Chan Kah Yee Session 1 Interview

In this first session of her interview, Chan Kan Yee discusses her early childhood and schooling, her family’s socioeconomic status, the gender norms she observed in her mother’s and grandmother’s generations, and her parents’ view of domestic politics in the 1960s-70s.

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This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.

Born into a nuclear family in 1964, Chan Kan Yee begins by recounting how her family upgraded from a shophouse in Chinatown to a flat in Queenstown. Her family was relatively more affluent, as her father worked as a goods peddler in the Thieves’ Market, and her grandparents were able finance the home purchase. She remembers the new house being smaller than the shophouse, but cleaner.

Kah Yee recalls growing up in a strongly patriarchal domestic environment. She explains that both her mother and grandmother were staunchly traditional Chinese women, who lived as homemakers without careers. Further, she shares that her mother suffered a miscarriage before Kah Yee’s birth, as she was still expected to perform all domestic chores even during her pregnancy. Her mother, however, had higher hopes for her daughter and encouraged her to pursue education and career.

She then discusses her education at the PAP Kindergarten and Jervois Primary School. As both of these were English-medium schools, she grew up bilingual. At home, however, her family spoke Chinese. Though Malay was the national language, non-Malay students were only tested on basic vocabulary, but not taught Malay grammar. Kah Yee notes that unlike her, many of her peers had to work in the family trade while studying, and had to be very prudent with their expenditure. She also remembers having an Indian friend, but no Malay friends. However, socioeconomic differences never presented obstacles to her developing friendships with her peers. Notably, Kan Yee credits the early PAP government for providing robust educational facilities both in school and through public libraries. These public libraries also gave her access to foreign books from America and Britain, which shaped her early views of Western society. She felt that American schools were more carefree, as students did not need to wear uniforms, and that the teachers were more friendly with their students instead of focusing solely on completing a set syllabus.

Finally, she discusses the politics of the 1960s-70s, and her parents’ responses to it. She notes that while the adults talked about racial tensions and riots in the 1960s, she personally felt that the government had brought things under control and that the situation was peaceful in her student days. Her mother only mentioned that racial riots had broken out the year she was born, and that she was hiding at home nervously, hoping that her infant daughter would not cry and attract the attention of hostile Malays. As a businessman, her father was somewhat opposed to the economic policies of the PAP government, such as the introduction of CPF contributions, which he felt raised the cost of labor for businesses; but he did not agitate against these policies. Despite these misgivings, her parents’ generation still supported the ruling party.

Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy

Interviewee: Chan Kah Yee 

Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy 

Session: 1 of 3

Location: 22 Saint Michael’s Road

Date: October 2, 2019


Q: Good afternoon. Please tell me your name. 

Chan: My name is Chan Kah Yee. 

Q: What is your date of birth?

Chan: 2 April 1964. 

Q: Where are you born?

Chan: I’m born in Singapore. 

Q: Which part of Singapore were you born in?

Chan: I was born in Chinatown, literally. I was born in 1964. It was the year of the dragon so there was a baby boom. There were no vacancies in the famous Tekka Hospital. My mum has to give birth to me in Chinatown, the actual house that she stays in. 

Q: Does this mean that babies were normally born in hospitals?

Chan: Most are born in hospitals. Mid-wives are also common during that time. 

Q: Did you know if your mother has told you about a mid-wife when you were born?

Chan: For her, she doesn’t have a mid-wife. Because I’m the second baby, giving birth was so much easier. At that time she was about to give birth, she just called a nurse. The nurse came to deliver from Tekka to our house. 

Q: Because of that, you were ‘literally’ born in your place of residence?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: This Tekka Hospital, was it near Chinatown?

Chan: The hospital is not near Chinatown. It’s now the Kandang Kerbau Hospital, which is still standing today. But previously it was five minutes away from the present site. 

Q: You mentioned your mother did not have difficulties giving birth to you. What about your older sibling? 

Chan: My older brother was the first born. When my mother had him, she had in Chinese, it’s called mang chang. Food gets into the side–

Q: –Appendicitis?

Chan: Ya. She got an operation while she was pregnant. It’s a non-event because at that time my mum was young, she was quite healthy. Everything went smoothly. She didn’t have problem giving birth. 

Q: When was your older brother born?

Chan: 1961. I have a younger [brother] born in 1970. 

