Sally Session 3 Interview

In this third session of her interview, Sally discusses Singapore’s domestic development, gender norms, and her exposure to foreign media during the Cold War Era.

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This transcript is part of a group of transcripts.

Sally begins by discussing her cross-cultural interactions with Indian and Malay residents in her community, recalling that she experienced no tensions or animosity towards them. While she has slight awareness of the racial riots of the early 1960s, it was an event experienced by her parents’ generation, and she was not told in detail about what had transpired.

She then discusses the transformation of gender norms in Singapore society across her parents’ and her own generation. While her mother was a homemaker and adhered to a traditional, gendered division of labor, Sally was not required to follow the same traditions. While schools taught home economics to female students, the moral education curricula did not indicate that women should limit themselves to domestic duties. Female students were also not restricted from playing sports that had a stronger male demographic. Sally personally found her mother’s daily routine boring and did not want to follow the same path. She would eventually attend university and pursue a diverse career in both the public and private sectors. However, she notes that the gender balance was not always equal in all careers, such as having greater female representation in law than in medicine. Some sectors continued to be male dominated, such as the marine industry.

Finally, she discusses her exposure to foreign media productions from childhood. Primarily, she recalls viewing foreign superhero shows. However, this was not limited to American productions like Superman, but also included Japanese ones like Ultraman. As a child, she recalls admiring these superhero figures as saviors of the vulnerable, but also shares how she grew to realize such individuals did not exist in society as she got older. Viewing these programs also did not really enhance her opinions of the source countries. However, she recalls watching James Bond films and considering the British to be more intelligent. Yet, she also acknowledges that these views may also have been shaped by Singapore’s colonial history. Ultimately, Sally does not consider the Cold War as a true war, as there was no open combat between the contesting superpowers. However, she gathers that the Cold War was largely fought through covert sabotage operations by both sides. She suggests that these undertones of covert conflict are reflected in the James Bond franchise

Transcriptionist: Yong Jie Li Jeremy

Interviewee: “Sally”

Interviewer: Yong Jie Li Jeremy 

Session: 3 of 3

Location: Yale-NUS College, 16 College Avenue West

Date: October 12, 2019


Q: Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, what did you think about the racial relations in Singapore? 

Sally: Mainly Chinese because in my neighbourhood we seldom see—not so many—Malays and Indians. But my neighbourhood, coffee shop I have this Indian shop, they sell prata. I love to watch the man throwing the prata around. 

Q: What about the relationship between different races in Singapore? 

Sally: Oh, it’s very good. At least in my neighbourhood, they’re very friendly to each other. They’ll smile, they’ll say hello at least in the lift, we’ll press for each other the lift buttons. 

Q: Were there any tensions between different racial groups? 

Sally: No, I mean my neighbourhood—no.

Q: In the 1970s, did you hear about anything in Singapore society?

Sally: 1970s ah? No. 

Q: Generally okay?

Sally: Okay. 

Q: What about racial riots?

Sally: Heard it from my mother when she was younger. But the Malays in her kampong area were very nice. They didn’t sort of get into any trouble with them. 

Q: Do you remember what this event was?

Sally: I heard there was this slashing Malays and Chinese. Can’t remember which year, but definitely not when I was in primary school. Before that, fifties, at most early sixties. 

Q: Do you remember what they fought over?

Sally: She did not mention. Can’t remember. 

Q: Were there any connections between these racial tensions and communist groups? 

Sally: No, I didn’t think so. 

Q: Growing up, can you describe some of the things men and women were expected to do in terms of family, work?

Sally: The men will go out to work. Females—quite a number of them are stay at home mums. My neighbours, the mothers, are all housewives. My classmates’ mothers are also housewives. 

Q: Being a housewife was something that was quite common in the 1960s?

Sally: Seventies. 

Q: Even the 1970s?

Sally: Yes. 

Q: Your mother was a housewife. Did that influence you? For instance, did she tell you she wanted you to be a housewife as well?

Sally: No, no she didn’t say that. It’s just that I’m happy she’s there when I got home. In the morning, she’s there to prepare my breakfast. There’s somebody there when I reach home. 

Q: Could women go to work?

Sally: I think woman could go to work, but not many go to work. Maybe their education level, and maybe the jobs available to them. 

Q: What about your generation [in the] late 1970s and early 1980s?

Sally: Means when I graduate?

Q: In your teenage years, did you foresee yourself getting a job?

Sally: Yes. I do not want to stay at home to be like my mother. So boring. Life is just cleaning the house, cooking—I don’t want that. 

Q: Was that something the schools taught you?

