Chan Kah Yee Session 2 Interview

In this second session of her interview, Chan Kan Yee recounts her secondary education, discussing the Singapore government’s promotion of English education over Chinese education to combat Communist influences in Chinese schools, its support for the sciences, and how the local education promoted Confucian values and nationalism in students.

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This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.

Kah Yee primarily discusses her experiences in secondary school in the 1970s, explaining how her education was shaped by the government’s political imperatives, and how those policy choices intersected with domestic and international realities; particularly relating to China. She recalls that English became one of her favorite subjects at school, and that students were even charged a fine of 10 cents, then a large sum for students, if they spoke Chinese outside of Chinese lessons. This was part of a broader government policy to standardize English as the working language and diminish the influence of Chinese culture and values in Singapore. Kah Yee later understood that this was also designed as a political program to distance Singapore society from pro-Communist elements in the Chinese schools.

The Chinese schools, however, saw this as an erosion of Chinese culture by the new secular state, and as an attempt to sever ties with China, which was still seen by much of the Chinese-educated populace as their motherland. Kah Yee recalls being told that the Chinese schools had protested against these policies in the 1950s. She, however, identified as Singaporean and held no sentimental attachment to China. In her personal encounters with peers from Chinese schools at inter-school competitions, she felt that Chinese-educated students carried a superiority complex towards other communities and cultures, in favor of their own. She also acknowledges that her strong sense of belonging to Singapore had been nurtured by the national education program in school, such as the teaching of patriotic national songs, in both English and vernacular languages. Yet, in spite of the government’s distancing from China and Chinese influence, she notes that Singapore did not blindly embrace Western liberalism fully, but also preserved conservative pro-family Confucian values while developing an advanced economy.

As another arm of its modernization program, the Singapore government strongly supported science education in schools. Kah Yee recalls participating in a school science fair as part of these efforts. She also relates how these investments in education were paralleled by the development of advanced industries such as microchip manufacturing. This was supported by technology transfer and foreign direct investment from American and British firms. By the 1980s, Kah Yee felt that Singapore had a more developed economy than China, which she viewed as a backwater, especially given Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Singapore in 1978. However, her parents and grandparents still maintained their ties to China, remitting money to relatives overseas.

Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy

Interviewee: Chan Kah Yee 

Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy 

Session: 2 of 3

Location: 22 Saint Michael’s Road

Date: October 2, 2019


Q: You told me that you learned quite a lot of subjects in your primary school. Did you have a favourite subject?

Chan: English. In primary school, the English teacher was very good. Until Primary Four, the English teacher will spend one lesson to tell us a story from a storybook. There was a ghost story—I listened to it in Primary Four. I was so afraid. I don’t want to go home after that some more because it was raining. But it was very interesting. 

Q: Were these stories the same as the ones you found in the library?

Chan: Some were—Snow White, Cinderella. Fairytales. 

Q: About that ghost story—do you remember it?

Chan: It was about the Pontianak, this woman ghost [in Indonesian, Malay folklore]. Furthermore, we said our primary school was haunted and outside there were some banana trees. Pontianak stay in banana trees. 

Q: Were these stories prevalent in the 1970s?

Chan: Sixties there were bananas [banana trees] in primary school. 1970s—I think Pontianak had disappeared. Most horror stories were from China schools. Because Pontianak is a Malay ghost. 

Q: I think you were talking about your interest in science. Can you tell me more about your interest?

Chan: Ya, I even had a chemistry set—I ask my mum to buy for me when I was in secondary school, Sec[ondary] Two. I would do experiments at home and I even ask her to bring me to a science exhibition in school. She took the time to bring me there. 

Q: What was this exhibition about?

Chan: It was about students—they invented some things and they exhibit their projects. I can’t remember where was this held, but I specifically remember it was outside school hours, I ask my mum to bring me there. I can’t remember the exact location, somewhere that is not really in town or not I would have gone myself. 

