Ila Session 2 Interview

In this second session of her interview, Ila continues her discussion of foreign media productions, and later, local media productions, and how they shaped her understanding of communism, as well as elaborating on the racial riots in Singapore, her career and her Islamic beliefs.

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This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.

The second session of Ila’s interview opens with a continuation of her discussion about American media productions, specifically, Muhammad Ali films. While she did not take an interest in shows featuring martial arts, she appreciated him as an inspirational figure for his humility and sportsmanship. She also discusses Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film Predator, in which he is shown rescuing a Vietnamese woman, and that she believed that the Americans were helping the Vietnamese when she first watched. In retrospect, she reflects that American protagonists were not the only actors working to help other communities; that there were other foreign countries assisting their neighbors, such as Japan. She also observes that the Americans were also motivated by their own interests, which the media productions downplay.

She also discusses her own Islamic beliefs and values, particularly, about gender norms. Women were not allowed to have free interactions with men, and she stresses the significance of having women cover themselves with the tudung as a form of protecting their modesty, which is seen as something precious to only be shared with their spouse. Many of these religious lessons were also taught to her remotely through religious lessons broadcasted over the radio from Malaysia. She further discusses how her values shaped her career. When she worked for the government and in a private architecture firm, there were no provisions to cater to the needs of Muslim colleagues. Ila often could not partake in meals with her colleagues as they were not prepared to Halal standards, and would have to bring her own food from home to eat with her colleagues. However, she does not identify as a career woman. Reflecting on contemporary society, she highlights how Singapore society still does not permit female Muslim professionals to wear their traditional head covering, while other advance societies like Australia have accepted it.

Ila was too young to have any personal memories of the racial riots in Singapore in 1963. As her family lived in the police barracks, they were physically removed from the conflict, and she only remembers being informed that there was some trouble. Much of Ila’s understanding of Cold War history comes from what her husband, who was enthusiastic about history, shared with her after their marriage. The major Cold War narrative he shared with her was the Korean War’s division of the two Koreas, and the Communist North’s separation from the South. He also explained to her that the US had interfered in Vietnamese affairs, thereby provoking the Vietnam War.  Her understanding of the domestic Communist movement in Malaya was that communist forces were concentrated in Malaysia, outside of Singapore, and that they had attacked civilians while the government had come to the rescue. While she was aware of China’s status as a Communist power, she does not recall being taught anything about communism in the Chinese context. Ila’s reflections on the Cold War, from the position of a distanced observer, highlight the limits of Cold War memories in Singapore society.

Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy

Interviewee: “Ila”

Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy 

Session: 2 of 2

Location: Chai Chee Road

Date: September 23, 2019


Ila: – I didn’t really watch. My father watch, that’s why I know about it. At school everybody watch.  

Q: Why do you think Muhammad Ali was popular in Singapore?

Ila: Because he’s a humble person. He’s a convert from black man in America to Muslim. His name before his convert–he has his own name. Then convert change to Muhammad Ali. 

Q: And did you know about this when you were growing up?

Ila: I didn’t until– before I got married then I know. Secondary school I didn’t know he’s a convert. Everyone watch him because he’s a humble person. The way he acts, the way he speaks. He’s a sportsman. He play in a clean way, some people play dirty, that’s why people likes him. 

Q: Did he talk about his country?

Ila: No, at that time I listening, I saw his video talking about himself. He just say, as a general, we as human being must have a good mentality. He speaks as a general, human beings, character. He doesn’t pinpoint people. He says in a nice way of giving inspiration for the public. 

Q: I would like to talk to you about the show Combat. You said the [American] soldiers were helping people. Who were they helping?

Ila: They helping stop the Germans attack the public. 

Q: They’re helping the world?

Ila: At that time, I don’t know what exactly. That time I’m not a good thinker, maybe? I just watch, “Oh okay, save, then good lah.” When I watch certain things, I just say, “Oh, they done a good job.” That’s my thinking at that time. 

Q: Growing up, what did you feel about these soldiers? What were your emotions?

Ila: Now I found out that it’s not fair. Sometimes, they did not really help the people. They on their own interests. 

Q: Growing up, what did you feel?

Ila: I feel it’s not fair. It’s not that U.S. are helping. Others also doing help. Like the Japan, certain– I forgot what situation. They also help. 

Q: This is your feeling now?

Ila: Ya. 

Q: What about when you were a child, growing up?

Ila: I don’t have any feelings of whatever. When I watch T.V., it’s a good things that they help people. 

Q: Did it reflect on their country? Were the soldiers representing America?

Ila: Ya lah, good people. I didn’t say about America but I say these good people help people. 

Q: Returning to the idea of Communism, could you repeat what is Communism?  

Ila: They have their own policies. Sometimes it doesn’t hear what the public, the residents, their own people, their own way of doing things. They think it’s good for people but sometimes they didn’t hear what people want to speak. They only want to have their own way of policies they feel is good for them. 

Q: Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, did you hear about anyone talking about Communism?

Ila: No. At that time is a very peaceful time. After the war, we are born after the war. 

Q: World War Two?

Ila: Ya. 

Q: It was a peaceful time in SG–

Ila: –I didn’t hear any riot. There is a bit that time. 

Q: Tell me more. 

Ila: There is a bit but we wasn’t told by our parents. We were told there’s something happen here, there. We just say, “Oh, okay.” Just stay at home, don’t go anywhere. That’s what we heard. We don’t know exactly what happen. 