Sally: The school didn’t say anything. We have home econ[omics] where we learn to cook. We learn how to sew and keep the area clean. It’s just that we just don’t want to be like mother. 

Q: What sorts of jobs could women find in the 1970s and 1980s? Was there a change?

Sally: I saw my cousin—she was working in the 1980s. They work as accountant, assistant. They further their studies—one of them, so she climb up the ladder. 

Q: Were there restrictions on the jobs women could find or work in? Did you hear about any of these things?

Sally: It’s like the marine industry—I don’t think we see a lot of woman working on the ships.

Q: Marine as in the ships? What were they working as?

Sally: The impression I have is it’s a man’s job, same like engineering sector. Woman mainly work as admin, office staff work, or sales. 

Q: Were men in these areas as well—admin, sales?

Sally: Ya, but it’s like more woman. 

Q: What about education? University openings for women in law, medicine. Were they similar or equal to men?

Sally: Law—I think it’s still equal. Medicine—it depends. I think there are more men than woman accepted into medicine. 

Q: As a girl [growing up] in the 1970s and 1980s, did you feel like you had to follow certain gender roles or norms? For instance, to get married or be a housewife?

Sally: Okay, married—sort of, ya. Housewife—no. Hopefully you can get married but it’s not enforced so much. It’s hope lah. 

Q: What about jobs?

Sally: Society at that time quite open up to what we can do. 

Q: Did you find any work after you graduated from school?

Sally: When I was an undergraduate, I took part time job—I work in a bank, hospital, housekeeping segment as an admin person. —

Q: During the 1970s and 1980s, did the government have anything to say about gender roles, gender norms in Singapore? 

Sally: No. But I think they want children to be more educated. At least they’re trying to keep us in the education system. They encourage us to stay in school. I see some of my neighbours’ children drop out of school. 

Q: How is this related to gender?

Sally: No, I don’t think related to gender. 

Q: Did the government say anything about gender then?

Sally: No. 

Q: Was there anyone in Singapore fighting for women’s equality, like wages, or equal access to education?

Sally: Even if there is, I don’t think much was done. I don’t remember it. Even if there is, it’s a very soft voice. 

Q: Did anyone address concerns about differences between women and men? Maybe to begin with, did you feel like women and men were equal when you grew up?

Sally: Sort of. 

Q: How were they equal?

Sally: Don’t know, it’s the impression that I have. 

Q: What about unequal areas?

Sally: It depends on families. Some families are more traditional, they’ll have more opportunities for the sons. Mine’s equal. 

Q: Do you know this term ‘feminism’? Have you heard about it before?

Sally: Being feminine. 

Q: Have you heard the term before?

Sally: Not really. 

Q: But you heard the term ‘feminine’?

Sally: Yes. 

Q: What does it mean?

Sally: Expect the woman to be feminine—gentle, understanding, patient. 

Q: Was this something that you believed you had to be?

Sally: No, I don’t think it’s the characteristics that only woman should have.  

Q: Did you feel like growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, this was a stereotype of women—being feminine?

Sally: Ya. I mean a lot of people expected the girls to be like that. But it depends on the family also. The schools don’t emphasize much. 

Q: Even in a girls’ school?

Sally: Ya. We can play whatever we want. It doesn’t mean we must play the girls’ game. 

Q: So you could play—

Sally: —Anything. 

Q: What sorts of families would encourage their girls to be more feminine?

Sally: They should know how to cook, clean. 

Q: And growing up, you felt like you didn’t cook?

Sally: I didn’t cook. I can’t cook. It’s not that I don’t— We learn cooking in the school. I’m not at good at it, so I don’t want to cook. 

Q: You told me you were working part-time. When was this?

Sally: Late eighties?. 

Q: Did you get a full-time position or job?

Sally: That one is holiday. Full-time is after I graduate. 

Q: This will be the 1990s?

Sally: Ya. My first job was doing research in the university lab. 

Q: How long was this job?

Sally: One year. Then I work in MINDEF [Ministry of Defence] as this non-uniform officer for two years. Then I went to the education to teach for the rest, until now. Twenty-five years. 

Q: Have you heard of any form of labour unions—

Sally: —Yes. 

Q: In the 1980s? Or earlier?

Sally: Eighties—yes. I can’t remember is it early eighties. I know there’s this union for the workers. 

Q: For workers of your job?

Sally: My job also there’s union. Before that, I also heard from the news there’s this union. 

Q: Maybe we can start with what you heard from the news. 

Sally: They got mention there’s this union for the workers, they help them. I don’t know what help they provide. If they’re out of job, they can help them. Fight for their rights. 

Q: Did you encounter or interact with these unions when you were growing up?