Q: Do you have any memories of this science fair?

Chan: I remember rows and rows and benches of experiments being displayed. The students gave quite a good explanation of the things that were displayed. 

Q: How did you find out about this exhibition?

Chan: My teacher told me about this exhibition, but because it was not held in our school, you can go on your own. 

Q: What did you see in the exhibition? What were some of the experiments that were on display?

Chan: Some kind of electricity circuit board. 

Q: Did you have experiences with these as a child or in secondary school?

Chan: I only experimented on the battery circuit, light up the lightbulb. 

Q: Did your school promote science? I assume this is your secondary school? How did they promote it?

Chan: End of the year, they’ll ask us to come out with certain projects. I remember because I was the pioneer batch of Bendemeer Secondary School, so they have the school opening ceremony. When I was in Sec[ondary] Three, there was this laboratory, they open up and ask the ministers to come and see our experiments. 

Q: The ministers came down to see your science experiment?

Chan: Yes, because it was a school opening ceremony—ours was a new school at the time.  

Q: Can you tell me the year that your secondary school was [established]?

Chan: 1977. Sec[ondary] One. It was very new, under construction. The facilities were not ready yet so we had to shift into the next-door primary school, Beng Wan Primary School, to have the first three months there. Then only we shifted to the actual school. 

Q: What [were] your parents’ decision [in] deciding Bendemeer Secondary School [for you]?

Chan: Actually I was posted to Serangoon Secondary School but at that time I already shifted from Queenstown to Geylang Bahru. From Geylang Bahru, you just need one bus stop to go to Bendemeer. I asked my mum to appeal for me, so we went to Serangoon Secondary School, I appealed to the principal to ask to transfer to this new school. I felt that the new school had new facilities. By that time, Serangoon Secondary School was already an old building. I felt an old building doesn’t have new facilities. I preferred a new school. Serangoon Secondary School I need to take at least twenty to twenty-five bus rides before I reach. I can save up the distance, the time on the transport, and reach home without much problem if I have a school near my house. 

Q: What subjects did you learn in secondary school?

Chan: English, Chinese, math, science. Math was divided into elementary but at that time A-Maths [Additional Math, a supplementary course to elementary mathematics] was only introduced in Sec[ondary] Three. Quarterly there were tests, there’s the mid-year and final exams as usual. National exams there’s ‘O’ Level. 

Q: Did you have to take the national exams?

Chan: Yes, in Sec[ondary] Four. 

Q: In Secondary Three, which was 1979, your school held a science exhibition. Can you describe this opening ceremony. What was its purpose?

Chan: As a new school, we need to establish our own reputation. We have this opening ceremony to let the neighbourhood know that this school is a new school but it has already established itself. Because I was in choir, I performed in choir during the opening ceremony. The MP that time came and support us. It was a very happy event. This neighbourhood—because in this area, Bendemeer, there was no secondary school. Previously there was but it was demolished by the Mayflower Secondary School. Bendemeer was the only secondary school in this neighbourhood. 

Q: Do you remember the minister who supported this opening ceremony?

Chan: It was Sidek [M.P. Sidek Saniff]. He came and spoke about the importance of education. He stayed throughout our performance. 

Q: What did he say was so important about education?

Chan: He said although our school was so new, we can become stronger if we have our own culture, if we can develop our own niche. Actually, in a way, quite inspired [inspiring]. As a M.P., he was very friendly, he wasn’t a very proud M.P. He talked to us, mingled with the students.  

Q: There were unfriendly MPs?

Chan: As a child, the MP in Queenstown—Jek Yeun Thong—was also very good. As a M.P., you need to mingle with the residents more often. This M.P. [Sidek], because I was also staying in Geylang Bahru, he was also our M.P., he mingled with us. 

Q: Were there other M.P.s around?

Chan: No, because we are single-electorate. Wasn’t a G.R.C. [Group Representative Constituency] at the time. 

Q: Other schools that were new would have this ceremony too?

