In this second session of her interview, Sally discusses her awareness of the global dimensions of the Cold War, and her understanding of the ideas of Communism and related social movements, as she got older.
Sally does not exactly recall her first exposure to the concepts of Communism, but recalls that she was not taught anything about the ideology while she attended compulsory education. However, her early understanding of Communist societies, primarily China and Russia, was that they were highly regimented societies where even citizens’ diet and clothing were controlled by the state with military precision. She also does not believe that Singapore experienced a Cold War, and does not recall Singapore having much of a communist presence domestically. Her vague recollections of Communism in Singapore were of brief glimpses in the news of a few arrests of suspected communists by the government. The closest communist presences to Singapore, in her view, were in Vietnam, or fugitives in the forests of Malaya. To Sally, the Cold War, a term she only encountered in adulthood, remained confined between the US and the USSR. The major conflict she recalls seeing in the news as a student is the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers.
She then discusses Singapore’s engagement with global powers, highlighting that despite its communist orientation, Singapore upheld strong economic links with China, encouraging Singaporeans to invest in Chinese ventures. However, she was also conscious of the uneven economic development in China, as her father would often remit a hundred Singapore dollars to assist struggling relatives in China, which was a large sum in those times. The news media also depicted the United Status as a powerful country that played the role of a global protector with an advanced military. Singaporean students were also encouraged to pursue education opportunities in America as a form of knowledge transfer from the US to Singapore.
Finally, Sally discusses the Singapore government’s population management policies, and their efforts to encourage citizens to limit themselves to having only two children by penalizing parents with larger families. While some citizens were opposed to this campaign, there were no protests to resist this policy. Sally’s recollections thus provide a broad overview of the economic dimensions of the late Cold War era in Singapore.
Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy
Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy
Session: 2 of 3
Location: Yale-NUS College, 16 College Avenue West
Date: October 12, 2019
[START OF SESSION 2 OF 3]
Q: It’s okay if you don’t remember. Going back to your own school, were there any student movements?
Q: Primary school?
Q: Secondary school?
Q: What do you understand about the term ‘Communism’? Do you know what it is about?
Sally: Yes. Yes. That time, is associated with Russia, China. These are the two main countries in the world. They shared everything. Whatever they have, they’ll share: food; they have a standard clothing.
Q: What were your earliest memories about coming to know this term?
Sally: Teenager time?
Q: Secondary school?
Q: So this was the 1980s?
Sally: Early eighties.
Q: How did you learn about this term?
Sally: From the news.
Q: What did the news say?
Sally: Mention in the news that Russia and China is the communist country.
Q: Who do you think they wanted to share their possessions with? You said there was food.
Sally: Among their people.
Q: How was this different from Singapore, as you remembered when you grew up?
Sally: Even how hard you work, is not proportional to the amount or pay you have, because you have to share with everybody equally. The lazy ones don’t put in much effort, they also get to enjoy the fruits of labour.
Q: When you said you heard about it from the news, was this T.V.?
Sally: T.V., newspaper.
Q: How did they talk about these countries?
Sally: Don’t really talk in detail.
Q: Did Singapore have Communists when you were growing up?
Sally: I think maybe have. When I’m growing up, maybe there’s one or two.
Q: But you don’t remember? Or you didn’t see—
Sally: I didn’t see any.
Q: What was your impression of Russia and China like growing up? When you heard about this on the T.V. and newspapers, what were your impressions?
Sally: About the Communists?
Q: About Communism, about the country?
Sally: Big countries. Chinese, China some similarity. They have a standard clothing and uniform.
Q: Do you remember your emotions or impressions?
Sally: Why like that? Why everything in common? Not everybody is well-off. My father used to send things and money to his relatives in China. [Inaudible]
Q: When you said, “Why like that—similar clothing?” Can you elaborate more about that? Were you surprised, shocked?
Sally: A bit surprised. Why are they wearing the same thing? They were just like a soldier.
Q: So this was a—
Sally: —Image of a soldier.
Q: How did you feel?
Sally: Happy that I’m not there. I don’t want to live this kind of life. Everything so rigid. They don’t have much freedom.
Q: Compared to Singapore?
Q: How was Singapore different in this regard, when you were growing up?
Sally: At least we can wear whatever we want. We don’t have to share everything with everybody. You can share with your family but not with strangers.
Q: What about Russia? Were Russia and China similar in the T.V. and newspapers?
Sally: I don’t think so.
Q: Were the Russian people look as though they were wearing the same things?
Sally: No, I don’t ever feel much in terms of Russia.
Q: Did you come to learn if there was Communism in Singapore? Did you hear or learn about them when you were growing up?