Sally: No. 

Q: What do you think were the problems these unions were trying to address? You said they were fighting for wages. Were wages a problem for many Singaporean workers?

Sally: Maybe the not-so-educated workers. 

Q: Was this a big issue in the 1970s and 1980s?

Sally: Some part of it. Because I think there was some retrenchment. Somehow the workers might not be fully paid for what they deserve and they have problem finding another job because the skills they have doesn’t match with what the society needs. 

Q: Based on this, [did] anyone in your life or around you sought the help of or joined the unions? 

Sally: Nobody that I know joined. 

Q: What about organise?

Sally: My impression is it’s sort of the help from the government. 

Q: This would be the 1980s right?

Sally: Mm.

Q: What about the 1960s or 1970s?

Sally: Sixties I’m too young to know. Seventies, can’t remember anything.

Q: Did the labour unions oppose any economic policies? 

Sally: No. I don’t have this impression they’re opposing. They’re more working along with the government. 

Q: Were there any times they were not working along with the government? Maybe they were opposing? 

Sally: Never. Not in my impression have they done that. 

Q: Even in the previous decades? Did your parents talk about any sorts of—

Sally: —No. 

Q: Labor strikes or riots by workers?

Sally: By workers, yes, but not the union. I don’t remember. Very minor type. Can’t remember. 

Q: This would be in the 1970s?

Sally: Seventies. Very small ones, if they even have one. 

Q: How were they solved? How did they develop?

Sally: I don’t remember. 

Q: Let’s talk about media. Did you access the news and information about your society and the world?

Sally: Yes, from the T.V. 

Q: Did you have a T.V. growing up?

Sally: Yes, one set. Don’t know how much was it. In the earlier nineties, seventies, not every family had a T.V. I saw the transition from black-and-white T.V. to colour T.V. Maybe T.V.s are not cheap or they’d rather spend their money somewhere else. That time, I know there are community centres with T.V. and a lot of people will go there to watch.  

Q: What did you normally see or watch?

Sally: Cartoons. Tom and Jerry

Q: Was that a Singapore film?

Sally: No, no. Nothing Singapore. And then news, Chinese drama from Taiwan. 

Q: Based on your viewing of these cartoons and shows, do they reveal anything about the society in Singapore or maybe even the world?

Sally: No. 

Q: As a child, what was your impression?

Sally: No, the T.V.s got nothing to do with society. It’s just some heroes, like Ultraman. The Super Friends. Wonder Woman, Superman, Aquaman

Q: How did these characters appear? What were they doing in the shows?

Sally: They’re saving the world. Even Ultraman is saving the world. Tom and Jerry is the cute one. Always fighting. The wolf and this bird, running. 

Q: Looney Tunes?

Sally: Yea, Looney Tunes. 

Q: Roadrunner?

Sally: Yes. 

Q: Where did [these shows] come from?

Sally: Overseas—not Asia. All speak English. 

Q: For instance—Superman. What impression did he give you as a child?

Sally: Some people out there who save the world. 

Q: Did you link this, as a child, to your surroundings? How did you feel watching these shows?

Sally: It’s just for fun. 

Q: How did you feel about the characters and what these characters were doing, saving the world?

Sally: Very cute. They’re heroes. 

Q: How did that make you feel?

Sally: Good, because there are people out there. Maybe there are really people out there, such a person exist, as a child you thought that maybe there are some thing that exist in the world like them.  

Q: Did you hope that Singapore would have characters like these heroes?

Sally: No, never think of Singapore. — As you grow up, you realise such a person will not exist. 

Q: But back when you were a child—

Sally: —Ah ya. Somebody that save. Especially Ultraman because it looks so real. Ultraman looks not so much cartoon. 

Q: Which country was Ultraman from?

Sally: Japan. 

Q: Did that make you think about Japan, about the world?

Sally: No, we just see it as a Japan production. 

Q: What about radio?

Sally: Not so often because my parents don’t listen to radio often, so I didn’t. 

Q: Newspapers?

Sally: It’s in Chinese, so it’s not so easy to read. Some characters you don’t know how to read. More direct will be from the news, so you listen to the news. 

Q: You also told me you knew the term ‘Cold War’ right?

Sally: Ya, that was when I was in later days. 

Q: I’ve already asked you a lot about what, when, where you think it happened. Were there things that connected Singapore to this Cold War? 

Sally: They might not be directly connected. These are the two big countries that will affect the world. 

Q: Do you think it affected Singapore? 

Sally: Ya, should be. 

Q: When you were growing up, or once you knew the term [Cold War], did you link it to Singapore?

Sally: If they ever start any wars, it could affect the whole world. 