Q: Tell me about your family at that time. 

Chan: Before me, my mum had a miscarriage. During those times, we’re staying in Chinatown. My mum was staying with her in-laws, my grandparents. She had to do most of the housework and she was pregnant. She had a miscarriage before me. She felt quite sad. She resented when my grandma said, “You’re still young, you can have another one.” She said every child is precious. It doesn’t mean that she’s young, the child is not important to her, she can give birth to another child. In those days, the facilities [for childbirth] were not very good. Hospitals are very crowded. The husbands are not allowed to go into the maternity ward with the wife. The wife has to give birth alone, with the nurse. 1960s and 1950s, I believe so. I think 1970 they started allowing husbands to go in with the wives. The hospital facilities had improved so much. 

Q: Why were husbands not allowed to go into maternity wards?

Chan: I think they felt that it is a woman’s affair, so they kept the men out. In the olden days, men are not supposed to see woman give birth, they say it’s like bad luck. Mostly is from the time of the mindset of the people, not from any religion or culture. Even Malays and Indians, the husbands are not allowed to accompany the wives. It’s a traditional mindset in Singapore. Probably in the western countries, already the husbands are allowed to accompany the wives in the maternity ward when giving birth. But in the Asian context, men are not allowed. When I’m growing up, I read about– I was surprised that men were allowed. When I was young, I kept thinking that giving birth was a private affair, a woman’s affair. I was brought up that way. 

Q: What did you read?

Chan: Health magazines, especially those foreign magazines where they promoted the husband accompanying the wife. In other countries, the facilities was there for the husband to assist the wife to relieve her pain. That’s how I came to the conclusion that men were allowed to accompany the wife. I was already in my teens, that was after thirteen years old. 

Q: The mid-1970s?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: Do you remember what countries these magazines came from?

Chan: From England, because I still have those health magazines with me. The title should be something like Doctor’s Answers. I read from Reader’s Digest. Reader’s Digest is from America; Doctor’s Answers, this series are from U.K. 

Q: Can you tell me more about your family? When you were a child?

Chan: My family is the typical Chinese family. My parents, my two brothers. That’s a nucleus family. We stayed with our grandparents when my eldest brother was born. Before that, we stayed in Chinatown. After that, we shifted to H.D.B. [Housing Development Board] flat. It was in Queenstown, the first satellite town. 

Q: While you were born in Chinatown, you grew up in Queenstown?

Chan: Correct. 

Q: Do you have any memories of Chinatown?

Chan: I do. Even after I shifted out to H.D.B. flat, my grandparents remain there. I continue to visit them even when I was ten years old. My grandparents’ house [in Chinatown]: they stay in those old shophouses in Chinatown on Temple Street. It was directly diagonal to the now People’s Park. At that time it was— I still remember the house [in Chinatown], it was two stories, sub-divided into many rooms. It was sublet to many different families. This property did not belong to my grandparents [who were] the second landlord. The biggest landlord was there to collect rent. My grandparents collect the rents on behalf of the great landlord. They did not own any property. It’s about one-thousand square feet. This measurement is in 1960s already. 

Q: Compare the size of your H.D.B. [flat] in Queenstown [to Chinatown]. 

Chan: Definitely smaller. Just a one floor. It had two rooms, one living room, one kitchen, one toilet. It’s smaller, more compact, and cleaner. 

Q: Does this mean the Chinatown shophouse was dirtier?

Chan: This is definite. There were so many families sharing this house. Things were messier. At least three families. – 

Q: They were not related to your grandparents?

Chan: Not at all. 

Q: Was there a custom for your mother to live in her in-laws?

Chan: Yes, it’s almost an unspoken rule. Once women got married, they are supposed to stay with the in-laws at that time. According to the Chinese family, the son must stay with the parents, take care of the family. At that time, women are not really working. Once they get married, they’re automatically supposed to be housewives. There’s no career. 

Q: Was your mother a housewife?

Chan: Yes, whole life. 

Q: Did she think of working?

Chan: No. 

Q: What about your father?

Chan: My father was the first born. He took up the responsibility of taking care of my grandparents, his siblings. 

Q: Did your mother express that she wanted to work?

