In this first session of her interview, Ker Pog Ngoh discusses her early life and education, her family’s socioeconomic status, and her eldest brother’s involvement in the Communist movement in Singapore, across the 1950s-60s.
This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.
Born in 1955, Ker Pog Ngoh begins by discussing her early childhood living in an attar house in stilts near the coastal regions of Singapore by the Kallang River. Floods and fires were a common occurrence throughout her first few years in school. She recalls how families could receive warnings about fires at any hour of the day or night, and they would immediately have to bundle their belongings in a single cloth and flee. Her mother would leave first and be on the lookout, passing instructions to her older children to safely escort their younger siblings to the meeting point. The fourth of seven children, she also shares one instance when her older brother had to carry her on his shoulders while fleeing, and fell. She sustained injuries and had to be treated in hospital by a British doctor. She also discusses her family’s financial situation, as her father worked as a fish farm laborer. However, she noted that the government ensured that education remained affordable for all.
Later, her family moved to a state-built flat in Dakota Crescent. She discusses her time in primary school, where she was in an English-medium program, and studied English, mathematics and science in English, and then had second language lessons in Chinese. This was in contrast to her older brother, who had attended a Chinese school. She recalls how although her mother and grandmother lived under largely patriarchal social norms, girls of her generation were encouraged to pursue their education. However, in order to avoid being questioned about this departure from previous gender norms, her mother chose not to educate one of her other daughters. While Ker acknowledges having a slightly greater affinity for English than Mandarin, she notes that neither language was as prominent as the various Chinese dialects, until much later in the 1970s. In her home, Hokkien was the main dialect spoken.
Finally, she discusses her family’s personal brush with the purges of suspected Communists under the early Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew governments. Ker’s oldest brother was educated in the Chinese Yock Eng High School in the 1950s, and came to be influenced by Maoist teachings from China. She suspects that the domestic Communist movement had links with the schools, but lacks a clear understanding of how the Communist Party engaged with the school. Her brother eventually participated in a protest outside Parliament around the Chinese New Year period. Her mother also unsuspectingly joined the mass gathering when she was asked to by other activists. Ultimately, both Ker’s brother and mother were arrested. However, the authorities were more lenient towards unknowing participants like her mother, and she was released after a short remand. Ker’s older brother was detained longer and subjected to brutal interrogation tactics, such as being forced to hold a block of ice until he confessed. The family had to hide any Communist-linked materials at home to avoid persecution by the state. Activists had to denounce the movement on television to be released, which he refused to do. Later, his younger brother convinced him to offer a written confession to the tabloids without a televised broadcast, and secured his release. In closing, Ker notes that her history classes in the Singapore public school system never discussed the Communist movement, merely discussing founding figures such as Sang Nila Utama or Raffles; suggesting that this was a function of the people’s social contract with the government.
Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy
Interviewee: Ker Poh Ngoh
Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy
Session: 1 of 2
Location: Choa Chu Kang Avenue 4
Date: September 30, 2019
[START OF SESSION 1 OF 2]
Q: Good afternoon. Please tell me your name and your date-of-birth.
Ker: My name is Susan Ker Poh Ngoh. My date-of-birth is 5 January 1955.
Q: Can you tell me where you’re born?
Ker: Geylang Lorong 1, Singapore.
Q: Let me begin by asking you about your life as you were growing up in Singapore. Do you remember your earliest childhood memories?
Ker: I visited hospital, in fact. We stay in those Geylang River. House was near the river. There was a fish farm. Last time is stilt houses, behind all the mud, in front one piece of plank go to the road. My mother block, put one plank to - scared the children go, fall into the sea, the mud river. They got high tide, the sea water come in and float.
Q: What sea was this?
Ker: I know there’s one Kallang River— Certain period the river swell, all the water come. All [of us] take our clothing [off], jump in and swim. Our house is- one house, four family [sic], relative. One family is one room. Quite packed. Four family in one house. The toilet we make one hole, not a bucket, shit here and then wait for the tide to come in and wash away.
Q: Can you describe the house you mentioned just now?
Ker: Four rooms mean four families.
Q: How big was your room?
Ker: Very, very small. Very cramped and small.
Q: How did this room look like?
Ker: I cannot remember but I know it’s all very small. All— but all share the kitchen, toilet. No water, no electricity, so you cannot see anything at night. Go all the way, walk to the main tap, free one by government. So my mother and big sister carry a bucket of water. Confinement she also have to do that.
Q: Confinement because she was—
Ker: —After delivery, she confinement also go to the tap to do all the washing, carry all the water. Life is a bit difficult for her.
Q: Life was difficult for her?
