St. John’s Island Rendezvous @ Raffles Hall

St. John's Island Rendezvous 83-84

RH Orientation 83/84 was drawing to a close. Freshmen were both excited and anxious. Their ordeal would be over soon, only St. John’s Island stood in the way. They were on their way to an overnight grand finale camp on the island for some well-deserved R&R after almost 3 weeks of grueling if not brutal Orientation.

St. John’s Island is the tranquil and idyllic weekend getaway for many city dwellers. It boasts of pristine beaches, picnic grounds and lush trekking routes. It is the largest of Singapore’s Southern islands. It is located some 6.5km south of Main Singapore Island. The Island was reputed to be Stamford Raffles’ first anchorage during the founding days of Singapore. It had served as the quarantine screening center for early migrants, leprosy and contagious disease isolation centre, penal settlement and even drug rehabilitation center at one time or the other in its short dark history. More fascinatingly, it is still reputed to be haunted.

St. John’s Island Rendezvous promised to be a jam packed fun filled experience. So they hoped. Guess no harm in hoping even in falsehood then. But like we always mocked loudly behind mischievous smiles at RH, “Hope laa!”

The Rendezvous was actually an all expense paid once in a lifetime vacation in a concentration camp. It promised to be an enlightening camp, life changing imbued with life and death experience, for the restless and sleepless with no-breaks non-stop itinerary. Well, in truth, it was more akin to an incarceration on a penal island far away from civilization without any hope of escape. Lock them up and throw the keys away.

Freshmen would deliberately be subjected to sleep deprivation and unceasing interrogation throughout the night into the wee hours of the next morn. Both were intended to shock and awe them, to drain and break them, so that they can and only then experience a true spiritual re-birth after enduring an almost real physical death. The intense euphoric experience when they re-surface from the final baptism at sea the next dawn was expected to sear permanently onto their memories for posterity. Just like the mythological twin headed phoenix of Raffles which would only rise from its ashes. Yeah right, who were they trying to kid for it was torture no less.

After lunch, freshmen gathered on the patio for roll call and final checks. Buses were already waiting along Nassim Road. They were obviously not looking forward to this camp despite the promises of abundant fun and sun, sand and sea. They were just resigned to whatever fate was installed for them. They queued and boarded the buses lugging their overnight bags despite being informed that there would be no sleeping that night.

They were meek and compliant like sheep led to the slaughter house. They pondered despondently. Even the vociferous ones were muted in deep thoughts. The wind in their hair and faces lulled many to sleep. Arriving at Clifford Pier, they alighted reluctantly, and waited forebodingly for the ferry.

Distant rumbles of the diesel engine announced the arrival of the ferry. As the ferry drew nearer, the rumbles from its engine sounded ominous in the ferry terminal. They queued up silently, heads bowed and shoulders slumped to board the ferry. Their footfalls were listless and leaden.

Soon, the diesel engine powered up and the ferry plowed into the waves. The sea was rather choppy that bright humid afternoon. Some pretended to sleep, others whispered mutedly, and many just stared blankly at the waves. Not too few were muttering silent prayers.

The ferry made a short stopover at Kusu Island. The island is named after the magical “tortoise” or “turtle” in Chinese which according to legend turned itself into an island to save shipwrecked sailors.  At its highest peak on a rugged hillock stand three Malay holy shrines or Kramats where devotees to pray for wealth, good marriage, good health and harmony, and for the childless, children. Also located on the island is the popular Chinese Da Bo Gong 大伯公 and Guan Yin 观音 (Goddess of Mercy) temple which is highly regarded as having the power to confer prosperity, cure diseases, calm the sea and avert danger. Some took the opportunity to pay a quick homage and send last minute prayers for courage to face whatever awaited them on St. John’s Island and for safe return.

With the blare of its horns, the ferry departed from Kusu Island for nearby St. John’s Island. It was a short trip. Soon, the ferry was powering down and maneuvering to berth alongside the pier at St. John’s Island. The rubber tyres secured along the port and starboard sides of the ferry cushioned the berthing bumps. Port side ropes were quickly secured to the pier’s bollards. They alighted and step onto St. John’s Island. They had arrived.

They trudged unenthusiastically towards the dormitories. The sight of dormitories which were rather old with Spartan facilities was rather disheartening to the already depressed freshmen. They dumped their baggage beside the beds which they were not going to sleep on anyway. In any case, there were only 60 beds and they were more than 200-strong.

They quickly were changed into PT attire, formed ranks and were soon warming up before jogging around the island, singing and chanting, and full of sweats. This was followed by a short rest and quick dinner. For the life of me, I could not recall what was for dinner or whether dinner was served that evening. Must be amnesia from the nightmarish PSTD suffered.

Freshmen were then lined up along the bed footers facing another across the aisle in hushed attention. They were still in the evening’s sweat drenched PT attire, their bodies dirty and sticky, and body odor aplenty. The dormitory stank mightily that night. Seniors paced up and down the aisle, like ravenous wolves prowling menacingly, their expressions grim eyes ruthless. The atmosphere was deadly and terrifying. Indeed, the freshmen were like sheep in the midst of wolves. The slaughter was about to be unleashed.

Freshmen were required during the preceding 3 weeks, as if their lives depended on them, to get to know and commit to memory the name, course and hometown of every senior and freshman in quick time and also pertinent particulars of Resident Fellows, JCRC members, FWOC members and RH history.

Questions were fielded actually shouted aloud by the FWOC Chairman. Following each question, seniors would prowl around and pick on some unfortunate souls. Every freshman was fair game. Cold sweats, dilated pupils and avoidance of eyes contact were clear giveaways and sure signs of the weakness, a predator magnet for even blur skiving senior.

