Chan Kah Yee Session 3 Interview

In this third session of her interview, Chan Kan Yee shares her reflections on foreign powers, their technological prowess, the domestic Communist movement, her own interest in science and the responses she received for it from her elders, as well as her views of Western feminism in the 1970s.

Tags & Keywords

This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.

In her final interview, Kah Yee begins with reflections on the British withdrawal from Singapore and its impact on the domestic Communist movement. She explains that this was seen as a significant danger by the PAP government, as the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) wielded strong influence in Malaysia. While she was not yet born during the peak of Communist and labor agitation in Singapore during the 1950s, such as the Hock Lee Bus Riots, she explains that the government made concerted efforts to arrest suspected communist elements right through the 1960s. She also views other actions such as the closure of the Nanyang University as the state’s crackdown on a breeding ground for Communist thought.

While Kah Yee was very welcoming of the government’s efforts to promote multiculturalism, the Chinese-educated populace was opposed to the government’s failure to institutionalize the Chinese culture and Chinese privilege in society. This sharply contrasted with Malaysia, which enforced special protections for the indigenous Malays. She also notes that while many of these Chinese traditionalists appreciated Communism’s egalitarian vision, they did not fully support the Mao administration. At times, she felt that the older generation were supporting the Communist system simply for its origins in China, instead of being more critical about its merits. She however, did not feel any connections to China despite having an interest in the language.

She then discusses her own passion for science, and how she admired Western economies for their advanced scientific capabilities, such as America’s space research. She read a lot of Western science and science fiction books as a student. The space race in particular distanced her generation from China, as the moon landing invalidated the Chinese mythology of Chang’e. It also became a point of disillusionment for Chinese-educated students who had believed in the superiority of their culture over the West. While Kah Yee’s mother supported her interest in the sciences, many of her other elders, who believed in patriarchal gender norms, still saw scientific careers as suited for males and were discouraging towards her. Ultimately, she was inducted into the family business and had to put aside her aspirations to work in a laboratory.

Kah Yee also contrasts her own experiences with the burgeoning feminist movement in the West. She recalls seeing feminist activists protesting the gender pay gap and discriminatory hiring practices through bra-burning events on the news. While such open protests against the patriarchy did not arise in Singapore, she recalls how the women’s rights group AWARE was set up to champion gender equality and to encourage female students to pursue their goals. She also shares how the Communist movement in China co-opted female supporters by championing better working conditions for women, but felt that was insufficient justification to embrace the ideology.

Ultimately, Kah Yee views the Cold War as a distant phenomenon that was largely disconnected from Singapore. While she acknowledges the greater relevance of the Vietnam War to Singapore, she still feels that given Singapore’s weak economic links to the Communist bloc, it did not have a significant impact on Singapore’s political trajectory.

Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy

Interviewee: Chan Kah Yee 

Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy 

Session: 3 of 3

Location: 22 Saint Michael’s Road

Date: October 2, 2019


Q: I’d like to find out more about your understanding of Britain in 1970s Singapore. What were Singapore-British relations like?

Chan: From what I recall, the British were very much involved in our business, schools in the 1960s. But when we got independent, they slowly retract their presence. I can feel we’re not so tied up with them. – The British army had withdrawn from Singapore. We need to set up our own army, defend ourselves, have our own school system. 

Q: This [withdrawal] was in the 1970s?

Chan: Ya, early seventies. I remembered many newspapers were saying British ships were sailing offs, British personnel were going back. A lot of navy have a base in Sembawang. They had withdrawn from there. Many business that cater to British were not as good as before. Some of them close down, some others instead of selling western food had changed their business to, maybe, selling Chinese food. 

Q: How did you react to the British withdrawing from Singapore?

Chan: I was too young to understand what’s the significance. When I was born in the 1960s, I don’t feel much different with or without the British army. Already their presence were not so strong in Singapore anymore. 

Q: What about the rest of Singapore? Did they feel anything? 

Chan: From what I know, not much different. That time, Singapore was beginning to develop more relationships with America. To a certain extent, we had opened up ourselves to the world, especially to the Americans. They had invaded our pop culture, televisions, they brought a lot of music. 

Q: The British did not?

Chan: They did, but only to a certain extent. We still have the Britain law, we follow very closely. Our roads are still driving on the left-side. We still have the right-hand drive. Even our exam, school systems–though we are Singapore-based, we still follow closely Cambridge ‘O’ Levels, ‘A’ Levels. 

Q: So the tests you took were all modelled after Cambridge examinations?

Chan: Yes, especially the secondary [‘O’] Level. 

Q: Can you tell me if anyone supported or did not support the British military withdrawal?

Chan: I wouldn’t say they feel sad. But we felt a sense of loss because we were so afraid that the Britain gone, will affect our business. We are newly independent. We’re still quite poor. Our country has no resources. We really need a lot of help from rich countries. 

Q: As a child, did you feel this sense of loss [when the British withdrew their military troops from Singapore in the 1970s].

Chan: No. 

Q: When you say Singapore felt a sense of loss, you’re talking about how—

Chan: —Only when the older generation, during their conversation, I just overheard them talking, afraid that business will be affected. 

Q: Were they afraid of any other things if the British withdrew? 

Chan: Not actually. At that time we are not dealing with the British. For my family, we do not have direct dealings with the British. 

Q: Do you think that there were fears of Communism in relation to the British withdrawal?

Chan: This is definite. At the time the Chinese were very, very strong in the sense that the Chinese Singaporeans are still tied to China, their mother land. The generation before me—my parents’ generation—they are still very tied to China. They always have a feeling that, that means my grandparents will always talk about China, how’s the China situation. From what I know, at the time the Singapore government was really afraid that we become a communist country.  

Q: We’ll become a communist country if the British withdrew? Or—

Chan: —Partly if British withdrew and partly also because we’re afraid that China will come in to influence us because we no longer have the backing of England. We’re at the crossroads. As a newly independent country, we were weak in a sense that we do not have any strong backup from any other country. 