Q: Was this kitchen and toilet shared by everyone? All the four families?
Ker: Ya. This four family [sic] is more or less our own relative [sic]. My grandmother, my other aunty all stay together. When we stay this house also— Every now and then we’ll run for fire. They hit the “conk” then we’ll get ready to run. My mother will give instruction for my sister to [get] one big cloth, put everything in the bundle, and run. Whatever my mum instruction give, the eldest brother will follow, bring my youngest sibling. We’re supposed to meet, give us instruction to meet her. She will go later because she need to go on the lookout, later go ahead or to— That means nothing she will ask the children to [unclear].
Q: Why were fires happening—
Ker: —It’s a attap house. Stilt house is wooden house, like the attap house.
Q: On stilts?
Ker: Ya, ‘cos the water will flood.
Q: How do you think the fire started?
Ker: They got start early, warn you, ‘Conk! Conk!’ You cannot wait until the fire start, have to prepare and run for our lives. Even a bit, a spark, where they hear, we will start. Even midnight, we sleeping also, in the middle of the night, you hear the ‘conk’ all start to get to prepare to run.
Q: This ‘conk’ sound: who created this to warn you of—
Ker: —I don’t know. My sister knows better, she told me that— I fell and got admitted into hospital for four years.
Q: Do you remember what age you were?
Ker: Three years old. My brother was carry me on the shoulder. My mother block the entrance so we won’t go out, dangerous mah, deep mud. In case the water swell, nobody out there, children shouldn’t go near or not drown.
Q: What was your reason for you entering—
Ker: —She [He] try to go over the [unclear]. My brother try to carry me. My brother is older than me four years, cross over the plank. He fell, I sit on his shoulder. I also fell. He also don’t know what happened. I was crying, I was complaining, but I don’t know what part pain. My mother bring me to see the Chinese sinseh [Chinese doctor]. They try to massage — on the knee, wrap, wrap. But after one week, still I was limping. The neighbour say, “Shouldn’t be like that. Cannot leh.” They brought me to consult, my mother bring me to hospital. I was admitted in Changi Hospital. That one is under the British rule. I was treated by a British doctor. They operated on me and put on a cast. I don’t know if this is a fracture, no implant. After operation fix up and [I was] put on a cast. The cast four years, followed by physio[therapy]. My mother not so often visit because got children to take care.
— Geylang got a lot of gangsters, hide the beer bottle, parang, hide in the bushes. Down there there’s a gang fight. Before they’ll warn the family, say, what time ah, hide the children, don’t let them go out. They give you warning first, they won’t say they go and fight, they say ‘settle matter’. They want to scare you. Very easy for them to escape. The house the road is so muddy and a lot of rock, all the car cannot come in. The police cannot come in, they zoom here, zoom there, escape.
[After,] We shifted to Dakota Crescent, a housing estate. One hall only.
Q: Was this [home] bigger than your previous [one]?
Ker: Before we shifted to Dakota Crescent, my mother shifted [to] Geylang, because the family all grown bigger. But still the same Geylang, but other—
Q: Your mother shifted during your hospital stay?
Q: By the time you came out, you—
Ker: —I still in Geylang. I went to school, no school bus, those carpool. They fetch children, ten over, sit in the whole car. Behind the backseat they put one more plank. So cramped.
Q: Whose car was this?
Q: And you had to pay?
Ker: Very cheap, few dollar[s] one month.
My father was born in Malaysia, Johor. He come when Singapore and Malaysia haven’t separated. Other they separated, he come to Singapore. My father work as a coolie in the Singapore River. She [he] cycle out to Singapore River, work as labourer, carry all the heavy [unclear] for the boat until she [he] cannot tahan [tolerate it], she [he] say hard life, then she go and work as fisherman.
Q: Can you describe the job?
Ker: Go out the sea for few week then come back. The diver would go down and see got fish then bomb. The fish all dead then they pick up. My father is not a diver, he just do all the cooking, help them to pull all the net.
Q: I guess you could call that a sea crew?
Ker: I don’t know, I only know Hokkien, kia zun [someone who works on a boat used for fishing].
Q: You were talking about how your mother’s life was difficult when all of you were living in the wooden house. Why was that so?
Ker: Tap water have to go all the way to carry. No electricity. You use charcoal, wood, burn. My sister say she will— My Geylang house got this charcoal factory. She will go, people drop one, pick up. Those people is a fish farm, dry the fish, dry prawn, ikan bilis. Those people leftover she will drop. A few of the children also do that.
Q: How did you get on your daily activities without water or electricity? For instance—
Ker: —We will go to the tap and bathe. My mother will go and wash clothes.