Indeed, they were like predatory wolves prowling around defenseless sheep and preying on only the weak ones. Once they locked in on their prey, they would put their ears near the unfortunate freshmen who were required to quickly whisper the answer. Wrong answers would earn verbal diatribe, and if verbal attacks drew blood, the dormitory would be drenched in blood that night. The Q&A grilling more akin to interrogation went on for hours into the wee hours.

Seconds crawled into minutes, minutes into hours. Time seemed to slow down, especially for the tormented freshmen. They were in no doubt defeated, no fire in their eyes, all defiance chipped away and most truly broken. Totally exhausted, synapses roasted and adrenaline ran its course, they stood numbed and almost dead zombie-like.

Then at the stroke of midnight, suddenly as if divine, a waft of cool refreshing salty breeze drifted through the dormitory. The oppressive mood was suddenly lifted and the grim expressions turned friendly. Relief welled up. It was over. They survived.

Next, freshmen jogged towards the beach. They formed up in two ranks on the beach, arms linked tightly together. After the night’s torment, freshmen learnt to appreciate, to draw comfort and pleasure from, little things in life. The cool sands below their feet felt most soothing. The light breeze felt most refreshingly sweet on their sweaty faces. They valued the camaraderie of their fellow freshmen.

In unison, they treaded forward and waded into the calm sea. It was a still, cold and very dark pre-dawn, and it was true that the heaven was darkest before dawn, beautiful no less. They could hardly see one another, only vague dark shadows in darkness. Even the stars were hiding behind the heavenly curtain. Singapore’s shoreline was a dim lit line in the distant horizon. The sea was calm. Only sound from the gentle waves lapping the beach, soothing music no less.

However, despite having the worst behind them, not too few still turned apprehensive and restless. Their lips shivered muted prayers, their pupils dilated unseeing. They were petrified with fear. Incapacitated by fear, they could only swallow their dry saliva and closed their eyes, and allow their rigid bodies be dragged along into the water.

Their heart beats were galloping. Water rose from ankle to knee to waist. They swallowed their screams. Yet, the ranks ploughed deeper. A few faint hearted were about to break ranks. Their pounding hearts were at their throats. The water rose to chest deep and gratefully they stopped. Alas some were aquaphobic and not too few were nyctophobic.

All were shivering by then mostly from the cold and not too few from fear. They stood still arms locked in ranks staring yonder towards the dark horizon for what seemed to be eternity Then in unison, they dipped below the surface in water baptism, to renounce their freshmen status and to experience re-birth as Rafflesians. The old had passed away, buried and the new re-born. A few gagged and coughed up seawater. They were too mesmerized by the moment that they momentarily forgot not to breathe underwater. It was indeed a very spiritual experience, very surreal.

A quick change into dry clothes, they gathered around for a pre-dawn camp fire for sing-a-long and pep talk session. Again, for the life of me, I could not recall the words of wisdom exhorted then. I was probably dozing off like many.

Anyway, St. John’s Island Rendezvous wrote the final chapter the following year. It was also the only year when a few unfortunate seniors inadvertently exposed their manhood when some fortunate “freshettes” rushed into the communal bathroom they were showering in. They were fortunately stark naked but unfortunately covered in suds, or so they bragged. Shrieks of shock or was it thrill from both sides of the bathroom did indeed pierced the early pre-dawn, followed by swearing from within and giggling from without, or was it the other way around. Finally, for the life of me, I could not remember whether I was one of the fortunate or unfortunate few?

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Not Gunpowder Plot @ Raffles Hall

RH collage a

The sky was greying. Shadows were lengthening, creeping slowly and fading surely as darkness descended to claim the realm. The young crescent moon was awakening to ascend to her throne amongst the night sparkling gems. She peeked silently through the dark tree branches clawing stubbornly on the already darkened heaven. Cicadas and crickets too were awakening tuning for their nocturnal ensemble. Gentle south westerly breeze was blowing serenely and whispering refreshingly into the calm surround of RH@Nassim, our home away from home.

Orientation was long over, fond memories were etched for life and friendships forged for posterity. No more the freshmen-seniors divide. We were all Rhafflesians, one strong and mighty family, marooned away from our families. No more orientation regimentation. Freshmen were glad to have survived the experience, fun to a few, ordeal to some and definitely ragging to many. Now they could be in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops till kingdom come with the heck care attitude. Food however remained unchanged, albeit passable.

Soon, lights were flickering on along the corridors and in most rooms, dispelling growing darkness without, albeit only for a few meters. For many, “Martianing” had begun in earnest as expected by our parents. We were undergraduates in one of the world’s finest universities. Soft singing and whistling could be heard from the bathrooms. Suppressed humming from the washing machine droned on. A lone motorcycle rambled into the parking lot.

The boisterous Rueben Manasseh Dining Hall was almost deserted, subdued. Clattering of cutlery on stainless steel trays was sporadic above muted chatters. Few late diners were hastily gulping down their dinner for the kitchen was closing for the night soon.

RH Ruggers, all lean and all mean sons of the gun, were swaggering vociferously into the dining hall. They were bragging raucously of earlier touchdowns and takedowns. They were unhurried despite dinner being reserved for them was fast turning cold for they ate lead for breakfast or so they claimed. They were still in sweat drenched jerseys and they stank, pheromone to a few, malodorous repellent to many.

Some were just sitting on lazy rattan chairs catching up on the latest gossips on the patio overlooking idyllic RH Valley. They paid neither interest nor attention to the revelry along the monsoon drain in the valley where one poor soul was lying in the drain downstream some 21 guys. He appeared oddly blissful, lips muttering some sort of prayer or spell. He was truly unaware of what was installed for him or was just humoring the 21 gunners. Suddenly, all hell broke loose and they ran helter-skelter leaving the birthday boy all drenched in their 21-gun salutary piss.

Blue and red light flickered silently above a cruiser as it swerved to a stop and two men in blue alighted. The ruckus cheering and jeering stopped almost immediately. After a muttered discussion over the walkie-talkie, they walked briskly towards the badminton courts behind the kitchen. As if practiced, the badminton captain would detach himself and walked to meet them.

