Ila Session 1 Interview

In this first session of her interview, Ila discusses her early life growing up in Singapore, her mixed ethnic heritage, her identification as a Malay-Muslim, and her exposure to the term Communism, and foreign media productions.

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This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.

Born in 1961 into a large household with 14 siblings, Ila fondly recalls growing up in a kampong house until she moved to government-built flats in the 1970s. She recalls that the Chinese community was the minority in her area, but that she had friends across all ethnic groups and that there was no friction between the communities. Her father was a Javanese police officer with the coast guard, and her family was later permitted to stay in police quarters. Her mother, of part Chinese heritage but raised in an Indian household, peddled goods to supplement the family’s income, until she eventually lost her battle with cancer. Despite their differing ethnic backgrounds, her family spoke Malay at home, and Ila herself was later assigned as a Malay in her national ID.

At school, Ila studied a variety of subjects, from the Malay and English languages, the sciences, and the humanities, right from the elementary level, in a broader curriculum than is taught today. She recalls that students and teachers shared a closer relationship then. Students were also actively involved in extracurricular sporting activities, which left them little time for recreation such as watching television. Ila admits to having been a slow learner with little interest in her early years of education. However, she developed greater interest in her secondary school coursework, particularly in woodworking. She later pursued her vocational and technical education. Outside of her compulsory (secular) education, Ila also received religious education, first at home from her uncles, and later, through Islamic night classes.

She then found employment as a technician, and continued upgrading her skills, obtaining a diploma in architecture that would permit her to be promoted. However, she did not receive the appointment as she had gotten married and started a family by then, taking unpaid leave through two pregnancies before resigning. She reflects on how this was a conscious decision on her part to forgo her career to focus on child rearing, while many of her peers continued their careers even after having children by hiring helpers. As a parent, Ila prioritized the religious education of her daughters, opting to educate them in the Madrasah full-time, which was not available to her in her own childhood. She also explains that she and her husband divided their roles in parenting, with her taking the “softer” approach to disciplining their children while leaving it to her husband when the “harder” approach was required.

Ila also explains that she only has a very rudimentary understanding of Communism and the Cold War. She was only exposed to these terms in her adulthood, and views communism as an ideology whose adherents seek to follow their own system that is disconnected from the needs of the larger populace. She also recalls watching various American television series that portrayed the American protagonists in a positive light. In particular, she remembers resonating with the shows’ suggestion that the protagonists are helping their community. She provides the example of the American series Combat, which depicted the American resistance against Nazi forces in the second world war. Ila’s detached perspective of the Cold War and Communism illustrates the limits of Cold War ideas’ penetration into Singapore society in the 1960s and beyond.

Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy

Interviewee: “Ila”

Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy 

Session: 1 of 2

Location: Chai Chee Road

Date: September 23, 2019


Q: Tell me your name.

Ila: My name is Ila.

Q: What year were you born in?

Ila: I was born in 1961.

Q: Where were you born?

Ila: K. K. [Kandang Kerbau] Hospital.

Q: Singapore?

Ila: Singapore. 

Q: What are your earliest memories about your childhood?

Ila: I live in a big family. I enjoyed the childhood because we live in a kampong. We have a gotong royong environment. We played with our neighbourhood. We enjoyed our life: school holiday, interacting with our neighbours. 

Q: How big was your family?

Ila: I have fourteen in the family. Five girls and nine boys. I’m the tenth. I have two first brothers, four sisters, a brother, a sister, and myself. 

Q: How did you feel growing up in this family?

Ila: I happy with it. Although I have no mother at the age of eleven, my sisters and brothers help one another. My sister cook for us, my brother educate us. My second brother is a teacher, so help us in our daily life.

Q: Where did you grow up?

Ila: At Jalan Bayam [inaudible term], around Geylang. 

Q: Did you have any memories about your parents, your mother especially?

Ila: I don’t have much. Before my mother pass away, she has illness. We have not much contact with her. Only thing we help her is housework. We have a routine of doing our housework. We only see her a hardworking my mother. My father too. We live in a kampung where it has a lot of rooms, not like now, we’re living in a flat, with small, limited rooms. 

Q: Can you describe your living environment for me?

Ila: We have six rooms, a big kitchen, a big hall. We have a lot of place to hang around, in the house. 

Q: Is this a flat?

Ila: It’s a kampong house. It’s not a bungalow, but it’s a big house where you can fit everybody. We stayed there for five years because the government have to redevelop that area, when I was Primary One until coming into Primary Six, halfway through.   