Q: And this was something that people in the 1970s talked about?

Chan: Mostly, especially about China coming in because Singapore made up of seventy percent Chinese, and there were lots of Chinese students at that moment. When the British withdrew, the main concern for the government, I believe, was Communism. 

Q: People in Singapore felt that?

Chan: Yes, because they do not want to chase away one type of government and then have another government to influence our government. 

Q: Where did you hear about this?

Chan: Only during family dinners with our grandparents. 

Q: Did the Chinese students have any reaction to the British withdrawal?

Chan: From my memory, they do not have much– they do not speak, or rather they did not dare to speak up, what’s what I felt at the time. 

Q: Why do you think they dared not to speak up?

Chan: Probably because they’re afraid the government will clamp down on them because at that time when the PAP form the government, they strictly are not pro-English, neither are they pro-Communism. In fact, they want to be independent of these two politics that will win our independence. 

Q: Let’s move on to the topic we were discussion: American culture. You said that the USA ‘invaded’ our culture. Could you share more about this?

Chan: Firstly, of course, at that time, seventies the television was very popular. Now people had a little bit of money to buy some luxuries. At the time, television was a luxury. Most programs were from America. 

Q: How many people [owned] television [sets] in the 1970s?

Chan: It was still a luxury, many went to the community centres where there was one big television screen, and everybody would sit in front and watch television programmes. Whereas for me, my dad bought one television so we need not go down to the community centre. Every day, my mum would turn on the television for me to watch Sesame Street. It really helped my English. Probably because of that, I felt that when I was young, my pronunciation was more towards the American than the English accent. That’s the reason why I felt that the Americans are so much– their culture is so much different than the British from what I’ve read from the books. As I’ve mentioned, when I was young, I usually read storybooks from England. But when I watch television that were from America, the culture is so much different. Take for example, usually Americans they– when I watch television, their shows are so light-hearted. They’re so open they would even, in a classroom setting, question the teachers, they go to school have mini activities, after school which I’ve never heard of. Like tea parties, going to different places. 

Q: Sesame Street showed that American culture?

Chan: Yes, because although it’s educational it’s set in America. You can see the American culture is so much different

Q: You mean you saw parts of American life in the cartoon?

Chan: Besides Sesame Street there are other American soap operas like House on a Prairie, Hillbillies—the people there are so funny. 

Q: Tell me about Hillbillies, for instance. Do you remember any of the characters?

Chan: Hillbillies was a story about the farm, the people there. They just created jokes even though they are farmers. As for other shows: House on a Prairie was set in the eighties in America where the people treasure greeneries, the environment. 

Q: So Hillbillies [What the interviewer meant to say was House on a Prairie]—you watched it in the 1980s, it seems. 

Chan: Seventies. 

Q: But you said it was modelled after the 1980s?

Chan: No, I mean the farmers were very open, they were very funny people even though they worked in a farm. 

Q: What were some of the jokes that they made?

Chan: They have satirical jokes: “You look so fat. You look just like the pig sitting next to you.” 

Q: Did they talk about American life [or] culture?

Chan: They didn’t actually talk about American culture but they did show the American countryside. 

Q: Just to get a sense of how many people walked television at the time. You said you had that in your home. What about the rest of Singapore? 

Chan: – Usually the programmes were very short in time, probably they only started at 3 p.m. and ended transmission at nine [p.m.]. People gather after dinner, around seven to eight [p.m.] to go to the community centre. 

Q: How many people gathered [in the community centres to watch television]?

Chan: I believe thirty. Still in the seventies, not many people had televisions. My neighbours, because we stayed in Queenstown, usually our doors are open, there’s a common corridor. Usually they’ll switch on their television, I pass by and say, “Eh, you’re watching the same programme as me.” My friends in school, only a few watched television. 

Q: [Did] they have a similar background as you?

Chan: I would say almost similar. 

Q: You said you had friends who were poorer. Did they watch T.V.? 

Chan: [Shakes head.]

Q: You said something about space exploration, and that was something that was shown quite frequently in the media.

Chan: American shows had many shows featuring outer space: Star Trek, Cannonball, many cartoons with outer space. 

Q: What do these T.V. shows show about space exploration?

Chan: They showed that Americans were very advanced in their technology. They mention that at that time, the only country that can rival them was the U.S.S.R. So they were [at] loggerhead[s] as to who will get to the moon first. 

Q: Who got to the moon first?

Chan: I believe the Americans boasted that they were the first. 

Q: And you heard about this in the 1970s?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: Did you hear the Soviets talking about space travel? 

Chan: Yes, but usually we do not have Russian programmes so we seldom heard anything about Russia. 

Q: What did [the Americans] boast about?

Chan: They say the first man to step on the moon was an American, Neil Armstrong. He succeeded and returned home as an American hero.  

Q: Growing up in the 1970s, what did you think about America?

Chan: I think it was a very rich country. In order to reach the moon, it must have cost billions of dollars. Technology, as I mentioned, I believe they have the finest technology at that time.  

Q: This was your sentiment when you were growing up?

Chan: Yes, that’s right.   

Q: Did you see that in Singapore, this technology?

Chan: Not at that time. Singapore wasn’t very advanced, it was just a newly-minted independent country. 

Q: Did America introduce this science and technology into Singapore in the 1970s? 

Chan: Through scientific collaboration, they did show some technology, especially they had invested in some factories. Also, they collaborated with the scientist in Singapore, together they set up Science Centre. I believe that through this, we had slowly pick up to be more scientifically-inclined to develop science in this area.  

Q: So this was the 1970s?

Chan: Early 1970s to the late 1970s and early 1980s. 

Q: Based off that, what collaborations did they have?