Q: Do you know the name of this riot, the year–

Ila: –Not sure. I very, very young. 

Q: 1960s?

Ila: Before primary school, I think. 

Q: Was it the 1964 Malay-Chinese riot?

Ila: That time is I staying in the police, the–

Q: –The barrack? 

Ila: Ya. 

Q: So 1961 to 1966?

Ila: Ya, about five years old. Sorry, seven years old. Sorry, I forgot to say, I Primary One there in this barrack then halfway through, transfer to Telok Kurau Primary School. 

Q: The barrack had education?

Ila: No, there’s a school around the area. Ah, Cantonment Primary School. – Who stayed that area? I not– especially the police, they have other people stay there too. 

Q: So 1961 to 1968, did you hear about any Malay-Chinese riot?

Ila: No. 

Q: Even now, did you hear about the event?

Ila: The one I told you. There’s something happen, but I can’t remember which year, where is it. Is it at Cantonment or at Geylang. 

Q: But you had no idea? 

Ila: No idea. My father is a policeman, he take care of us well. That’s why we were at home. 

Q: Your father was a policeman. Was he involved in any of these riots?

Ila: No. He’s a marine police. 

Q: Did he tell you about–

Ila: –No, he doesn’t share. 

Q: What about your mother, did she share anything?

Ila: [Shakes head]

Q: You said Singapore was a peaceful time after World War Two. Was this the 1960s or 1970s?

Ila: Coming to middle of sixties. Seventies, eighties no news of riot. 

Q: You didn’t hear any riot at all?

Ila: No. 

Q: What about any labour unions? 

Ila: Union, no. I didn’t know about union until I go work. 

Q: Strikes and riots?

Ila: No. I only know union when I go work. 

Q: What about Communism? You said–

Ila: –I know Communism when I grow older. I think it’s like a– when I late twenties then I know about Communism. Working, married. Then I know through my husband about Communism. My husband loves history so much. He shared most of the stories to me. He only says about the Communism, this is what I recall, because very long I didn’t really discuss about these things anymore. But recently about the Korean, north one, I learned a bit. They control, isolated from other country. From there, I learn slowly. But they never create any problem right? But China they create some problem to the community so I feel not really healthy. 

Q: Did you learn about China when you were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s?

Ila: [Shakes head] 

Q: But you have this perception in the 1980s when your husband shared–

Ila: –No, my husband shared as a general comment. Recently, they talk about North Korea. Then I learn about that. 

Q: Can you tell me what your husband shared with you?

Ila: Just a general explain about Communism. People they think of themselves, they think of their own rules, they doesn’t listen to their own people. 

Q: Was the communist the government? 

Ila: Is the government. And also about China, Communism right? Another thing: during the Malaysia also, they have a history of Communism right? 

Q: Can you tell me more?

Ila: General, I don’t know. They say they have the Communism in Malaysia right? So all these things, the country become not stable because of the Communism. They don’t want to follow the government. That time the government is ruling the country. The government is not the Communism but other people disturb the country’s. 

Q: How did the Malaysian Communists make Malaysia unstable, from what you heard?

Ila: They attack the residents. They controlling what they wants. They want, for example, food. They prevent people from whereabout, their movement, that’s why I know. 

Q: How would you describe the Communists, as you learned about it in the 1980s?

Ila: I feel that it’s unfair for this group of people, Communism, they are thinking of themselves. They don’t want to talk– They really want to rule the country they supposed to talk to the people what they think, what good for them, educate in a right way. Not just leave them alone, I want my way, don’t listen to me I just leave you alone. Not right lah. You have to lead them in a correct way. 

Q: Did you think the Singapore government had anything to say about Communism?

Ila: So far, no. We feel that we are just a minorities. We feel that we have to follow whatever the government says. And the government– we always take the good points. The bad points we think over. We consider to make it better. Nowadays, the government let the public to voive out. That’s one thing good: they’re listening to us. It doesn’t mean the government is communist, that’s what I feel, right? That’s what you ask me right?

Q: You mean Singapore?

Ila: Ya Singapore, that’s what you ask me right?

Q: I was asking if they mentioned any of these groups. 

Ila: Oh Communists, no. I didn’t hear. 

Q: You were talking something about minorities. 

Ila: We are a minority. We feel that we understand the government want the best for all the communities. Whether you’re minorities or majorities. We for how many years are staying here, adapting the rules and regulations. We still happy with the government ruling. We didn’t hear any Communism around, that’s why we feel that safe staying in Singapore. We feel lucky staying in Singapore because although we are minority we are still among the community. 

Q: When you were talking about being a minority, is it about being Malay or–

Ila: –Being Malay, ya. Because you know why? My father is Javanese. Last time Javanese, we still under Malay-speaking, something like that. We consider we all Malay. 

Q: Did you ever feel like you were Javanese? 

Ila: I have the blood of Chinese. I feel that what races you are, the most important thing is your belief. When a person has a belief, wherever you go, you can adapt with anybody. 

Q: When you’re talking about belief–

Ila: –Muslim. Other people have a belief. Usually I communicate with Christians, the Buddhism, the Hinduism. When you speak to them, you have a belief. You respect each other. 

Q: You were talking about how your father is Javanese and your mother is Chinese. How did that make you feel about yourself? 