Q: In your opinion, the Cold War was a ‘war’.

Sally: Yes. Because of the world ‘war’.

Q: Was it a war?

Sally: Not really. 

Q: What do you mean?

Sally: There was no really direct fighting between the countries. 

Q: That’s what you understood in the 1970s?

Sally: Eighties. 

Q: Instead of direct fighting what did—

Sally: —Maybe there was some agents—

Q: —by ‘they’ you mean—

Sally: —from the U.S. and Russia. They send agents to each other’s country and do some destroying their whatever.

Q: Were these agents in Singapore? 

Sally: I don’t think they’ll involve Singapore. We’re too small! Singapore is too small to be involved in this. 

Q: What do you mean? 

Sally: Many people do not know where Singapore is at this time. 

Q: You said there was no direct fighting. Who were the ‘they’ you were referring to?

Sally: The U.S. and Russia.  

Q: How did they engage each other if there was no direct fighting?

Sally: It’s like watching the movies they will say James Bond, something similar to James Bond movie, where they will penetrate into their enemy territory, steal information. 

Q: Was James Bond, and films like James Bond, popular in the 1970s and 1980s?

Sally: Seventies, I don’t know. Eighties, yes. I heard this James Bond movie. Eighties I not sure whether I watched. Have lah. Maybe once? In the nineties, I watch more. 

Q: Did you relate [these James Bond movies] to the Cold War? 

Sally: Ya, sort of. Because I think it’s among the Europe countries, U.S., Russia trying to outwit each other, getting their enemies’ information, and latest weapon development. 

Q: How did these shows depict the European, American, and Russian countries? 

Sally: Their relationships always not very good, but on the surface, they try to make it very friendly. 

Q: Who won in the end, in these movies?

Sally: It’s always James Bond win lah. 

Q: Does he represent a certain country? 

Sally: England. 

Q: Does this mean England won?

Sally: In the show, sort of. 

Q: Did this movie shape your impression of England?

Sally: Sort of. It’s like their intelligence unit is very good. 

Q: Were there any links between Singapore and Britain?

Sally: Ya, we’re always linked. We are colony of the British Empire. 

Q: You knew that Singapore was a colony of Britain. When did you first hear about this?

Sally: School, but not sure whether it’s primary or secondary. We’re part of the empire. We gained our independence. 

Q: Was this part of your history class?

Sally: No, I’m not sure. My history classes was not about this. 

Q: What impressions did you have of Britain, growing up?

Sally: They used to be a mighty empire. They conquer a lot of places. We are part of them, like we are second-class citizens in the empire. 

Q: Was Singapore linked to Britain in the 1970s and 1980s?

Sally: Definitely there’s a link. Either economically, even our education system, we are sort of inherited certain things from their system—legal system, the way things are run, of course we learn from them. 

Q: What was your impression or emotions like towards Britain?   

Sally: I feel that they are very smart. People there are very smart. They are more developed in their countries. There are many things we can learn from them [such as] how the country should be run. There must be something to learn from them. Not totally. Cannot be direct copy because we are different. We are Asian. We are not make up—I mean our society is make up of different type of— I mean our society is different type of races. We don’t even speak a common language. Things cannot run the same way. 

Q: Because of these differences in language, how do you think [the Singapore] government approached our society?

Sally: They try to make everybody learn English, so at least they speak a common language, cut down on miscommunication and misunderstanding. 

Q: And this was in the 1970s? Or 1980s?

Sally: Seventies, there are still some Chinese-medium schools. Slowly, slowly, all these are fazed off. Everybody must take English as their first language. 

Q: In your school, you saw that?

Sally: My school all along was an English-medium school. 

Q: What about other things the government did? You said Singapore and England were different because we are ‘Asian’, we are a different society? How did the government respond to this difference?

Sally: In the education system, we learn, beside English, we have mother tongue—Chinese, Malay, Tamil. We celebrate the different race the important new years. We have more public holidays than—

Q: —Than England?

Sally: Than England. We get to eat, taste different food from different races. 

Q: And how were racial tensions managed if they surfaced? Did they surface?

Sally: Maybe, but I do not know how they resolve it. 

Q: You heard about problems or differences? 

Sally: It’s the impression that there is, but I don’t know how they come about and how they resolve it. 

Q: How would you characterise the 1970s and early 1980s as a period in Singapore history?

Sally: A lot of changes. People are trying or struggling to make a living. There are more families staying in H.D.B. flats or asked to leave kampongs so their area will redevelop and build more flats. 

Q: What do you think of interactions between different people in society?