Q: After that—

Ila: —Shifted to flat. 

Q: An H.D.B. [Housing Development Board] flat?

Ila: Yes. Upper Boon Keng. 

Q: This was about—

Ila: —Ten, twelve, eleven—somewhere around there. 

Q: The 1970s?

Ila: Ya, Primary Five. Maybe twelfth years old. My father is a policeman. Last time, the salary is not that high. He’s a marine police, always out of Singapore, to look around the island, go other country. My mother has to raise us in Singapore. To help my father, she sell food, other things, for the benefits of the family [to] our neighbour, our relatives to sell the items. She like to cook. Last time, we don’t have buying things outside. Every day she cook for us. Two years before she pass away, my sisters take over. She has stomach cancer. At that time, stomach cancer is not well known. Until she pass away, then we know. The kampong always say curse. But it’s nothing. We don’t believe that, we go to the hospital. All the young ones stay at home, the old ones visit her. Before she pass away, she come back to our home. We saw her. She’s passing off. 

Q: When you were a child, do you remember your emotions seeing that?

Ila: Of course, as a child you need love. It’s regret that I cannot give her love. I’m very happy that my elder sisters and brothers helping her so much. We feel sad that we can’t serve her. God love her so much. We have to accept the situation that she has to leave.

Q: What hospital did she go?

Ila: Not sure. They can’t save her. Cancer is not that popular. 

Q: Tell me about your father’s role as a marine policeman. 

Ila: When my mother pass away, he retired. I feel sad for my father. He retired and want to be with the family but my mother pass away. He’s a staff inspector. Last time age of forty-five, everyone retire. Every [job] that is government, government policy. 


Q: Did your [siblings] work? Can you tell me their jobs?

Ila: My first brother is a warden, also retired at forty-five. He’s now about seventy-three years old. My second brother is a teacher, also retiree at the age of forty-five. My third sister is a warden clerk, at the prison. She passed away—she was fifty-six, because of stomach cancer. My seventh sister is a nurse, a midwife, she married a Malaysia and went to Malaysia to be a nurse. 

Q: Were they working when you were growing up?

Ila: Yes.

Q: In these positions?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: What was your family’s economic situation like?

Ila: Slowly we are developing very well. When we were young, time is very tough. Fourteen of us. Tough for my father and mother. My mother is all the way housewife, not working at all. She help whatever things need to be help—financial, emotion, because [my father] is not in Singapore. She had done a good job to the sisters. When we got married, we understand what love is, it is tough to be a mother. 

Q:  Can you tell me more about how your mother sold things like clothes?

Ila: If a person likes it, they buy the material, how many yards they want, they collect and pay how many months they wish. The amount is the same, there’s no interest. I don’t know the price. 

Q: How did [your mother] get these things [to sell]?

Ila: They have to get it from the shop. [She has to buy] in bulk. I remember I went to one of the buyers, haven’t pay for [the goods she bought]. We went to her house and ask back the money. For months, she doesn’t pay. The lady is reluctant to pay. You take the cloth, you’re supposed to pay. The lady said, “Sorry.” I told my mother, my mother say it’s alright. We sell for their needs. They don’t want to pay, what can we do? We can’t force them. 

Q: Did she make a profit? 

Ila: I think she’d have. When my first two brothers work, and my third sister, it seems to be stable. [My mother] pass away at the age of forty-three. 

Q: When was she born?

Ila: I’m not sure. I think it’s 19— My father was born 1925, so five years difference, 1930?

Q: Were they born in Singapore?

Ila: Both. 

Q: What about your grandparents?

Ila: To be frank with you, my mother is Chinese. She was adopted by an Indian Muslim. I don’t know the history of my mother. When I was young, my father still have the mother, but the father pass away. 

Q: Your mother was a Chinese—

Ila: —Born Chinese. 

Q: Were there any official documents?

Ila: Ya, there is. She has. But when she got married, she doesn’t like the name, she tear off the birth cert. We don’t know what’s the history. My father is a Javanese, they come from a big family too. My father raise us in a good, nice— He doesn’t like to scold us. He just say once, twice. You want to do, don’t want to, just keep quiet. We see that his actions show good. That’s why we respect him. When he pass away, he doesn’t pass away in Singapore, he pass away in Mecca. He went for Hajj. But we regret we doesn’t see him. He went with his younger brother. The first time he went, he went by himself, when my mother pass away. Ten years later, he went with his brother. 

