Chapter 3 – My Secondary School Years

By the time I started secondary education, we had moved yet
again, this time to a Housing & Development Board rented flat in ‘Jalan
Rumah Tinggi’ (Malay language meaning, ‘High/Tall House Road’). By now Wak Ali
had gone from our lives – it started off with a few days’ disappearance and
finally he just didn’t return after one of his walkabouts. Upon reflection, he
had probably succumbed to dementia and Mother just never worried about tracking
him down. Anyway, back to this brand-new HDB flat which was to be our home
until my marriage in 1969… It was a one-bedroom flat but to me, it was a
palace – we had our own kitchen with a gas burner, bathroom & toilet, tap
water and even a comfortable lounge-room! We were on the 5th floor and the
block of flats was serviced by an elevator or a lift as we called it in those
days.

Unpacking stuff in the kitchen was of course left to me while Mother
immediately began assembling her brass four-poster bed and set it all up with
kapok-filled pillows encased in fancy embroidered satin pillow-cases, matching “bantal
pelok”
(bolsters), sheets, a be-ribboned canopy, the whole works. A
bed fit for a sultan – and there it stayed, perfect and unslept in. No, we were
not expecting any royal visitors, it was all just for show only. It almost
broke my heart when I found out too late that a few years after I married, she
sold the bed to the “China karung guni” (Chinese Rag-and-bone man) for
S$20! Not once did any of us sleep on that beautiful bed – we slept on our
rolled out straw mats on the concrete floor. She and I shared the bedroom with
the brass-bed while Brother had his own territory in a corner of the
lounge-room. We never owned an “ice-box” (refrigerator) and groceries
and leftover food share the same housing in a “gerobok” (kitchen
cupboard with inset panels of fine wire mesh to keep out flies and bugs).
Somehow the kitchen was mine, all mine, with Mother entering it for the sole
purpose of cooking about twice a year.

I enjoyed secondary school, not
so much for the studying involved but more so, the extra-curricular activities
like hockey, badminton, netball and being involved with the Art Club, LDDS
(Literary, Drama and Debating Society) and the Malay Club. Every year on our
National Day (9th August) all students of our school participated in the
National Day parade, assembling very early in the morning in the Padang (Malay
world for field) before enthusiastically marching past the City Hall.

I also made some very good friends, one Monica Minjoot in particular. Her
father was a Colonel with the Singapore Army and they lived in a mansion in Mt
Pleasant Road, not too far from the school. She would often invite me in her
dad’s chauffeur-driven car to her house where we would make “College Pudding”
(steamed jam pudding) and various simple delights. In bad weather, she would
get her dad’s chauffeur to drive me home. It was great to have such a good
friend who enjoyed my company despite my humble background. Unfortunately, we
lost contact after high school and by the time I married and had the luxury of
a home phone, her dad had retired and I could not re-establish contact to
re-activate our warm friendship.

Whenever we had group projects in Botany, our team (Irene Wee, Lim Guek Poh,
Monica and I) would head off to the Botanical Gardens to get our specimens,
without ever being caught by the ranger. We also teamed up for debates and one
very memorable play which was directed and produced by student members of
Raffles Girls’ School and our “brother school”, Raffles Institution. It was
selected to compete in the finals of the Drama Festival and I had one of the
leading roles, playing the part of a murderess in a play called “Scandal at
Morgan Heights”. Getting involved in the play was no easy task – my teacher had
to personally ask my mother’s permission and guarantee my safety and good
behavior. As fate would have it, I came down with the mumps two days before the
big night and with no understudy to take over, the show depended heavily on me.
Irene’s mother kept giving me some barley-based home remedy to drink, and our
English and Drama teacher (Mrs. Theresa Woo) reluctantly agreed to keep our
nasty secret. The big night came and we all gave it our best shot. We did not
win but were highly commended. All in all it was certainly an experience I’ll
never forget.

My Art teacher happened to be a cousin of mine, Mrs. Helena Dhillon (cousin of
the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, who is the nephew of my
mother’s sister-in-law). She considered me to be a very stubborn teenager when
I refused to squash a jarful of grasshoppers that we had caught and used as the
subject of our art class one day. I objected as I considered it to be a cruel
act and wanted no part in it. I’ll never forget that day – in anger, she
purposely tipped a rubbish bin and ordered me to pick up the litter as
punishment. Naturally, I flatly refused, declaring that she should do so
herself, as littering was an offence! My classmates cheered me on as she
marched me off to the principal’s (Miss Norris) office. I was not punished for
my disobedience and by the time we left the office and got back to class, my
mates had picked up the rubbish and class resumed. Yay! Justice prevailed that
day.