He was reminded to keep the racket down for there were complaints from the neighborhood. He nodded understandably. No sooner had the cruiser disappeared around the corner, the racket began to creep up again in decibel, a regular routine and habitual charade.

Regular TV addicts were already bolted in front of the telly for their nightly dose of their favourite Hong Kong drama series. One or two paired shadows could be seen ambling romantically towards the lush tropical Botanic Gardens.

Cracks of billiard balls followed by an exhilarating shout and claps of encouragement emanated from the smoke shrouded Billiard Room. Soft music drifted from the Music Room above muffled snores. Sounds of laser gun blasting away and exploding alien spacecrafts echoed from the Games Room added to the night’s cacophony.

Occasional paging pierced the silent corridors alerting and beckoning a happy recipient to an incoming call from missed or loved ones from home.  A slammed door followed by hurried footfalls along the corridor and down the stairs, two or three steps a time, to pick the incoming phone.

Incoming calls were usually for urgent matters or emergencies and rarely for idle chatter for phone calls were very expensive then. Those were the pre-mobile phone days. Communications with family back home were by snail mails, expensive telephones or urgent telegrams. No internet or e-mails or Skype or Iphone or Vibers or Whatsapp or whatsoever or what not.

RH had only one telephone without the usual numeric push buttons or rotary dail specifically for incoming calls. It was strategically located at the high traffic ground floor of the common staircase, sort of along a busy highway where someone would be around to pick up the call, anytime, all the time, conducive. Why bright orange? I haven’t the slightest idea, and well, why the hell not. POTUS has his red phone, FLOTUS probably pink hence RH can have her orange one and a fluorescent bright one in case of blackouts, I guessed.

There were, if my memory serves me correctly, three outgoing telephones. They were the ubiquitous rectangular stainless steel box type. They were akin to ferocious and cold blooded red-eye cyclops with ravenous and insatiable appetite for coins. Not lullaby from a golden harp but only coins could lull the cyclopes to slumber, always fleetingly short. Any delay in feeding the cyclops with coins once its red eye started to blink the wretched cyclops would just cut off the call regardless or urgency without mercy or pity. No coins no call, just like no gold no ride from the Ferryman of River Styx.

As in any tales of old, poverty and necessity were indeed the twin mothers of creative mischief. Various ideas, hypotheses, tests and re-engineering procedures were experimented, and soon a workable solution was found. Admittedly, it was a rather simple solution, simply ingenious.

First cellophane-tape a tread at least 9 inches in length to a coin, preferably the heaviest and largest coin. Remove the handset from its cradle and drop the coin through the coin slot till the red eye indicator light blinks off.  Put some tension by tugging on the other end of tread to hold the coin in place and cellophane-tape it to hold the coin in place to trick the phone. Voila, the phone is prep for a free call. Replace the handset back to its cradle and un-tape the tread and let the coin slide out with the tread.

Further, Providence was smiling on poor Rafflesians in the final quarter of the Academic Year when one of the cyclopes went under a magical spell and fell into a deep and indefinite slumber with no appetite for coins. Not even kisses from Snow White could wake him up. Not that there were any Snow Whites at RH anyway. So, it was free calls galore at anytime, to anywhere and for anyone.

RH had no cafeteria back then to cater for late night supper. Many had to be contented with instant Maggi noodles much to the dismay of the cleaners who had to clear hair from choking floor gullies and male urinals. Some early and lucky ones could buy a packet or two homemade nasi lemak, the simply “yummilicious” fragrant coconut milk rice with sambal anchovies, from the “Pakcik” security guard.

Ambulatory and adventurous ones would usually sup at either A&W@Dunearn Road for burgers or Sarabat@ Adams Road for prata, fried noodles and Indian rojak. A few notorious ones would return occasionally with the celebrated A&W root beer mugs as food raid booty. They would smugly display them as trophy and somehow weave exaggerations into their bragging yarn for any willing listening ears.

Brave ones, probably reckless and definitely mentally disordered too, would play chicken on the Bukit Timah/Dunearn Road by wagering on the most number of push-ups on the middle of the road in the face of oncoming traffic. No prize for the champion. They did huff and puff just to experience the thrill of adrenaline surges. Gratefully, all returned unscathed. Sadly, none came back any wiser from such folly for one too many did paralyze in the headlights. Luckily, they were saved in the nick of time, every time and all the time.

As the moon peaked at her zenith, slumber had already descended upon most at RH as room lights were gradually switched off leaving only the corridor lights and a handful room lights from “Martians” on graveyard shift to feebly and faintly fend off complete dark embrace of the cool and tranquil night before dawn.

“September, November or maybe December

Not Gunpowder Treason but RH plot

I see no reason why not to remember

But hey who cares and why not

 

Twas my intent

To blow up RH affair and event

Two score less nine years ago

Old RH to be fondly re-told”

 

(Adapted from Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot)

Rag & Flag Skivers @ Raffles Hall

Rag & Flag Day 84-85

After a hectic and trail blazing year at RH@Nassim Road, gladly without any “re”, I was accepted and returned to the new RH@Kent Ridge as a senior. Senior Gentleman, mind you, Que sera sera, what will be will be. Some 400 freshmen & freshettes were welcomed and Orientation 84/85 began in the earnest. Many appeared confused, some blur, some lost and only a handful exuded confidence, and they all asked me whether I was sorry with so many “re”, Que sera sera. And I replied “choy” for I had no “re”, Que sera sera. Some cheeky ones tried to be funny and I got nasty, Que sera sera, what will be will be.

One of the more significant and memorable highlights during Orientation was the NUSSU annual open house Rag & Flag Day, a uniquely NUS tradition which had remarkably remained both enduring and endearing for over half a century, since 1958. All NUS students, from all academic faculties and in particular Halls of Residence, were rallied for a day of to engage the community to donate to charity and celebration. Many faculty staff members too joined in the fun.