Q: This brother was your uncle? 

Ila: Ya. Six years difference [in their ages]. Younger brother. But he also pass away, three years ago. My father pass away when I was twenty-three.

Q: Did you remember any of the stories your parents shared about their own lives?

Ila: Oh no. I was still young. My mother already have sickness. We don’t have much communication. She went in and out of hospital.

Q: So you don’t remember anything about, for instance, their Javanese culture?

Ila: No. But my mother she adapt more of Indian culture. The adopted mother is Indian. 

Q: Did she talk or share about her culture with you?

Ila: No. I young what, no time to talk. Morning, she prepare. She more communication with the older ones because they have to do a lot of things. We help a bit. Javanese—my father doesn’t practice Javanese. He speak Javanese to his mother. He speak to us Malay. We speak Malay. 

Q: Your mother—

Ila: —She knows how to speak Indian a bit. And Hokkien, she’s very good. When my father pass away, I busy with my own work. I doing part-time studies and working in day time for four years. Time move very fast. After that, I got married. That time, I’m busy with my own activities. Majority we speak Malay, we never speak other languages.

Q: Did you go to school?

Ila: Ya, seven years old, normal. I didn’t go kindergarten. Straight away, Primary One. 

Q: So this was 1968?

Ila: About there [laughs]. 

Q: What school did you go to?

Ila: Telok Kurau Primary School. Telok Kurau Road, Lorong what ah? Forgot. 

Q: Was it common for children of your age to go to school?

Ila: Ya, our neighbours all went to school. 

Q: What did you do in school?

Ila: We study. We have C.C.A. [co-curricular activities]. 

Q: Can you tell me your C.C.A.?

Ila: Brownies, athletes, cross-country. I take part in individual home, red house. 

Q: So these were school teams?

Ila: School teams. Sorry, sports. All the children have to participate in sports. Red house. After that, we were selected to represent school for cross-country. 

Q: Did you go for any competitions?

Ila: Ya, I don’t. We did that for the East Zone. 

Q: Did you like these activities?

Ila: I do. It’s really enjoy, make yourself refreshing. It fill up your time with— I didn’t feel emptiness. You really enjoy the activities that given by the school. That’s why I participate in cross-country, brownies.  

Q: What subjects did you do in school?

Ila: Science, arts, English, Malay. Primary school right? I think we have some geography too, history. 

Q: Primary school?

Ila: Ya. The syllabus is different from now. 

Q: What were your favourite and least favourite subjects?

Ila: I don’t know what subjects I love because I’m a slow learner. But as I go higher, I pick up. I go secondary school I like to do designing, in the technical line. I did for my diploma. That is the part-time studies lah. 

Q: Can you describe your primary school?

Ila: Telok Kulau Primary School is in a very nice location. We walk to school. Last time we have a kampong environment. My sister always cook for us, pack food to school. The assignment, teacher always, “Oh, you do well!” Last time the teacher was like your friend. That’s what we believe, some communication with your teachers. When we were selected for our cross-country, I was grateful. The teacher communicate with us, after C.C.A. treat us with drinks. It’s a family bonding. 

Q: You moved to an H.D.B. flat when you were still in primary school?

Ila: Primary school, when I go to Secondary One. I was in Maju Secondary School. 

Q: After you shifted, were you walking to school?

Ila: No, because Maju School was quite a distance [away] from Upper Boon Keng. We have to take bus. The bus is okay. Last time, not a lot of people, no complaints [laughs]. The timing was— Not many buses. We know the timing. Morning ride, our school start at 7.30 [a.m.], so we have to go earlier. Last time bus facilities not that convenient as now. Now is convenient and comfortable. Every time crowded, because it’s peak period. We rarely go out during the off period. Last time, the bus is no air-con[ditioner], is natural ventilation, you have to rush to get the correct timing. 

Q: How did you feel?

Ila: I didn’t feel anything. Since young, we were trained to go to school ourselves, walk to school. When you go secondary school, you doesn’t have any complaint. At that time, everything go smoothly, doesn’t feel like late to school, got difficulty to go to school. No obstruction or problem for us to not go to school. The bus fare last time is very cheap, ten cents. You pay and they give you the ticket, to the conductor. 

Q: Going back to your primary school, what languages did you learn?

Ila: Malay and English. 

Q: Any other languages?

Ila: No. 

Q: Were Malay and English common languages?