Chan: Not at all. My mother is a very traditional Chinese woman. She never had any career, ambition, even when she was young. All along her, life was very simple. After married, she’ll be a housewife, that’s it. She never had her own dreams. Nothing sort of that happened to her. 

Q: Let us return to the house in Chinatown. You said it was dirty, messy, crowded. What about the neighbourhood around it?

Chan: It was very colourful. Right beside us there was a shop selling bao, buns. Every morning they would roll the buns and make dough. The next door was an Indian barber. He had Indian music blaring from his radio. It was a lively neighbourhood. People just pop in and say hello. There’s this traditional pushcart, selling food. You can buy it on the road, need not go hawker centre. There are main events like Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival. It’s so much more happening than now, children running around. Chinatown was a Pasar Malam setting: you just go out of the road can see people selling things. We buy things like snacks from these stores. Bing fa dan gai dan, in Cantonese, it means those rock sugar steamed with egg. It’s dessert. It’s very cheap, less than five cents. We had it like dessert after dinner. This old lady push the cart and shout along the road: Bing fa dan gai dan. A bowl of laksa was fifty cents or less. This bowl was quite big from a child’s perspective, I felt it was substantial. 

Q: Did women smoke? 

Chan: Yes, my grandma, and so did my mother. She only smoke when she’s stressed. After that, she totally gave up. She secretly smoked in the kitchen. I discovered myself when I peeped into the kitchen. I have a sensitive nose. I was wondering where the cigarette smoke come from. I saw my mother smoking. When she saw I was smoking, she quickly keep the cigarette and threw it inside the drawer. It was probably embarrassing for her to be discovered. At that time, women associated with smoking were bad women like prostitutes, but my mother was not. — My maternal grandfather was a dentist, his livelihood could sustain a big family, it consisted of six children. — I can see that sometimes my mother complain to me, “My life is so hard.” She just resented that my father’s mother, my paternal grandma, who ill-treated her. Not actually ill-treated her, I should say, bully. She was made to do everything even after she gave birth, she had to wash the clothes, cook for the family. When I was staying in Chinatown, she took care of the whole big family: that also includes washing clothes for my uncles and aunties. She didn’t directly complain to me, just mumble to herself, why she has to do this, why grandma has to treat her this way. 

Q: Did that shape your perceptions of your grandmother?

Chan: Not actually. My grandmother treated me very well. Everybody treated me very well. I had a very happy childhood. I always think that’s the adult’s problem, we are just children. My parents and grandparents doted on me. Every time I go to the dentist, I want a toy. My mother would buy a toy for me. If I want that storybook, my mum would buy that storybook for me. I have no problem getting things that I want. The toys at that time are simple, it’s not as sophisticated as now. We have simple toys. My favourite toy was a water cistern. This well would recycle into a pump. You just pump, the water will come out. I have this big dollhouse, with six rooms. The furniture is so real you can open the drawers. The storybooks were very colourful. The pictures are very interesting. When young, I love to read. I build up this reading habit because when I shifted to Queenstown, there was this Queenstown Library. Almost every weekend, my brothers and I will visit with my neighbours. We spend the whole afternoon borrowing books. I read about adventures, Enid Blyton, the Famous Five—my favourite stories. I love stories about England. The stories that I read are mostly from England. They have tea time, those adventures. I was wondering why in Singapore we do not have tea time, we do not go to interesting places to search for adventures. They were written in English. I didn’t speak English until I was seven years old, when I entered Primary One. I do not know a single English sentence. 

Q: These books—you only read them from seven onwards?

Chan: Ya. 

Q: Before, what languages did you speak?

Chan: Only Cantonese. Chinese or Mandarin, I don’t speak that much. I listen to television. My parents are not English-educated, they turn on the television and radio in the Chinese medium. 

Q: You had a T.V. and radio in Chinatown?

Chan: In Chinatown, there was no television but there was Rediffusion. It’s a box. You turn it on, it’s exactly like a radio. Only a few hours of broadcasting.

Q: How much did the toys cost?

Chan: Very cheap, one to two dollars. Sometimes I ask for more expensive toys. 

Q: Did you get them?

Chan: Yes I got them. I ask my mum to buy me a big doll house cost twenty over dollars, at that time it was very expensive. Some radio and electrical stuff already cost twenty dollars. The storybooks are one to two dollars. 

Q: You used the word ‘happy’ to describe your childhood, because you could get things when you requested for them. 