Chan: I believe they had invested on some microchips and they set up factories in Singapore to build microchips for computers at the time. Computers were expensive; not many people can afford. Only those multinational companies, mostly from America, had these equipment, these devices, and they brought to Singapore.  

Q: What about schools?

Chan: Schools very simple, had simple structures, there were no computers.   

Q: What about American science?

Chan: From what I watch from the television, they already had quite advanced technology that sometimes the teacher may put up some slides that is more advanced than in Singapore, some projectors and devices. At that time, I did not know what devices were they.  

Q: How did those devices make you feel about America and Singapore technology?

Chan: At that time, I felt, “Wah, if only Singapore can be like America, so advanced. It would make life so much better in areas of teaching, business, it will help us more.” 

Q: How did you think America technology could help Singapore?

Chan: I believe that if the Americans can invest more in our education and business, we will be able to advance by leaps and bounds because only through technology and science can we really improve. One of the reasons Singapore can be developing in quite a quick succession is because it allowed technology and science and know-how to come into Singapore. We accepted them. 

Q: This acceptance and use of the know-how was in the 1970s, 1980s?

Chan: Yes, the government was trying to bring in all this know-how, technology so that instead of having low manufacturing industries, we can have a higher technology. Why I saw ‘low manufacturing’ is because they need more manpower. Singapore can never produce enough manpower because ours is a small country. Instead of relying on manpower, we wanted technology that can improve on our lives without using manpower.   

Q: With regards to the people in society, did they feel like they were moving into this tech—

Chan: —This area, technology, definitely the people supported the government. Because the government wanted to have Singapore as a research and technology sort of industry, instead of those that uses low-tech, high-manpower country. 

Q: Were you more science-inclined?

Chan: Yes, definitely. I was more interested in science than the arts. 

Q: Can you tell me some of the things you were interested in?

Chan: I was interested in biology, that’s why I ask my mum to buy me a doctor’s kit set. I was interested in chemistry so my mum bought me a chemistry set. I wanted to visit many science centres and school projects so that I can increase my knowledge my science.

Q: You wanted to become scientist?

Chan: I wanted to be involved in chemistry-related industry.  

Q: Did you join that industry?

Chan: No. Parents would like their children to succeed or come into the business. I had no chance of a science-related career.  

Q: How did that make you feel? 

Chan: Initially, I was disappointed because I studied science throughout my school life. I wanted to be a laboratory researcher. Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, I gave up on my career dream and joined my family’s business.   

Q: Did you family ever say you could join the science industry?

Chan: From young they instilled in me to join the family’s business. 

Q: Just to go back to our discussion about outer space, what other things could you remember besides what we’ve talked about?

Chan: There were lots of storybooks about science. I remember reading about spaceships, spacecrafts, astronauts, what did they do, how do you survive in a zero gravity environment.  

Q: Where were these texts from?

Chan: They’re from America, science magazines.  

Q: How did you get these magazines? 

Chan: I bought from book stores? 

Q: In school?

Chan: No, in bookstores, like Times or M.P.H. Those were the bookstores at that time. My mum bought me a science encyclopedia when I was young.   

Q: What did [these books] depict?

Chan: They depicted the technology.  

Q: Did they talk about any of the countries like America?

Chan: They did.  

Q: How did they talk about America?

Chan: It was just a small paragraph. They exalted America as the most advanced technology country in the world? 

Q: And you believed in that?

Chan: I believed so. 

Q: Were there any other books about space you read?

Chan: Mostly through newspapers, not just books.  

Q: What about the moon?

Chan: Ya, because in our primary school syllabus, we were taught the solar system. They talk about the moon too: it was a satellite. I was fascinated because I realised the moon didn’t have light. It was just a reflection.  

Q: Did they talk about America in these science classes, because you’re talking about the solar system?

Chan: No, it’s a school system so we won’t talk about any countries or maybe the teachers were not allowed to exalt other countries.  

Q: You felt like they could not?

Chan: When I was young, I felt that the teachers always look to cover the syllabus. They didn’t have time to expand beyond syllabus. They didn’t talk about who were the countries who reached the moon. I read it from the newspaper and the television.  

Q: Do you know if these astronauts visited Singapore? 

Chan: I have no knowledge of them visiting Singapore at that time.   

Q: [Was] moon travel something a lot of Singaporeans talked about in the 1970s?

Chan: Yes, they were saying it was a great achievement. 

Q: How did they talk about it?

Chan: “Ooh, finally, the moon was no longer inhabited by Chang’e which is the goddess of the moon [in Chinese mythology].” But it was just another round thing with no water and no gravity. 

Q: What is Chang’e about?

Chan: It was the olden Chinese story that Chang’e was a lady who was so sad the husband didn’t care about her because the husband was more busy shooting the sun down, she was so fed up she said, “Okay, I’m going to get away from him and fly to the moon instead because he love the sun more than me.” 

Q: Did Chinese people react to this sense that Chang’e was somehow displayed?

Chan: They feel sad that the myth was broken. Until now, we still eat mooncake to celebrate Chang’e ben yue (Chang’e going to the moon). It was a beautiful fairytale. Since the Americans had gone to the moon, they said, “Well, no more fairytales.” 

Q: What do you think Chinese[-educated] students thought about moon travel [and] Chang’e?

Chan: I guess maybe they felt that, “Well, since science had taken over the myth? What more can we say? Science wins over tradition.” 

Q: Did you hear them say that?

Chan: Not actually, but I believe they do have some thinking that the myth had been broken. 

Q: Did you feel that way in the 1970s about the Chinese students?

Chan: I do believe.  

Q: What led you to that conclusion in the 1970s?

Chan: People at that time were not educated to a very high level. Most Chinese students still have the thinking that the moon belong to Chinese, that’s why they have Chang’e. Unfortunately, Americans step foot on the moon. That shows that there’s no Chang’e, no moon palace there. The Chinese felt that, too bad, the Americans had won over Chang’e, had been overtaken.  