Ila: When I was growing up, I never thought that I’m a Chinese, I’m a Javanese. I thought that I’m just Malay.  

Q: Was that term [Malay] used frequently–

Ila: –Ya. Your I.C. [Identification Card], birth cert [certificate] also show you’re a Malay. 

Q: Did you see your I.C. when you were younger?

Ila: Ya, twelve years old. Our birth cert also put it Malay. We didn’t really feel that we are Malay. We have a belief in harmony. 

Q: In other words, when you were growing up, you didn’t really feel– 

Ila: –Ya, I didn’t really feel, I feel belongs to Singapore. We have a Chinese friend, Indian friend. We have ‘Others’ also. Eurasians. 

Q: You saw all these labels [Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others]? Tell me how?

Ila: In school we are classmates. We know our friends. 

Q: Did they talk about themselves as–

Ila: –Like the Chinese. After the riot, we have a lot of friends when I was in I.T.E. [Institute of Technical Education]. All Chinese, I’m the only Malay. We have Eurasian. This Eurasian speak Malay very well. He can speak Chinese also, fantastic. He like to mix around with us. I feel like there’s no– Some Eurasian a bit difficult to mix around, but I think he’s a local. That’s why he can mix around with people. Some Baba also. Very weird, can speak Malay!

Q: Can you explain what Eurasian and Baba are?

Ila: Eurasian is mix with–I’m not sure my friend the mother is Chinese, I’m not sure. Baba is purely Chinese but they like Malays culture a bit. They speak Malay. Some Baba don’t speak Mandarin, they speak Malay. They speak Chinese because they have to learn Malay second language, sorry second language Chinese right? Some Baba say, “I’m Baba, not Chinese.” I say, okay. That’s why they speak Malay. Baba speak Malay, they doesn’t speak Chinese, because they say they are Baba. Eurasian I don’t know they mix with Chinese or Malay, Indian or Chinese, or Malay with other European country, I’m not sure. 

Q: Did they use that term [Eurasian] themselves when they were growing up?  

Ila: No they don’t, because the name shows. 

Q: What names are Eurasian?

Ila: Eurasian is usually different, we can see, and they say, “I’m Eurasian.” But they mix around with a normal person. Baba name is Chinese name but they prefer– They angry because, they say, “I’m Baba, I speak Malay.”  

Q: Going back to the Communists, were there any communist people in Singapore?

Ila: At that time, I–

Q: –You said Malaysia had the Malayan Communists. 

Ila: Last time, I heard. 

Q: Did you hear anything about Singapore?

Ila: When I was young, I doesn’t go to Malaysia at all. When I grow older, when my sister got married with a Malaysian, I frequently go there. When I was young, I don’t know about the Communists. I only know when the story on T.V. and when my husband tell me. I only know when I got married.  

Q: What stories about Communism appeared on T.V.?

Ila: They attack the Malaysian. The soldiers are the one who help the people from attacking by the Communists. 

Q: This was the Singapore news?

Ila: No, dramas like last time P. Ramli was very popular. Also got story about this Lieutenant Adnan [bin Saidi]. 

Q: You heard abt him in the 1980s ?

Ila: Uh, later, because I rarely watch T.V. 

Q: So P. Ramli was in the 1980s?

Ila: No sixties already have. 

Q: Did he have anything to do with the Communists? 

Ila: He only be the actor and singer. He act as Lieutenant Adnan. 

Q: What about T.V. shows [on] Communism? You said the soldiers were [displayed] helping people? 

Ila: This was in the 1980s.

Q: What drama was that ?

Ila: Lieutenant Adnan. 

Q: Was it shown on Singapore T.V.?

Ila: Ya. 

Q: Do you remember the name of the show?

Ila: Lieutenant Adnan

Q: What did Lieutenant Adnan do in this movie ?

Ila: He really fight for it, go out to fight the—

Q: —The Communists?

Ila: Ah ya. 

Q: What language was this show in?

Ila: Malay. 

Q: Everyone watched it?

Ila: Yes. But now the government do it in English? I’m not sure. The story is in the back before Singapore and Malaysia were separated. Sorry, that one was in the 1980s, it’s not the communities at the time. The story is dated. I tell you the drama is the eighties. But the story is dated. 

Q: You mean Lieutenant Adnan was a historical sort of—

Ila: —Story. 

Q: But it was shown in the 1980s?

Ila: Eighties. 

Q: What did he do in this movie?

Ila: He fight for the community, the kampong. Singapore and Malaysia not yet separated. There’s a lot of Communists, now no more Communists. 

Q: It seems as though this is a show about 1950s Malayan history. Can you tell me what sorts of events went down [in the show]. There was a lieutenant. What did he do to his enemies?

Ila: At the time the country is not developed. They have to go through the forest, go here and there. Really all out. Doesn’t take time to relax. 

Q: And what did he do to the enemies, which, I assume are Communists, right?

Ila: They have a war, attacking each other. They found out the Communists are around this area, so they stand by. They targeting the area, the residents. They have to move around. 

Q: What did they do to their opponents?

Ila: They shoot each other. 

Q: Who won?

Ila: Lieutenant Adnan. Really do the all out, do the duties as a soldier of the country to protect the country. That’s why he has the name Lieutenant Adnan. 

Q: How was he ‘all out’? Did he put in a lot of effort?