Chan: Not only that but because when I was young, I was allowed to go outside to play with my neighbours, allowed to go with my friends to shop, to have a day out with them. 

Q: Did your friends have these toys and storybooks?

Chan: Not actually. At that time, not many of my friends are rich. Should be under the lower income. My family, because my father was a businessman. During the 1960s and 1970s, it’s so much easier to own money. You don’t need much of things. You can even sell second-hand goods and earn a lot. At that time, it was easier to do business. Before I introduce my father, I need to say about my grandfather. My grandfather had a shoe shop. He made bespoke leather shoes for people. At that time, my father was interested in making shoes. He strike out on his own. He wanted something more lucrative. He said he will set up a shop himself selling second-hand goods, like hardware items. He decided to set up a shop on Sungei Road. At that time, it was called Thief’s Market. To say it’s a Thief’s Market is literal. People would steal things from other people, sell it over there. They have this reputation that it is a second-hand area where people throw away or sell things over there. When [my father] first started, he pick up those things that people do not want, and set up a shop. With some help from friends, he set up a small shop. At that time, you don’t need to have an actual shop. You just need a makeshift tent and you can sell things. Most people in Thief’s Market lay out a poncho, display their goods, and are able to do business.  

Q: Why was there a difference between your family’s and your friends’—perhaps the word is—income levels? 

Chan: Usually I can buy the things, I don’t need to worry so much. I don’t need to worry about the next lunch. I don’t have to scrimp and save. I have new books every year. I don’t need to borrow. Every year I get new stationery. Even in Chinatown, my mum would buy new dresses for me not just during Chinese New Year, but sometimes even on odd days, she would buy things for me. 

Q: Does this mean other households would buy things for their children on certain occasions?

Chan: Yes. They would only get new things on Chinese New Year.

Q: Would you say there were families that were just like yours?

Chan: There were a few. My primary school was in Jervois Road. Jervois Road is a private property area. Some of my classmates stayed there. Some of them are quite well-to-do. 

Q: What was the average Singapore household in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Most of them stayed in mostly rented flats.

Q: Just like yours?

Chan: No, mine’s a purchased flat, that means you already bought the flat. But rented flat, it doesn’t belong to you, you rent it from the government. 

Q: Why was your parents’ situation so different?

Chan: Partly because my grandparents paid for the flat. At that time, the business [of my father] was very good, he can afford more things than generally. The family [moved to Queenstown] because the family felt that the children need some space. At that time, all of us stay in one room in Chinatown. It’s not feasible for the whole family to stay in one room. My parents said it’s best to have a house of our own. When we first moved there, my uncle stayed in one room. The family—the four of us; later then my younger brother was born—the five of us stayed in one room. Later my uncle shifted out. My parents stay in one room, the children stay in one room. 

Q: Besides ‘happy’, are there [other] words you would use to describe your childhood?

Chan: Adventurous. It’s like carefree. My mum was, surprisingly, very open minded. Although she didn’t have a career, she allowed her children to explore. I guess it’s because my brother and I had good neighbours. She knew that we’re well taken care of. She didn’t really worry too much. She knew who my friends were. She allowed me to go to places. 

Q: Were your grandparents migrants?

Chan: Yes, they came from Guangzhou. 

Q: When did they come to Singapore?

Chan: Good question. I never thought of asking them. — [My mother’s parents came from] Samsui [also known as Shanshui District] in Guangzhou [Province]. My father’s parents came from Punyu [District]. 

Q: And did your grandparents share how life was like moving to Singapore?

Chan: I guess it was quite hard for them. Life back in China wasn’t very good. China was like now today. China was a very closed up economy. 1940s to 1950s. the economy was not very good. They moved out of China and seek a better future. I think they [accomplished that in Singapore]. In Singapore, they’re able to own their business, they’re able to send back money to China. It’s so much better here in Singapore. 

Q: Were there differences or similarities between your childhood and your parents’ in Singapore?

Chan: Definitely. My mum came from a poor family. She had a hard life. My father was the eldest [son]. His responsibility was very heavy. He had a hard life too. My generation–we had a better life, for me especially because I didn’t experience any hardship up until now. I definitely had a better life. 

Q: At what age did you go to school in Jervois Road?

