My late grandpa chose to finally settle down in Sungai Petani (SP) after initially settling on Penang Island when he migrated from China almost a century ago. His eldest, my late dad, took over his coffee shop and to cut to the chase that was how I came to be born in SP. I spent my childhood in this small unremarkably idyllic town in the midst of rubber estates and paddy fields. SP was my oyster, my world, my universe and my home. Going overseas then meant a ferry ride across to tax haven Penang Island and bragging rights petty smuggling to evade customs duties on the return trip.
My bedroom, or rather our familial communal multi-purpose room, was a small room at the back of dad’s coffee shop, approximately 10×10 feet (not meters) crammed with all our worldly possession, a 20” black & white TV, two 3-door cupboards, a sewing machine, a table, a filing cabinet and boxes of dribs and drabs stacked along the walls. Oh, we didn’t have beds or mattresses.
Each night about 6 to 8 of us would claim whatever space, pillows and patchwork blankets available to lay our heads, on a first come first claim basis, and we did not have the luxury of sleeping on beds or mattresses. We did pray fervently that heaven will look kindly on our predicament for the night because when it rains, the ceiling leaks like a sieve. We would then either try to sleep fitfully between pails and basins or migrate to sleep uncomfortably on a bench or table. Looking back, I am grateful for at least we had a roof, albeit a leaking one, over our heads.
Anyway, each morning my late dad would open his shop for business early to cater to workers from the local council nearby. They would usually breakfast and catch up on the latest gossips over a cup of coffee black with two slices of charcoal ember toasted bread lavishly spread with butter and coconut jam (kaya) or a packet of creamy spiced rice (nasi lemak) before starting work.
They would on their own head towards the counter, open the record drawer, pick up their own 555 booklet and record the total cost of breakfast for the morning. The daily cost would be tallied monthly for settlement usually only partial settlement on their month end pay day. Yes, most if not all the custom of those days were simple folks, unfettered by religious constraints and racial considerations. Haram or halal complications were just irrelevant semantics. Life was uncomplicated.
I attended a Catholic Mission school, St. Theresa. My classmates were from different backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs. Whilst my Catholic classmates attended Catechism, Muslim Islamic Studies (Ugama), Hindoo Tamil, we the few pagans had free time to do nothing but doze off. The school canteen was operated by Chinese family, and yes it was opened for business as usual even during Ramadan and not from the toilets. Occasionally, I did sell nasi lemak to earn some pocket money. None queried whether they were kosher. Those were the days. Life was simple.
During school holidays, I would board the earliest bus to my mum’s hometown, Guar Chempedak. Tuitions or holiday assignments were unheard off those days. I would spend my holidays fishing and swimming in the river, actually a man-made Wan Saman canal linking Gurun to Alor-Star for irrigation and transportation, flying kites and fishing in the surrounding paddy fields, helping out in the petrol kiosk or just day dreaming. Life was so care free.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view, I belonged to the guinea pig batch of the country’s disastrous and ruinous education experiment. Malay replaced English as the lingua fraca for the teaching and learning of all subjects except of course English Language overnight at a stroke the nationalistic pen. Scholarships and education opportunities were awarded based on race and preferential quota instead of merits.
As the years progressed, such preferential treatments morphed into crutches which mutated into privileges and thereafter demanded as special rights. The inequity finally hit home when many, too many were denied a chance to pursue their tertiary education of their choice in a public university of their choice despite meritorious academic results.
Left with no alternatives, those who could afford went overseas excited while those who could not joined the workforce bitter or like me ended up in Singapore anxious. Mind you, I ate more than a tiger’s heart (or penis) to take that bold step in order to further my tertiary education in Singapore for the furthest overseas I ever ventured before was Penang Island and my first language was not English.
In any case, I was very fortunate to be given a chance to pursue my tertiary education at Singapore’s finest and only university, the National University of Singapore. I was also more than fortunate to be allocated accommodation in the University’s finest hall of residence, Raffles Hall (RH) at Nassim Road. Many residents were Malaysians unwelcome at home but most welcome in this tiny red dot island which quickly became our home away from home.
Lifelong friends were forged there. Fond memories of song fights, water fights, Royal Flush, 21-gun Salute, A&W mug, pratas and briyani rice @ Adams Road’s Sarabat and many more were made. RH moved to Kent Ridge the following year. More friends and fond memories were etched over my next 3 years there. Life was memorably exciting.