Q: This tap was owned by—
Ker: —the government. I think by the government.
Q: How many could use the tap?
Ker: Two tap, two person.
Q: Was there a situation where the water ran out?
Ker: That time ration [unclear].
Q: What about electricity?
Ker: Electricity, we cannot see.
Q: Where [there] kerosene lamps?
Ker: Ya. One family one.
Q: Was it difficult or easy living without water and electricity?
Ker. Ya, of course. Mother will ration, cannot use too much water because you cannot carry. One person is use how much water. Have to walk for five minutes to the tap. A bit tiring, one day you walk how many times, especially if you got big family.
Q: So that was why your mother’s life was difficult?
Q: Were there other reasons?
Ker: Another reason is— My brother joined those, go to secondary school, he joined the Communists. That time no English school, only Chinese school.
Q: Tell me more about your brother.
Ker: My two brothers are in Chinese schools. Join Comm—
Q: —May I know their names?
Q: Or if you would not like to reveal their names that’s also fine.
Ker: [Looks uncomfortable].
Q: It’s okay, it’s alright, I won’t—
Ker: —That time my brother is in Yock Eng [High] School . My eldest brother— join Communists to destroy public property like traffic light, cars, then get arrested. My eldest brother got arrested.
Q: What year was your eldest brother born in?
Ker: Ours is two year [separated by two years]. — I have an elder sister, two elder brothers. —
Q: She’s the eldest?
Ker: No she’s number third. Two brother is elder. I’m fourth, after still got more. Seven of us [siblings]. After me still got two younger sisters and one younger brother. We live same house [nine, including parents] in one room. Actually my sister’s born in the new house [at Dakota Crescent].
Talking about my brother now right? He was arrested. He join the Communists and Mao Zedong. The Mao Zedong from China. Those from China [are] Communists.
Q: Your brother was from Yock Eng School?
Ker: I think so, now no more.
Q: What about the younger brother?
Ker: Not sure. Different school.
Q: Where were they located?
Ker: Yock Eng is near Katong.
Q: At what age did they go to school?
Ker: I don’t know what age but they go secondary school they join Communists. Every time they ask my parent buy China’s product, Everything all China, China, China.
Q: What year do you think this was, that they joined secondary school?
Ker: I think during their ‘O’ Level [a national examination in Singapore taken by secondary school students in their final year of study], he [eldest brother] got arrested, before that he join. He imprisoned for three to four years. My mother, those Communists ask her to, gather all the parents and protest at the Parliament House, ask them to wear something, written on the cloth, go in the demonstration to ask for the release of my brother.
Q: What do you think was written on these cloths? What was its colour?
Ker: That I don’t know.
Q: Did you see these protests?
Ker: Got newspaper but I lost the newspaper. The news my mother kept it but I don’t know where is it.
Q: Why do you think she kept it?
Ker: Because my younger sister was four years old, she brought my sister to protest. After she [mother] was arrested, somehow this younger sister was returned to the home. Someone took her home. That was one week before Chinese New Year.
Q: Of which year?
Ker: [Tries hard to recall].
Q: It’s alright. What do you think they were protesting about in front of the Parliament?
Ker: To ask for release. I think they were told by those Communists what to do. They gather all the parents—all those mothers to protest in the Parliament, get arrested. My poor [elder] sister was hopping from one police station to— lock up. Listen to those people, “Oh she lock up already,” so hopping from one police station to another. In the end someone told is Changi Prison so she went there to look for my mother. Wah, that one very chaotic. Ten, twenty over ladies all in one temporary shelter. All shouting for woman menses, those pad [sanitary napkin].
Q: Why do you think they were shouting for this pad?
Ker: Because they’re not prepared. They don’t know they going to be arrested. They unexpected, my mother also, one week before Chinese New Year didn’t prepare. When my sister go and see my mother, my mother give her instruction on what do for Chinese New Year because my mother is a Buddhist. Ask her what to do, to send away the god to heaven. Every time Chinese New Year they send the god to heaven or what heaven. My sister just follow instruction, pack all together, all burn away. After one week, they release my mother. Two days before Chinese New Year. When come home she saw, all the instruction, ask my sister to send the god, she [sister] send back again. After that you have to receive the god back? I don’t know, I’m not Buddhist. She get scolded by my mother.
During that time arrested [brother’s arrest], my mother visit my brother. That time is just the glass panel, use intercom to talk. The moment my sister say, “Mother arrested,”—pak [clap sound]—cut off. The phone was cut off, chase you out. Cannot.
Q: Why do you think so?