Chan: That was my primary school in 1971; I was Primary One. Before that, I went to kindergarten for two years. It was a P.A.P. [People’s Action Party] kindergarten, opposite my house—1969, that was Kindergarten One. 

Q: Can you describe this kindergarten for me? You called it a P.A.P. kindergarten?

Chan: — This kindergarten has exams. — Colours, shapes. 

Q: Any languages?

Chan: It was in English. — 

Q: Were there any P.A.P. members that came down?

Chan: Only during graduation. The Queenstown M.P. [Member of Parliament] was Jek Yeun Thong. They gave out the certificates. He said, “Children are our future.” That’s all. 

Q: Were there a lot of P.A.P. kindergartens in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Yes, there were a lot. Queenstown was the first satellite estate. Everything—hawker centres, swimming pool—all the facilities were there. I think P.A.P. really, really felt that children was their future. Education to them was very important. 

Q: Did you see this in your life?

Chan: Yes, I really see. One good thing about P.A.P. is that they treasure their people. They know people are their only resources. We do not have any natural resource, so they will build us up. 

Q: How do you think the P.A.P. built you up as a child?

Chan: Through education, good facilities, and with libraries. Libraries are great places for children to build themselves up. You may not see it nowadays with iPad, you can Google everything. During those days, libraries are our source of knowledge. We do not have anything like Internet, or telephones, at that time. Libraries are treasures to us. I go every week, I borrow—maximum is four books. The children’s section is well-maintained. Even our primary school brought us to the library. Our school at Jervois Road was very near the Queenstown library.  

Q: What’s the name of your primary school?

Chan: Jervois Primary School. 

Q: What sorts of books appeared in the children’s section? 

Chan: Many kinds of books, mostly storybooks of fairytales, mysteries. They have those science books. Enid Blyton, Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Snow White, Cinderella. 

Q: You told me you learned about England from these storybooks. Were there any other countries you learned about from these books too?

Chan: Especially America. Most of the books, besides England, they’re from America. They draw very nice, colourful storybooks, especially Disney. — The pictures do not depict America, but the writings—they depict America: balls, dancing. You know House on a Prairie? Television mostly from America. America export a lot of soap operas to Singapore: House on a Prairie. Friends was later part—eighties. There was a spaceship thing called Star Trek. Back in the olden days there was also Cannonball. It was all about space exploration. During the sixties, America was really into space exploration. They also have comedies like the Hillbillies. 

Q: It seems you had an image of America. What was this image?

Chan: I was always felt that America was a fun-loving country. It gives people a feeling that the people were always friendly. They have no objection to your weird behaviour. In our Asian culture, we’re very conservative. They’re fun loving in the sense that they don’t have to wear uniform. So nice! They can go to school with their own clothing, even during class they have free conversation with the teachers, not like our Singapore teachers that are so like strict. 

Q: Did you have to wear a uniform in your primary school?

Chan: Yes, even in kindergarten. Wait, at that time, I don’t need to wear. 

Q: How did you feel about America schools?

Chan: I felt they were happy. They don’t have to study, they don’t need to have exams. I’m not sure if they depict correctly or not. Every time I watch the television, they’re always having fun, the teachers are always open. You can ask questions and the teacher won’t find it weird that you ask them questions. They’re friends to the students, not so strict. 

Q: Does this mean that Singapore schools were strict?

Chan: I felt that the system was very rigid. Of course, when I was young, the teachers need to follow a strict syllabus. They wouldn’t go further. The syllabus, in primary school, adhere to the exam. Everything we study must be related to the exam. There’s nothing that the teachers teach that would be out of the syllabus. We’re tested, even in Primary One, Two, on what we’ve learned throughout the year. There’s only two exams: mid-year and final year. We do not have those in-between, like semester exams. There was homework but it was manageable. 

Q: What was your proficiency in [English, Chinese]?

Chan: English was my first language. I had no problem with it. Surprisingly, although I don’t speak English until I step into Primary One, but after I picked up the language, I had no problem speaking it. I think English is—I always say—easy, compared to Mandarin. It is so much easier. But Mandarin was also my forte. I have no problem with Mandarin at all. Cantonese is almost similar to Mandarin. 

Q: What about Malay?

Chan: Malay—we’re only tested on word-basis, not sentence-basis. We talk about green, it’s hijau. We were not taught to speak in sentence. 