Ila: Yes. When Chinese, they go to another class. Malay, go to another class. Majority, we speak English to non-Malays. If there is a Malay subject, we have to shift to Malay class. 

Q: What about English?

Ila: English is common. Maths, science, history, geography. Only language we have to speak. 

Q: How many people were in Malay language class compared to Tamil and Mandarin?

Ila: That time my class got a lot of Malays. So the Chinese and Indians go to another class. We remain in the form class. That time kampong area a lot of Malays. The Chinese are the minorities. Our area is Geylang, a lot of Malays at that time.

Q: Did you like learning these languages?

Ila: Yes, it’s everyday communication. I wish I can speak more language, but I don’t have the opportunity. At that time, common they use is Malay. Some Chinese doesn’t speak Mandarin, they speak Malay.

Q: Did your school encourage you to learn a particular language?

Ila: No. 

Q: Did they promote English at that time?

Ila: No. Languages is not promoted at that time. It’s taught in the timetable, not like now, they encourage you have to speak this one. Last time they don’t.

Q: Was the situation the same [in secondary school]?

Ila: Same thing. 

Q: Even for English, Malay?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: Let’s talk about literacy. Were there reading materials available for you in school and at home. 

Ila: Ya. That time in primary school we have good reading books. But not as now the generation. 

Q: What sorts of books were in school?

Ila: Enid Blyton, the Famous Five? Children books. Seven Famous, something like that. 

Q: What was this book about?

Ila: Investigation. That time, when I was in primary school I didn’t go to the library. My friends borrow a lot of books. For me, not really. If I borrow the books, it’s Enid Blyton, or Famous Amos I think? Famous Amos is the name. 

Q: Tell me more about Enid Blyton. What was it about?

Ila: Forgot already. 

Q: What language was this—

Ila: —English, all English. I didn’t take storybook in Malay. Majority are all English. 

Q: No Malay?

Ila: I didn’t borrow books. My friends did; we shared together. 

Q: Did they tell you about—

Ila: —No. Sometimes, once a while I read. — When my children grow up, they have T.V. program for that. It recalls back the stories. 

Q: What about at home?

Ila: At home, I also don’t read. We enjoy playing with neighbours. We have religion classes after primary school; secondary school we have no opportunity because I shifted to a flat. We haven’t get the right teachers. Like kampung we know our relatives, my uncle taught us. When we get to the flats, I was in secondary school. My uncles shifted to all different places.

Q: These uncles were your family members?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: What did they teach you?

Ila: Islamic studies and Qur’an for reading. We play in the day then at night we go for classes. 

Q: Tell me about the religious classes. Were they normally at night?

Ila: Ya. There were a lot of people. 

Q: From the kampong?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: What about—

Ila: —Other places?

Q: Other places.

Ila: No. Always the kampong environment.

Q: Where were these classes conducted?

Ila: In their houses. Last time, the kampong is not that small. About six rooms we have. My uncle also has a big hall. We all sit in a hall. We take turns to read. Sometimes [my uncle] tells a story about Islamic studies. 

Q: So their entire house is for your family?

Ila: Yes.

Q: Did you share any rooms?

Ila: Yes, of course, because we have nine sisters and five brothers. My first brother got married, shifted out. [My] second brother got married, have one room. Three people stay in one room. 

Q: When you attended Islamic studies, when you read the Qur’an, tell me what you learned?

Ila: We learn reading the Qur’an from the beginning, of how to know areading. Like if you learn English, have to learn the A B Cs, the phonics. Same thing as what the Qur’an is. You have to learn the alphabets, Arabic words, the phonics, the surahs—passage. We did some memorising after reading of some surahs. Because so many people right? It doesn’t read the whole sentence. Usually the surahs got a few sentence, so a bit by bit by bit. 

Q: What did you feel about these classes, growing up?

Ila: I feel secured because we have a belief in life. When I grow to secondary school, we feel lost because we don’t have teachers. But secondary two or three, we start to have outside classes. We have to go out, we study at the mosque. 

Q: Why were your uncles teachers?

Ila: Since young, they taught other peoples before me. Before, my father was a policeman, so we stay in a barrack. We stay at Cantonment Road in a flat when I was young. From there, we shifted. My father already retired, so we cannot stay there. You know why we stay in the barrack? Once in a while we have a spot check to do all this for the police. Last time they always give a barrack. Any urgent, they call. 

Q: Were there any policewomen?