Ker: Because they scared they all give them message. They are very, very strict in the sense that when you talk something about don’t know— when my mother bring food to my brother, they will check all the words. Even the meatball they will tear, see hide any message. My mother visit, my mother told me. They tear, even my brother request food, they will check. One week to check everything before can pass. Letter also have to pass those inside people before they can pass to my brother.
Q: Who was the one doing the checking?
Ker: Those inside the prison.
Q: Were they part of the government?
Ker: I think the Changi Prison was part of the thing.
Q: Was your mother at Changi Prison?
Ker: Oh ya, my mother was temporary, all in one room. My brother was in an individual room.
Q: Were all the women like your mother locked in one room?
Ker: Ah, because they are temporarily sheltered. They are not really a criminal.
Q: Why do you think they were not called criminals?
Ker: I don’t know, maybe they know this mother need the children, coming to Chinese New Year. Maybe they more compassionate.
Q: Why do you think they were compassionate during Chinese New Year?
Ker: Because the mother is an important part of our family, we’re lost. We’re shocked my mother was arrested, not expected her, she went there. In the first place, we didn’t know she go and protest. She without our knowledge go there, until she was arrested then someone inform us.
Q: Was it surprising your mother would protest?
Ker: She didn’t tell us about all these. Last time I know she prepare money ask somebody to write a letter of appeal to the government, higher authority to ask for my brother to release. After that maybe influenced by those Communists, gather strong.
Q: Who were these Communists you were talking about?
Ker: I think Mao Zedong. My brother all got the Mao Zedong book, a doll represent the soldier, the [arm]band got one star. When my eldest brother was arrested, my second brother quickly gather all those China thing quickly go and hide. He didn’t come back, hide in the friend house. She [he] scared police will come and raid the house and search, he will get arrested. So she [he] hide for a few months until everything settle down. You take away everything so you don’t leave any evidence in the house.
Q: How do you know this doll-soldier—
Ker: —My brother say, “This is Mao Zedong.” I remember the one star, red. The band is red. I know it’s green colour, then one band.
Q: What is this green colour? Is it the army—
Ker: —Ya, the army uniform. I don’t know where he get from. Maybe given to him.
Q: Was this worn by all the Communists?
Ker: I think so. I think they say under Xia Ding.
Q: Can you tell me more?
Ker: This Xia Ding I don’t know much, my brother always involved in school. My sister yes, my sister work in one family, as a helper doing housework. This family the son also join Communists, also get arrested. Imagine you get arrested, during that time they allowed to bring food.
Q: Who was allowed to bring food to who?
Ker: Those parents visit their children, the son, arrested for Communists. Every week their parent will bring fish, meat, vegetable for them to cook. So they are enjoying life. My sister say, “They won’t suffer.” After Lee Kuan Yew put a ban on this, they don’t allow. They [prisoners] began to suffer. Some of them requested to apply to go back to China. Once they go back to China, they are not able to come back. I have relative who applied to go to China.
Q: When did parents ban this giving of food by parents to their children in jail?
Ker: I don’t remember.
Q: Was it after 1965?
Ker: That one I have to ask my sister, because my sister work in this family.
Q: But the PAP has come to power.
Ker: In 1964, she remember Lee Kuan Yew came to house to visit, because start to vote. My sister saw him in a market.
Q: But when she saw him how did she react?
Ker: I didn’t ask her. She say it was very re nao [a commotion], a lot of people gather around him.
Q: Did your sister join these crowds?
Ker: I don’t know.
Q: I just want to return to your brothers again.
Ker: She [he] surrender, they will release him. She [he] must appear on TV [television] to surrender. But he doesn’t want because he feel like it’s a betrayal. Appear on TV to say you’re sorry is like betrayal. After my father die of stomach cancer at the age of forty-nine. Two years later my second brother advised my elder brother to surrender, no point going on like that, “My father no more here, need you to come back and support the family.” After talk term with the government, “I don’t appear on TV but newspaper surrender OK.” In the end he came out. When he came out, he told me when he was in the prison, they force him to reveal the people involved by hugging a block of ice. Make you cold and shiver to reveal those people involved, give the name.
Q: What year did your brother write [an apology] in the newspaper? — Was this in the 1970s?
Ker: Ya. Before that my two brothers will not work in the government because they want to go against. But after this release, my elder brother work as the government’s — making shoe.
Q: Why do you think he would come around and work with the government?
Ker: Maybe they ask him to surrender, give him a job to do, tell him how to go on with life.
Q: So this was a way to prevent [him] from going back to Communism?
Ker: Ya, to ask the Communist for help. Maybe.
Q: So I would like to find out more about the cold shiver tactic used in jail. —
Ker: —More like torture him, hug big block of ice naked.