Empty cans and stickers were checked out to the various faculties and Halls of Residence on the night before Rag & Flag Day. Many slept fitfully that night.

At dawn the following day, the impatient and enthusiastic hordes were unleashed. They quickly swarmed the whole Island like a foraging army ants on the rampage. By first light they were everywhere ubiquitously positioned throughout every nook and cranny of Singapore, and they were locked and loaded for the day’s action. They were omnipresent. They stood out amongst the crowd, easily identifiable from their colourful T-shirts, holding tin cans and stickers.

Rhafflesians were not just competitive. They were thoroughly combative. It was not, and had nothing to do with, Charity. It was War, outright War. Spare no quarters, ask none. Military tactics and strategies were adopted, plans of action formulated and targets identified days prior with one objective in mind, to collect as much donations as possible within the time and number of tin cans allocated. Battle lines were drawn, ranks arrayed, picket lines formed and ambushes set awaiting the green light.

As with most military operations, reconnaissance teams were sent out in the cover of darkness to reconnoiter the Island the night before Flag-Day. They were actually sent out to have an early start for collection, still within regulations as vehemently defended by many advocates in the making at RH.

At 0800 hour on the morning of Flag-Day, the klaxon horn blared throughout RH. All hands on deck! Muster the RHafflesians! Finally, the eager and anxious Purple Tide was unleashed, both proud and fearless. What a magnificent sight to behold. They stormed out adrenaline-charged onto pickup trucks and buses or on foot to their respective designated drop zone. So confident, so mighty and in such military precision and discipline that would make the much revered General Patton of WWII proud.

Street-smart ones usually hovered strategically around busy crossroads and bus interchanges. A rather energy efficient exercise if I may add for they needed only to smile and hold out their cans, and most if not all passersby who would automatically fish out some coins or notes and dropped them into the cans proffered. Perhaps by street witchcraft or just half a century of conditioning or some sort of subliminally communication or just mistaken for beggars.

Finance savvy ones preferred purposeful meandering amongst the Central Business District crowd to seek out high-value targets for larger donations, or so they thought. Shopaholics favored shopping belts especially along Orchard Road to kill two birds with one stone, so they claimed. They window shopped and preyed on unwary foreign workers and tourists. Some “no-eye-deer” just went back to their old schools to repeat history. Of course, the “Siau On” hyper active few, high on some drugs, were always scurrying around and wading into throngs of pedestrians like there was no tomorrow. All donors were in return given stickers as tokens of appreciation which also acted like some sort of radioactive repellant against other collectors, somehow.

Soon cans filled to the brim with coins started pouring back to RH Command & Control Center. As coins were bulkier than notes, they were removed, exchanged and replaced with notes, preferable higher denominated ones, before stuffing them back into fewer cans than before. The remaining empty cans were sent out again for further collections. Everything went like clockwork throughout the day.

At the stroke of 1700 hours, all cans were promptly returned to NUSSU collection centre for tally, and just to brag, RH came out top with the highest collection not just amongst the Halls of Residence but also the academic faculties.

On the same morning, as a gesture to thank the community for their generous donations, dazzling and colourful floats constructed in secrecy were mounted on lorries and unveiled as displays amongst the food, drinks and games stalls to celebrate the University’s Rag Day. Rag was adopted from the use of recycled materials to construct the floats during the nascent years of this tradition when scroungers reign supreme. Designing and constructing those floats provided an excellent opportunity for lasting bonding and camaraderie amongst the undergraduates from the various Halls of Residence and academic faculties during the 2-week long of preparation. Yeah right, more to just show off.

Anyway, did I say I was already a senior? As a senior, I must set a good example. I volunteered for the night before “illegal” covert black-ops reconnoiter. The police permit was valid only for one day on Rag & Flag Day. We were ferried to the Singapore’s bustling night spot of Bugis Street, famous for her scrumptious beef noodles. Banish your naughty thoughts for we went for a good cause, for charity, not for her raucous nocturnal charm and transvestite activities.

We immediately sprang into action and proffered our cans to any streetwalkers, jaywalkers, night stalkers, hookers and their likes soliciting donations. Our hearts and tastes stayed true for we were neither tempted nor distracted. Such tale of fervor and enthusiasm at the infamous Bugis Street if to be believed was best kept for grandchildren.

Almost immediately upon dropping off, no sooner had our feet hit the ground our minds were already beckoned elsewhere, not Suzie or Rosie but Rambo. “Rambo” was screening at Bugis that night. We headed there as if led by some divine hands. Of course, we pretended to collect donations as we ambled our way circuitously avoiding more than friendly transvestites towards the cinema. In our haste, we conveniently left one behind who went about collecting donations blissfully oblivious of our absence. So much for the “No One Gets Left Behind” motto.

In the cinema, Karl, the German exchange student wanted to pass his can around for collection. Gratefully he changed his mind when the lights suddenly went off, for had he done so, the can would had most likely gone AWOL and disappeared into the darkness. Typical of all Rambo movies, our hero prevailed at the end against innumerable opposing forces, always with lots of blood and gory, unlimited bullets and rockets, and deafening explosions. Our one-man army always triumphed unscathed against all odds. It was just a mindless Hollywood movie of a mindless hero with lots of mindless slaughter of mindless enemy for mindless enjoyment by mindless people.

Soon we were fatigued and battle hungry, and quickly found ourselves enjoying supper of what else but the famous Bugis Street beef noodles. The taste was just heavenly delicious. Two bowls each. After supper, we quickly gathered at the pick-up spot, satisfied and contented for the night well-spent, all cans, except one, still half empty.

On the back of the pick-up truck bed, with cool winds caressing our hairs, we began to sing, “We skived last night. We skived the night before. When we skived, we’ll be happy as can be. We’re members of the Raffles family, the Raffles family, the best in Singapore, on top of the other halls.” Only one sat brooding.