Chan: Yes, because every school had opening ceremonies. But our school—we are in Bendemeer area, he [Sidek] came. 

Q: Tell me about your participation in this ceremony. 

Chan: I performed in the choir. It was a night to remember because we performed many songs. I remember this song, ‘Kapukaracha, kapukaracha’. Everybody clapped their hands because this was a funny song. The rhythm and the lyrics make people very happy. It reminds people that some happy happening, you can have this rhythm. You can even dance with the song. I think it’s a Spanish song, or something like that. Our choir had many different songs from different countries. This is to inculcate to us that a choir need not sing a certain country’s song. We may be Singaporeans, but not necessarily sing Singaporean songs. There’s this Italian song [hums a short tune] like ‘Ave Maria’. 

Q: Were they sung in a different language?

Chan: All in English. 

Q: How did you know they were from different countries?

Chan: Because I had this idea that the last part—'Ave Maria’—is like a cathedral thing. I always relate it with Italians. 

Q: Did you sing songs from other countries?

Chan: There’s one Indonesian song, like ‘Bengawan Solo’ [hums a little]. 

Q: Did you learn about other countries when you were listening to or practicing these songs?

Chan: I felt that different countries have different songs. Some are romantic—I believe the Italians are. The Indonesians—they like to dance, so their songs have a dancing rhythm. The Spanish are very happy people because they have very quick tempo. 

Q: What about Singapore songs? 

Chan: When we were in Primary Four, they introduced Singapore songs to us, such as [starts to hum] “Sing your way home at the end of the day.” I realised these songs were composed by our N.S. [National Service; compulsory conscription service in Singapore] men. I think they felt that N.S. men had a lot of talents, so they ask these N.S. men to compose songs during their free time. They came up with these Singapore songs. Those Chinese songs like—just slipped my mind. They did some Chinese, Malay, English songs. Indian songs [are] like dancing. They mostly are talking about youth and the energy, like [sings]: “Munnaeru vaalibaa munaeri endrum.” [These lyrics were from a Tamil National Day song composed by S. Jesudassan in 1966.] All these songs relate to us because this just show that Singapore is multicultural. Although when we sing these songs we don’t know the exact meaning, but we felt that they are Singaporeans, because we are attached to it. I felt that as long as Singaporeans composed these songs, they’re Singaporeans. Whether you are Indian, Malay, or Chinese or English songs, shows the Singapore spirit.  

Q: You were also talking about this image of youth?

Chan: Yes, because the kind of happiness that you find when you’re young, you will sing your way home at the end of the day. After everything, even how hard your life is during the day, how much problem you face, you will always sing your way home, that means you have a happy heart. I guess maybe because N.S. is a stressful time, so whenever you go home you are very happy so you sing. 

Q: But what about you? You heard and sang this song as a child. Did it matter to you?

Chan: It matters because it makes me happy. I know these songs will be very uplifting, songs that will encourage me. 

Q: Can you tell me how science was displayed [for the opening ceremony]? 

Chan: We have one laboratory, we invited the M.P.s to showcase our projects to them. Most of the projects are simple demonstrations of how electricity is generated, how chemicals react. 

Q: Besides physics or chemistry, was there biology?

Chan: Not so much because biology mostly are those dissections which I think for an opening ceremony is not very appropriate. 

Q: Did you see these science displays?

Chan: Yes I did. 

Q: Just to go back to your primary school, did [it] promote [the] English [language]? 

Chan: Definitely promote English, you know why anot? Because we are not allowed to speak dialect, we’re only allowed to speak English. Whoever were caught speaking dialect were fined ten cents. At the time it was a very high price to pay. 

Q: Why do you think the schools fined you for speaking dialect?

Chan: Because at that time, most of us came from dialect-speaking families. Most of our parents were not educated. Most of us speak dialects. In order to understand each other, we need to have a common language. And our teachers understand this. Our teachers promoted English. They try to say, “During school time, allowed to speak either English during English lesson and Mandarin only during Mandarin lesson. No other dialects allowed.” That’s the reason why I believe that our English had been forged during those foundation years.  