Ila: Ya, he put in a lot of effort, no relax. They really show, until the British says, “You relax.” But he help the people, villager also help them. He really serve. 

Q: What did this show make you feel about Lieutenant Adnan?

Ila: He’s a committed person, love the country. 

Q: Did he influence you?

Ila: No because I’m not a career woman [laughs]. But it’s an encouragement. You want to do something good, for him is for the community, for his country, that’s why he do it sincerity, put his life in danger. For me, I do for my family. I’m just a housewife. But I did do everything for myself. To be frank, my children doesn’t go for tuition. We don’t unless I’m so tied then my sister help me to tuition my children. I do everything on my own. We don’t have any maid. I go for Hajj when I deliver, that’s only one or two times. There’s no full-time maid, just a temporary. We have to have that leadership mind. 

Q: Do you remember what channel [this show was on]?

Ila: Last time is not called Suria. 

Q: It was shown on a Malaysian [channel] first—

Ila: —Then Singapore. 

Q: This Malaysian channel was shown in Singapore? 

Ila: Later. I can’t remember. I watch majority of the Malay show from Malaysia. 

Q: Did you hear anything about the British growing up in the 1960s and 1970s?

Ila: No, doesn’t have any news on that. 

Q: Did Singapore have any relations with the British?

Ila: That time I don’t know about politic. I’m not that—

Q: You said Britain was part of Malay—

Ila: —That time was part of British. 

Q: What about the 1960s and 1970s? Did you hear about, for instance, British troops in Singapore?

Ila: No. 

Q: What about British businesses, firms?

Ila: When I grow older than I know about British. Quite old lah. When I got married, because my husband told me stories about all this. 

Q: When you got married this was in the 1980s?

Ila: Yes. Late, ’86. My husband loves history so much. 

Q: What did your husband share about the British?

Ila: The British was the one who help Singapore from the Japan Occupation that time, right? Oh ya, my father also told me the story that when Japan Occupation, he has to be the wrestler—sumo. He was forced to do that. The Japan is very cruel at that time. Everything you’re asked to do you have to do it. 

Q: Of all things, why do you think the Japanese wanted him to be a sumo wrestler?

Ila: I don’t know. I didn’t ask him. But he say before he become a policeman, he become a sumo, a teacher, he ride a trishaw. 

Q: All during the Japanese period? 

Ila: Later Japanese period. I think after the Japanese period.  

Q: Did he tell you anything about the British?

Ila: No. But my husband told me the story of luckily British come in. 

Q: Besides T.V., was there radio? 

Ila: I only hear Malay radio when I was in secondary school, late seventies. I only hear because I wanted to improve my Islamic way, so we have Islamic studies on radio in Singapore. Morning, evening. Some music. At that time, teenagers love music. I love sentimental music. Youngsters, especially girls, this love song very nice. Happy song, family song very nice. How I wish my mother was around. I didn’t feel regret. She’s in peace. The song’s title is “Ebu” [“Mother”]. The song says, “Mother you give me a lot of love, give birth to us, take care of us. They got love songs. Cute lah, last time the seventies song is very nice. The history of what love is all about. Love sometimes you don’t know how to take care of properly, you will mislead your life. Very educate you, make you think. I like song that give you reminder, educate you, history of what happening. Like for example, family, what is the past is past. 

Q: You said the love songs were ‘cute’?

Ila: You meet somebody, it doesn’t mean you meet someone you pretty sure that is in the end is a happy like that. 

Q: Did that influence you in a way?

Ila: Make yourself ease, calm, let you think. When I want get married, I never thought these songs relate to what happened. It doesn’t have that. Some people say songs can relate to your life. But I don’t. Just a pastime to make yourself occupied. When you clean up your house, just listen to music. 

Q: Were a lot of these songs sung by women? 

Ila: Some by male. 

Q: Did you read newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s? 

Ila: I rarely read. My father very good, every morning, Straits Times—read. But we are not good. [Laughs]

Q: Did he tell you about the news. 

Ila: He’s a very quiet person. I learn from his action. Every Friday night, we have a special prayer. — He watch the Qur’an. 

Q: How did he watch the Qur’an?

Ila: He read. Then we sit together. There’s sometimes recitation of Qur’an, there’s sometimes delivery of Islamic studies. All in Malaysia. 

Q: All in Malaysia? Why do you think Singapore doesn’t have?

Ila: I don’t know. Only in radio, in the morning, 6.30, in the evening, 6.30.

Q: Did you get to watch—

Ila: —Sometimes we have morning prayer. Especially evening, I always sit for the evening one. Usually morning rushing. 

Q: You told me there were Islamic lessons on radio. You listened to these when you were growing up. Can you tell me more about the content?

Ila: It’s a translation of the Qur’an.

Q: From Arabic to Malay?

Ila: Arabic to Malay. From there, we learn. When I go out, before I got married, I go for classes, polishing my things. 

Q: Were they sharing verses and stories?

Ila: Ya. Actually the history of why this happen. 

Q: The history of Islam?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: Starting from [Prophet] Muhammad?

Ila: There’s so many prophets. Moses, Jesus. It’s all in the Qur’an. — It’s a good example. This is all from God that tell the prophets what you should do, what should not do during the — The Pharaoh thought he’s a god. Then Prophet Musa say no, it’s not. Christian also says about this Prophet Musa—Moses. It’s the same thing. The New Testament is being improved. The Old Testament majority is from the Qur’an. It’s educate you. 