Q: Tell me about the racial composition in your primary school. 

Chan: Chinese only. Jervois East is next to a Malay school called Jervois West. Our school do not have any Malays. Most Malays went to the Malay school next door. Our school consists of mostly Chinese, and one percent Indian. 

Q: Did you interact with children of other races and ethnicities?

Chan: Ya. Those non-Chinese can be very good friends. They are very easy going, especially Malays. 

Q: Did you interact with them in primary school? 

Chan: Yes. 

Q: Was this in your classroom?

Chan: Yes, because our classroom was very big, forty of us. Even interacting within our classroom takes a lot of time. 

Q: Did people have problems interacting with people of different races and ethnicities in this period?

Chan: Not really. Although people said sixties and seventies were those racial riots, but by the time I went into primary school, it was under control. 

Q: Who do you think controlled the situation?

Chan: I think the government did a good job. Firstly, the government made sure that our classroom had at least one Indian. Although yes, our next door is a Malay school, at least there’s one Malay in our class. Our neighbourhood, make sure that there are Indians and Malays in our block. We had no problem.  

Q: In Queenstown?

Chan: Ya. 

Q: Were they on the same level as you?

Chan: Should be same block. 

Q: Did you meet them?

Chan: Occasionally. Once a week. I went to school very early. Most of the time people just close their doors. Children—mostly are Chinese. My level mostly are Chinese neighbours. 

Q: Do you remember anything about the school next to yours?

Chan: Yes, every time we have to pass by the school before we reach our school. The Malays were quite rowdy. They always seem to be laughing and having fun, whereas our school—we were very quiet. 

Q: Why do you think so?

Chan: I always had this feeling Malays are happy-go-lucky. They don’t really worry much. They’re easy-going.

Q: Did you make any friends from Jervois West?

Chan: No. 

Q: What about in your school?

Chan: I have one Indian friend, but no Malay friend. — Most of my friends came from Alexandra Road, which was not a very rich neighbourhood. Most of my peers—they’re not very rich. One has to help out at the wanton mee [Chinese dumpling noodles] stall. — The concept of money was not established in my mind. Whether you’re rich or poor, I don’t have this kind of thinking. I was still young. My friends treated me as one of them. I have no problem. 

Q: Were your friends concerned about money in primary school?

Chan: They wouldn’t buy a thing without considering. They would save up, think carefully, before they buy. For me, I don’t need, because I can get from my parents. 

Q: Did your friends see that you were different? 

Chan: They didn’t say that. They wouldn’t also say to me that they have money problem. From my observation, during exam time, we visit each other’s home. I would go to their home and study and realise their home is not well furnished. Their home maybe much smaller, furnishing is very simple. They’re also considered H.D.B. flats. But theirs is, in the olden days, from S.I.T. [Singapore Improvement Trust]. They’re not from H.D.B., it’s from the previous government, they build those three-to-four-story houses. I think it was before P.A.P., in between the English and P.A.P. that period of time. 

Q: Between David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock?

Chan: Ya, when they built houses. Now only Tiong Bahru has those houses. 

Q: Did you learn about David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock growing up?

Chan: I only have slight inkling of who they are. At that time, in the sixties, the prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was already prime minister. David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock—I always have this thinking that they’re the opposition party, or something like that. 

Q: Where did you learn [about them] from?

Chan: Sometimes I overheard from my parents. I read some newspaper articles on them. My father said David Marshall was a very smart man, Lim Yew Hock was not an organised man. My mum seldom say about politics. 

Q: What was the context in which your father talked about these politicians?

Chan: During those time when we watch news on the television, those elections. My father would say they belong to the previous government. From there I realise, before P.A.P., the politics was not that good or something like that. My father talked a lot about P.A.P. Partly because he was a businessman, he’ll say that government was quite hard on businessmen. They have to pay income tax, have to do a lot of things. They introduce the C.P.F. [Central Provident Fund] where the employer has to pay a substantial amount. My father felt that some policies against businessmen. 

Q: What did your father do then?

Chan: He would grumble, but he would still contribute to C.P.F., pay the income tax. 

Q: Did these policies, like C.P.F., influence his business?