Ila: Yes, my sister is. My sister is a prison clerk. That’s number four. Fifth is a clerk in private. Sixth is the one who help us a lot when my mother pass always, cooking, studying. Seven, is a full-time army. Is a brother. Eight is nurse. Nine is policewoman. My sister is a policewoman until the age of fifty, after ‘O’ Levels, she took electronics and engineering in N.T.C.-3 [National Technical Certificate]. She retired as a staff sergeant. Now they call it station police. 

Q: Did she take any subjects related to electronics and engineering in secondary school?

Ila: Ya, when we were in secondary school we take technical line. For me, I’m doing woodwork. For her, she’s doing metalwork. We do furniture-making. They do all in metals. One more is, electrical. They deal with electronics. 

Q: Did you choose the technical line?

Ila: Ya, I love to make furniture. But in the end, I do building line. But it’s related. When you go to the building line, you need to have a technical subjects. When you in Sec[ondary] Two, we have technical class, science, arts and home economics. I preferred to have technical. My sister, the nurse one, doing home economics, cooking. Can be cooking or needlework. My husband is two years older than me, he do pure science. Arts is drawing. 

Q: Your sister got the certificate for— 

Ila: —Metal. Technical. After ‘O’ Level, she taking electronics and engineering in, now they call it I.T.E. [Institute of Technical Education], last time they call it National Trade Certificate. Hers is called—I forgot. They have a name for that. They didn’t call it vocational.

Q: So it’s not vocational?

Ila: Hers is certificate, like N.T.C.-3. Hers is N.T.C.-2. It’s a centre of this electronic training. Vocational, they have like me. Have so many vocational like I.T.E. like that. I’m from Punggol Vocational [Institute]

Q: Did [your sister] ever tell you if there were a lot of policewomen in Singapore?

Ila: Ya, a lot. 

Q: What was your image [of the job] like?

Ila: She also enjoy the working so she continue. We found out our relatives also in police force. Now at the age of fifty-five, you can prolong [your retirement], there’s no C.S.C. [Card and Civil Service] card. No more, every month the government give you, what you call it? Pension. My sister got pension, that’s the last batch of pensions. They have that pension, that’s why the salary is less. 

Q: Did she tell you how many policewomen there were?

Ila: That one she didn’t tell me. 

Q: Compared to men?

Ila: That one I’m not sure. She said she enjoy. There’s a female, she has to escort. 

Q: Like a prisoner?

Ila: Or criminal, or victim. They have to learn a lot of things. She has to accompany this girl, something wrong, but she has mental problems, so have to accompany her, counsel her. Then send her to hospital. If got criminal, send to prison. 

Q: So this was her role?

Ila: Main role at that time. They always changing. She ever be a civilian’s police. A lot of things she do for the police force. 

Q: Why did she enjoy police work? 

Ila: She loves communication, she loves social. Until she married, she resign. For me, after I got my diploma, I retired for thirty years. For her, she’s a career woman. But I’m not. 

Q: So you said that she retired after she got married?

Ila: No, she doesn’t retire. She retired because service fifty years already. 

Q: [When] she got married, she didn’t retire?

Ila: No. 

Q: Did she have any children?

Ila: Four. 

Q: Were there any pressures on her to retire?

Ila: No, because she take maid. For me, I don’t. I want to take care of my own children. She has a caregiver—neighbours, friends. 

Q: Was it common for women to retire after they got married and have children?

Ila: Ya, like me. I retire because I don’t want to have maid, I don’t want to trouble my parent-in-law, because I don’t have parent, only parent-in-law. My husband also wants me to stay at home and take care of the children. After I take my N.T.C.-3, I’m a craftswoman, I become a technician. After I got my diploma, I can be a [inaudible]. My supervisor say [I] can be promoted. But I take no-pay leave for my first child until my second child, then I resign. So I can’t be promoted! I got my diploma in architecture, so I stay at home. 

Q: Did the women around you, about your age, when they got married, did they [resign]?

Ila: No, most of my sisters all working after married. But some of them work a few years, nobody taking care of the child, so she has to resign, then pick up later when the child grow up. 

Q: Why was there no one taking care of the child?

Ila: Sometimes, no right caregiver to take care of the child. For me, I don’t trust. 

Q: Were the husbands working?

Ila: All the husbands working. 

Q: Was it common for husbands to stay at home and take care of the children?