Q: Not at all: history, the past?
Sally: Maybe there is. It’s just that not much impression.
Q: So when you were growing up, you had no inkling?
Sally: There is some: the government catch, one or two people, and put them in a special place—not prison. We sort of like a child, will not question. We hundred-percent believe in the government.
Q: Who told you—
Sally: —The news. Child. 1970s? 1980s? Can’t remember.
Q: How would the news talk about it?
Sally: They managed to capture some men—one, two men—not sure whether they say they are Communists. Something like a threat to society.
Q: Singapore society?
Q: What did that person do?
Sally: They didn’t say much. I can’t remember.
Q: Were there any images?
Sally: Very fast images. They mention the name.
Q: Do you remember?
Sally: [Shakes head, expressing no].
Q: Were there Communism materials you encountered in Singapore?
Q: Did anyone in your life, around you, talk about the Communists?
Q: Your parents, grandparents?
Q: Were there Communists in other countries besides Russia and China?
Sally: That is the main two. After that we know more about the ones in Vietnam. In Malaysia, hiding in Malaysia—forests.
Q: Did you hear about Vietnam and Malaysia growing up, in relation to Communism?
Sally: Sort of.
Q: An inkling of Communism in Vietnam?
Q: From that memory, could you share—
Sally: —We didn’t go through in-depth. We just know there’s some Communism. But we don’t know what’s going on. Nobody tell us anything much. We don’t bother also. It’s not easy to find out more. There’s no Internet at that time. We want to find out more, we have to go to library and find. We don’t go to library that often. We don’t ask the adults. There’s certain things—usually as growing up, we don’t ask adults a lot of things.
Q: Vaguely, as you remembered, I understand you can’t really recall. Can you tell me what you read about the Communists in Vietnam and Malaysia?
Sally: Sorry, really can’t remember.
Q: Was there a different between Singapore and all these countries?
Sally: As a child growing up, we don’t really compare ourselves to our countries. We’re just happy in our own world.
Q: Even in your teens?
Q: Was the Singapore government—did they say anything—
Sally: —No. Not much.
Q: How would you characterise the 1970s?
Q: Ya. Tell me more about that decade.
Sally: I remember we got a campaign: Two is Enough. When we say two child is enough, or not we have not enough for sharing. The poster has two girls. That time, it encourage people to have two kids. When you have the third, fourth kid, I hear my parents say that you’ll pay penalty when you give birth in the hospital.
Q: Was your family affected by it?
Sally: Sort of.
Q: Your mother stuck to it?
Sally: Sort of.
Q: How would you characterise the 1970s? Were there any other things?
Sally: We were just growing up. Nothing much. Just normal life.
Q: Did you read about the news or events in Singapore?
Sally: The Jurong area was being developed: industrial factories coming up.
Q: Based on your understanding of the ‘Two is Enough’ policy, growing up as a child, was that explained to you?
Sally: Ya, because they say if you give birth to more, you receive less. It was in an advertisement, the T.V., their posters almost everywhere, in our living area.
Q: Growing up, what did you feel about these posters?
Sally: I have neighbours who give birth to a lot of children, they’re not looked well after—running about. We feel that, “Oh, two is enough, makes sense.”
Q: Was the neighbour of yours penalised?
Sally: This is what I hear from my mother. They have to pay a bit more when they give birth in the public hospital. I think that time is K. K. [Kandang Kerbau] Hospital.
Q: Does this mean if you give birth in a private hospital—
Sally: At that time, nobody give birth in a private hospital.
Q: Were there private hospitals?
Sally: Not sure. What we have is K. K. and S.G.H. [Singapore General Hospital]. And Alexandra Hospital.
Q: That’s also public?
Q: Did that policy shape your outlook, or in some ways, an aspect of your life, growing up? Did it shape your views about society, family, children?
Sally: Yes. You should not have too many children, especially when you cannot afford, then you cannot give your best to your children.
Q: Was this [perception] prevalent in society? Did everyone believe in this?
Sally: Not everyone.
Q: Who did not think that this was so? Or who opposed it?
Sally: Some adults. They will say, “That it’s up to me to decide—why should they have such policies? I want to have how many children is my problem.”
Q: Did they oppose the government in certain ways?
Sally: No, they just talk among themselves. Something like coffee shop talk.
Q: Did they give birth to more than two children?
Sally: Ya, they give more.
Q: They were willing to pay the fine?
Sally: Not sure if they’re willing to pay the fine.
Q: Any other forms of opposition to the ‘Two is Enough’ policy?
Q: Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, once you heard about the term ‘Communism’, did you feel like this was something different from your experience of politics in Singapore, as you understood it?