Q: Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, did you hear the reasons why people joined Communism in Singapore?

Chan: Basically, as I’ve mentioned, the older generation still very tied to what they call the motherland China. They still continue to have many families back home, they still send money back home. Singapore was still a communist country. The Chinese still have this thinking that when they grow old they want to go back to China. They remain that thinking of Communism. 

Q: Did they want to go back to China and support Communism? Or did they go back simply because it was home?

Chan: That’s a good question. Many people thought that they want to go back and support their family. But some people still have the thinking that we as Chinese we should follow the thinking that China have. They wanted to have that way of life.  

Q: What is this way of life?

Chan: The communist way of life.  

Q: Whatever government was in China they would follow?

Chan: They would follow closely, they will read the newspaper about China, the happenings, like my grandparents. When there was a flood in Canton, now it’s called Guangdong, they would send money, donate to China, the family back in China.  

Q: Did they support Mao Zedong?

Chan: Not that my grandparents had mentioned Mao Zedong. At that time, Mao Zedong had passed away. At that time, it was not so much of Mao Zedong already. During my grandparents’ generation, not much as been said about Mao Zedong. But they did say that Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four did not treat the people well. That’s why China had to open up their economy.  

Q: People supported Communism not because of Mao Zedong, but because it was in China? 

Chan: People supported Communism because they thought it was a fairer distribution of wealth. Not because of Mao Zedong. At least not my grandparents’ generation.  

Q: So a generation before?

Chan: Yes, at least a generation before, my grandparents maybe they supported Communism. But after Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four broken the news that there were bribes and misdoings, the whole ideology of Mao Zedong and the Little Red Book had simply died. 

Q: Was their ideology of Communism strong in Singapore, the ideology of Communism being a fairer system as you mentioned?

Chan: Yes. There was this central government who would distribute the wealth, everyone have the same kind of jobs. Even if you’re a policeman or a farmer you’re treated the same, have the same salary, that sort of ideology. 

Q: This was apparent in Singapore?

Chan: In Chinese-educated—

Q: —Of your age?

Chan: My generation—no. Two generations before me, my grandparents, they felt that the Chinese system was much better. 

Q: If I understand you, the Chinese-educated students from your age believed in China as the motherland, but they did not take to its ideology which was Communism? 

Chan: No, I would rather say, they felt Communism was the way to go but they do not support Mao Zedong because Mao Zedong the Communism was quite different from before and after his death. The Chinese students during my age still supported Communism and felt that our government was not fair. They still wanted Singapore to be communist. I think our government really press down on them that they have no way of making Singapore a communist country. 


Q: [On the Chinese-educated students in Singapore] So their version of equality as you remembered in the 1970s was more within the Chinese [race]?  

Chan: Ya, they felt that communist countries would have promoted Chinese culture more actively, whereas our Singapore government just promoted Chinese culture wholeheartedly but their attention was being like watered down to other races. 

Q: When they’re talking about communist countries, they’re only talking about China; they’re not talking about, for instance, Cuba?

Chan: No. Not talking about Cuba, other communist countries like Russia. They’re just talking about China because they treated China as their motherland. 

Q: They didn’t care about other communist countries?

Chan: No. 

Q: You didn’t hear about other communist countries?

Chan: I heard about communist country like Russia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. 

Q: Did anyone join Communism because of family, friends, personal contacts?

Chan: I think most people join the Communists because of Chinese school. The Chinese school at that time were formed from people coming from China and bringing their ideology. 

Q: What about the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Ya, slowly these Chinese schools are being dismantled. Therefore, the ideology we have watered down.  

Q: Were there people who were not in these Chinese schools who supported or were sympathetic to Communism?

Chan: Not that I heard of. Most of the Communist supporters were from Chinese-educated schools. Not even Chinese students from English schools—from English schools like I was educated in English schools. We do not support Communism. In fact, we think that it was evil. 

Q: Why do you think it was evil?

Chan: Because we felt that the economy was not open enough and it was a closed economy. How can people develop when you have a closed economy? 

Q: This was something you felt in the 1970s?

Chan: Yes, I felt that.  

Q: And if [Singapore] was a closed economy, what was the alternative?

Chan: That’s why I supported the government, because the government had an open economy. I believe that the Communists, especially the Chinese-educated students—they’re trying to destroy this economic structure which the government is trying to promote. They’re not supportive. In fact, they’ve instigated some strikes, some riots. I felt that it shouldn’t be the way to go.  

Q: Strikes and riots in the 1970s?

Chan: In the sixties right up to a little bit of in the 1970s, small assemblies of Chinese students. Some of these like— I was very young. Sort of like Nan Da University [Nanyang University]—at that time Nan Da was for Chinese students to go. At that time when the government said it wanted to close down Nan Da and change the name to become National Technology University. There were lots of protests, mostly from Chinese-educated students. They said the government is actually crushing the Chinese. From what I know, this is a hotbed for Communism. 

Q: Did you feel connected to China?

Chan: No I don’t feel connected to China, although I love the Chinese language.  

Q: Why do you think there was such a difference between you and someone of your age who supported China?

Chan: I guess I was brought up to the understanding that we do not have any backing from China. When our country was developing, there wasn’t any Chinese companies to support us, no Chinese technology come in to invest in us. I don’t see any investment. In fact, I see many investment from England, America. These are all open economies. At that time, I don’t see any support from the Chinese government. 

Q: What about labour unions? Did you hear about them in the 1970s?

Chan: Oh they were very strong. Some of these labour unions were very united. I’m not sure what strike was it but I think it was about the salary. They wanted some companies to raise up the salary but this company said no. The union members came together and have a strike. They engaged a lawyer to fight for their case and they won. The salary was being raised. I was too young to remember what case was it. 

Q: Probably the 1960s?