Ila: If it’s health problem, there’s no problem to stay at home. But is no health problem, how to stay at home? If you can work, you have to work, this is what I feel. Men working is better than woman. Woman love to take care of children, it’s better. We’re softer, it’s natural. I have shared some of my friends, they have one person only. Like me, my mother don’t have my father. —

Q: What were some of the differences between men and women when it came to childcaring? 

Ila: It depends. Nowadays, I feel that some men are also good in taking care of children. But they are a bit hard on certain things. Sometimes too soft, the children— When the woman is soft or hard, they balance out. This is what I feel. I share with my husband, “I cannot handle.” If I cannot handle in a soft way, I have to handle in a hard way, I call my husband. They can respect each other. We have to give duties on that. Somebody must be softer, somebody must be harder. Sometimes I’m harder, my children cannot take it. You have to discuss with each other as a mother and father.  

Q: What do you mean by softer than harder?

Ila: The challenge is studies. Sometimes children don’t want to study. So how to overcome all these things? They don’t want to study for exams, how to do that? My husband take over, “Why is it you don’t want to study?” If I cannot handle, I told my husband. If there are certain things I cannot solve the problems. My first four girls are from Madrasah school, Islamic school. They learn eleven subjects. It’s tough for me. Certain things I don’t know, he take over. 

Q: Was there Madrasah when you were growing up?

Ila: I didn’t go for Madrasah. 

Q: But there was?

Ila: There is Madrasah, but is only part-time. Full-time, there is, but I didn’t take full-time. Now also same thing, there is a full-time and a part-time. For first four girls is full-time. School as per normal. But my last four, they learn in a secular school, the government school. And they learn part-time Madrasah. 

Q: Growing up, did you have?

Ila: Not really Madrasah, but I learn Qur’an and a bit of Islamic studies with my uncle. They call it a mini Madrasah. 

Q: Was there a ‘full’ [time] Madrasah when you were growing up?

Ila: There is about four, I think. 

Q: This was the 1960s and 1970s?

Ila: Fifties also have. But they only learn in the Islamic studies. And a bit of academic. But now is full because the government want us to have more. We have to learn more? 

Q: How do you feel about that?

Ila: I feel it’s a benefit for my children. If you go to part-time, also same thing you learn. You might as well as a whole, you learn everything together, at least be systematic. But Madrasah also have limited intake. My first daughter, before they go to Madrasah, they have to go for test. One of the top of sixty students. Then they interview the parents, why you want to put your children in Madrasah. 

Q: What did you say?

Ila: I want them to practice in Islamic way of life, that’s why I want my children to be in Islamic studies. I don’t know our answer has been noted. It’s also based on results. If your answer is good but your child doesn’t do well, ya. 

Q: Was the procedure getting into Madrasah similar [when you were growing up]? 

Ila: That time no. My daughter, the first one, is thirty-two years [old now]. That’s the first batch that the government tighten. 

Q: The 1990s?

Ila: 1994. But before they go Primary One, I taught them. Before I got married, I brush up my Islamic studies. I learn a lot of things. I feel that I at lost. I am Muslim. I have no opportunity to study. I told myself, “You have to learn more, shame on you don’t’ learn a lot of things.” I did a lot of polishing, reading the Qur’an, learn about Islamic studies. Roughly I can teach my student when I’m a full-time housewife. I teach a lot. Only certain things I lost, like Arabic, so I have to call my husband. My husband learn a lot of Arabic, for me I less. I only learn reading Qur’an, the translation, in English, Malay, there’s a lot of things. We have to read a lot. I grow older then I read a lot. In secondary school, I didn’t read a lot of books. When I grow older, then I realise it’s important. I’m a late groomer. I develop myself slowly. My children says, “How you know huh?” I say I learn! How the bedding is strong? I told them I’m from architecture, it’s from the foundation, the beam—all these things from calculation. 

Q: Could you share more about that?

Ila: Architecture?

Q: Yes. 

Ila: Architecture they have design. When you design, you have to see how big the floor area, then must have the window, ventilation. We have to put to engineering details: how many bars are there, the floor area, have to calculate. If it’s H.D.B. flat, we need to put how many units, how many compounds. 

Q: You told me you like woodwork compared to the others—

Ila: —Metals and electronics. Because I don’t like electronics. Sec One, Sec Two I don’t fancy. I think electronics is more of maths. Maybe my maths is not good. Also, thinking. I think I’m hands-on. Woodwork is hands-on. Metal also hands-on, but metal is tough. When you do mistake, you cannot correct it. Wood you can do other design, more flexible.