Q: You also told me that Mandarin was only spoken during Chinese lessons. Why is that so? 

Chan: At that time, I’m not sure. I always had this feeling that, “Chinese is from China.” They do not want us to be so China-thinking. They want us to have, I should say this that during that time, China schools are, to what I know, they are against the government. They do not want us to be like the Chinese-educated, against the government. 

Q: Could you elaborate more of this? What were your memories of the Chinese schools when you were growing up?

Chan: In the fifties, I read from some of the newspaper readings that some Chinese students from the Chinese schools had gathered with the communist Chinese not only in China but also Malaysia, and they wanted to, I won’t say revolt, but I would say they are against the government [in Singapore]. They want the government to join the Communists and be Communist. But at the time we were just freshly out of the colonial English, so our government is trying to be independent from any influences from other countries. Whether it’s from England or from China. These Chinese students—most of their teachers are from China try to brainwash their students to liaise with China. 

Q: What was your earliest memories of, from what you’ve described, Communism in Chinese schools?

Chan: My earliest memory was surprising. I read—it was some kind of Chinese book from China, I don’t know where I got hold of it. It said, “China is great, Communist is great, the workers are great. Everybody is equal.” I had this sudden thinking, “Hey. This actually dangerous politics.” I don’t know at such a young age I had this politics kind of sensitivity that if we Singapore want to be independent, we cannot be influenced by China. When I was in primary school, I roughly gave more weightage to English than Chinese.  

Q: Regarding this book, how old were you when you encountered it?

Chan: Definitely in my teens, because I was still in Geylang Bahru—I was still in secondary school. I got hold of this book and I find it’s very strange: why it promoted China? 

Q: When did you move [to Geylang Bahru from Queenstown]?

Chan: I moved in 1974, when I was in Primary Four. I was ten years old.  

Q: About this book, how did it look like?

Chan: It was this old Chinese book where the writings are from—usually you open the book like this is the first page [turning the cover from the ‘back’ to the ‘front’].

Q: So you opened it from the ‘back’ part?

Chan: Ya, those old Chinese books. Nowadays when you open the book you start from here [first page is turned left to right]. 

Q: So you flip from left to right [for the ‘Chinese-Communist’ book]?

Chan: Ya. It’s the back part of the usual book is the first page. 

Q: What about the text?

Chan: It’s in olden [Classical] Chinese. Surprisingly I’m able to understand those fan ti zi [traditional Chinese characters]. When I was in primary school, they haven’t simplified. When I was in Primary Three or Four then it becomes jian ti zi [simplified Chinese characters]. — I realized the words change. They say, “China had changed to simplified Chinese” around that time. 

Q: Do you think the Chinese texts in Singapore were following China?

Chan: Definitely. I find it strange, how come we’re the only one doing simplified Chinese and not Hong Kong or Taiwan? 

Q: How did you explain that when you were young?

Chan: I have a question. Wouldn’t fan ti zi [traditional Chinese characters], I mean in the traditional way, depict Chinese word better than the simplified version? In my heart, I was wondering why the government choose simplified Chinese version? But it’s easier for me, less strokes to write. 

Q: Why do you think the government changed from traditional to simplified Chinese?

Chan: I have an inkling that the government wanted to align itself to China. We’re the only country that follow. No other Chinese-majority country follow. This is the only clear—it is a clear preference that Singapore is trying to align to China. Around ’75, ’76. If I’m not wrong, Deng Xiaoping came from China to visit Singapore in 1976. That’s the first of a Chinese premier to visit Singapore. 

Q: Did you hear about this when you were growing up?