Chan: Probably sixties to early seventies. I was too young. By that time, I remember the labour unions were very strong.  

Q: Can you tell me the names of these unions? 

Chan: Like N.T.U.C. Don’t know what labour union. I can’t remember. Something like N.T.U.C.  

Q: Do you think these unions were related to the strikes and riots by people who supported China, people who supported Communism? 

Chan: I don’t think so; it was for their own livelihood and purpose. I don’t think it was politically inclined. It was because maybe at the time they wanted to have better pay. That’s from what I can remember. 

Q: How did the government react to strikes and riots by labour unions?

Chan: The government was actually very constructive. The government knew that if there was a strike, it would have cost economical [sic] dollars. If one day a factory is closed, a lot of money in terms of manpower, the time that was lost, the machine that had stopped production. The government were actively engaging these labours and unions and workers so they can work together, so that in the future there will be no more riots. I think in this area the government did well.  

Q: And you heard about these dialogues with the government and labour unions? 

Chan: Yes. Our Singapore government was very strong in terms of the workers’ welfare.  

Q: How did you see that when you were growing up?

Chan: The government was very pro-business. It really tried its best to help workers as well as the business partners to have a peaceful business environment so that together, we can progress and grow and prosper.  

Q: Did any labour unions work with Communism?

Chan: Not that I know of. There could be, but not to my knowledge.  

Q: How frequent were workers’ strikes and riots? 

Chan: In the sixties and seventies, there were definitely at least two to three strikes. Some were, I think, from postmen, I’m not sure what union. Even there was a bus driver strike. Hock Lee strike. I heard from my parents. 

Q: When you said two to three strikes—were they two to three strikes a year or—

Chan: —A year.  

Q: About the Hock Lee Bus Riot, can you tell me more about that?

Chan: I heard from my parents that the bus had stopped transporting people. Every bus service had stopped. There were no bus services. I was very young. I started taking the bus only in Primary Four—1974. At that time already no more Hock Lee bus.   

Q: Do you think the strikes and riots were no longer as frequent?

Chan: Definitely. At that time after the Hock Lee Bus [Riot], the government really clamp down on all these. I think after that, the government set up very good relationship with the union leaders. They say before you strike, have a conversation with us first before you do any drastic things, have a peaceful kind of talk. The government in this area was very successful. Now the trade unions were— although trade unions were very strong at that time, they were also receptive to the government because they wanted all the welfare of the workers. The government was very concerned about the welfare of the workers. The trade unions saw that point and they cooperated with the government. 

Q: When you were growing up, how did people talk about [the Hock Lee Bus Riots]?

Chan: They said actually the bus were not well run. It was like a small group of bus controlling the whole monopoly of Singapore. When they strike, people had no choice but to walk or cycle.  

Q: Do you think that these bus drivers were interested in Communism?

Chan: Maybe. From the conversation I heard, maybe they chen huo da jie, which means to make it messy to bring up this riot to— I shouldn’t say get rid of the government, to show the government that they mean business. By striking, they said, “Okay, I have disrupted your economy, I’ve disrupted the way people transport to work and school.” 

Q: How’s this related to Communism?

Chan: Because the main purpose of Communism, besides the ideology, they also want to gain a foothold in Singapore. As I’ve mentioned, China is seventy percent Chinese—most of them were supportive of Chinese ideology back home.   

Q: Did people see the Hock Lee Bus Riots as connected to Communism? 

Chan: From what I know, maybe only small percentage. Mostly, I think, people related to the Hock Lee Bus Riots as maybe disruption of the transport system.  

Q: In the 1960s, the Communist Party of Malaya [C.P.M.] returned to armed violence. This was [around] 1968. Did you hear about the Communists in Malaysia?

Chan: Yes, it was called the M-C-P: Malayan Communist Party.

Q: And how did you hear about them growing up? 

Chan: I read in the newspaper that they incited some of the Chinese-educated students to— And that’s why the government wanted to clamp down on them. Some Malaysians had some communication with our Singapore Chinese students. Together, they want to set up this communist party to disrupt the political scene in Singapore. 

Q: You heard about the M.C.P. in Singapore newspapers. Besides that, what did the newspapers talk about regarding the M.C.P.?

Chan: There was this person who was formerly from P.A.P. but because he was communist kind of ideology, he wanted to have a party that supports Communists. He was making use of P.A.P. At that time P.A.P. had quite a stronghold in Singapore politics. He came into P.A.P. trying to get some influence by his ideology. But at that time Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was against Communism. He got to know about this propaganda or something. This person—I can’t remember his name—he wanted to get more people to support him so he joined P.A.P. He thought the P.A.P. was a big political party so he can introduce people to Communism. But he did not succeed. But he did not manage to wrangle a lot of members from P.A.P. to another party. They form the Barisan Socialis, if I’m not wrong.  

Q: This was in the sixties?

Chan: Sixties to seventies. I was just too young. But I know that this guy was trying to influence people, especially from Chinese schools.  

Q: How do you think they affected the Chinese schools? 

Chan: Most of these Chinese schools supported him. They go to his rallies, they hold up banners, “Down with the government.” Sort of like that. But I only read in newspapers and saw the pictures.  

Q: You saw in the 1960s and 1970s? 

Chan: Ya.  

Q: Can you tell me some of pictures you saw?

Chan: Usually those Chinese-educated students are wearing white. They have those banners in Chinese, something like gong chang ping deng, that means fair, the Communists are fair, down with the government.  

Q: When they showed up in white, when they were waving these banners, what were they protesting against?

Chan: They’re saying that they want the communist way of life because they felt that it’s closer to their motherland and they felt the communist way of life was fair to low-wage workers.  

Q: In that sense, they were fighting for labour rights?

Chan: Could be. From what I’ve seen. But I was too young to understand.  

Q: Why did they wear white? 

Chan: Their school uniforms were white. Most [Chinese schools] have white [uniforms]. 