Q: How big was the technical stream?

Ila: About two classes, they have a combination of metal and electronics in one class, and woodwork in one class. 

Q: How many boys and girls were there in your class?

Ila: Girls are more than boys in home economics. For technical, fifty-fifty. When they stream down to woodwork, boys is more. Electronic is girls, balance. Some of the girls doesn’t like to do woodwork or metalwork. The place is dirty hands. You have to do all these things. That’s why our woodwork boys is more. If you see engineering, there’s more guys. 

Q: But you like woodwork. 

Ila: I don’t like metal. It’s oily. I like woodwork, you can smell the wood, it’s calmer. We make chairs, stools you can see. Metal is just a small thing, you build something I don’t really like it. 

Q: Were there equal opportunities for girls and boys to get into the stream of their choices?

Ila: Ya, it’s their result for Sec Two. 

Q: Were there any pressures—

Ila: —Based on the results. If your result is good, of course you can go to the good class. 

Q: Why were there so many girls in home economics?

Ila: That time got dressmaking and cooking. Majority of the girls like it. But now, in I.T.E., boys is a lot, cooking! Last time not much boys like to do dressmaking and cooking.

Q: Was it because there was a certain cultural—

Ila: —I’m not sure. We see that more boys in technical line, pure science, arts. But the boys don’t really enjoy doing that. It’s not open yet. But now they see the world is opening for guys to do the cooking. 

Q: Growing up, did you hear about Chinese and English educated schools?

Ila: When I go secondary school then I learn there is a Chinese-educated stream. I’m in a—the school they have a Malay stream. There’s not much Chinese there. That’s why when you ask me, the Malay how many, the minority is the Indians and Chinese, because there’s a Malay stream in my period. After that, there’s no Malay stream. Government stop Malay stream, they have a English stream. I’m from the English stream at that time. 

Q: So it was classified as—

Ila: —They call it Maju Secondary School. It’s not a Malay school. It has a Malay stream. Malay school is like Sang Nila Utama. Oh ya, supposed to be the same lah, Malay school. Once they have a Malay stream, there’s a Malay school. I was from there. The Chinese is more on the Chinese school. 

Q: Do you know the word ‘Communism’?

Ila: Communist lah. Ya, I heard. 

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

Ila: That’s why I said, when we are in the kampong, we are in the gotong royong situation. In an environment where there’s not much problem with our neighbour because majorities there are all Malays. Although there’s a Indian, but there’s no problem. I didn’t hear about Communism until I know when I grow older. When I go secondary school, there is no. I have a Chinese friend. When I go to I.T.E., I also have a good friend. I’m the only Malay in the class. All my friends all Chinese. There’s no such as, “Eh, you not Malay or not ah? Don’t want lah.” All my Chinese friends work together. There’s no they left me alone. That class is a good class. The second class is also [inaudible], but majority are Malays. Or who first-come-first-serve also not sure. It really help me when we do first year. There’s no problem of Communism. I didn’t hear about that. 

Q: What do you understand about the term Communism?

Ila: I don’t know. I believe they have their own rules and regulation, doesn’t follow the government, something like that. 

Q: Who do you think were Communists?

Ila: I don’t have any. My friends also don’t have. At that time, we rarely watch T.V. I didn’t watch T.V. most of the time. I don’t watch T.V. until I have my own children to watch education like Sesame Street, education programme. Last time we have Malaysian channel. We have the Qur’an, Islamic studies from Malaysia for little children and for us—revision. We how to teach children? That time we learn. But you got young children how to teach? From there we learn.  

Q: Were these T.V. shows available in the 19—

Ila: —Ya, until recently the government stop order. The Malaysian doesn’t want T.V.-1, 2, or 3 to get here. They want to be a private. You have to subscribe. 

Q: In the past, it was public and—

Ila: —It’s free in Singapore. 

Q: You said you rarely watched T.V. 

Ila: No time. We have a lot of C.C.A. When I was in primary school, I represent my school for cross-country. I went to secondary school also same time. I go to I.T.E., I be all-rounder, I be librarian, I go cross-country. I love my friends, so we together. Enjoy school time lah.

Q: Was there a T.V. in your house when you were growing up?

Ila: Ya. 

Q: How much did it cost in the past?

Ila: I’m not sure. 


Q: Going back to this point about T.V., was it common in Singapore households in the 1960s or 1970s to have a T.V.? 

Ila: Sixties?

