Monday, 18 May 2015

Official SG50 book - Living the Singapore Story: Celebrating our 50 Years

'People's history' brings out the Singapore story
New book chronicles the lives of 58 people from all walks of life
By Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 16 May 2015

WHEN Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew promised in the 1960s that 50,000 flats would be built in five years, the unenviable task fell to Mr Alan Choe, the country's first town planner.

"Back then in Asia, nobody had attempted so much high-rise building at such a scale and in so quick a time," said Mr Choe, now 84, and whose story, along with those of 57 others, is chronicled in a book titled Living The Singapore Story: Celebrating Our 50 Years 1965-2015. "We had no examples to learn from."

So the Housing Board architect planner and his team improvised. Instead of bricks, they used cement blocks three times the size of the bricks.

"They were of good quality and kept houses well-insulated."

Initially, the team also built smaller one-room and two-room flats to make up the numbers. By 1965, they went beyond expectations and delivered more than 54,000 flats, some in Singapore's first housing estates - Queenstown, Toa Payoh, MacPherson.

"The most challenging part was surveying the land we wanted to build on," Mr Choe said. "Gangsters ruled their own turf. My friends told me, 'If you go in, you may not come out', so I always went with security officers."

The book, commissioned by the National Library Board and produced by The Straits Times Press, was launched by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the National Library in Bugis yesterday.

Professor Tommy Koh, who chaired the book's advisory committee, called it a "people's history" - a patchwork of personal anecdotes which, together, form the Singapore story. It features people from all walks of life, from the late Mr Lee to 13-year-old indoor skydiver Kyra Poh.

There is also former satay seller Ngalirdjo Munjin, 94, who taught himself how to make satay and went on to own a successful stall at Sims Place Food Centre; and former domestic helper Kwan Chan Yong, 85, who stayed with the same family for 60 years. Former Singapore Airlines chairman J.Y. Pillay, 81, also gives a frank account of SIA's beginnings.

Most of the 58 Singaporeans featured attended yesterday's launch. Said Prof Koh: "It is the stories of these Singaporeans and their virtues of hard work, discipline, courage, self-sacrifice, willingness to embrace change and can-do spirit that we wish to celebrate."

Putting the book together was not easy, said Straits Times editor at large Han Fook Kwang, who led the project. "It would have been much easier if we had done it, for example, by featuring national leaders or describing historical milestones. We feared though if told this way, it would make for an overly familiar story well-known to many."

The book, co-authored by Straits Times journalists Angelina Choy, Cheong Suk-Wai, Jennani Durai and former journalist Cassandra Chew, is priced at $19.65 and available at all major bookstores and on

It is also available for loan at the National Library.

"I'm honoured to be part of this book - it's a once in a lifetime chance," said Raffles Hotel employee Leslie Danker, 76, whose journey from maintenance man to a resident historian at the establishment, is told in the book.

"I'm just passionate about what I do. And by doing what we do best, we are each part of the Singapore story."

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Stories we can call our own
Narratives of ordinary citizens and historical accounts alike help us understand Singapore. From taxi driver to bus captain, teacher, satay man, doctor, scientist... ...soldier, policeman, athlete, mountain climber, civil servant and many more
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

What's the Singapore Story?

The answer is not straightforward because different people will have different views of what story they most identify with this country.

For some, it might be founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs.

That story though is told from his point of view even if he had the advantage of being at the centre of many of the country's most dramatic political events.

What of the many other people who might have seen the story differently or have other stories to tell? Do their accounts matter and have a place in the nation's story-telling?

When a group of us at The Straits Times were tasked with writing a book to commemorate Singapore's 50th anniversary, we spent much time debating this point.

How do you capture the story of this nation, its achievements and disappointments, the ups and downs, the personal glories and tragedies that are part of any society's history? How do you make sure the story is not one-dimensional but multi-colour and flavourful?

