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…