about shrimps, water stick insects, and other aquatic creatures in Primary 4, Mr Winston Chai was the only student in his class of 40 who didn't bat an eyelid.

These were daily sightings at the fish and vegetable farm where he spent the first 14 years of his life in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Mr Chai, 38, says: "Until that lesson, I didn't realise how different my childhood was.  Even my form teacher was very intrigued when he realised that I knew all this first-hand, because he himself never had such an experience."

He started supplying bags of water plants and animals to stock up the school's eco-garden.

Mr Chai was born in 1975 to a family that reared tropical fish and grew vegetables in Jalan Bahar, near Boon Lay.

Plenty of room

His house - built from wooden planks and topped with a zinc roof - sat on a knoll on the plot of land, which was about the size of three to four football fields.

His neighbours had also cleared the forest to rear pigs and chickens, and plant fruit trees and vegetables.

The environment was a world away from the high-rise housing estates that they would move to in the late 1980s, when the Government took back the land.

Mr Chai, a civil servant, says: "I miss the wide, open spaces.  Back then, I had no concept of what space constraints were.  When I visited my relatives who lived in a three-room flat, I couldn't understand how three or four cousins could share a room.  In our house, if we were short of rooms, my grandfather just built a new wing."

The farmhouse had 11 rooms for the family of seven.

There were two garages and even a warehouse.

Growing up, Mr Chai spent most of his time outdoors.  He caught everything from fish to frogs, climbed guava trees, sped down dirt slopes in a bicycle and darted around the graves of the nearby Choa Chu Kang cemetery - but only in the day.

Badminton games

"It was spooky at night.  At that time, especially in the 1980s, vampire and ghost movies from Hong Kong were popular.  They fed my imagination," he says.

In the evenings, the grown-ups had their fun too, when they put down their tools, picked up badminton racquets, and made a beeline for Mr Chai's home.

The nightly "badminton tournaments" took place there because the house had a courtyard that was laid with concrete and spotlights.

Somehow, the wide tracts of land that separated one home from another brought everyone closer together.

He says: "There were a lot of communal activities where the concept of sharing was instinctive.  Today, we get privacy and we exchange pleasantries with neighbours, but things don't really go much further than that."

Python party

Neighbours often came knocking to share their harvests, such as papayas and mangoes.

Even pythons, which slithered onto the farmland to prey on the poultry, were shared.

He says: "When people see pythons now, they don't know what to do.  For us, the natural instinct was to take control of the threat on our own.  We didn't call the police.  We just grabbed a pole and a gunny sack."

Snakes up to 2m long ended up in the cooking pot.

He says: "The snake was used to make herbal soup.  All the neighbours would be invited to dinner and there would be a huge 'python feast'.

"But I wasn't a fan of the soup.  I haven't had it since."

Shortcut for soldiers

Other types of "intruders" were treated more civilly - soldiers who strayed onto the land when they got lost during night exercises.

One night, after the family was roused by "banging on the door", Mr Chai's grandfather flung it open to real dozens of uniformed men wearing helmets, field packs and rifles.  They needed directions.

He says: "My grandfather let them walk through our property and take a shortcut.  Otherwise, they would have had to make a huge detour.  It was quite funny sight to see them troop past one by one."

Several years later, it was Mr Chai's turn to enlist for national service and undergo training near the farmland.

He says: "That brought back a lot of memories of childhood."

By then, lost soldiers no longer had anyone to turn to for directions.  The farms had already been torn down.  The land was overrun with overgrown grass.

The family moved to a five-room Housing Board flat in Teck Whye, and his father earned his keep as a taxi driver.

He says: "From being woken up by the crow of roosters and birds chirping, it became the noise of traffic.  But the move wasn't traumatic for me.  It was more so for my grandparents."

From Boon Lay to Bukit Batok

More than two decades have since passed.  Mr Chai went on to graduate from university, tie the knot with his former schoolmate and move to an apartment off Bukit Batok, which he chose for the surrounding nature and greenery.

Other preferences from the past have stayed with him.

Recalling how he dreamt up his own games and fashioned his own catapults and fishing poles, he says: "We were pretty much self-sufficient, and made the most of what we had.  Until today, I don't like to depend on others.  People also say I am not a conventional thinker in the way I approach my problems.  That has really stuck with me through adulthood."

"At the end of the day, I am still a kampong boy at heart."