If we had told it the usual way, starting with the political battles with Malaysia, then separation, and the years of nation-building and economic development, we feared it would be an overly familiar story.

It would probably also have to be told from the top down, with the leadership taking the limelight.

We decided instead to do it through the stories of ordinary Singaporeans who, through the lives they led and the things they did, told the Singapore story as much as the historical accounts.

It turned out to be a deeply satisfying project because we found a treasure trove of stories, which is not surprising because Singapore has been a very happening place these past 50 years.

It is not a dull place which stays put.

In all, we found 58 story-tellers from taxi driver to bus captain, teacher, satay man, doctor, scientist, soldier, policeman, athlete, mountain climber, civil servants and many more.

Here are some of my favourites in the book, Living The Singapore Story, which was launched last Friday.

Kopitiam boss Lim Bee Huat started work cleaning tables at coffee shops for $1 a night. He was so poor he used to eat the food left by people at roadside offerings during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

But he worked his way up, starting his first stall at the old Esplanade ground. Today, he owns more than 80 outlets and his staff get a Rolex watch from him when they have worked for more than 10 years.

There is a veteran unionist, Mr Abdul Rahman Mahbob, who, when he was just starting work in 1966 at the Pasir Panjang power station, saw his fellow workers going on strike for higher pay.

He was not part of the strike then but he was so moved by their dedication and courage, he decided to join the union and rose to become president of the Union of Power and Gas Employees.

He has seen grown men cry when told they were being retrenched and he recounted how he saved one worker by going directly to the big boss.

Another veteran - policeman Rahman Khan - was once shot by Singapore's most famous cop killer, Botak. But the assignment he remembers most vividly to this day was the gruesome body count he had to do after the Greek tanker Spyros exploded at Jurong Shipyard, killing 76 workers.

Ms Angel Ng was an angry young woman who was jailed eight times for various drug offences. When she last left her cell, she got a job at a call centre started by the prison authorities under its Yellow Ribbon project. Today she manages three call centres.

Mr Adam Maniam is a Tamil-Eurasian-Malay-Pakistani lawyer with a Catholic Tamil grandfather and a Eurasian grandmother.

His father married a Muslim woman and converted to Islam.

The lawyer married a Chinese girl and they decided on a civil marriage. It is a complicated story but very Singaporean.

There are also some not so ordinary people in the book.

Dr Lee Khoon Choy was ambassador to Indonesia from 1970 to 1974. It was a tough assignment as Singapore had, in 1968, hanged two Indonesian marines for planting a bomb at MacDonald House which killed three persons.

He related how a man came to his house in Jakarta and threatened him for what Singapore did. When Dr Lee asked for a bodyguard, he was told by then Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam: "We are a small country. We cannot afford that."

When Mr Joe Pillay started Singapore Airlines, he was told by the Government: "Make it work and don't come back to us for more money. You either survive on your own or fold up."

We know which option he chose.

These stories, whether of ordinary people or better known ones, help us better understand the Singapore we call home.

Every nation must have these stored memories which the people can identify with and call their own.

They strengthen the sense of belonging and identity, often more powerfully than physical landmarks or buildings.

Sometimes, these stories of the past provide comfort and satisfaction: See how far we've come!

At other times, they help us have greater confidence in the future: That's how it was done before!

Whatever they do to you, they are a precious part of who we are.

This is especially important in Singapore which is changing so rapidly, making one generation so different from the next.

Many Singaporeans get upset when old landmarks and places they remember fondly in their childhood are torn down or replaced by new structures.

They feel a deep sense of loss to the emotional connection they have with the past.

It's the same with these stories.

If we do not find a way of recording and remembering them, it will be like those forgotten buildings, lost forever.

Living The Singapore Story: Celebrating Our 50 Years 1965-2015 is now in bookshops at $19.65 (GST included).

Commissioned by the National Library Board, it features 58 Singaporeans describing how their lives evolved as Singapore changed over the past half-century.