Q: What about the sixties?

Ila: Not common. At that time, some of them say, like my husband, that there’s no T.V. they have to share with the neighbour. 

Q: Community centres?

Ila: Ya. Neighbours also. 

Q: They’ll watch together?

Ila. Yes. 

Q: What about the 1970s?

Ila: Seventies is no problem what, they already started to have a lot of T.V.s. 

Q: [D]id you watch— 

Ila: —Bionic Man. Sorry, Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman. Sorry, Bionic Man and Wonder Woman. Charlie’s Angels also. That’s the first three things that popular at that time. 

Q: In the 1970s?

Ila: Ya, correct. 

Q: Can you describe these shows? Let’s start from Bionic Man

Ila: I don’t know if this is correct or not. He was injured, they make him alive, and be a bionic. He help a lot of community, you know the public? The body is all— I don’t know how they do it, I forgot. They help the public, police to do some crime. Like Superman. It’s very popular. 

Q: What country was this show from?

Ila: America. 

Q: What about Wonder Woman?

Ila: Like all these superheroes, help solve crimes. 

Q: Was she from America as well?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: Charlie’s Angels?

Ila: Also [American]. They want to investigate something. They disguise, they want to know what’s happening, like detective. Civilian detective. They’re very well-trained like policewoman. If any case, people will call them to investigate. They disguise themselves as certain people that they know. – Mission Impossible, something like that. Mission Impossible is one person, this is three person. There’s a male boss and three girls involved. – The boss is not bossy, very good lah, coordinate them to do the work. 

Q: They’re from America. Did they depict anything about America?

Ila: I don’t know of that. 

Q: Watching these shows, what were your emotions. What were your feelings?

Ila: I was so happy. They help the community, help people, that’s what I feel. We feel secured. “What’s this show? Hopefull these people come and help.” The mentality like superhero come and help. 

Q: You feel secure about Singapore or life in general?

Ila: Life in general means what?

Q: You said you feel secure when you watch these shows. Why was that so?

Ila: I feel that as a human being, you have to help people, why not? Do it for it. 

Q: Was their message to a Singapore audience, to you for instance?

Ila: I feel that it’s a good attitude to help people. When my children young they like to watch Superman, Ultraman. It’s good, you’re helping people. It doesn’t harm people. That’s a good show. 

Q: Because these shows were about America, did you learn about America through these shows?

Ila: To be frank, I don’t know about America. Once a while, I watch Combat–it’s America. Do the German, everything. Now I know not really. Combat is from America. 

Q: Is it a show?

Ila: Is [about] a war. They do to the German. 

Q: What war was this?

Ila: I’m not sure. I rarely watch. Once a while. I no time. When I grow, I working; for four years I doing night classes. 

Q: Can you tell me about this war they’re trying to show through this programme, Combat. Were there American soldiers?

Ila: Ya, American soldiers. The person that fight with the German, prevent the German from attacking people. 

Q: What actions did the American soldiers [perform]?

Ila: But not as violent as now. Last time shows is not as violent as now. Just shoot here, shoot there, okay. 

Q: That was not violent?

Ila: Not that violent as now. Now you kill people, you can see their [makes grimacing sound]. Last time just shoot, that’s all. Then they take the people to another place. But now you come snap them, you feel the uhh [makes grimacing sound]. 

Q: Was the show Combat bloody? Was there blood?

Ila: Not very. If you see back the Combat, this is what I recall, it’s not that worse. Last time wrestling also not so bad. Now wrestling is worse. [In] Secondary school, Muhammad Ali was very popular at that time. All the people want to watch. There’s a A.V.A. [audio visual aid] room. 

Q: This was in the 1970s?

Ila: Correct. Most of them attracted [to Muhammad Ali]. But I not really. I’m not really like fighting, you can see people like–


Interviewer: Jeremy

Interviewee: Ila

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Transcript Notes

  1. Kampong is the Malay term for “Village”.

  2. Gotong Royong is a term that broadly connotes community spirit, cooperation and sharing of resources in a system of mutual support with a close community (such as a village)

  3. Madrasah is an Islamic religious school.

  1. What does Ila’s lack of knowledge about the Cold War suggest about the relevance of the superpower conflict to Singapore society and Asian societies more broadly?

  2. How did Ila’s social, cultural, and economic background shape her understanding of and response to the Cold War?

  3. Consider the merits of oral histories from individuals like Ila who seem to be beyond the orbit of Cold War conflict in Asia.