Q: Was this radio channel from Malaysia or Singapore?

Ila: Singapore. 

Q: How did you know?

Ila: I have a lot of siblings right? When they on the radio, we can hear that. 

Q: What about movies and theatres?

Ila: I didn’t go movie theatres. We only see the Malay from the T.V., Malaysian channel. Only this P. Ramli drama my father watch. Last time T.V. programme is very limited. We watch at night. —  

Q: Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, what did you think of the relationships between the different races and ethnicities in Singapore?

Ila: I didn’t see the difference. I say that, I stay some part of the barrack, the kampong and the flats. The barrack is also a flat. I feel that we like to share things like food. We give to our neighbour. We acknowledge each other, the Chinese. When I was in secondary school, my neighbor also Chinese. They’re also good. We go to market, Chinese majority sell fish, bread, until now—we met. “How are you? So long didn’t see!” The memory of kampong spirit is there. 

Q: How would you describe the relationship?

Ila: We are like, oh like sisters. When she young, same age as me, the mother sell the bread. She’s now the seller, the mother pass away already. 

Q: Did you see this relationship across Singapore society? 

Ila: I feel that way in my age group. I feel that when I talk to my age group, I feel comfortable. The spirit is kampong is there, unless they are not from kampong area. When we talk about kampong, we say, “Oh ya, kampong best ah?” The Chinese, “Oh, good ah?” The Indian also say, “Good ah?” —

Q: Were there any racial tensions, differences, or problems?

Ila: My neighbour is a Chinese. Last time we stay in Yishun. When we shift here twenty three years ago, no problem. I can communicate with the young also. “How are you? How’s school?” They look at me, it’s okay, like why this auntie suddenly like that.” I say, “Sorry, I disturb you.” They say, “It’s okay, auntie,” If they say okay can continue, then I continue the conversation. If some people say, “Yes?” Doesn’t acknowledge properly, I go off. 

Q: Were there fights or tensions between different racial groups in Singapore?

Ila: So far, I never hear any. — I think the nineties. Something happen. They thought the Muslims were the one —

Q: What happened?

Ila: There’s something about—I don’t know. People cover the face. 

Q: In Singapore?

Ila: No, is a court. Got one of the uncle look at me, scolding me. There’s only once I ever face. He say something mean in Chinese, I can see the face. I faster go off, I don’t want to create a problem. I feel that why that happen to me? I didn’t say anything, didn’t hit him. Few years later, I got no problem. 

Q: Do you feel like you were targeted by the man?

Ila: It was something mixed with Malay and English that make me understand what he’s trying to do. — I didn’t say anything. No point talking. — Maybe look at T.V., influence him, then so angry with the Muslim. He speak more of Mandarin, a bit of English and a bit of Malay. 

Q: What do you think happened in the 1990s? 

Ila: Something happened, I forgot. I just say it’s okay lah, one day they will know. Human beings make mistake right? We wear like this is being highlighted.   

Q: Tell me more about that. 

Ila: When we wear our tudung, it’s highlighted. We can see. People doesn’t wear tudung, make mistake, also doesn’t see. I think that now, I don’t feel that. Last time when I started to work, I feel that way. At that time, when I just started work in early eighties, I haven’t wear my tudung yet. After work for three months, I wear my tudung. My colleague say, “Why you wear your tudung? Why you wear this one like that?” I said I actually intend to change before. By right, we should wear it earlier, but we were not trained. My father also doesn’t encourage or discourage—it’s you. When we learn more, we feel that we are Muslim, we have to show that we are Muslim. Not show to people, to show to yourself that you’re Muslim and you believe of whatever you believe. 

Q: Whereas in the past, you didn’t have training—was there training?

Ila: There’s no training. I have no mother around. My father is a very quiet person, he said, “Whatever you do, work in a government service is good for you.” Last time I work in Urban Redevelopment Authority [U.R.A.]. 

Q: This was the early 1980s?

Ila: Yes. 

Q: The first job you had?

Ila: No, my first job I worked as a draftsman in the architecture firm, A.D. Consortium. I don’t know whether still around. That is after my I.T.E. This job is my school say, “Why not you try this job, this job, this job.” We go for interview, they take us. 

Q: What did you do?

Ila: Drafting, drawing, for six months I work there. Then because my father advise me to work for a statutory board, so I work in U.R.A. But I didn’t do drawing, we read plans. — I finish my I.T.E. around March or April or something like that. After six months. 

Q: So 1979?

Ila: 1980. Let me see. ’85—I got married. About eighteen, nineteen years old. 

Q: About 1981, ’82 that period. And it was at this architecture firm that you started wearing your tudung?

Ila: No, U.R.A. I work there for eight years. 

Q: Why do you think your colleagues responded to you?

Ila: My colleague was so surprised. I said I was supposed to wear it, but I did not practice it. But I realize it’s not right. As a Muslim, you have to do it as what is right. They respect me. That time not much of halal food. They have some gathering, I have to cook for myself and for the colleague to eat together. 

Q: They didn’t cook for you?

Ila: They can’t because they don’t know how to do it. Halal—no pork, must be slaughtered in Islamic way. 

Q: They didn’t cater for you—

Ila: —Last time there’s not much of catering. Only Indonesian food, they have halal, but they don’t have halal logo. They say halal. But they still sell wine. I say, “How they do that?” [Laughs.] It’s very tough for us. They cater the food for me, they go to the Muslim store then they order for us. 