The team members behind the book, led by The Straits Times Editor- at-large Han Fook Kwang, are ST journalists Angelina Choy, Cheong Suk-Wai and Jennani Durai, former journalist Cassandra Chew and photographer Bryan van der Beek. A 15-member editorial advisory committee was chaired by Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh.

The stories featured on these pages are excerpts from the book.

Made in Singapore: Asia's first test-tube baby
The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Despite his unusual beginnings, Samuel Lee, 32, says he's just an average Singaporean

My friends used to tease me when we were children: "You're man-made!" I would laugh it off, but when I think about it, they were right.

I was the first test-tube baby born in Asia, on May 19, 1983. My father was 21 and my mother 19 when they married in 1976. They tried to conceive, but with no luck until 1982, when they took part in a clinical trial under Professor S.S. Ratnam and Professor Ng Soon Chye. Although doctors implanted embryos in eight women, I was the only success.

I was born to great media attention, which made my parents uncomfortable. We were ordinary Singaporeans living in a three-room flat in Woodlands. My father was a security supervisor and my mother a secretary. Thankfully, the in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) was subsidised, and thus affordable to them.

My birth might have been considered extraordinary, but I was raised like any ordinary Singaporean. I played with my cousins, who were around my age, and was punished when I misbehaved. I didn't have many toys either - it took months of pestering before my father bought me a remote-controlled car when I was five or six.

I got my first inkling that I was somehow different from other kids when I heard other people referring to me as a test-tube baby when I was four or five. I asked my parents about it, and they just gave me a simple explanation of how I came about.

I used to ask my parents for a sibling. They'd laugh and tell me it was a very difficult request to fulfil. It was only when I was older - around 13 - that I understood why and realised what my birth really meant.

My life has been quite ordinary too. I attended Qihua Primary School, Woodlands Secondary School, ITE Tampines and Temasek Polytechnic before serving my national service with the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Then I worked in sales and business development before settling on my current job as an online media consultant.

Like most Singaporeans, I love food. My hobby is travelling around Singapore trying new food with my friends. To me, Kam Jia Zhuang Seafood in Ang Mo Kio has the best chilli crab, and Ban Leong Wah Hoe Seafood at Casuarina Road has the best fish head curry.

My birthday is not a big deal in my family. I usually have a simple dinner with my parents at a coffee shop or a mid-priced restaurant.

The late Prof Ratnam gave me the name Samuel. I don't know why. We did not really stay in touch after my birth. But I do e-mail and text Prof Ng occasionally. Without them, there wouldn't have been me.

You could call me an advocate of IVF. I often encourage my friends who are trying to conceive to go for it. I love kids and would definitely want my own. But first, I have to find myself a girlfriend.

Selling cars to presidents
The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Singapore's first car saleswoman Rosie Ang, 77, took on a man's job and stayed 53 years

President Benjamin Sheares summoned me to the Istana after my boss sold him a car in the early 1970s. He said: "Rosie, you tell your boss to please rectify the problem because the car keeps stalling."

But I didn't mind being scolded because I got to see his office at the Istana - so nice!

Mr Sheares was not the only president I met in my career.

Asia Motor, which I joined in 1958, also sold a Peugeot to our first president, Yusof Ishak.

I delivered the car to him at the Istana too.

When I left school, I saw an advertisement for a sales representative at Asia Motor. I was 20 then and already into cars. I had passed my driving test the year before.

The person who interviewed me asked if I knew about car engines.

I said: "If you give me a chance, I can learn. I also love to meet people, I love to talk, I like to move around, and I drive." I got the job.

My colleagues, all men, were sceptical. After all, I was the first woman car sales rep in Singapore. They were polite but didn't really teach me how to sell.

Since I was new and didn't have my own pool of customers, I couldn't sit in the showroom and wait for people to come.

So I went out to canvass for sales in the diesel Peugeot 403 that the company provided.