Q: How did you know about this?
Ker: He told us, when he come back how he suffer.
Q: What was your reaction to him hugging the ice?
Ker: Last time like, “Hah?” [expresses surprise], we didn’t ask about all the action.
Q: What was your emotion like [when you heard your brother’s stories about imprisonment]?
Ker: My mother like [gasping].
Q: Was she shocked?
Q: What about you? How did you feel?
Ker: You can tahan [tolerate] so cold? So macho, so strong can tahan the cold ah.
Q: Did you have other emotions towards your brother’s treatment in jail?
Ker: No others.
Q: When your [brother was] first arrested, how did you feel?
Ker: I still schooling. You young, don’t know how to feel, scared only, afraid.
Q: How did the people around you explain the arrests [to you]?
Ker: Just that my second brother inform us, gather everything and run away, on the run away. My brother told us.
Q: Why were you unable to know about your brother’s arrest?
Ker: Because home no TV.
Q: Did your mother explain to you?
Ker: My mother don’t really explain much to the children. They themselves not educated, also don’t know. Just say arrested.
Q: Did she tell you about the Communists—
Ker: —Communists yes.
Q: How did you understand these Communists when you were young, after hearing from your mother?
Ker: Because I’m from English school. I also don’t care the Communists they protest against the Government, I don’t really like Communists.
Q: Why [did you] not like the Communists?
Ker: [Pause] Very bad influence, the China Communists, everything must buy China product. Everything is so rigid. This cannot, that cannot, the government department cannot. Everything cannot.
Q: You were talking about how you were in an English school? What school was this?
Ker: Tanjong Rhu Primary School, Broadrick Secondary School. Broadrick is near Dakota Crescent, near my new house.
Q: At what age did you go to school?
Ker: After the hospital, seven. Primary school, no kindergarten.
Q: How many years was primary school?
Ker: Six years. That time I come out I doesn’t know how to speak dialect. Four years all Malay, because all the ah ma in the hospital [‘nurses’ and ‘caretakers’ in Singapore] speak Malay. I couldn’t speak dialect to my family. Only can communicate in Malay. Mostly those ah ma, those Malay servant or what.
Q: Were there nurses?
Ker: Don’ know nurses or maid.
Q: What about the doctor?
Ker: The doctor is British, couldn’t understand what he speak. He speak with weird slang, English I couldn’t understand. During th time, we didn’t go to school, we didn’t know English. I communicate more with the ah ma, they bathe, feed us.
Q: What ethnicity was your doctor? Caucasian?
Q: How did you feel about being hospitalized?
Ker: I couldn’t remember.
Q: How did you feel when you were released?
Ker: That one was too young I also don’t know. But I know they get any festival, like Christmas they celebrate, got some treat to eat. Then I watch those Christian movies like Moses. Other Chinese movies, no, I won’t watch this. Like [unclear], the mother got leprosy, the Jesus come and cure them, remove their leprosy. Moses is the disciple.
Q: How did you understand this movie that were shown to you in the hospital?
Ker: I didn’t know, just a story to me.
Q: Who explained these movies to you?
Ker: Nobody explained.
Q: What language were these movies in?
Ker: English, I think. I don’t know English, just watch the action. I didn’t know until I become Christian, then this one I remember, this one I saw.
Q: Growing up, what sort of religion or culture was your family in?
Q: Growing up, what sorts of religious influences did you have?
Ker: This primary school I follow friends go Christian, Sunday school, a few times.
Q: Did your parents know.
Ker: I don’t know, they didn’t ask anything, maybe they didn’t want me to learn more English, happy-go-lucky.
Q: Did you tell your parents you went to church?
Ker: I don’t remember.
Q: You went regularly?
Ker: Not really. A few times then stop.
Q: What churches did you visit?
Ker: I don’t know, follow friend.
Q: Which friend was this?
Ker: Secondary school friend. Thirteen, fourteen [years old].
Q: So your brothers went to a Chinese school?
Ker: That time no English school. After my [older] sister then got English school. During my two brother, don’t have government school. —
Q: —Which government
Ker: —Lim [recalls]—
Q: —Lim Yew Hock?
Ker: I think so. I heard they got this worker problem. The worker protest, riot, burn the Hock Lee bus. One of the relative also protest, he was asked to go back to China. This is my grandfather’s brother’s son-in-law. They took picture of the protestors, his face was inside, so he have to—
Q: —Where did this picture appear in?
Ker: I don’t know where.
Q: Was there a newspaper?
Ker: Ya. I don’t know [the name]. Chinese newspaper, I don’t know. [My sister] saw the picture that arrested him, so he apply to go back to China. When they’re in the thirties. Then got five children, send back to China.
