From kampong to a white man’s world

October 2017

Growing up in rural Singapore in the 1960’s didn’t demand much of a teenage boy. Kampong life was somewhat slow and lazy. Apart from school you could choose what to do or nothing at all. Girls had a much harder time, especially in a family without a mother, having to do household chores and trying to do well in school at the same time. Our house (it was really my grandparents’ and it housed more than my family) was surrounded by coconut trees, which made me a little fearful of coconuts falling on my head each time I walked out the house during windy days. It was an unnecessary worry, really, as we all knew that that wouldn’t happen because coconuts had “eyes” and they wouldn’t fall on a human head. Most fruits we ate were from our own trees or stealthily plucked from the neighbours’. We walked a mile to school, and about the same distance to the community centre when we want to watch television. School books were mostly hand-in-downs and after several years the pages had to be “scotch-taped” to keep them from falling off. The school put on a movie show in its hall about once a month, charging ten cents a person to sit and sweat for two hours with only a few fans providing relief. Bicycles were the main form of transport and each household had at least one of them; the better off kids had their own to ride to school and cruise around the neighbourhood to the envy of their poorer friends. We were well aware of our lack of means, but life was just what it was.

I didn’t really think much about what came after school in 1967 when I was in secondary 4, mainly because there weren’t a lot of choices. Going to university seemed out of the question. Get a job? Yah, but what? A career? What’s that? Anyway, I still had two years of pre-university school to go through. Who knows, I might even do well enough to get a scholarship which would pay for university! But I didn’t put too much hope on that. Besides, there was the next test to worry about!

As in so many things in life, something came along and decided it for me. There was a notice at the back of my class that invited students to apply for training as aircraft engineers in Australia. ‘Aircraft’ ‘engineers’ ‘Australia’… all three words sounded like magic; each word was already magical on its own for a country boy who had little hope of further education and only knew about the world through geography classes and old dog-eared magazines at the barber shop. Getting a pass from paying school fees in Secondary 4 (students achieving a certain academic position in the previous year were rewarded with not having to pay school fees the following year) was the highlight of my scholastic career thus far, so getting this award would be something I wouldn’t even dare to think about. I filled and submitted the application form with very high hopes and equally low expectation – like winning a ten million to one lottery.

After some time, myself and several of my classmates were called to take a test in the city. There were many students from all over the country and the test was done in a big hall in one of the elite schools. It was quite intimidating and rural folks like me and my fellow classmates felt somewhat overawed by it all. But I remember the test being rather easy. Some weeks later, we were called to attend an interview, again in the city. While I sat with several other students outside the interview room waiting for my turn to go in I wasn’t nervous, oddly enough. My heart was beating a little faster, but I was otherwise quite cool about it. When I was called into the room I opened the door and there were about 6 or 7 men facing an empty chair. I think 2 or 3 were Caucasians. I remember one exchange very well because it still brings a smile to me whenever I think about it. My response to the question was outrageously wrong and it got the whole panel laughing, but which might have got me to Australia. The question was “what keeps an aeroplane in the air and makes it fly?” It was such an obvious question in an interview to select trainees for aircraft engineers and many of the applicants would have gone to the library and figured it out the day before. Not me. It wasn’t bravado. It was just ignorance, innocence. The only book I had ever borrowed from the school library was titled “Sands.” I remember this well because the teacher made all of us say out loud what book we’d borrowed in an attempt to get us interested in reading. But I never read it; the book was too thick. Reading became something I’d love only later.

I thought about the question I was asked. I had no idea what kept an aeroplane in the air. But I remembered my physics, which in Sec 4 at the time unfortunately did not cover Bernoulli’s theorem. I replied bravely but foolishly, “According to Archimedes’ principle, the air that the aeroplane displaces exert a force on it that keeps it afloat.” Everyone in the panel broke into smiles and laughter. One of them subsequently said, “But the aeroplane is very heavy, a lot heavier than the air that it displaces.” I refused to acknowledge my ignorance and responded, “I think the wings must have something to do with it as well.” Thankfully, they didn’t pursue the question and moved on to other stuff. But they appeared to be in a happy mood. They must have thought “this kid may know nothing, but at least he’s creative!”