In my high heels - never court shoes - I drove everywhere, even to muddy areas in Jurong.

My basic pay was $150 a month. It was OK, because back then, $500 could feed a family.

My days were long, but my hard work paid off. Being a woman also helped, as some customers may have pitied me. My average (sales) were four new cars and four used cars a month, which compared favourably with my colleagues.

In 1964, we brought in Mazda, but people didn't trust a Japanese make. They would say, "That's just a Milo tin." But the car proved to be reliable and sales soared.

I once sold 20 cars at one time to a customer and his friends.

I had plenty of referrals.

The important things were integrity and punctuality. You also had to follow up with your customers, yet not be a nuisance.

I still love cars and will spend more than an hour washing my daughter's car. The only part I don't clean is the engine - I don't want to dirty my nails!

From drug offender to call centre manager
The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Angel Ng, 50, was in and out of jail for drug offences between 1982 and 2008. She now manages three call centres which hire ex-offenders

Being in and out of jail so many times since I was 17 did not scare me off prison life. Being in prison was no big deal; some prisoners wanted to return to prison because they found that better than having to face society.

In 1994, two weeks after I gave birth to my only child, Valerie, I was jailed yet again.

I'm aggressive and argumentative by nature and I always had the spirit of buay sai see (must not die in Hokkien).

But this time, I had post-natal depression, missed my baby and was worried about how my mother, who'd just been told she had cervical cancer, would cope with bringing up Valerie.

I thought: "I've been such a burden to my mother, and I can't change. It's best to end it all."

I took a metal spike from the toilet brush and cut my wrists... The wardens saved me.

But I was still not motivated to change my ways. I just wanted to damage myself completely because I had a deep anger against the world for being unwanted from birth.

While in prison, at the age of 33, I studied for the O levels and scored five straight A1s in subjects like English literature and history.

In 2003, when I was 38 and had started serving my longest-ever prison sentence - 81/2 years, later reduced to six years - I began reading books on religion and philosophy from the prison library.

Age was catching up with me. I thought: "I can't keep living like this."

The following year, I learnt that the prison authorities were starting South-east Asia's first prison call centre, as part of the Yellow Ribbon Project that had just been set up to help ex-offenders find jobs to re-integrate into society.

I wanted to work there because it was a white-collar job for which I had to use only my voice, and not my appearance. So I'd be able to work till I was very old.

In 2006, I got a job there selling health supplements. Within three months, I was the centre's top seller.

I was released from my last prison term on Nov 11, 2008.

A week later, I began working at call centre Connect Centre's headquarters. It's been a big learning experience and it has taken me to new places.

The government could give ex-offenders more help in resolving real-life concerns.

Most newly released ex-offenders have no money, so Connect gives them $10 a day for meals until they get their first month's pay of about $1,000.

They need to stay focused by holding a steady job because that disciplines and stabilises them.

I tell them: "Commit to your job. Don't look for loopholes. After work, spend time with your family.

"Contribute to your family's expenses or buy them small things they like. That's how you regain their trust."

Today my daughter teaches children with severe autism at the Asian Women's Welfare Association. I'm glad she has a caring heart and a sense of responsibility.

The day he faced a cop killer
The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Abd Rahman Khan Gulap Khan, 65, spent 35 years in the police force - most of them in the Criminal Investigation Department

The worst pain I ever felt in my life was on the night that I got shot. Not from the bullet, but from the tetanus jab I had to get later in the hospital. I couldn't sleep on my buttocks for three days.

I was shot by this guy we called the Cop Killer in 1973. He shot and killed a detective over a minor traffic accident and the whole police force was searching for him. The breakthrough came from a robber who told us that among the most notorious robbers at that time, the one most likely to engage with police was this man known as Botak.

We managed to trace him to Cavenagh Road Apartments and used a ruse to get him out.