Uncelebrated Few @ Raffles Hall

Welfare Committee

The communal hall was almost deserted by then. Only the cleaners were about cleaning the tables and mopping the floor after the breakfast horde had finished the morning pillage. They had left for lectures, mostly, while a handful Martians had returned to their respective rooms to continue their “martianing”. Only one, duty bound, meandered into the communal dining hall toward the delivery area behind the kitchen.

She made some mental notes on the general conditions in the kitchen and store, paying particular attention to the cleanliness of the cooking utensils, cutlery, plates, cups and saucers. The floor had been washed and mopped with detergent and disinfectant. Good. She greeted those kitchen staff busy slicing, chopping and dicing away in preparation for lunch. They smiled and nodded in return. They were in clean uniform. Good. Sanitary and hygiene were uncompromising hard wired into her mind. No diarrhea or food poisoning on her watch. She did not want the decades of spotless history to be tainted by her laxity.

The deliveryman was already waiting impatiently beside the day’s grocery. He had unloaded them earlier beside the weighing machine. He was smoking forgetfully lost in his distant dream, gazing unseeingly afar. Her footsteps awoke him. He quickly stubbed out the cigarette and tried frantically to wave away the blue smoke hugging him. She gave him her killer stare. He got her message. Strike one.

She did a cursory check on the general conditions of the grocery delivered. She paid particular attention to the highly perishables fish and meats. She would check that the gills were bright red, eyes clear and body firm. She would also sniff for any unpleasant odour. Fish checked.

The meat must not appear limp with stale color. Fresh meats should be bright cherry red for beef and lamb and slightly pale for pork and poultry. They must also be firm and springy to touch. Meats checked.

Next she randomly picked a stem or two of the vegetables of the day. The stems and leaves must look fresh and hydrated. The presence of some residual dirt and one or two earthworms or caterpillars was of little concern. In fact, their presence unharmed was a welcome sign that little or negligible insecticide had been sprayed on the vegetable. If the vegetables were edible to those small critters then they should also be safe for human consumption. Vegetables checked.

For fruits, they must appear fresh, appealing with sweet fragrance and firm to touch. Skin should be refreshingly bright and blemish-free when fresh, and would usually turn darker and bruised over time. However, some fruits may appear fresh, even if the condition inside was otherwise. If necessary, she would randomly pick one for tasting. Fruits checked.

She would then weigh, count and check each item against the invoice, before signing off to confirm acceptance. She had to be firm and would reject any item not up to par. She was the frontline to ensure the quality and quantity of the ingredients going into the day’s menu. Four square meals, balanced and nutritious, fit for 490 undergraduates in the country’s finest daily. No compromise especially on the quality for even a single incident of food poisoning was irreparably untenable.

Unlike other halls of residence, only RH employed her own kitchen staff to whip up daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, and being steep in the traditions of renowned English halls of residence, tea for her residents. This arrangement removed the profit markups from meals prepared by 3rd party caterers and more importantly allowed for stringent quality control over every meal served.

Hence at RH, residents were only charged the actual cost of the meal served, i.e. 60 cents for breakfast, 90 cents for lunch, 40 cents for tea and $1.10 for dinner. Highly unbelievable to all non-Rhafflesians, but it was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth. So help me God.

For breakfast, a typical spread would be a sunny up egg, a scoop of baked beans and a sausage, as many slices of bread as one can eat, jam and butter to spread, and free flow of coffee, tea and milo. Sixty cents. Lunch would usually be a 3-dish fare of meat, vegetable and soup with a free helping of rice from the halal and non-halal counters. Ninety cents. Tea would be a piece of cake or seasonal pastry with free flow of coffee and tea. Forty cents.  Finally dinner, 3-dish fare of meat, vegetable and soup fare with rice and supplemented by the fruit of the day. One dollar ten cents.

Menus were periodically changed to add variety and flavour. These changes were dependent on the availability of the seasonal ingredients, and the culinary skills of the cooks. Before some of you replay the broken records of whines and complains, please remember that one could only stretch a dollar that far, and not everyone’s 50 cents was the size of a bullock cart wheel. Hence, only cooks not chefs could be afforded. In any case, ketchup, chilli sauce, soya sauce and pepper were freely available and ubiquitously placed to enhance one’s meal to the personal satisfaction of every individual’s palate.

She had completed her morning task, and was satisfied with quality and quantity of the day’s grocery. She gave the grocer an approving smile. After signing off the invoices, she kept and handed a copy to the Domestic Manager for record and settlement.

That evening, together with her fellow members, they would set up their Weekly Fruits Sale. As one of the services provided, they would buy regular favourite fruits by the cartons on wholesale prices, and re-sell to residents at the same wholesale price with zero markup. Normally, they were able to retail about 10-12 pears or apples or oranges to a dollar as compared to 4 for $1 from outside retailers, an unbelievably real bargain.

Long queue would always form up long before the opening bell. They were mainly the regular fruity nuts, both healthily animated and spiritedly loud, always catching up on the latest gossips while waiting for the fruits to be sorted and checked for freshness and quality. Rotten or damaged ones were discarded, and only the good ones were sold to residents. Ten to fifteen cartons of fruits were quickly snapped up within the first 10 minutes at a frenzied velocity of some 50 fruits per minute. Warp speed, Scotty.

Apart from the food and fruits, they were the 24/7 hotline for the repair and maintenance of hot showers, ovens, stoves, irons, washing machine and any other common equipment found in the block’s common bathrooms, kitchenette and laundry room. The overall cleanliness in these common facilities was also under their oversight. They also monitored and replenished medical supplies for the block’s 1st Aid Kit regularly. And the list could go on, and I would be accused of being long winded or Cantonese “chiong hey”. The local Hokkien dialect, “Pau Sua Pau Hai” would be the most apt to describe them and their duties.