Q: The whole family was sent back?
Ker: Ya. — One year later they wrote a letter, ask for supplies. In China, they also don’t have good life.
Q: Why not?
Ker: Why you ask that letter for food? All this supplies.
Q: Do you remember which Chinese government this was?
Ker: Mao Zedong right? I don’t know. My brother was Mao Zedong.
Q: How did they come into contact with Mao Zedong’s ideas?
Ker: I don’t know, they come to school and influence my brother.
Q: How did the school influence them?
Ker: I don’t know.
Q: Do you think they were taught? Did your brothers describe—
Ker: —Oh, they always go to the meeting place, I don’t know where.
Q: Was this meeting place in school?
Ker: No, outside, where I don’t know.
Q: You have no idea what happened in the school?
Ker: [Shakes head, expresses no].
Q: Did your [elder sister] go to school?
Ker: No. I got one aunty, my grandmother remarried also got one daughter, my mother take care of her. In order to not people to talk about, “How come my aunty didn’t go to school, but your children got?” Sacrifice my sister don’t go. [My grandmother] after give birth, a few years, pass away.
Q: Why did your parents send you to school when your sister did not?
Ker: She say I handicap, fell down, give me a proper education for me to survive. She say I handicap, my leg like that. I don’t know why she send me to school. My sister did attend Chinese night classes. She very naughty, always fight with people, quarrel with people. My mother stopped her.
Q: Why do you think she fought with people?
Ker: She very naughty.
Q: She was very young?
Ker: Very young, primary school I think.
Q: What were these night classes about?
Ker: I don’t know how to—
Q: —How late were these night classes?
Ker: No idea.
Q: Just to talk about your school life, your mother called you a handicap?
Ker: I think my mother didn’t, only my elder sister, only to be fair to my aunty, didn’t go to school: [Re-enacts mother’s reasoning] “I sacrifice one daughter so that the relative don’t gossip, ‘How come your other people daughter never go, your daughter go?’ Fair enough, I sacrifice one daughter to be fair.”
Q: Do you remember the school fees at that time?
Ker: Free, primary school. I don’t see my mother pay anything. Secondary school also free or ten over dollars.
Q: What about your brothers’ education—was it free?
Ker: I don’t know. —
Q: —Did children around your age go to school?
Ker: Most of them go school unless they fail their exam then drop out. Every year they got exam.
Q: So if you fail—
Ker: —ah, then you kick out.
Q: Did your mother choose your school for you?
Ker: She choose the nearest.
Q: Did you see children that did not go to school?
Q: Did girls go to school?
Q: All the girls went to school?—
Ker: —My neighbour also girl that time.
Q: Were there instances where girls did not go to school?
Ker: That’s older. Much older. My generation yes, all [girls] go to school.
Q: For instance, your sister or brothers’ generation. Did girls go to school?
Ker: They go night class. My aunty also night class.
Q: What’s the difference between day and night school?
Ker: Maybe they need to work. My sister will work in coffee bean. One tin is thirty cents. Kerosene tin. Quite big, they put the oil, pump the kerosene in. The coffee bean is white, they pick out all the black and rotten one.
Q: At what age did your sister go to work?
Ker: Nine or ten.
Q: Did you have to work at this age?
Ker: No I don’t, very lucky. My mother didn’t ask me go work leh. My brother at night go market after school, sell chap kway [a hawker dish consisting of stewed offal and dark soya sauce]. My eldest brother also didn’t [work]. Why ah? I don’t know. Only my second brother.
Q: What do you remember about your primary school life.
Ker: Always flood.
Q: In your school?
Q: Can you describe this flood for me?
Ker: It’s quite high. The drain not good, later on they upgrade then no flood already.
Q: What do you remember about the students?
Ker: Students get stuck and walk home, all the cars will be stuck.
Q: Can you describe some of your classes for me in primary school?
Ker: Always got bugs on the chair! Bed bug is it? Your leg got rashes, swollen. Sometimes unlucky your chair will have. Every now and then they will put the chair in the sun, but [the bugs] will still come back. The chair still got. Recess time you will try and exchange [the chair] with somebody else.
Q: What’s the material of these chairs?
Ker: Wood or rattan. The table also wood.
Q: What time did you have to go to school?
Ker: Early seven something.
Q: How did you go to school?
Ker: Primary school at Geylang, I take those car. When I stay at Geylang Lorong, it’s quite far from Tanjong Rhu. After that shifted to Dakota Crescent then they got public bus. Five cent.—
Q: Can you describe the differences between your old house and new house [at Dakota Crescent]?