When he came running out, a colleague put him in a headlock, but Botak had already pulled out a gun. I grabbed hold of the gun, a stolen police revolver, and he fired two rounds which burned my palm. A third shot grazed my stomach. We couldn't subdue him, so my colleague shot him twice in the arm, but Botak still wouldn't drop his weapon.

Then other colleagues rushed in, and one fired a shot that I felt go past my ear, which hit Botak in the head.

Then there was the disaster in 1978, when the Greek tanker Spyros exploded at Jurong Shipyard. We spent one solid week in the mortuary, which had only a few refrigerated compartments in which to keep bodies. But we had 76 bodies, and had to leave them lying around on the floor to decompose.

I remember we were eating nasi briyani at an operating table with bodies on the floor. We had to take our food there as we couldn't leave, as we were waiting for people to come in to identify the bodies, and every hour the body changes because of decomposition.

After that, I had to throw away all the clothes I was wearing, including my undergarments, shoes, everything, because it all stank.

Even a few days after we were done, when I sat in the bus, people were still holding their noses, because the smell sticks to your skin. You bathe with Dettol, you wash your hair, the stink is still there.

I also still remember the Hotel New World collapse in 1986 clearly. A six-storey building was flattened like a biscuit. I couldn't believe it. I was assigned to identify and record all the dead, which turned out to be a total of 33.

That first evening, we switched off all the lights, and asked for total silence - no generators, no engines, not even talking - so rescuers could listen for any signs of life.

The last body taken out was from the basement carpark, about a week later. It was an old man who looked like he was asleep.

The pathologist said the walls that collapsed on him had been whitewashed recently, and the lime had preserved his body.

A voice for the less advantaged
The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Dr Kanwaljit Soin, 73, was the first woman Nominated MP and stood out not only for her suggestions but also for asking several questions in Parliament.

When the papers reported in 1992 that the Government was looking for a new batch of Nominated MPs, many people were very excited.

I was president of the Association of Women for Action and Research at that time, so I rang up a few women and said: "Please apply." They all said no.

I then decided I had no moral right to persuade them to do something I wasn't doing myself. So I applied, even though I had no idea what a parliamentarian did.

When I met civil servants, they would tell me: "Do you know, every time you ask a question, it costs the civil service money? We have to do research to answer it."

But that meant I got a lot of statistics from the Government, because it had to reply to me.

If there's one thing Parliament taught me, it's that if you want to be in any area of policymaking, it's important to get the statistics right.

If the statistics are wrong, you get shot down and the rest of what you're trying to say gets lost.

What I really consider my biggest achievement was moving the Family Violence Bill in 1995.

Even though it was defeated then, many of its provisions were subsequently incorporated into the Women's Charter.

Two things I suggested in Parliament have become a reality: I wanted an educational (Edusave) account set up for every adult Singaporean, and a medical savings account set up for every elderly Singaporean.

So 20 years down the line, both my dreams have been fulfilled by the SkillsFuture Credit scheme and the Pioneer Generation Package.

When you look at society in general, business, government and civil society are the three legs of the stool, but it's only recently that policymakers in Singapore have realised that it's prudent to include civil society in decision-making.

If the stakeholders are just business and government, they sometimes don't see the point of view of the rest of society, especially the disadvantaged.

There are a lot of Singaporeans who haven't done as well as the country's indicators seem to suggest. They still need people to advocate for them, bring out their difficulties, and try to make it such that more people get a share of the pie.

I feel in particular for the elderly. They are poorer in general, and things like the Silver Support Scheme and the Pioneer Generation Package are just the beginning. We can still do better - we need to give them some autonomy and dignity. We retire way too early in Singapore. Even when I was in Parliament, we were talking about moving it up to 67.

Why hasn't it changed yet? Why is there even a retirement age at all? Older people have institutional memory, they have built networks and they are loyal to organisations.

People should be allowed to work for as long as they think they can, and as long as their employer finds them producing good work.

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