Who were these uncelebrated few, to whom so many had unknowingly owed their well beings during their sojourn at RH?

They knew what they were signing up for. And yet, they chose to join the team, and signed on with their eyes opened widely and willingly. They knew there was neither fame nor fortune in what they do. And yet, they faithfully carried out their daily duties unfailingly and faithfully. They knew there were no cheers or medals at the finish line, no standing ovation or applause. And yet, they ploughed on consistently and dependably. They operated below radar, unseen, unknown, unappreciated mostly and sometimes taken for granted, sadly. And yet, they remained steadfast altruistically till the end.

To all those who had served in the betterment of welfare and well being of Rhafflesians, I salute you. Salute!

Operation Market-Garden @ Raffles Hall

Garden table-bench

The night was quiet. He cracked open the blinds and peered through the window. Lights in most rooms were already off, occupants asleep. He felt the cool breeze. He tasted the sweet moisture. He felt right. He made up his mind. The night was just perfect. He opened his door and ambled onto the corridors. The light posts cast eerie glow. No shadows, just pitch black night. Perfect.

Even the nocturnal orchestra was silent. Interestingly, they too were waiting for him. He gazed into the dark sky. The stars and moon cooperated by hiding behind the clouds. It was very dark indeed. He donned his favorite All Blacks rugby jersey. Perfect.

He needed help for he could never pull it off alone. He was strong but Hercules he was not. He reckoned he needed at least half a dozen like-minded and able bodied hands for what he had in mind. He paused and pondered. Soft murmuring and giggling from the kitchenette gave him an idea. Some were still awake, gossiping mutedly over late night supper.

He ambled towards the kitchenette. They were sitting precariously on the parapet outside the kitchenette, legs hanging outward secured below the handrail, facing the quad while enjoying a pot of “Maggi” noodles. They nodded when he approached, and offered him some noodles. He just elbowed into them, two gals five guys. Perfect.

He whispered his plan. They listened intently. Even their breathings were hushed. He paused when he was done and soon mischievous smiles broke on their faces. They understood. Perfect. They liked his plan of exploit for the night. They wanted to be part of it. None could blame them for RH had been rather uneventful after orientation, just the monotony of lectures and tutorials. They volunteered un-asked. He briefed them of their roles and the night’s objective.

They excitedly scrambled back to their rooms, changed into their black T-shirts/shorts and quickly returned to the kitchenette. They huddled to go through again the plan of action. He reminded them that it was a total radio silent operation, only silent hand signals were to be used. The rudimentary signals National Servicemen learnt at BMT.

He tapped on the shoulder of the lead gal. She slithered forward silently, in the shadows, always in the shadows. Her partner snaked after her, mirroring her every foot step. Like twin ghostly apparitions, they floated silently along the path and across the car park behind RH4 towards Engineering Faculty. They were the reconnoiter pathfinders. If caught, their story was they were merely taking a walk to de-stress, and the rest to melt away and disappear into the night.

They paused occasionally behind parked vehicle and under trees, each time raising her right palm as a silent signal to the rest, glancing and checking right and left before, and signaling “all’s clear” to move on. Six shadowy brawns followed also in the shadows. They met no one for the car park was deserted. Soon they were at the base floor elevator/stairwell of the 7-storey building of the Engineering Faculty.

The elevators had been switched off for the night, so they had to hike up by stairs. They dashed up the stairs, taking 2-3 steps each time, muffling their footfalls as silently as they could. To be detected was like being caught in the open. No amount of story-telling, however convincing, could save their skin then.

Once at the top, they returned to the “recon” mode along the lit corridors. They hid in the shadows of columns, cabinets and drinks/tidbits vending dispensers wherever possible. They were getting into the rhythm by then, setting an admirable pace like veterans.

Suddenly, the lead palm went up. Everything and everyone froze, even time seemed to freeze. They were immediately on their hands and knees, and soon melted into whatever shadows. They held their breath. Their hearts were however pounding, deafeningly thankfully only in their ears. She was alerted by the sound of footfalls and voices in conversation around the corner, which were fading gratefully away into the distant corridors. She grinned in relief, most likely security guards on their routine walkabout.

When all’s quiet, following her hand signal, they were on the move again. They turned the last corner and there she was all alone before their eyes, their quarry, unassuming, sturdy and sun-kissed. They feasted on her sturdy ergonomics. They felt her smooth lacquer. They caressed her affectionately. They were so engrossed in their revelry. He had to jolt them back. They had yet to complete their mission. They were still in the woods.

The six brawns confidently strained to lift her in unison, and followed their “recon” gals. They re-traced their way back along the corridors, down the stairs and across the carpark back into familiar and safe territory. They were breathing hard, almost winded and sweating profusely by the time they reached RH4. Despite the exhaustion, they were pleased and satisfied. Their teamwork was impeccable and task execution splendid like clockwork.

They hand shook and back patted each other for the mission accomplished. They hastily dispersed. All headed for a quick hot shower to wash grimes off their bodies and massage the knots off their muscles, before fading into their rooms for some shut-eye for the sky was losing her darkness.

Baffled cacophony the next morn woke them up. Many were already crowding around wondering how she magically appeared. Some were testing her, grabbing her, pushing her and even sitting on her, very rough and so uncouth. Conjectures and conspiracies, both puzzling and mystifying, abounded. The perpetrators just stood along the corridor, smiling contently while gazing down at their nocturnal handiwork, amused. They pretended to be pleasantly surprised yet perplexed as well, adding to the intrigue.

The debate raged on the whole morning. Many wanted to keep her. However, one protest rose above all else, it was wrong, whatever the mystery or magic, for her to be placed in RH4 quadrangle. It was not sorcery but plain thievery, illegal. She had to be returned from whence she came. Not negotiable, not debatable, return her or the theft will be reported to the proper Authorities.