Ker: New house is better in the sense got electricity, water. The house is quite small, can only put one bed. All of us sleep on the floor. Parents one bed. My father come back sleep on one bed. The children, our floor, we put the rubber carpet. The bed quite high, underneath the bed can roll inside and sleep. Wooden [attap house] we all sleep on the floor. New house better in the sense that the floor is cement, we play hopscotch, skipping, we will jump the drain up and down. More enjoyable, got more things to play. That time got this opera, wayang. The old one we don’t have. Nothing.
The old one got Gay World, Happy World [amusement parks]. Geylang they have. Fifty cents for entry. Only go there and see movies. All those Chinese movie. We have no money, only follow those adult relatives that got money. Just follow—children free what. They only watch those local wayang, they come and perform. This is the Singapore wayang, seventh month [the Ghost Festival in the Chinese calendar] can see one.
After that they got some [unclear], play game, tikam (childhood “lucky draw” game).
We didn’t sit [on the rides in the amusement parks]—the adult sit. The children follow. No chair, because we didn’t buy the ticket. We follow in. No seat.
Q: Can you tell me what movies were shown?
Ker: Got Hong Kong.
Q: What about China?
Ker: China, I don’t really know.
Q: What were these movies about?
Ker: Hong Kong movie is those film star—Fung Bo Bo.
Q: Were there any themes or topics that these movies talked about?
Q: What languages did you learn in school?
Ker: English, and Chinese as a second language. We learn domestic science, home economy [sic], technical, metalwork, electricity.
Q: What do you mean by second language?
Ker: One subject in Chinese, all the others in English.
Q: Was there a first language?
Q: Which is your first language?
Q: Why do you think Chinese was called a second language?
Ker: You only study one subject in Chinese. The rest all in English, so I call this the second.
Q: Did you like learning these languages—English and Chinese?
Ker: Chinese I don’t like because I not good. I fail my Chinese.
Q: What languages were spoken at home?
Ker: Hokkien, dialect.
Q: No one else was speaking [Mandarin] around you?
Q: Did you like learning English?
Ker: Because all the while from primary school I learn English.
Q: Why did you like learning English?
Ker: Foundation started from English, all the while I find it easier. Chinese is a bit problem for me.
Q: Did anyone in your family speak English?
Ker: No. Other two are Chinese, Mandarin.
Q: Were there other languages—
Ker: —No. My father always listen to the Mandarin song. So I like Chinese song, those record music, gramophone.
Q: Do you think English and [Mandarin] were spoken widely in Singapore [in] the 1960s? You were probably around five to ten years old.
Ker: Dialect common. English, no.
Q: What about when you were twenty years old? [mid 1970s]
Ker: English, yes.
Q: Can you describe your language lessons for me?
Ker: Just the standard, the blackboard. That time have to copy notes. You don’t have computer, that time have to copy, keep on copying! Ask the students to copy.
Q: Were there any listening exercises?
Ker: No, teacher just talk from the paper, copy notes.
Q: Did you have to do homework?
Ker: Ya. Homework is not so much. I should say my homework is all art. I like drawing. I win the prize for art. Win the prize in the art competition. That time is, I can’t remember.
Q: How did you feel after winning the prize?
Ker: Happy. My mother followed me go.
Q: She followed you to school?
Ker: No, I think is it community centre or somewhere else? It’s outside.
Q: Seems like art is your favourite subject. What about domestic science?
Ker: Making an apron. They didn’t teach you how to measure, just give you a pattern, cut, sew. I ask my mother to sew because they didn’t teach you how to sew, then pass up to teacher.
Q: What about home economics?
Ker: Home economics is the teacher demo, then cook. Each one take home. We do not hands-on.
Q: What about technical studies?
Ker: Technical studies is hands-on. We drill, do the filing, make the scraper [unclear], bottle opener, learn about electricity. That is good. All these I learn, I fix myself [electrical appliances]! I learn something basic about electricity. I learn metal but I can’t do, don’t have the machine. Electricity is very good, should learn. Metal is hard work, is man work, I find it so manly. Hand become rough. I enjoy cooking and domestics, because got food to eat!
Q: You said technical work was manly, why do you think so?
Ker: You’re talking about metal? Because sometimes you need to go home and file, go corridor and file, because you cannot finish the work. This is manly work, file, file, file, then drill. Man work right?
Q: What do you mean?
Ker: Like man, not lady. I got surprised, how come as girl you do this metal thing, more like man.
Q: Did you feel like you were not suitable for this work? How did you feel about this work?
Ker: All the hammer, file.
Q: Did you like it?
Ker: Not really. You learn already doesn’t apply to you.