Q: [On wearing the tudung] What about your mother?  

Ila: My mother not at all. That time, wearing tudung is—not say popular—not being practiced yet in Singapore. The wear tudung also not like this. They wear tudung also not like this. They wear tudung like a scarf, very simple way. We were not trained or advised in the Islamic way of wearing it. 

Q: Can you tell me how you learned about it? 

Ila: We learned through T.V., radio, and go classes. I told you when we young, we learn with our uncle. But it’s not enforced. But when after my secondary school, I feel there’s something missing there, that I have not complete to be a duty as a Muslim. That’s why when I start working, I feel there’s something I have to change. At that time, my father is still around. He doesn’t say why you do this, why you do that—he doesn’t question. He knows that whatever you do is right, proceed. I learn. I say the more I learn, the more that you are missing. — When my children grow, when they young, train them, because they are in Islamic school. Before they go to school, when they are three years old, two years old, I already practice them to wear. They go to kindergarten—fortunately, at that time, they are fortunate, there’s an Islamic kindergarten. In Yishun, there’s a mosque, we have Islamic studies. We send them to school. They went to Islamic kindergarten. But we feel that the guy have to be exposed more to the non-Islamic environment. 

Q: Compared to?

Ila: Compared to the Muslim lady. The lady when they reach puberty, they have to wear their tudung. The boys doesn’t wear, the boys only the pants. They have to wear until the knee. Sometimes the short we also tell them to until the knee. 

Q: You also said it would be good to expose boys to—

Ila: —Because Singapore is not an Islamic country. We have to mix around with— The Muslim community is Muslim right? For them, they have to be with the non-Muslim community too. My children is not in a non-Muslim community. But after they have to go higher, they go polytechnic—my first four girls went to polytechnic. Temasek Polytechnic. They learn the culture of other. Although some Muslim in the Muslim school—they’re not Malays: some are Indians, some are Eurasian. So they learn the culture there too. Only the way-of-life is different, non-Muslim life. When they go to the polytechnic, they’re learning from the non-Muslim community. The non-Muslim also learn from them. From Madrasah, they have a culture shock too. Sometimes, the life is different. Slowly, they develop. But I want to practice my girls to cover up. They cannot go to normal school to cover up, it’s very tough for them. 

Q: Normal school as in?

Ila: Government school. One day they have to be a mother, they have to teach the children, they have to know. To educate a child, a mother’s touch is softer. 

Q: On that note about tudung, was that allowed in so-called secular schools?

Ila: No. J.C.s [junior colleges] also do not allow.

Q: What did you feel about that?

Ila: That’s why— I can’t remember—nineties? Some of the asatizah, religion leaders, teachers has already discussed with the— But there’s no. Now there’s no hope that we have to wear tudung. They spoke to the government, we call it a close discussion. But it doesn’t work. We understand that. Now also. Working as a nurse, they also cannot cover. If you cover, it’s healthier than not cover because all the hair. We cannot do anything, the government wants to do that way. We compare to Australia. My daughter—second, third, fourth all study in Australia.  

Q: After polytechnic?

Ila: After polytechnic. 

Q: What were they studying in Australia?

Ila: My first daughter was biotechnology. My second is I.T. [Information Technology] in S.M.U. [Singapore Management University]. Third is biomedical. Fourth is Bachelor of Science in immunology. First, third, and fourth in Australia. When they go there, it’s eye-opening too. They can allowed to wear tudung.

Q: In public schools?

Ila: In public schools and hospital. The nurses wear tudung. 

Q: Why do you think Singapore doesn’t allow?

Ila: I don’t know why. They say there’s no hygiene. But I say wearing tudung is hygiene—every day you change and cover up your hair, is a lot of. And now, pharmacist also cannot wear tudung. Frontline also cannot wear tudung. All the allied staff cannot wear tudung. Like physiotherapists, speech therapists, dieticians, pharmacists, nurses, radiologists—cannot. I feel that it’s just a wearing. It’s not a preach. We can just wear tudung inside. It’s healthier and neater. We only feel sad about that. My sister also. She cannot wear tudung because she’s a nurse. After work, have to wear tudung. But people see you in working life, you’re not wearing tudung. What are you trying to do? But that is life. 

Q: I think you said a lot about how as a mother, you wanted to teach your children Islamic teachings, practices. Did you learn about this when you were growing up? There’s a certain idea about a Muslim mother. 

Ila: No I don’t. Because I have no mother, right?

Q: But what about your uncles, T.V. shows?

Ila: No. I only learn when I was in secondary school. I learn from my sister [who is] taking care of us. She go to the [inaudible] first. We follow her. Then we learn from there, we develop ourselves. 

Q: In these classes, what did they—

Ila: —Spiritually, what you learn every day, what you supposed to do every day, what is provident. When we’re young, we learn Qur’an in primary school, but I stop in secondary school. We change path. 

Q: Did that influence your understanding of what it meant to be a woman and a mother? 