Q: Your uniforms?

Chan: Our pinafores were blue and yellow. We do not have any white. 

Q: Were there any other colours these Chinese-educated students or Communists [wore]?

Chan: Mostly white shirt with white pants. The girls were in white blouse and white skirt.  

Q: The M.C.P. was quite active in Malaysia in the 1960s and 1970s.

Chan: Ya, they were very, very powerful.  

Q: What about in Singapore?

Chan: Ya, that’s why this M.C.P. found that since they’re so strong in Malaysia, it wanted to influence the Singapore Chinese. They came down. I’m not sure if they’ve spoken to Chinese schools during their assemblies. I’m not sure because I had never attended Chinese schools before. 

Q: What else did they do in Singapore?

Chan: Some of them give out brochures, magazines that are Chinese-written.  

Q: Did you come across these materials?

Chan: That’s exactly what I was saying. I was reading this magazine or brochure. I’m not sure where I got it, maybe it was handed by someone who was talking about China, how good it is. 

Q: But you knew this was from C.P.M.?

Chan: M.C. P. 

Q: Sorry, M.C.P.

Chan: I’m not sure are they from M.C.P. But I know it’s a communist literature. I’m not sure whether they liaise with Chinese schools. Beyond these Chinese schools, they didn’t really bother us English-educated. Firstly, they were not well conversant in English. 

Q: What about in the public?

Chan: Not actually. They don’t do any public propaganda.

Q: Can you tell me the sorts of gender norms in the 1960s and 1970s? You told me your mother was, in your words, a traditional housewife? What sorts of norms were there in the 1960s and 1970s compared to your parents’ [generation and time]?

Chan: My generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s was definitely more open. We are not so constricted especially in education. We have a fair chance, not like my parents: only boys can go higher education, whereas girls up to a certain years—maybe one or two years of education–have to give up. When I was growing up, I was given a fairer chance–almost equal chance—of education. 

Q: Were there places where [it was] not equal?

Chan: In terms of pay, salary. Still men were paid more.  

Q: This was something you heard in the 1970s?

Chan: Ya, I heard. [From] My parents. They say, “Men more chance to be promoted.”  

Q: How did you feel about that?

Chan: I was too young to understand. But it didn’t affect me because I wasn’t working.  

Q: Did your mother influence you in a way?

Chan: No, she wanted her children to be well-education. She didn’t want me to be a housewife. In fact, she never allowed me to do housework because she said, “You should spend more time reading books and studying. Stay out of the kitchen.” She felt that her life, being a housewife, was not much of an eventful life. She want me to learn more, to see the world. Probably she didn’t want me to be like her. 

Q: Were work [patterns] for women changing in this period, the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: There were stereotypes. Men were still expected to be engineers, doctors. Women were supposed to be clerk, secretary, nurses. Most nurses, up to ninety-nine percent, were female. I had never seen a male nurse. When my classmate said he wanted to be a nurse in secondary school, I was surprised. I said, “You must be the first male nurse.” 

Q: There was still a preference for–

Chan: —Yes, especially politics and lawyers.  

Q: Did you regard [the 1960s and 1970s] as a [period of] change?

Chan: At the time, most of the work were, as Singapore was opening up to science and technology, still they were dominated by males. They had this thinking that males were better in math, science, technology.  

Q: And you were a girl interested in science. Were you affected by this bias?

Chan: Ya, because I was from a science class. Most people would say, “Where would you end up? You’ll end up just being a secretary.” I begged to differ because I felt that this was too narrow a thinking. Most older generation like my grandparents would say, “[inaudible] such a high education.” My parents—no, always encourage me to study. My classmates and I have the same thinking that, “There was no limits.” 

Q: You mean the girls?

Chan: The girls. The boys didn’t talk much about— They talk about football, they don’t talk much about.  

Q: How many girls were there in your [primary and secondary schools]?

Chan: My class, primary school, very few, we have very few girls, only seven girls. 

Q: Compared to, I would assume, the counterparts would be arts [classes]?

Chan: Ya. That brings us back to the stereotype. 

Q: Did Singapore society have any anxieties about women going to work?  

Chan: When I was growing up, most of the women didn’t work. Most of my friends, my classmates had mothers who were housewives just like my mum. At that time [the 1960s and 1970s], we were in need of manpower. Anybody who could do anything were welcomed. At that time the business was booming. Even if you have no education, no background, you are hired if you are able to work. 

Q: Did some people feel like women shouldn’t work. 

Chan: There were certain sectors but not at all, in dangerous jobs—construction, shipyards. I know most women went into teaching and nursing.  

Q: Did you hear about women fighting for their rights in the 1970s?

Chan: I heard of bra-burning. But I heard it in America, but not in Singapore. The feminism activity. Mostly from America. The women in America more advanced, they want more rights, more pay, they want the salary to be equal. I heard that many actresses and famous people came out to stand up for their rights. Some from Hollywood even.  

Q: How is bra-burning related to this?

Chan: In America, they are freer. They have freedom of speech. They talk. They said they want equal rights for women, they have been oppressed for too long. Though they have jobs, the promotion is not so great. They do not have the same salary as men, though they work the same hours as them. At that time, [bra-burning] was a worldwide event. In Singapore, we are not so much of that. In most of the western world, we have the feminism. They want to achieve the respect where women can be respected as who they are. They wanted the same opportunities as the men. 

Q: How did you hear about them?

Chan: I heard from the television, newspaper. 

Q: How did they talk about them? 

Chan: Usually they organise peaceful walks or march. 

Q: Watching these—

Chan: —movements

Q: Movements, what were your reactions?

Chan: I said, “Why would they do?” I actually wondering, why would women in other countries do that? I was curious but on the other hand, I really admired that why is it that women didn’t have this sort of movement in Singapore?

Q: There was no movement in Singapore?