Q: Comparing filing and fixing lamps, you prefer fixing lamps?
Ker: Ya, electricity you have at home. I fix all my lights, I change all my switch. That is more practical. Metal I don’t find so far, up to now, I don’t do anything.
Q: Certain activities like filing—you described as manly. Does this mean that there were a lot of men working on these in the 1960s and 1970s?
Ker: Not many men do. We are shared, equal, all is a must during the school until Secondary Three we branch out.
Q: So both girls and boys—
Ker: —Ya, must.
Q: When did the branching take place?
Ker: After Secondary Two.
Q: What were the differences in subjects you had to take in primary and secondary school?
Ker: Primary school is more of one, two, three, multiple choice, some fill-in-the-blanks. Secondary school is more of the written work, more detail—technical, electricity, home economy [sic], music, geography, history, science, mathematics. Primary school we did science. History we do [in primary school] but only in Singapore. Secondary school then we learn about other things.
Q: What sorts of stories of Singapore history [did] you learn in primary school?
Ker: We learned how Singapore was formed.
Q: How was Singapore formed, according to your history lessons?
Ker: What’s the name? All the while they thought who come to Singapore? Found Singapore, landing at what lion? The Malay prince?
Q: I think some people call him Sang Nila Utama.
Ker: Ah yea. We were taught this one.
Q: Were there any other historical figures?
Ker: No. Oh—Raffles. Stamford Raffles.
Q: What about more contemporary figures like politicians. Were they mentioned in the history textbooks?
Q: Growing up in these schools, how would you describe [emotions in your schooling life in primary school]?
Ker: Primary school is same, nothing much. A bit boring. Nothing interesting to look forward. Secondary school also quite boring, no other EC [extra-curricular], only joint St. John’s. Marching only, nothing else. Just learn how to do the bandage, didn’t do much. We didn’t adventure to other place.
Q: What sorts of reading materials did you have in school?
Ker: Reading material is—don’t have.
Q: How did you learn about languages at home? How did you practice them?
Ker: You only have textbook.
Q: Was there a library?
Ker: Don’t have much in Chinese.
Q: Did you read books when you were young?
Ker: No. Last time English so bad. My mother don’t encourage.
Q: I would like to find out about the school rules. For instance, were there things you couldn’t do, that if you did you would be punished for?
Ker: Cannot come late.
Q: Did people break the school rules?
Ker: Ya, no-smoking is a school rule.
Q: What would happen if they broke the school rules?
Q: What did you feel about school suspension?
Ker: They suspend for [INTERRUPTION]. Suspension for a short time is okay. But if it’s too long, it’s too harsh. One week, two weeks is okay, but two, three months is too high, children will miss their lesson. It’s bit harsh for them.
Q: Compare your education to your brothers’. Because your brothers participated in communist activities, were there a lot of communist reading materials at home?
Ker: Not really a lot, magazine. I don’t know Chinese, so I don’ know [can’t read or understand the magazines].
Q: But you saw them.
Ker: I saw them. He will take [unclear].
Q: Can you describe their visuals, pictures?
Ker: No idea. I only remember the magazine is in Chinese.
Q: Did your school discourage Communism?
Ker: My school never mention Communists.
Q: Primary and secondary schools?
Ker: Ya, they don’t mention, surprise.
Q: Not a single mention?
Ker: No. Then how come my brother, I don’t understand.
Q: Did you expect them to mention Communism?
Ker: That time I young I don’t know.
Q: But looking back when you were older in secondary school, did you expect them to discuss Communism?
Ker: Ya, maybe. But they don’t. My friend also don’t mention about Communists.
Q: Why do you think you expected the school to mention–
Ker: –Because Lee Kuan Yew very strict is it? Cannot talk bad about the government. Everybody scared, zip up, dare not open their mouth. You always hear rumors, “Wait you talk bad about it, they will sue you, jail.”
Q: Does this mean that if someone were to talk about Communism, they were also talking bad about Communism–was there a connection between these two things?
Ker: Ya. You want to lay a low profile, don’t want to get involved.
Q: But your friends didn’t talk about Communism?
Ker: No, nobody mentioned.
[END OF SESSION 1 of 2]
Interviewer: Jeremy Yong
Interviewee: Ker Pog Ngoh
Sang Nila Utama was a Malay Prince of Indian descent who discovered the island of Temasek and founded his “Lion City” after seeing a lion, according to legend
Stamford Raffles was a Britsh colonial explorer who founded modern Singapore and established a port on the island in 1819.
How does Ker’s reflection problematize the issue of silences in Singapore’s national narratives of its postwar history?
How were the above silences shaped by Singapore’s Cold War imperatives?