Chan: Yes I did. Not sure if it’s 1976 or 1978. But at that time, because we were just starting to—in the 1970s, Singapore suddenly progress quite well. We are opening more and more, people are getting richer. At that time, China to me is like ulu, that means is like ‘backwater’, ‘backdated’ kind of country. I was surprised: why did we follow China in this aspect? Until now, even Hong Kong or Taiwan still using the traditional Chinese words. 

Q: What was the image of China like? You described it as ‘backwater’?

Chan: Ever since my grandma always quarrel with my grandpa. My grandpa still send money to his relatives in China. I always felt that we Singaporeans have to send money to them. 

Q: Did you hold onto this conviction—

Chan: —Sixties and seventies, and even up to eighties. I felt that China is a backwater, very backdated country. 

Q: Tell me more about the Deng Xiaoping visit. 

Chan: At that time it was a big news. I was wondering, “How come Lee Kuan Yew is welcoming a Chinese leader?” I would have thought that we’re way ahead of China, why do we need to welcome him? We have the England leader, American leader. Why do we need to welcome him in such a big event? It was splashed across all the newspapers. They said, “First time somebody from China in such a high rank would visit Singapore to learn from Singapore.” I said, “Singapore must be very good, even somebody from China has to come over to learn.” 

Q: What do you think Deng Xiaoping was trying to learn from Singapore? 

Chan: If I’m not wrong Singapore that time was progressing very well. I think Deng Xiaoping tries to find out what’s the reason for this small country with limited resources can still progress so well. 

Q: What differences were there between Singapore and China?

Chan: I always felt that Chinese people are very crude. They’re not cultured. They’re always the square-kind of people. They don’t know how to be flexible. Maybe I’m biased. When I come across those Chinese-educated people, at that time there’s still English school and Chinese school. I talk with those Chinese-educated people, they cannot be flexible. If something has to be done, it has to be done in one way. They always talk as if China is great, China is good. But I always felt that I am Singaporean, why must I talk about China? Maybe I hold this kind of prejudice against Chinese students. 

Q: Do you think these Chinese students were connected to China in some ways? 

Chan: I felt they are. 

Q: When you are referring to these Chinese students, you’re talking about Chinese students born in Singapore?

Chan: Born in Singapore but they attended Chinese schools. 

Q: Were there many of these Chinese schools in Singapore?

Chan: There were. Some of the Chinese schools were very traditionally strongholds. Whenever they have any events, it’s those traditional, China kind of events like Chinese New Year, very big events. That’s the reason why I felt they’re still following the China way of doing things. 

Q: What is this China way of doing things? 

Chan: It’s like everything must be rule and regulation, orderly. They have this thinking that only Chinese is the best language, other languages are lousy. Even when I speak with them, they felt that we English-educated are not as good as them. They felt we betrayed the Chinese culture. 

Q: Were these students of your age?

Chan: Some students are. 

Q: What about the others you spoke to?

Chan: As I said, because schools have competition [typically these competitions were centered around, but were not limited to, co-curricular activities like sports], most of them are my age. 

Q: You were speaking to these students when you were in secondary school?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: What about primary school?

Chan: Primary school we do not have much competition with other schools. We do not have much mingling. 

Q: Based on your interactions, what were your impressions of these students then?

Chan: I felt, frankly speaking, that they are not forward-looking. They’re always in a box. They felt that Singapore is wrong to close down Chinese schools. 

Q: You mean Singapore closed down Chinese schools? When did this happen? 

Chan: In the—we used to have one Chinese university, Nanyang [Nanyang University, in Singapore from 1956-1980]. Now it has become N.T.U. [Nanyang Technological University]. I felt these students hold a grudge against the government. Some Chinese schools—during the sixties, the government was trying to advocate people to use more English, so they close down a lot of Chinese schools. These Chinese who founded these Chinese schools—they hold a grudge against the government. There’s San Shan Xue Xiao [San Shan Primary School], from Fuzhou. There’s Duan Meng Secondary School, also closed down. There’s those Cantonese founders  like Yangzheng [Primary School], also closed down. Some of these schools—the government had converted them to S.A.P. schools [Special Assistance Plan]. Special administration kind of schools, where Chinese is being learned as the first language together with English. 