I should have been jumping for joy when the postman came and I opened the letter that started “We are glad to inform you …” Surprising myself I was still pretty calm although everyone else in the house was ecstatic. I didn’t show up for pre-university class when school started a couple of weeks later. One of my classmates, who had also attended the same interview but failed to get the award, told me later that he was asked if one of his classmates was to get the award, who would have been the likeliest one. He said he picked me. I didn’t ask him why he said that, but I guess it didn’t hurt.

One thing was clear then, I didn’t have to figure out what to do for the next dozen years or so. Together with eleven other students from various schools, we were to work as apprentices with Qantas Airways in Sydney, Australia for 4 years, followed by 2 more years to gather maintenance licenses for the various aircraft types that Malaysia-Singapore Airlines (MSA) was operating. Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 but the two countries continued to have a common currency and jointly ran an airline (MSA broke up into two separate airlines soon after). We were going to be the first native licensed aircraft engineers in the national carrier of our two countries. For this privilege, each of us had to sign a bond to work for the government for seven years upon our return. I was a little disappointed that while the title sounded impressive, it wasn’t really a university degree that I was going to get. Kids like us in those days had the idea that only a university degree would get us to high level positions and wages. But I wasn’t too disappointed. I was just happy to get a free education, live for a few years in Australia, and have a job waiting for me when I got home. The lack of a degree was not going to ruin the ten million-to-one lottery I had won.

Somehow people in Singapore at the time had this notion that men in western countries go around everywhere in business suits. It certainly seemed that way on TV where they even fought in suits! Well, country bumpkin of not, my father thought I should have a suit. He brought me to a tailor and had not one but two suits made for me with money he’d borrowed. I was small, although of average height in 1967 at 5 ft 5 or 6 inches, and a little (some would say grossly, by today’s standard) underweight at 100 pounds. He told the tailor to make the suits a little larger to allow for me to grow into them. So, I was in my oversize suit at Paya Lebar airport on departure day; the sleeves were half an inch longer than they should be, chest and waist were similarly wider and length longer by about the same amount. My pants covered all parts of my shoes. I must have looked like Charlie Chaplin without the moustache. The funny thing was that although I’d gained 20 – 30 pounds (I didn’t grow any taller in the 4 years I lived in Australia) my suit was still oversize when I returned home.

All 12 of us were seated at the back of a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Boeing 707 direct flight from Singapore to Sydney. It was my first time in an airplane and the first time I was going out of the country (not counting Malaya). It was fascinating to have an attractive woman come round to ask what I wanted when I  pressed a small button at the panel over my head. I didn’t think I’d ever been served by anyone let alone a beautiful white woman who was ever so polite. I must have press that button a few times during the flight just to enjoy the novelty of being served something for which I didn’t have to pay. I also made sure I knew where I kept the airsick bag, just in case. Life was certainly going to be different for the next few years!

We landed at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport in the morning after an overnight flight. It was January 1968, one or two weeks short of my 17th birthday. I remember being met by an Australian man (in a suit) who put us in a bus that drove us to a “Commonwealth Bank” and then a “Woolsworth’s Department Store.” These were the two essential places our Australian hosts thought we should know to start our new lives. We were then dropped off at several places where we were going to stay. I shared a room with one of the guys in a 2-storey townhouse run as a boarding house by a widow (or divorcee) with three children. They lived downstairs while upstairs were occupied by paying guests (4 Fijians later joined us Singaporeans).

The sights, sounds and smells of a totally alien culture can be quite fascinating when experienced for the first time. In the first few days, I felt both a sense of wonderment and a feeling of loneliness at the same time, even in the company of fellow Singaporeans. Why should I be surprised to see white men collecting garbage and driving buses? Why should I be taken aback when white people asked me how they could be of service to me at the store? These quickly went away but it surprised me that I was surprised. The buses were clean and never too crowded; you just dropped your fares into the box, and people say thank you to the drivers when they alighted. There were trees along the streets, sometimes in the middle of the street. Lots of things seemed to be painted green. In the house where I shared a room with a friend, my bed had sheets over the mattress and under the blanket – I slept between the sheets, enjoying the feel of crisp, clean and white sheets over and under my body. The blanket was spread over the entire bed, not folded up and place at one end like we used to do. I had my own wardrobe and desk. The smell of the bathroom, the scent of the bathroom cabinet when I opened it – they had a distinct and different smell. I remembered the same smell when I visited England for the first time 4-5 years later when I stayed in a village hotel, which made me think – is this the smell of “white man” countries?