I turned up not too bad at NUS. I was lucky to end up in the financial sector even though I graduated with a Building Science degree especially so when the construction industry was in the doldrums. I spent only a short stint in the construction industry when Changi Terminal 2 was under construction. Singapore was at the cusp of regeneration. I was in the old UOB building looking down on the huge caisson pile upon which the very first of Singapore tallest trio, UOB Plaza was constructed. I also remember vividly standing in the rain under an umbrella at Battery Road in front of the Grand Post Office during one of the lunch break to listen to Worker’s Party Francis Seow in the 1988 General Election. Life was optimistically promising.
One of my favorite places for lunch was the bay front Transit Market Hawker Center, famous for Teo Heng Teochew porridge, Yakun toasted kaya butter bread and Char Keowteow and many more. The other haunt for a traditional good eat would be those old pre-war restaurants in the old China Square enclave where one could dine on delicious traditional “Chu Char” as long as hygiene was the least of your concern or occasional rat scurrying on the ceiling a non event. Old Bugis was still an infamous transvestite haunt with Singapore’s famous beef keowteow. Life was deliciously good.
The only blemish if I must highlight would be the periodic nightmarish mandatory visit to the Malaysian High Commission to renew or change passport. One needed to be at the gates early and be fleet feet to rush to be in front of the queue for the day. My knuckles still bear some battle scars from lacerations when I tried to break a fall with my knuckles instead of palms. I stumbled embarrassingly when suddenly pushed by the crowd behind that morning. Only a limited number of tickets were issued each morning. Otherwise come back another morning, be early and be quick. Oh yes, pray for a cloudy windy day for there was no shelter and you queue, come rain or shine or even hailstorm.
I will always be grateful for my adoptive country, Singapore where I spent my formative years maturing into adulthood and parenthood. I was given a chance to read at and graduated from the country’s finest University. I managed to build a career and provided for my family. I was allowed freedom of worship and to anchor my faith at St. John’s-St. Margaret’s Church and Church of Our Saviour.
What can I say? I have no complains but only praises and my deepest gratitude for Singapore, for all the good things in my life. I was truly blest physically, financially, emotionally and spiritually. My roots indeed ran deep there. My boys still call Singapore home. Recently, I too with tears welling up in my eyes and chest puffed up with pride joined my adoptive nation celebrate her 50th Jubilee Independence Day, “Majulah Singapura!”
I returned to Malaysia a few years back. Many thought I was being irrationally contrarian or just plainly mad. My late dad almost went berserk, God bless his soul. Obviously, I was expected to give up my passport for Singapore’s after all many of my Malaysian friends had done so without any regrets, Malaysia’s loss but Singapore’s gain.
Somehow, I found it difficult to do so. I didn’t know why. May be it was the comfort food or familiarity. May be you just could not take the kampong out of me. To say emotional or familial ties were too limiting. May be it was simply the Force. Despite all her flaws, corruptions, racism and bigotry, Malaysia is still my country, my birth place and my home. All you bigots and racists with all your blinkered diatribe and rhetoric go eat shit! This is my country. Here in my heart, here is where I belong. Yeah, that sounds right, “Malaysia is where my heart belongs.”
I love this song.
Here in My Home – Malaysian Artistes for Unity
Hold on brother hold on
The road is long. We’re on stony ground
But I’m strong. You ain’t heavy
Oh there’s a misspoken truth that lies
Colors don’t bind, oh no.
What do they know? They speak falsely.
Here in my home
I’ll tell you what its all about
There’s just one hope here in my heart
One love undivided
That’s what it’s all about
Please won’t you fall in one by one by one with me?
Push back sister won’t you push back?
Love won’t wait. Just keep pushing on.
Yes I’m strong. You ain’t heavy.
Oh don’t you worry about that…
What we have shadows can’t deny
Don’t you know it’s now or never?
Bertubi asakan berkurun lamanya
Hati ke depan mencari yang sayang
இந்த பயணம் பயணம்.. என் வெற்றி தாகம்,
அந்த கனா காலம்.. நம் வெற்றி ராகம்,
Yes I feel it in my bones and I will let it be known
No matter where I roam this is home sweet home