Sally: In those times, H.D.B. flats—neighbours are still very friendly. They will open their house for each other, help neighbour look after each other children, we’re free to enter—sort of—the same level, our neighbour’s house regardless whether you’re Malay or Indian. 

Q: Compare Singapore in the 1970s and early 1980s to, perhaps, previous decades like the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s. Do you think there were similarities and/or differences?

Sally: Living condition is definitely improved later on. Hygiene has improved. Transport has improved. 

Q: How did hygiene improve?

Sally: Don’t need to get water from the well. We throw our rubbish properly. There’s a rubbish collector. 

Q: Were there problems and tensions in the 1970s and 1980s compared to what your parents would describe in the earlier decades? 

Sally: Seventies is safer, generally. When you walk in the public. At least we don’t need to say we can only go to certain areas of Singapore. Like Chinatown is not limited to Chinese. 

Q: In the 1950s or 1960s, you mean that Singapore was not safe?

Sally: Not so safe. You will not want to go alone in areas that are not mainly Chinese. You will stand out from the rest in an area where there are not so many Chinese. You don’t feel safe. 

Q: What would happen if they went into these areas?

Sally: Nothing might happen.

Q: But people just felt unsafe?

Sally: Ah, people just felt unsafe. It’s just a feeling. 

Q: Besides public access to different areas, why do you think this period was safer?

Sally: Compared to the fifties?

Q: Yes. Or was it not as safe?

Sally: I think it’s still safer because in the public area at least there are more street lamps, brighter. 

Q: What about relations between people? 

Sally: I don’t hear my parents going out late at night. At least in the night they don’t go out. 

Q: Were there racial, religious or class differences that led to tensions or strikes or riots in the 1970s? 

Sally: Seventies? Riots—no. 

Q: Were there threats by other nations?

Sally: Not nations. Rather, there are quite a number of people who take drugs in Singapore, seventies.  

Q: How would this compare to earlier or later decades?

Sally: I think because it’s earlier to get hold of these drugs in 1970s. 

Q: As someone who grew up in the 1970s, how did you feel about the world or the society around you?

Sally: We were not allowed to go out on our own. 

Q: Do you feel that this shaped your impression of what society is? 

Sally: That is because my parents don’t allow us to go out. But I do have classmates who do go out when they’re in upper primary. Maybe they’ll go out in the day. 

Q: Did you feel like society was less secure. 

Sally: No, it’s just that my parents wants us to be at home. They say we’re too young. 

Q: Does this mean that the world outside is—

Sally: —Not that safe, maybe. I think there are missing children? 

Q: What words would you use to describe your emotions of the 1970s? 

Sally: I’m okay, grow up in a safe, secured, very disciplined routine style of lifestyle. 

Q: Do you think this routine and discipline also came from school?

Sally: Okay, but more of the family. Because school only make up fifty percent. 

Q: Why do you think your family was, in this sense, a routine and discipline? 

Sally: It’s up to my parents. My neighbours allow their children to do whatever they want. 

Q: Why were your parents insistent about your routine and discipline?

Sally: For my safety. 

Q: Do you feel like growing up, [your parents] had or did not have that safety? Which is why they might be concerned about yours?

Sally: No, no. I don’t think so. Their society was okay. Maybe because they went through some unrest period, protests. 

Q: These were the protests you talked about just now? Could you summarise them again for me?

Sally: Ya. It’s something like in the 1950s, there are some student protests. I think there was some burning of public— is it bus? 

Q: Property?

Sally: Ah, yes. 

Q: Because of that, do you feel like that shaped the way your parents approached their children? For example, they took care of you in a certain because of their own experiences in life. 

Sally: There’s a possibility. 

Q: Do you think the word ‘peaceful’ applies to your understanding of the 1970s? You used the word ‘safe’. Do you think that word is useful? 

Sally: Not entirely. It’s just that it might be peaceful in my neighbourhood, doesn’t mean it’s peaceful in other parts of Singapore, in the world is peaceful. There is certain parts [in Singapore] that are not peaceful.  

Q: Which parts? 

Sally: I don’t know. 

Q: Growing up as a child, did you feel that—that there were other parts that were not peaceful?

Sally: You will feel that, not peaceful. 

Q: Was it because your parents told you?

Sally: My parents said [but] didn’t tell me. They just say, “You don’t go out, sometimes not so safe.” 

Q: And your mother had experience about students and protests?

Sally: I don’t think— She’s in that period but because they stay in a kampong, so it’s more secluded. 


Interviewer: Jeremy Yong

Interviewee: Sally

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Transcript Notes


  1. What does Sally’s recount of the traditional historiography of Cold War bipolarity suggest about the nature of Singapore’s Cold War years?

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

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