Chan: Not when I was growing up. Women were still very conservative, always be obedient, always please the husband.  

Q: Do you think they had a need [or problem] to address?

Chan: Not actually. At that time, the stereotype is that the man is the sole breadwinner. 

Q: But the American women were courageous?

Chan: You mean if they would encourage our women to stand up for their rights?

Q: Did they do that?

Chan: I don’t think so.  

Q: But you were curious about why they [protested or demonstrated]?

Chan: Didn’t they already have a job? Why would they still have this march? 

Q: When you talk about bra-burning, what does it mean?

Chan: It means they did not want to have constraints, whether in terms of body, spirit, or salary. A bra is sort of a constraint but they said, “If men don’t wear bras, why must we wear bras? So we must burn our bras.” 

Q: And you saw that? On the news?

Chan: They literally threw their bras and went braless. 

Q: What did you feel about that?

Chan: Wow, that’s something that I wouldn’t have done. I said that was very courageous for them, to stand up for their rights. My mum was a sort of woman who was a traditional Chinese lady, who will please the husband and will do things out of the love for her children.  

Q: Did the Singapore public talk about feminism? 

Chan: Singapore men would always say, “Why do they have do this? We men are supposed to be the head of the house. Women shouldn’t have much say.”

Q: This was something you heard growing up?

Chan: Ya. 

Q: In response to the feminist movement?

Chan: Yes. 

Q: Can you tell me how you heard it?

Chan: Sometimes I go to marketplace, sometimes I walk along the streets of the coffeeshop. Some men would just have sarcastic remarks, always say, “I can earn enough to look after you, why do you always have to have this kind of movement.” 

Q: Did they think that Singapore women had their share of problems? 

Chan: They have this understanding that Singapore women may want to have this same kind of equality. But Singapore women, frankly speaking, are a coward lot. They kept to themselves, they do not want to create trouble. That’s why I always admired the Americans. 

Q: This [feminism] was a worldwide event?

Chan: Sort of.  

Q: In Sing—

Chan: —Singapore was just too small.  

Q: Were there any feminists in Singapore, people who advocated for women’s rights?

Chan: I believe there was. I can’t pinpoint a certain prominent [inaudible].  

Q: What about organisations? 

Chan: There was AWARE. They fight for women’s rights.  

Q: What did AWARE do in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: I had no inkling of AWARE until my teens.  

Q: 1980s?

Chan: 1980s.  

Q: What did AWARE do in the 1980s?

Chan: Try to promote the same rights as Americans. That’s why I say we’re slower by one step.  

Q: How did AWARE do so in the 1980s?

Chan: They have talks, they got invited to talks in schools. 

Q: Did you hear these talks?

Chan: Ya, sometimes in assembly I did hear. They advise girls that you have the freedom to dream of what you want and not be subordinate. 

Q: When you were attending these talks, what did you feel?

Chan: I said, “Hey, what she said is right.” I felt that women position in our society is very– We shouldn’t look down upon women. Some women can do the job as well as the men have. 

Q: Did AWARE organise any bra-burning activity?

Chan: No! [Laughs] In Singapore, riots and those unlawful assembly were– government actually not allowed. 

Q: Did the government know about feminism in America?

Chan: Definitely because it’s broadcast worldwide. If I, as a young girl, I can see from the television this movement, how wouldn’t the government?   

Q: Did the government talk about it? 

Chan: The government always saying this, that our economy is fair to everyone, and that job openings–especially the government during the advertisement for jobs— “You mustn’t mention that you prefer male. You mustn’t mention about you must employ a man. You must have general standard and say all are welcome.”

Q: Was this so in practice?

Chan: As you see from the advertisement in employment, unless it was specifically for a specific job, those general companies are not allowed to mention any genders. 

Q: Was there any link between women’s rights and Communism?

Chan: I’m not sure they always targeted girls, especially girl students.  

Q: You mean the Communists? 

Chan: Ya, I’m not sure why. Usually when I watch the television, I saw girls holding the banners. 

Q: In America?

Chan: No, in Singapore, the Chinese-educated. Chinese girls were very fervent in supporting Communism. 

Q: Did they talk about their gender?

Chan: They didn’t talk about gender. Especially when you talk about Communism. I’m not sure because a few times when I encounter people talking about Communism, they were usually girls or women. They talk about being fair.  

Q: Why do you think the Communism targeted girls and women?

Chan: I’m not sure whether this is correct. I always felt that they’re easily brainwashed. 

Q: Do you think they were?

Chan: Yes. I’m not biased against women. But I guess maybe they were being brainwashed in the sense that maybe Communism has a more equal kind of opportunity for women. 

Q: But was that a thought that many people had in Singapore? 

Chan: You mean generally that girls or women were more supportive of Communism?

Q: Or Communism supported women more? Was that something that appeared in Singapore?

Chan: Generally, I’m not sure. I remember one Chinese, very high-ranking, official did say that women held up half the world.  

Q: This was something you heard in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Ya. I said, “That’s a very good sentence!” Even I was so touched because to hear from a leader, even if it was a communist leader, to say that women were great because they hold up half the world. That’s a very inspiring kind of sentence to me.  

Q: Who was this leader?

Chan: Is it Mao Zedong? I’m not sure. But I know in Chinese, it says, nu ren ke yi cheng ban bian tian—literally, women hold up half the world.  

Q: Most people didn’t really hear about [the connection between Communism and women]?

Chan: Ya, there wasn’t really a direct kind of collaboration. 

Q: Did people associate feminism with leftist movements?

Chan: Leftist as in socialism?

Q: Ya, or workers.

Chan: I believe so. I felt that since they were supporting the feminism movement, there must be something that must be linked to equality. And equality in terms of salary, opportunities, education. 

Q: Did labour unions fight for women workers?

Chan: Definitely. I believe there are many trade unions and one of the trade unions had low-wage women.  