Sally: 1970s is primary school. Totally don’t know what is happening in the adult world, outside your school. It’s only in secondary school that you think more. Communists is like there was this weapon disagreement or competition between the U.S. and Russia in the news. They start to know more about Russia. I know there’s always some disagreement between U.S. and Russia. Something like nuclear weapon? Not the ordinary weapon.
Q: What were your impressions [of the USA like?]
Sally: Powerful, they’re the big brother in the whole world.
Q: Did Singapore politicians talk about the USA? Did they mention America, how did they mention America?
Sally: I don’t remember them talking much. [I got an impression of America from] the news.
Q: How did the news depict America in the context of the weapons competition?
Sally: They’re always negotiating with Russia. Somebody push, somebody pull. There’s always trying to have an agreement. Once they have an agreement, not sure if they’ll go through the agreement, or in between, either country might break the agreement.
Q: When you said the Americans felt powerful, why did you feel that?
Sally: It’s the impression everybody have. They are protecting the rest of the world. They’re good at everything, especially they’re the one who save the world after Second World War. When you study history.
Q: So this was in your history textbook?
Sally: No, my history textbook don’t talk about all this. We study the history of China, India. The Cold War thing between U.S. and Russia is more from the news.
Q: You called this the Cold War.
Sally: Later then I realise this was the Cold War.
Q: The 1980s?
Q: Did they use the term ‘Cold War’?
Q: Then how did you learn about the term ‘Cold War’?
Sally: [Chuckles] I don’t know when, much later.
Q: What do you understand about the term?
Sally: Why they call the term is it?
Q: What you understand about it?
Sally: We didn’t give much thought about it. It doesn’t concern us directly. It’s so far away.
Q: This was not in Singapore? You said it’s far—
Sally: —Ya, it doesn’t concern us.
Q: Was there a Cold War in Singapore?
Sally: No, I don’t think so.
Q: And this was really far away from Singapore?
Sally: Ya, it’s really far.
Q: Where was it?
Sally: Cold War is between the U.S. and Russia? It’s between the two of them. Far, far away.
Q: You said everyone had the impression in America as a strong country in Singapore, the protectors of the world. Was this a view that was prevalent view in Singapore?
Sally: It’s a general thing that they are good at everything. Sometimes the news will show images of their ships, planes. The planes will be in the sky, fly very fast. Some fighter jets. The ship is very huge.
Q: Did Singapore have these ships?
Sally: No, don’t have.
Q: Growing up, did you think that Singapore had any relations with America or China?
Sally: China, yup. Have some economic ties. China confirm have. The Chinese in Singapore, I know people who will go back to China, send things back. U.S. is like people go there for studies, business.
Q: With regards to China, you said your father sent money back to your relatives. Have you seen them?
Sally: No, never seen them. His cousins. They’re always asking for medicated oil. We always send them. Definitely it’s not ten, twenty dollars. About hundred Singapore dollars?
Q: So back in those times, the 1970s and 1980s, was hundred dollars—
Sally: —It’s very, very big. Public transport is only ten cents. A bowl of prawn noodle is only fifty cents.
Q: What did you think of China, because your father—
Sally: —Certain part of China they are quite poor, they need help.
Q: What about Singapore’s trade or businesses with China?
Sally: At that time, eighties, the government encourage people to invest in China.
Q: What about the seventies?
Sally: Never heard of, I’m too young.
Q: What about early eighties?
Sally: Middle of eighties, not early.
Q: Tell me about investment in the middle of the 1980s.
Sally: It was in the news. Government send somebody over there, on the news, say it encourage businessmen to invest. Singapore businessmen.
Q: What sorts of industries to invest in?
Sally: Didn’t mention.
Q: Singapore students went to the U.S. for their studies?
Sally: Ya, because I heard of people, friends—they do send. Maybe family friends. Not my friend.
Q: Why did they go to America in this period?
Sally: I think it’s a reputable university over there. You can get a good degree and can get a good job after that?.
Q: In Singapore?
Sally: Yes, usually expect them to come back.
Q: What other aspects were there? For instance, did the Singapore government encourage Singaporeans to go to America?
Q: Did you hear about any of these programmes?
Q: Besides that, did Singapore have any other relations with the U.S., China?
Sally: [Shakes head].
[END OF SESSION 2 OF 3]
Interviewer: Jeremy Yong
What does Sally’s characterization of the Cold War as a distant, Western phenomenon suggest about the nature of the Cold War in Singapore?
How does Sally’s emphasis on China as the primary Communist presence near Singapore challenge established understandings of the Cold War?
How does understanding China’s role in the Asian Cold War enrich existing Cold War historiography?