Q: Why do you think the government kept these schools or converted them to S.A.P.? 

Chan: At that time they felt the government was clamping down on Chinese education. I think to placate those people who are Chinese-educated they said, “Okay, we preserve the Chinese culture, but you must put not just Chinese as the first language, but English as your first language as well.” — By the time [I] grow up, these schools had one by one closed down, so there were left a few, such as Li Hua, something like that [Li Hua Primary School]. Or River Valley, something like that [River Valley High School]. — There’s one: Zhong Zheng or Chung Cheng. 

Q: You also mentioned something about how some of these Chinese students didn’t have a sense of being forward-looking. Could you elaborate more about what that means?

Chan: They always have a feeling that the government is no good, it is better off that we have a homogeneous Chinese society instead of a multicultural society. I think this is not the way our government wants—a multicultural society. Some of these Chinese students felt that it is wrong that we are equal. They want the Chinese to have better privilege than Malays, Indians—because we [Chinese] are the majority in Singapore. But I think because of this, the government said, “No, we cannot become another Chinese society, although majority is Chinese.” I always felt that the Chinese students are not happy about it. 

Q: What did you feel about [this] at the time?

Chan: I felt that it wasn’t correct. Although, yes, we always stereotype Malays as being lazy and Indians as very stingy people but when it comes to interaction, I don’t have this concept that my friends like this. Maybe probably because from young I already have Malay friends, Indian friends, I don’t feel a need to have a Chinese society. 

Q: You disagreed with that vision [of having a Chinese society]?

Chan: Ya, I disagreed with the vision that we must be a Chinese society. Do you know what it means to be a Chinese society? All your signage, your language spoken must be in Chinese. We wouldn’t be like what we are now. If we are a closed society, we only care about our own race—that means Chinese—we will not progress as a nation. There are talents in other races too. If we close ourselves up—that means we only welcome Chinese people, kick away those Malays and Indians—I don’t think Singapore would be what it is now. 

Q: You also said something about how these Chinese students—they don’t want this racial equality. Was this something that was seen in Singapore at that time, growing up [in the 1970s]?

Chan: I would rather say right up to seventies, when I roughly know what was happening. At the time, the government was very clear on the direction they want. I can see that the Chinese students feel ostracised because they feel that the government was against them. 

Q: How could they tell? And how could you tell?

Chan: Sometimes if I manage to interact with them, they will say, “Zhe ge zhen fu bu hao, mei you wei wo men de hua wen—” [This government is not good, it did not provide for our Chinese—.] That means that they never preserve our Chinese culture, they never allow us free speech, something like to their mind, they think the government is against Chinese culture in the sense that you have Chinese celebrations like even holidays for Autumn Festival, Dragonboat Festival, or the last day of Chinese New Year—also must have big celebration in Singapore. 

Q: Did Singapore have holidays for these events?

Chan: No. 

Q: Did China have holidays for these events?

Chan: Yes. Because they [Chinese students] felt that the government is washing down the Chinese culture. We do not see it as important as they see it, because they felt that we did not celebrate by giving holidays, make it important, we downplay these kind of festivals. 

Q: What was their goal? 

Chan: They believe these traditional festivals have their own importance like Autumn Festival is to unite the family. The Dragonboat [Festival] is to remember Qu Yuan who had died for the emperor. 

Q: What did you think about all these—it seems as though you’re talking about values, about family and remembrance when it comes to these events. What did you think about that when you were growing up?

Chan: I still have these events personally. Even though the government never give us any holidays, we celebrated on our own. It doesn’t mean that if the government didn’t have these holidays, we cannot have our own celebration. I totally disagree that the government was trying to wash down our Chinese culture. Although we are, yes, more to the Western kind of thinking in governance, but when you talk about culture, our government is still pro-family, still the conservative. Take for example, H.D.B. even if you apply as a single mother, it’s very difficult that you can get a house. 