Q: Do you know the term ‘Cold War’?

Chan: I’ve heard of it many times. Until now, I’m not sure is between which countries. Cold War seem to, when I was young, I thought this was something to do with Russia and some other countries. Russia is so far away from Singapore, and did not have any economical [sic] collaboration. I know that Russia had war with many countries. It also had—I shouldn’t say enemies—I should say countries that it cannot go along, like America. 

Q: Why?

Chan: They always trying to, take for example the space race. It always want to be the first once. And there was this nuclear event where the Russian were building up a lot of nuclear plant, nuclear warfare.  

Q: Do you remember the first time you heard it?

Chan: In the 1970s.  

Q: Do you remember how?

Chan: There was this nuclear plant. I remember there was this nuclear plant explosion in this place. It sort of, like, at that time, the technology of nuclear was either from America or Russia. They exported all this nuclear technology and know-how to several countries including North Korea. All these countries, don’t know why they’re against each other.   

Q: You didn’t know why?

Chan: No.  

Q: Now?

Chan: Now I slightly understand that nuclear is energy, they need alternatives to this energy.  

Q: Did anyone talk about the Cold War in Singapore?

Chan: Not actually. But they did say a lot about Vietnam.  

Q: How is that related?

Chan: Vietnam is so much nearer to us. I had so much about America wanting to liberalise Vietnam from Communism. Unfortunately, they always said this greatest loss of face for America. We had television programmes on Vietnam’s war. I remember this show Combat, an American show. It shows America invaded Vietnam. It was a weekly episode where they showed America soldiers, how they fight the Vietnamese. 

Q: How did the soldiers fight?

Chan: They use tanks, always gunfire at the trenches.  

Q: What about chemical weapons?

Chan: They didn’t show but they always show land mines. 

Q: Did they depict the Vietnamese?

Chan: No, this was an American show. They would say that Americans rescued the Vietnamese villagers, managed to savage the place, help the villages. It’s propaganda for me.  

Q: Growing up you felt that?

Chan: I felt that they always showing the Americans were good people, they were trying to fight this war because they wanted to help the Vietnamese.  

Q: This was something you saw as a child?

Chan: Ya.  

Q: Did you believe that?

Chan: I kind of believed it. They always show that they were very good people. Soldiers—no matter how tired they are, how injured they were—they still helped the villages. I had this image that Americans were great people. But they seldom said about how the Vietnamese feel. 

Q: [The Americans] didn’t interact with Vietnamese troops in [Combat]? 

Chan: No. They only do a lot of fighting, they always go to the village, and help villagers escape gunfire. They was no Vietnamese conversation at all, only among the American soldiers. 

Q: So who were they fighting?

Chan: The Vietnamese.  

Q: So Vietnamese were shown?

Chan: But usually there were no conversation. The whole show is they enter the village, they were fighting against the soldiers, then the soldiers died, they managed to rescue some villagers. That’s it.  

Q: When they engaged the Vietnamese soldiers in combat, what did the American soldiers do?

Chan: They were shooting against each other. Some land mines explode. The fighting was just a certain section. They usually go back to camp and tend to the injure.  

Q: Did you see any Vietnamese being killed, or the Americans being killed?

Chan: More of the Vietnamese being killed.  

Q: How were they killed?

Chan: By land mines and grenades.  

Q: Was this a documentary?

Chan: No, it was a weekly show.  

Q: Was it fictional?

Chan: Yes, it was definitely fictional. Otherwise, why would they only have American conversation within the camp, and no Vietnamese conversation when they are doing the battleground?  

Q: When did you watch this?

Chan: I was in primary school. That’s definitely the seventies. At that time, I hated wars. I couldn’t understand why a big country would—I wouldn’t say invade—but come to a small country, have war? 

Q: America didn’t invade Vietnam?

Chan: For a big country to go into a smaller country, with all the military, that’s invasion. 

Q: But the show didn’t portray that?

Chan: No. It always show the Americans to be good, upright. 

Q: Did you feel it was an invasion when you were young?

Chan: I felt so. 

Q: You didn’t understand what the Cold War was in the 1960s and 1970s?

Chan: Not really. Not much was said in Singapore of the Cold War. I only know Russia was involved along with other countries, around the region: Georgia, Poland, around that area. 

Q: Any other countries involved?

Chan: Maybe America might have a hand in it. But I’m not sure. A lot of people died. 

Q: Where did [these deaths] happen?

Chan: I think it also involved also Germany. Some European countries like Germany, Poland, and the surrounding border of Russia was involved, Croatia. 

Q: What was the Cold War?

Chan: Fight for sovereignty? That’s how I feel? I have no idea.  

Q: Did Singapore participate in the Cold War?

Chan: Not that I know of. I’m not sure. Not much has been said. The media didn’t give much prominence to the Cold War. In fact, the media gave much prominence to the Vietnam War.  


Interviewer: Jeremy Yong

Interviewee: Chan Kah Yee

Tags & Keywords

Transcript Notes

  1. The Hock Lee Bus Riots in the 1950s were organized by the labor unions to demand better pay for bus drivers, and were cracked down by the Lim Yew Hock government.

  2. Chang’e appears in Chinese mythology as a woman who left her unloving husband to go to the moon, and the Mid-Autumn Festival (colloquially, Mooncake Festival) celebrates her departure.

  3. The interviewee says the Nanyang University was renamed the Nanyang Technological University. This is a commonly held misconception in Singapore. However, Nanyang University had merged with Singapore University to form the present National University of Singapore.

  4. The interviewee mistakenly recollects that the show Combat! depicted the American deployment into Vietnam. The series was a much older program that pre-dated the Second Vietnam War, and depicted the American military’s clashes with Germany in WWII.

  1. How does 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.

  4. Discuss how the cultural contestations in Singapore’s Cold War differed from those of the West, in light of Kah Yee’s recollections.