They still tried to rationalize throughout afternoon. They had pilfered A&W root beer mugs as trophy before. Some argued that moving something from one place to another in the same compound was not stealing, legal semantics. Whatever the arguments, however ferocious and convincing, her fate was sealed for none would dare to risk possible expulsion. And she was reluctantly whisked back to her rightfully place that very night.

The episode was brought to the attention of the Master of the Hall by the Welfare Secretary. She was the much needed magnet for fraternity/sorority. A request was made through the Domestic Manager. Shortly, each quadrangle received her kinds. They quickly became the centre of attraction all night every night. Life in RH was never the same thereafter, and would never be the same without them.

I oft wondered how the 6 unsung heroes managed to bear her to and fro, specifically up and down 7 storeys without any tools, relying purely on muscle power, undetected. Oh yes, not forgetting the 2 recon gals. I reckoned when there is a will there is a way. Further, had they not pulled off such a stunt, our lives at RH would never be the same. All those gatherings, stunts played, gossips whispered and supper consumed at our very own multi-purpose garden table/bench would never happen.

My 21st Birthday @ Raffles Hall

Water Fight@RH Nassim

The dawn was ominous and foreboding. I was reluctant to wake. I wanted to wish the day away, rewind time or leapfrog to tomorrow. I prayed desperately for an escape. I was turning 21, a day of celebration for most, but alas I was in Raffles Hall. I was doomed.

I resigned to whatever that would befall me. Like an inmate in death row, I just hoped for a last minute reprieve, which never came unless you are in Hollywood. I could already visualize them sniggering and hear their taunts, “Hope-lah” and laughter.

I acted as normally through the day as on any normal day. I did not stick out. I did nothing out of the ordinary. I was wading below radar. I hoped they had forgotten about the day or about me. All seemed to go pretty well, no well wishes throughout the day, no mischievous eyes or grins greeted me. No one noticed me. I had survived the day, or so I thought.

I morphed into a Martian and locked myself in my room early, immediately after dinner. I needed to study for a test the following day. Hey, I was a senior in the midst of orientation. I needed no permission to retreat back to my room.

A few more hours and I would be saved. I switched off the lights. I was relieved. I went to bed early. I was undetected. I managed to escape. They had forgotten about me. I waded below their deathly attention. So far so good and it was turning into a good night indeed. Suckers, I smiled.

Shit. There were shadows outside my room. The corridors suddenly went quiet. Other creatures of the night too were unusually quiet. The night had gone too quiet. Something was amiss. Shit. I could vaguely hear their soft shuffling footfalls. Shit. They were gathering in numbers. Shit. Their hushed murmurings were deafeningly loud. My heart thundered into my throat. I knew I was doomed.

As one, they thundered in reply, “Oh, why were you born so beautiful. Oh, why were you born at all. You’re no bloody good to anyone. You’re no bloody good at all. Get lost you bum. Get lost you useless bum”. They were laughing wickedly however without malevolence. Normal friends would be singing “Happy birthday”, and obviously they were not normal. They were just best of friends.

They knew they had their prey cornered, trapped. They courteously suggested that I surrender myself to them. They knew I was in my room. They had eyes on me all day. Detecting my reluctance, they persuaded by shoving the water hose into my room to wake me up from my deep slumber and flood my room if I still refused to open my door. Well, a friend in need has many friends indeed.

Resigned and reluctantly, I opened my door. More than two dozens of grinning faces and sweaty bodies crowded at the doorway. I tried to protest my way out of the predicament but my voice was lost in the cacophony of their inattention. I was being escorted as a lamb to slaughter, more like facing an execution by firing squad. I pretended to weaken my stride but to no avail, their arms were just as ready and willing to support me. Be brave and of good courage, they encouraged. Take it like a man.

We trudged on the pathway to the execution ground. “Swing low, sweet chariot. Come now and take me away”, I implored to the silent heaven, as I took step by each agonizing step towards my impending fate. Heaven was indeed very silent, and the chariot was probably in the smithy that night. My head was hung in resignation. No divine intervention for the night.

Many peered from their windows and corridors at the condemned in the midst of the gaily procession. They knew the vile intention of the procession and the fate of the condemned, poor fellow. Some muted whisperings, some fingers pointing, and some heads nodding sympathetically. A handful who knew mouthed “Happy birthday”, giggled and blew kisses.

They ceremoniously laid me into the drain between RH5 & 6, downstream. I did not even feebly resist. I just stepped into the drain and lie down. I was so dazed, so much so that I did not even hear their laughter nor felt the cold water coursing around my body. It was so surreal. I closed my eyes, held my breath and waited.

They were busy mustering the requisite 21 gunners, exactly 21 guns, no more and no less. They verified their age, only those guns older than 21 were selected and given the honour. It’s best left to your own imaginations how they verify the age of the guns. They arrayed their legs across the drain with guns sighted downward between their legs aimed downstream. They awaited the order. I was hardly breathing awaiting my fate downstream.

“Make ready. Take Aim. Fire”, echo-ed into the silent night, and they fired as one. RH infamous 21-gun salute blasted, rather silently, to celebrate my 21st birthday. I was jolted from the dark reverie, first by the ammonia smell, followed by the warmth of the piss as it course along my head, body to my feet. I reckoned to stimulate the sight, smell and taste in amniotic fluid in a womb according to some medical undergraduates.

Anyhow, as tradition dictated, I was allowed to hug anyone in sight to share the joy of my “re-birth” into adulthood, since I would unlikely be hugged drenched in the male amniotic fluid. The gunners had bolted from the scene almost immediately. They were laughing and taunting as they hastily dispersed and disappeared into the night. They were swift and nimble, for their limbered guns were probably light and of small caliber.

I staggered from the drain, attempted to chase them but managed only to pounce and hug a few unsuspecting souls who cursed cheerfully anyway that night. All was in “piss-full” good mood and fun. Somehow, I limped back to the bathroom to scrub off the amniotic fluid, friendly piss. I survived. No permanent damage from my 21st birthday trauma.