Ila: Yes. They say female must be feminine, must take care of whatever behaviour you do, your attire cover up. You are—God wants you to be a—take care of what is given to you. It’s a beauty of what you have, so you have to cover up. In Islam, a girl is a woman is in a high rank given. Like a cake you want to eat. If I want to give you a cake, I don’t want to expose it to people, don’t want to see, I want to cover up because it’s a surprise, it’s very nice. Same as a woman. Something like a precious thing before they get married.  They have to take care of themselves. You don’t want to attract anything that is not nice. Sometimes you go outside, when you talk to people, you react, you wear clothing that is too tight, expose here and there, attract the men. You want to prevent the men from being attracted. This is what you learn. They ask you to cover up. I believe that you are precious in the eyes of God that women are giving a precious look. You look beautiful or not beautiful, but it’s still nice in people’s look, so you have to cover up before you got married. You get married also cannot open. You only open for your husband, siblings. Also, we cannot use so—we have to wear certain things at home also. We cannot wear anyhow also.  

Q: What were some of the things you could not do?

Ila: We cannot go out with free interaction, woman have to take care. If it’s schooling, it’s different. But sometimes you have your own will, you want to do your own style of free interaction not allowed. 

Q: What sort of interactions are not allowed?

Ila: Relationship with men and women. That’s what I understand at that time. We are given a precious situation, taking care of ourselves. We try not to expose ourselves to involve ourselves in all these situation. Always the third-party, we believe that the Satan is there, always tell you, “You do—.” You go aboard, you do whatever you’re supposed not to do. 

Q: In the 1960s and 1970s, what do you think were the gender roles that women and men played? For instance, were there things women and men could do or not do? Were there jobs they could do or not do?

Ila: At that time, jobs—I’m not sure. I’m still young of thinking that but when I go secondary school, I think a good man always have a good job. They always think of good things for a living. 

Q: What about women? 

Ila: A woman at that time, we never thought of working. I also!

Q: But you worked. 

Ila: I work cuz my father say why not you try? My father encourage us to work. 

Q: In society, was that the sentiment, the opinion that good men would have a good jobs, and women didn’t have to work? Were there such opinions like these in the 1960s and 1970s?

Ila: At that time, it wasn’t give that idea. To be frank, I have no idea either. 

Q: You didn’t think about it?

Ila: Yes. But when I studied, my brother always encourage me, “Proceed! Proceed!” That’s why I did my part-time studies, my diploma after I.T.E., I did study for four years before taking my diploma. After my I.T.E., they call it N.T.C.-3, I do my certificate in Singapore Poly[technic] for two years, part-time, then another two years for my diploma. I did my diploma for architecture. When I got my diploma, I got somebody already, I decided to get married, have my first daughter, my husband discourage me—something like discouraging me—of working. I took no-paid leave for six months. Then I have my second child—six-month no-paid leave, six-month no-paid leave, then I resign. My colleagues always say to me, majority of my colleagues, my seniors say, “I think you are a good wife to stay at home.” The majority you know? Chinese, not Malay. 

Q: Why would they say that?

Ila: “I think you’re very good,” they’ll say like that. I say, “Okay.” When I stay at home, my husband say, “You taking care of my children. Don’t need to trouble you. Don’t work so hard at home. Teach my children only. Give good food for my children.” That’s what he said to me; “House—don’t think about tip-top-top. Clean up the house, no no. Most important, give them food and education.” 

Q: And you felt that you—

Ila: —I felt that, that’s why I say maybe I’m not a career woman. Majority of my friends, colleagues, seniors say that. They’re for fifteen years, twenty years, “You’re a good wife. You can be a good housewife.” 

Q: You also said these were Chinese women. What about the Malay women? Did they say anything?

Ila: I’m the only Malay at that time, then later my friend came in to work. Her father is Chinese, and the mother is Malay. She’s a career woman. Till now she’s working, but not there. She’s working with the husband. The husband—she also married a Chinese. Her husband is Chinese, convert to Muslim. The child become Chinese back! She had two children. The husband also have their own business. They make their own. 

Q: Why didn’t she stop working?

Ila: She stopped working in U.R.A. because she wanted to help the husband. 

Q: Why didn’t she stop work[ing] totally?

Ila: I see her, she’s a career woman. I’m not! But I feel happy to stay at home, thirty-three years already. Thirty-two. I feel that I achieved something for four of my girls who have graduated. [My two sons] are now in N.U.S. [National University of Singapore]. Only left two of my young ones. I feel not really success, but what I’ve achieved—fifty percent, have succeeded. 

Q: Do you feel growing up in the 1960s and the 1970s, Singapore society had certain ideas about what men and women should and shouldn’t do?

Ila: At that time, when I work in—my committee majority is Chinese—although my primary, secondary school are more Malays. When I go to I.T.E., vocational, I’m the only Malay and I go to school. I learn from Chinese culture about their behaviour. I adapt the environment of Chinese. I feel there’s no problem of living in that century. No problem. They love me, I love them, that’s why we have no problem. They respect me as a Muslim. We have a gathering, we have to cook for them, they only cook, for example, like jelly which is no gelatin, only the jelly can, we respect each other lah. 

Q: Did you feel like there were certain jobs that women could not enter in the 1970s? Or they couldn’t study certain things, couldn’t go to university? Did you feel there were certain things like that?

Ila: At that time, I feel that it’s tough for me. I’m a slow learner. I don’t know what career I am at that time. I didn’t thought of the woman community what shall they do. Majority of my friends are all thinking, “Study like that, finish like that. Okay lah.”

Q: These were your female friends?

Ila: Ya. 

Q: What did they think? After school, do what?