Maths was taught by Mr. Siva who once caught me in the act of imitating his
rather strong Indian accent in front of the class… Fortunately, he saw the
funny side of the situation and all I got was, “Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! Vell, vat can I
say? Wery funny! If only you pay as much attention to your maths, you vould go
wery far, my dear!”
What a guy!

I was made class monitress and librarian for the last two years of secondary
school, positions of responsibility which I relished — they gave me a feeling
of importance and helped build up my self-confidence. However, my mischievious
streak remained and one April Fool’s Day, I brought a jarful of cockroaches to
release in class.   The havoc that incident
created was well-worth staying up half the night catching the pests in the
rubbish chute downstairs where I lived!!! Upon reflection, I could have
succeeded very well at school, had I heeded Brother’s and teachers’ advice and
applied my intellect to lessons instead of mostly using it to think up
mischievious pranks to play. I hardly ever studied but I loved reading,
especially romantic novels by Denise Robbins, Georgette Heyer and Barbara
Cartland. I would read them behind my atlas with Mother thinking I was doing
some serious study – Brother never gave the game away. I would take my
paperback to the toilet and “meditate” for ages just so I could read another
chapter… Mother believed “Action speaks louder than words…” and also in
saving electricity, so when she reckoned I had been in the toilet long enough,
she would come to the toilet and switch off the light (and don’t I even dream
of switching it back on!!!). Instead, I would grope and find my way back to the
bedroom in the dark.

The most humiliating incident that I will always remember was the time an
admirer sent me a letter. Unfortunately, Mother was home that fateful day, when
the postman delivered the letter (addressed to ‘Lady Rafflesian’). She immediately opened it, tried to read it
but couldn’t understand all of its contents so she took it downstairs and got a
total stranger to read and translate it for her. Upon my arrival from school
that evening, I barely had time to drop my school-bag before Mother grabbed a
hold of me and showed me the offending letter. My protests of innocence fell on
deaf ears as she insisted that I must have been flashing this guy the “come
hither” looks to result in such a letter. Anyway, she insisted that we go and
confront this “mongrel”. My prayers for the ground to open up and swallow me
went unanswered. Unfortunately for the poor beggar, his dad answered the door
to Mother’s tirade: “Did you know that YOUR son is trying to seduce my
daughter? What do you think my daughter is? A ‘kuching jalang’ (alley-cat)???
If your son comes sniffing around her again, I’ll report this serious matter to
the police!” – all in one breath! Before anyone could blink, she grabbed my arm
and we marched off! I recognized the “offender” to be a student of Raffles
Institution who always got on the same bus as me. Not after that incident
though!

No matter how preoccupied Mother was with her gambling, my birthday was never
forgotten. She would wake me up at dawn to have a “birthday shower” (to wash
away all my “badness”) and have ready, a bowl of “long-life noodles” floating
in a syrup of sugar and salt with a couple of eggs in it. I was made to stand
on a chair in the front doorway and eat the noodles without breaking the
strands. The noodles signify longevity and therefore must not be broken up, the
sugar for sweetness, the salt for wisdom and the eggs for prosperity. There
were no presents or money involved, therefore not an occasion that I looked
forward to with great anticipation!

Towards the end of 1967, with final exams fast approaching, it was head down,
arse up into my schoolbooks. Mother even took time off her gambling so she
could take over in the kitchen, giving me time to concentrate on my revision. I
was then given “Brand’s Essence of Chicken” and 2 eggs a day to “strengthen” my
brains! If not for the fact that I wasn’t particularly fond of exams, I would
want to have them at least once a month! A couple of weeks before the exam
period, we had a farewell party in the school hall – it was a bitter-sweet time
– we signed each other’s autograph books, exchanged addresses and good wishes
and promised to keep in touch… A hall full of teenaged schoolgirls, each with
different hopes and aspirations – some of us hoped to further our education,
others like me were just glad to hopefully get our School Certificate and join
the work-force. By the end of that day, there was not a dry eye amongst us. I
cried all the way home, knowing that life for me would be pretty lonely until I
get a job. I could not keep in touch with many of my friends as I had no phone
and we could not meet because it would be against my mother’s wishes. Very
sadly, I said a quiet goodbye to my classmates and teachers and to my
schooldays…

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