It is sad that Achan (dad in Malayalam) is not around to watch and take part in the festivities around Singapore’s 50th National Day. I *know* instinctively how excited he would have been. He was a fan of pomp and pageantry although he, to the best of my knowledge, did not take part in any National Day parades.
Achan came to Singapore towards the close of the Pacific War (Second World War). He was with the British Indian Army and was stationed in Burma before being relocated to Singapore. When the war was over, he was discharged from the Army and choose to stay on in Singapore. That’s the start of our family in Singapore.
For some reason, Achan never really talked about his time during the war excepts for snippets here and there. He was not in the frontline dodging bullets, but because of his eyesight not being too good and he having learned shorthand and type-writing, was deployed as an admin clerk with whoever was the commander.
He shared with me once about how he was able to keep records of instructions and dispatches to the front line because those had to be typed and needed copies to be made at the same time. Those were done using carbon paper sandwiched between blank papers. When he had to type out orders – critical ones I assume – he’d use fresh carbon paper so that he could keep it and not reuse it. He therefore had a copy of what was sent out – in the carbon paper! I did ask him whatever happened to them and if he had it with him. “No”, was the answer. Never did press him though.
Front cover of Achan’s passport. Issued by the British for citizens of the Colony of Singapore.Inside of Achan’s passport
Achan married Amma in 1957 and a few years later, I was born. I was born a few months after Singapore was granted self rule in May 1959. Achan was, from a citizenship perspective, a “British Subject, Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies”.My birth certificate states that Achan was a “Citizen of United Kingdom and Colonies” and going by convention of the child’s citizenship following the father, I too was a citizen of the UK and Colonies.
Just before my fourth birthday, Singapore joined Malaysia as a state, after from all accounts a one-sided referendum. That union made the Pillays Malaysian citizens.
The main thing I remember while we were Malaysians was that Indonesia wasn’t happy with the Federation of Malaysia which included Peninsular Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and British North Borneo (Sabah). The Indonesians launched attacks on Singapore and Malaysia (called Konfrontasi).
I remember one evening, Achan came back home early. We were living in Puay Hee Avenue (somewhere near the corner of Puay Hee Avenue and Siang Kuang Avenue in Senette Estate) –
Google Street View
This is from Google Maps and those houses there today were not the ones then. It was a single storey detached house with a driveway and a garden etc.
On the day he came home early, he brought my sister and myself on my tricycle to go look at a crater in the road near our house which was done by a bomb planted by the Indonesian army. The following quote makes reference to that:
On 9 December 1963, a bomb went off under a car along Jalan Wangi, Sennett Estate, killing two shopkeepers.
Another memory was him coming home early and saying that he had to walk all the way home from his office in High Street because there was no public transport which all were shut down because of riots.
I remember asking him a few days later if he knew when the next riots would be so that he could come home earlier to play with me!
One other memory I have from that period was going with Achan and Amma (and I think my baby sister came along with us as well) to check out a new house. Achan had in his possession a bunch of keys to apartments in Queenstown and he was told to go check them out and choose one. Imagine that.
I recall us arriving at Commonwealth Drive and then trying to locate the various units. The blocks along Commonwealth Crescent did not have block numbers (yet) and there was no easy way to figure out the addresses. I remember having to walk from block to block looking for the units for which Achan had the keys. We finally settled on 260D, Commonwealth Crescent. And sometime in 1964, we moved out of Puay Hee Avenue to our new HDB 3-room apartment in Commonwealth Crescent, Queenstown.
After being part of Malaysia leading to the Indonesian military confrontation and bitter dispute between the Singaporean state and Malaysian federal governments, Singapore and Malaysia mutually agreed to separate (yes, not kicked out) on August 9th 1965.
And overnight we Pillays became Citizens of Singapore. I changed citizenship three times before I was six years old.
I don’t recall the day when we left Malaysia. The only memory I have is someone saying, sometime later, that we now have to get a passport to go to Johore Bahru (as it was spelled then). How bizarre. Passport – not that I knew what that was!
Finally, I was a Singapore citizen. Not by choice, but by happy circumstance.
There was a time back when I was in primary six (1971), when the registration for the Identity Card was being undertaken in school. I recall Achan not being too keen for me to get my IC, because that meant that I’d have to do National Service which was introduced in 1967. For someone who served during wartime, I guess he was apprehensive with anything to do with the military. Probably explains why he was never much to discuss his time during the war.
So, fast forward many years, to 2015 and here we are the day after Singapore’s 50th National Day enjoying the hardwork of generations of Singaporeans to make this place home. Achan left us in 2007 and I am sure if he was here, he would have relished every moment, just as we continue to do.
It is a special moment in time. As my younger son was remarking yesterday as we made our way down to the Marina Bay to watch the fireworks, “this is the ideal time to wreak havoc in Singapore. All the people gathering around. The crowds. All you need is some crackpot to blow something up.” And it did not happen. We don’t have a locked-down state. We have a free country (granted we can have more freedoms).
As we look forward to the next 50 years to SG100 (when the boys would be 67 and 65 respectively!!), what kind of a country would it be? Can I help make it what it should be by working with the next generation NOW to make it happen? I shall leave that as subject of another post.