Ila: Can study, study—some like that. When I met them recently, some do good jobs. They improve later on. At that time, our period, our group, in the secondary school, the encouragement for my family, and my friends’ family, is not push enough. That’s why we never discuss our future. 

Q: You were saying something about the woman community—what does that mean?

Ila: We never discuss this. Study, study lor. Never thought of our career. At that time, we wasn’t introduced of that. Later, the government introduce the school of career. 

Q: Did the government assume men would go into careers?

Ila: I don’t know. At that time, I can’t remember the government introduce that. My sister-in-law is four years different than me. She told me that when she was in secondary school, the government introduce the school for nursing. 

Q: Was nursing open to girls and boys?

Ila: Last time, nursing is more on girls. Now they open more on boys. 

Q: This is your younger sister?

Ila: No, my sister-in-law. After ‘O’ Level, they can be a nurse. 

Q: How old is she? When was she born?

Ila: She’s four years younger than me. 

Q: 1965? So this secondary school she attended was in the late 1970s?

Ila: Ya. 

Q: Did she tell you if the nursing school only had women? 

Ila: She doesn’t mention that, but the government introduce it to their school. 

Q: Did you hear about women in other societies, like American societies?

Ila: [Shakes head].

Q: Do you know the term ‘feminism’?

Ila: Sorry?

Q: In Singapore, were there women who were fighting for the rights of women? 

Ila: When I got married, then I hear of that. Recently, I just know that women are fighting for rights. 

Q: What about the 1980s?

Ila: No, I don’t know that. Only when I got married, then I heard a few people saying that woman got the rights of—

Q: —1990s?

Ila: No, 2000. Some of them don’t want to get married, some of them want to be ya. 

Q: These things were not around?

Ila: No. That’s why I say maybe I didn’t come across. Maybe at that time, our school is average people. When I met my classmate, all  [in their] fifties [now] already right, all okay, no like, is that woman’s right. 

Q: So there was no one in Singapore you heard fighting for— 

Ila: —Only recently, I heard that women are fighting for freedom.

Q: Like work hours.

Ila: Ah yes. Work hours. 

Q: Some of them [fought for] wages, income. But none of these in the 1980s?

Ila: Not that I know of. 

Q: Do you know the term ‘Cold War’; have you heard of this term?

Ila: I heard but I don’t know what exactly. 

Q: Tell me what you heard. 

Ila: Cold War is usually before the war right?

Q: What war?

Ila: Any war. To be frank, I don’t know. 

Q: What about Vietnam War?

Ila: I know from my husband when I got married. The U.S. kahchiow [disturb] the Vietnam. Maybe I’m wrong, that’s what I heard. I remember that the U.S. is the one who started everything. Something happen, they came. I’m not sure. Better not to tell. I don’t know exactly. 

Q: You could tell me what your husband said to you. 

Ila: I forgot. I know the Arnold, the Predator, if you see the story of Predator, there’s one Vietnam. He told a story about it. But it’s a glance. Arnold, the actor. 

Q: An American actor? 

Ila: Yes. Helping the Vietnam, something like that. There’s something happen. My husband tell me the story. 

Q: Your husband told you that because he watched a film?

Ila: No, he likes history. He did a lot of reading. This Arnold is try to save this Vietnamese girl. This just the story. The predator come, something invisible. It’s not a human, it’s a alien. About this girl: how come suddenly the Arnold try to save this Vietnamese? My husband tell the story about the war. 

Q: [When did you] watch this movie?

Ila: 1990s. It’s the first movie come out. Hari Raya, our neighbour like to on the T.V. for us to show. We rarely watch the T.V. This Arnold have a lot of show: Terminator

Q: Arnold Schwarzenegger? 

Ila: – 

Q: Why do you think that in this movie, the character that Arnold Schwarzenegger played saved the Vietnamese girl?

Ila: I ask my husband, there’s something happen, that’s why they come to the country to help the Vietnamese. 

Q: The Americans were coming in to help? How did the Americans help the Vietnamese?

Ila: My husband say not exactly help lah. 

Q: Did he express this positively or negatively?

Ila: Got so many stories, got the Germans, the Combat shows that the U.S. is good. But actually the German is the good people! 

Q: In the 1990s when you watched Predator, did you feel the Americans were helping the Vietnamese?

Ila: Ya lah, that’s what I thought. It’s the same as the Combat. Now when I found out, oh okay, there’s something happen. 

Q: Did [Predator] give you an impression of what America was like?

Ila: That’s why I thought that American are the helpful people. 

Q: In the Predator show?

Ila: In the Predator show, the Combat show. Then all the [Charlie’s] Angels, all is positive to help the public. Bionic Man. Wonder Woman


Interviewer: Jeremy Yong

Interviewee: Ila

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Transcript Notes

  1. Tudung is the Malay word for the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women.

  2. In her full interview, Ila says that she saw a locally-produced film about Lieutenant Adnan Saidi fighting the Communists, but this is incorrect. Adnan Saidi was from the Malay Regiment in WWII fighting the Japanese forces, and died in combat in 1942. 

  1. Consider the strengths and limitations of memory transmission via oral histories in light of Ila’s recollections.

  2. What does Ila’s view of the Communist movement as external to Singapore suggest about the narratives of the Cold War created by the Singapore state?

  3. Consider to what extent the Westernized, secular social fabric of Singapore that Ila describes was a product of the Cold War.