Chan: He knew he can’t escape. As a businessman, you have to abide by the rules. You can’t say, “Because I’m a businessman, I don’t contribute to C.P.F., I don’t contribute for the welfare of the workers.” He still abides by the rules. Whatever you earn, you have to pay a certain amount of corporate and personal tax to the government. He felt that at that time, was very high, if I’m not wrong, it was more than twenty percent that we’re now paying. The C.P.F. contribution was more than thirty percent. 

Q: [When] were they introduced? 

Chan: Before I was born. C.P.F. should be in the sixties. They did not really have in the fifties. They have this pension thing. When you retire, the company will pay pension. 


Q: Who supported the P.A.P.?

Chan: My mum. Every time we go and elect, she’ll say, “No need to elect. I will definitely vote for P.A.P.” 

Q: You were mentioning someone else [in your family] who was also a supporter [of P.A.P.]. Who was that?

Chan: My maternal grandfather, because Tanjong Pagar belongs to Lee Kuan Yew at that time, the minister of Tanjong Pagar. He did a lot for Tanjong Pagar. My maternal grandfather felt he was a great man. I sort of got influenced by my mum. 

Q: What did Lee Kuan Yew do for Tanjong Pagar?

Chan: Firstly, Tanjong Pagar always flood. He make sure the drainage system was in place so it no longer flood. Sometimes he build more facilities like hawker centres. I believe he went round, greeting the residents, seeing what are the problems. My maternal grandfather respected him a lot. 

Q: Your mother said that there was no need to choose, she’ll definitely vote for the P.A.P. Was there an opposition? 

Chan: At that time, it was J. B. Jeyaretnam, Worker’s Party. 

Q: Do you remember which year this was?

Chan: Probably the 1970s. Each five years they have election. The opposition wasn’t strong enough

Q: Were there any women in politics at that time?

Chan: In the seventies, I know of— 

Q: Does this mean every politican you saw was a man?

Chan: Ya. In the sixties and seventies. All I saw were men. 

Q: Growing up, how did you feel about that?

Chan: I always felt that politics was a man’s field. That’s why I have no objections. I don’t feel it strange also. I think politics is a very complicated affair. It is not easy to govern a country. You need to have really good brains, and very sensitive heart to control a country. Growing up in the sixties, I really admire Lee Kuan Yew. I really see the transformation. Even as young as I was in primary school, I said this one sentence: “If the president cried, I wouldn’t cry. But if Lee Kuan Yew died, I will cry.”  

Q: Who was the president at that time?

Chan: Sheares. 

Q: Benjamin Sheares?

Chan: Oh no, before Sheares. It was—

Q: —But you wouldn’t cry for him?

Chan: Ya. Because the president did nothing much for the country. He’s just like a representative. 

Q: But women weren’t seen in politics?

Chan: Not in the sixties and seventies. 

Q: When could it have changed?

Chan: I think in the eighties. There’s one politician, Seet Ai Mei. I remember she was a good politician. I find her very friendly, she’s down-to-earth. 

Q: Just now you mentioned something about the 1960s race riots. When was the first time you heard about it? 

Chan: I only heard it when I was in secondary school, when I was studying history. Even though it was in 1964, the year I was born, I have no inkling. During my childhood, I don’t have any idea that we had this racial problem. Because I don’t have any problem with other races. During my childhood period, nobody spoke about this racial riot. When I heard it happened in 1964, I was shocked. Later on, my mum told me she was very afraid. I was just a few months old. She closed the door and windows at Chinatown. Those shophouses have shophouses window, just shut like that. She ask me to keep quiet, because I was just a baby. She was very afraid I might cry and some Malay man might come out and kill me. In Chinatown, the riots were mostly in Geylang, so it didn’t drift to Chinatown. But there was a curfew. Because of this curfew, my mum was afraid I would cry out loud.  


Interviewer: Jeremy Yong

Interviewee: Chan Kah Yee

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Transcript Notes

  1. PAP is the ruling People’s Action Party since Singapore’s independence in 1965.

  2. CPF is Singapore’s mandatory savings system which is the primary form of social security and retirement planning in the country, mandating that employers and employees contribute a portion of one’s monthly salary towards their pension.

  3. 3PAP Kindergartens (now under the PAP Children’s Foundation) are state-run pre-schools located at the ground floor of public housing flats.

  1.  How did the social, economic, and political conditions Kah Yee mentions set the stage for Singapore’s “Cold War” experience?