Q: Was this in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Even now. 

Q: You mean this policy [was] in place in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Yes. Our government is always Confucianist kind of thinking, conservative, pro-family kind of government. It doesn’t mean that we celebrate all this with holidays means the government doesn’t take into perspective all this culture. The government does. 

Q: How did [the government] do [so]?

Chan: Firstly, they preserve some celebrations—Chinese New Year, all this. Also, they preserve some of the buildings like Wan Qing Yuan, which is Sun Zhong Shan [Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall], also Thian Hock Keng Temple. Have to preserve the culture. Some of the Chinese things they still preserve. 

Q: If the government’s direction was not to celebrate Chinese culture in the sense of making it a holiday, what was its direction then?

Chan: The government is trying to play a secular and neutral party that doesn’t want to side any one race. 

Q: Can you tell me more about these terms—‘secular’ and ‘neutral’; in the 1970s, when you were you growing up, what did you understand by these terms?

Chan: ‘Secular’ in the sense that no religion is to be greater than other religions. We celebrate Christmas as well as Deepavali, everything, with holiday. ‘Neutral’ in the sense that the government doesn’t say the Chinese have the first privilege of everything including entrance to university—they don’t give a quota to any race as long as your results are good, they will let you in, it’s not like neighbouring countries where there is a quota on race. Our neighbouring countries, Malay, they have a certain quota that Malays can get in. Every year the cohort there must be more Malays than Chinese and Indians. Chinese and Indians have limited place.  

Q: What country is this?

Chan: Malaysia. 

Q: Besides that, I want to talk about the government being pro-family. You talked about it being Confucian-thinking. Can you talk about that?

Chan: Our family unit consists of the father, the mother, and the children. Either party divorce, the children do not have a father or just a single father or single mother, this is not a complete family according to Confucian [sic]. 

Q: Did you see a lot of single mothers in the 1970s?

Chan: No, it was a stigma to be divorced. People will look down upon you that you did not maintain your marriage that’s why it broke down. That’s why it was a big stigma to be divorced. 

Q: In the whole of Singapore society? 

Chan: Yes, whether you’re Chinese, Indian, or Malay. It was a big stigma. 

Q: You mentioned that this family unit [consists of] a father, a mother. Were there polygamous relationships in this period? 

Chan: You mean—

Q: —One father, many wives. 

Chan: During the sixties, there’s no more. I think this law of polygamous [sic] this kind of relationship has been banned since before 1950s in Singapore. When I was born, only mono[gamous]. 

Q: You also said something about the Western kind of thinking in government. Could you share more about that as well?

Chan: In terms of Western, I would think that the Singapore government follow the English [British] more. It was formally an English colony. Our laws were mostly inherited from the English Law. 

Q: Can you tell me what laws are inherited?

Chan: Take for example the, about the—

Q: —Okay, for instance in politics, how can we see that?

Chan: In politics, we have the Parliament, the Prime Minister, and all the Cabinet Ministers. All these ranks follow the English. Most of our laws are—our Prime Minister was a lawyer. He studied in England, that’s why most laws we followed he brought over. 

Q: When you say, ‘Prime Minister’, are you referring to Lee Kuan Yew?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: And he followed English law?

Chan: Yes. Singapore was an English colony. Most of our laws have that. 

Q: Did we work with Western countries? Did we talk about Western countries?

Chan: You mean the government?

Q: Yes.

Chan: The government has always relied on America and England to be our closest allies. In 1978 when Deng Xiaoping came, it was a big news because we were never allied much with China. 

Q: Why didn’t Singapore align itself with China but relied on, as you said, America and England?

Chan: Firstly, China is a communist country. Our government is against Communism. That’s a basic, most important thing. Secondly, at the time America and England were still very powerful. Singapore until now is a small country. We need strong partners whether it’s terms of military, security. We need a good ally. 