Admittedly, I was one of the luckier ones for 21-gun salute was the mildest sort of birthday celebration conjured at RH. Other birthday celebrations like Flasher, Birthday Suit Swim and Royal Shaves were more creatively notorious and hilariously nasty, and best forgotten.

Looking back, we had loads of fun, and very few nightmares. We were care free, always full of laughter. We celebrated living on all possible occasions, on every excuse or reason. We were creative in pranks and sabotages. Even re-sits were laughed off. Sufferings were taken lightly. We celebrated life. Life was good, actually great at RH.

Prowlers & Peeping Toms @ Raffles Hall

RH@Kent Ridge at night

It was the darkest hours just before dawn one cool and refreshing morn in September 1984. Many were still slumbering deeply and as many snoring to the night’s rhythm, no one could fault them after a typical day of slogging and mugging. Only a handful of Martians were still burning midnight oil.  Suddenly, a shrill scream reeked of fear pierced the silence of the dawn.

Some room lights flickered on in reply. Some back lit heads appeared through the windows, shadowed eyes peering out searching towards the source of the scream. Some doors were hastily opened, and brave few lumbered sleepily onto the corridors. Blank faces, curious mutterings and soon hurried footfalls were echoed darting their way towards the source.

O what a sight to behold. They answered the call of a damsel in distress, alright. They were like knights of old except they were not in shining chains and armors with their broad swords and lances but a rag tag of residents in pyjamas and just shorts armed with hockey or broom sticks. They were knights nonetheless, chivalrous and brave without regards for their own safety regardless of dangers that might still be lurking around.

So quickly they mustered. So gallantly they stormed into the fray. So courageously they dashed into the room ready to fend off whatever menace that had distressed their fellow resident. They did not hesitate to look before they leap, so to say.

They found her curled up, arms tightly around her knees, trembling. She was sobbing silently in shock. She was shivering violently in fear. She was perspiring profusely in horror. She was mumbling incoherently that someone or something had wandered into her room and was on top of her, suffocating her, asphyxiating her. She was unable to breath, she was losing consciousness. She was unable to scream. She was being sucked into the dark abyss.

With the last ounce of her will to live, she found strength to break free from the oppressive embrace, and screamed.  She awoke, eyes wide, when she saw a fleeting shadow disappearing out the door. Was it a just a bad dream or was that really a shadow of someone or something? That’s how the story was re-counted, and soon morphed into a dramatized tale.

When they managed to calmed her down, she recounted real physical body pressed on hers and frantic limbs attempting to lustily ravage her. His blood shot eyes, foul breath and sour sweat woke her up, jolted her adrenaline to fight back. She kicked out, he grunted and she screamed her lungs out. The perpetrator was real, not some dreamy nightmare, and he was limping when he vanished out off the door.

She had forgotten to lock her door when she went to bed earlier. Her roommate was probably still mugging in the Library or Reading Room. And she was just plain unlucky when the unwelcome prowler chanced upon her open inviting door. Fortunately, other than a bit of frayed nerves, she was physically unhurt, unscarred by the rather traumatic incident. She was after all a valiant Rhafflesian.

Almost immediately, cries of alarm were trumpeted throughout the hall. Impromptu posses hastily spread throughout the hall, in search of the perpetrator who may still be lurking around, to make safe the hall. They were fearless but too late. The cowardly perpetrator had already escaped into the night.

As immediate precautions, all female residents were moved to the upper floors, reminded to keep their doors under locks and keys, and avoid dark nooks and crannies. Residents were also advised to be vigilant and on the lookout for strangers, especially those whose rooms with oversight over the unlit access paths into the hall.

Sporadic sightings and minor incidents were reported, and conspiracies abounded, however nothing concrete, no prowlers or peeping toms were apprehended. The atmosphere in the hall was on edge, uneasy not knowing when the prowlers might strike again until one fateful afternoon.

On that afternoon, a resident of RH2 was taking her shower. She suddenly felt a cold shiver slithering down her back, goose bumps on her neck. Odd, the heater was on, and the afternoon was sizzling hot. She felt a pair of eyes staring down on her back. She turned her head around. She caught a glimpse of someone ducking down in the next cubicle. Her heart thundered but she managed to swallow her scream. She just pretended as if nothing had happened, and calmly finished her shower. She was indeed a very brave lady and pretty cool if I may add.

When she exited out of harm’s way, she quietly alerted some male residents gossiping casually along the corridor nearby. They sprang into action. Two were immediately posted to guard the toilet exit as they mustered more residents. They needed to fortify their bravery in numbers as they were merely undergraduates not men-of-war and the peeping tom might be armed. Soon, more than a dozen turned up with their hockey sticks, blocking the only exit from the toilet, the only escape route. The peeping tom was cornered, and his fate was sealed.

They calmly asked him to come out of the cubicle and surrender peacefully. They promised that no harm or threats of violence would be meted upon him in retaliation. He was cornered, outnumbered and out-muscled. They waited patiently. They did not want to provoke him any further than necessary. He might lash out violently as any cornered person would in desperation, and hockey sticks were definitely no match for a machete or revolver.

After what seemed like an eternity, the door was slowly unbolted and creaked open. He peeked before slowly coming out, wide-eyed, unarmed. He reeked of fear. He was one of the construction workers from the nearby site.

They quickly grabbed him. He struggled briefly. Seeing the futility against such odds, he meekly submitted to whatever fate that was installed for him. They searched him in case he had concealed weapons. They detained him despite his protestations of innocence.

Someone had dialed 999, and soon the police arrived. They handcuffed and took him away. There were sighs of relief all around, smiles, grateful handshakes and back pats for a task well done, a nightmare quashed. Since the arrest, no more incident of molest or peeping was reported, and peace reign once again at Raffles Hall, our home safely away from home.