Q: Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, did the Singapore government talk about America and England? If they did, how did they talk about it?

Chan: They did by inviting them to invest in our country with their technology, their know-how, their factories. They invited the Fort Motor[s], many American factories build the microchips, like microns, electronics kind of field. Chip maker was the fad of the time. At that time Singapore was once the biggest chip maker. Ford was an American automobile car, they came they build the factory here in Singapore. Some of the spare parts are manufactured here. This Ford Factory was even before the Second World War was already here. I remember this Ford Factory that time when it opened. It had now become a museum. It was a place where Japanese sign the surrender documents in Singapore to surrender themselves. [The interviewee is referring to the Surviving Syonan Gallery in Singapore, which was debut in 2017.]

Q: You visited the factory in the 1970s?

Chan: No. It’s only now that I visited. 

Q: But you knew about the factory in the 1970s?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: Did you see it?

Chan: At that time, no. 

Q: Did you see Ford cars?

Chan: Ya, those were sixties, seventies. But after the seventies, I don’t see many. Instead, from the beginning of the seventies, it was the Japanese cars that became the rage. 

Q: Growing up, what did you think of these cars?

Chan: I think it’s a luxury to own these cars. Not many people can own cars. 

Q: Did your family own any cars?

Chan: When I was growing up in the sixties, my dad didn’t own any car. But later on, he managed to own one before we moved to Geylang Bahru, that means before 1974. My father bought a Mercedes. That was from Germany. During the seventies, the business went really well for my father. He managed to become quite well to do, and managed to get this car. 

Q: Owning a car in the family, how did that make you feel as a child?

Chan: I feel like I was very rich. To own a car is not easy. To own a Mercedes was very rich at that time. 

Q: Were there any other things that England and America built in Singapore? 

Chan: The English built many buildings in Singapore: the City Hall, the Parliament House. They built many government kind of buildings, even Fort Canning the building actually belongs to the governor of England last time. Americans don’t really build many buildings but they invested Singapore with their technology. They built factories and they bring along their know-how. 

Q: Besides technology and microchips, what did the Americans bring to Singapore?

Chan: Actually Americans really, really export their pop culture to Singapore. Our television and cinemas are always showing American shows. 

Q: Based on your understanding of these countries, you talked about China and had a certain impression of it. What was your impression of England and America when you were growing up in the 1970s? 

Chan: For England I felt it was a powerful country but it was on a decline when I was growing up. In the sixties and seventies, England still had many influences on Singapore because they just left Singapore, so Singapore became independent. We relied a lot on England to help us to have the political clout in the world. As a new country in the sixties, Singapore was really poor. We need big, strong countries to support us and England was that country. 

Q: And this was what you felt in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Yes, correct. 

Q: What about the England that was painted in storybooks? How did that make you feel about England culturally or about its society?

Chan: I always felt that English people are very cultured. They have the kind of tradition that we Chinese should learn. They can be serious, they can be practical. But more important, they take life as– they really enjoy life. They do not have the Chinese way of looking like, “Wah we must work till we die.” No. 

Q: You mean the British were—

Chan: –Their working attitude is different, they always have time for family, they always have a good work-life balance. That’s how I feel. They took time to rest, have tea time. They always plant beautiful gardens. That’s why—

Q: —Did you feel that Singapore workers in the 1960s and 1970s had time for family?

Chan: Actually that time, they had no time for family. Most of them worked two jobs to support the family. Day and night they were working. 


Interviewer: Jeremy Yong

Interviewee: Chan Kah Yee

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Transcript Notes

  1. The interviewee says Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore in 1976, which is incorrect, as he visited in 1978 after rising to power.

  1. How do Kah Yee’s recollections elucidate Singapore’s navigation of the Cold War era?

  2. How did the Singapore government use public education as a tool in its Cold War strategy

  3. Discuss the role of science and technology in shaping the Cold War in Asia?