Standing Up and Being Counted: Lessons from my Childhood
by Kevin YL Tan
I never thought too seriously about my growing up years until I was invited to write this piece. All these years, I have always contented myself with the thought that I enjoyed a most fortunate and privileged childhood. But beyond that, I scarcely wondered how my growing up years affected the growth of my personality and interests. That’s partly because I am not a particularly reflexive person, and partly because I find that with hindsight, it much too easy and convenient to attribute, in Freudian fashion, all things – good and bad – to the experiences of our upbringing.
I was born in 1961 into a middle-income family so money was not a constant worry and we always had enough to eat. Two other things set me apart from most of my friends at school. The first was that our family was very small. I had only one younger sister, while my friends came from families with four or five children. Second, we grew up speaking only English at home as my mother, being a Peranakan, did not manage Chinese well. This command of the English language gave me a great advantage over most of my friends when we started school. From a young age, we were told that our family was ‘quite special’. My paternal grandfather had been the owner of the most famous Teochew opera troupe in Singapore, and my maternal great-grandfather had a road named after him. My parents wanted us to know this so that we would be ever mindful of our behaviour and always remain humble. We were to know about our well-known forebears but never say anything about it.
My father, Richard, had been a salesman in his early career and later started a small landscaping and horticulture business which he initially ran from home (where he sold orchids he hybridised and anthuriums). Later, in 1968, he set up an office and a shop in a rented shed-like building in Great World Amusement Park. My sister and I spent many hours at his office after school, waiting for him to take us home. Of course, we occupied ourselves, doing our homework and playing games or just reading. Occasionally, we were allowed to wander around Great World and also to play some of the parlour games and enjoy some of the rides. The four cinemas there – Canton, Atlantic, Globe and Sky – often screened third-runs of feature films which we could enjoy for just $1.50. But we were always warned not to gawk at the people who either worked at or patronised the gaudily-lit Flamingo Night Club which was situated right next to my father’s office.
In the same year my father set up his business, the British announced that it would withdraw all its troops from Singapore by 1971. This worried our family greatly since my mother had been working with the British army since she was 16 years old and would soon be out of a job. My father was confident that his business would do well and since he would need another pair of hands to help with office administration, managed my mother’s transition from a British Army clerk to his ‘office manager’. I remember that her old office was at the Ordnance Base on Ayer Rajah Road, and occupied grounds that are now Normanton Park. In those days, Ayer Rajah Road was a country road, narrow and rather desolate and rather creepy since it was always dark when my father drove along that road to send my mother to work, which started at 7.00 am. From there, he would take my sister and I to Farrer Primary School, which we attended.
At the age of six, my parents enrolled me at the Lee Kuo Chuan Salvation Army Kindergarten at 9th milestone, Upper Bukit Timah Road. Unlike today’s kindergartens, this kindergarten did not have an ambitious academic programme. We had wonderful teachers who read to us and told us Biblical stories imbued with moral lessons. The kindergarten was run by Brigadier Tjertes, a large Dutch woman who eventually became a close family friend. She was a very kind and motherly woman who, being single, had no children of her own. However, she was matron and mother to the orphans at the Salvation Army Home that was adjacent to our kindergarten. She even adopted one of them – Ah Choo – as her daughter, and when she retired, returned to the Netherlands with Ah Choo, who mastered Dutch and had a successful career there. The most memorable event of my year in kindergarten was when the army sent a three-tonner truck to take us home as Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads were flooded after a tremendous downpour. Back then, it was not common for students to attend kindergarten. Most students had their first experience of schooling in Primary One. I did not realise this to be the case until I entered primary school and was both puzzled and surprised by the hordes of anxious parents and grandparents standing outside our classrooms, watching their traumatized children manage their first days in school.
Primary School Days: 1968–1973
In 1968, I entered Primary One. My father was an old boy of St Andrew’s School and would have had little difficulty enrolling me there, but St Andrew’s was too far from our home. So my parents decided to enrol me in the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS), the most famous school in the Bukit Timah area. But my father had no connections or affiliations, and when the school suggested that I might stand a chance of being admitted to ACS if they made a nice donation to the school, they left in a huff and decided to enrol me in a government primary school near our home. This was a significant lesson for me. My parents showed, by example, how it was important to stick by one’s principles and not compromise no matter how we might possibly benefit by genuflecting.
That’s how I ended up in Farrer Primary School. The school no longer exists, having been merged into New Town Primary School in 1992. It was located at the end of Duke’s Road and its field ran parallel to Farrer Road – hence its name. Next door to us was St Margaret’s Secondary School – which my sister later attended. It was a ‘regular’ kampung primary school which had been built to a common stock design in 1966. The school buildings still stand although its fate remains uncertain.
As Farrer Primary School was located near several Malay kampongs, there were large numbers of Malay students in the school. Indeed, Malay students outnumbered Chinese students in some classes. Some of my Malay classmates even came all the way from Johor Baru every day to attend class. I was full of admiration for them as they often set out from home at 5.30 am so they could get to the morning session on time.
I had an easy time in primary school because I was one of the handful of children who could already read and write English. The teachers were really dedicated and committed and the subjects were not too difficult, except for Chinese, which I struggled with since we had so little exposure to it. It became particularly challenging by the time I got to Primary Three because we had to study Singapore History in our respective mother tongues. This exposure to our mother tongue was extended to Geography as well when we got to Primary Four. This intensive exposure to Chinese was part of the Ministry of Education’s policy to increase student exposure to their respective mother tongues. So, we studied Civics in Chinese while in Primary One and Two, and then added History and Geography from Primary Three onwards. We also had to cope with learning Malay – our national language – in Primary One and Two. Later the national language classes were scrapped in favour of a more intensive mother language programme. This experiment was, for the most part, a failure. Most Chinese students found Mandarin an alien tongue; few of them spoke it at home. Those who did not speak English spoke one of the southern Chinese languages like Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese or Hainanese.
While the intensified mother tongue experiment failed to improve my command of Mandarin, it certainly sparked my interest in local history. Funnily, my first exposure to the names of characters like Sang Nila Utama and Raffles were in the Mandarin-Chinese transliteration. I soaked up all the history lessons like a sponge and could not get enough of the stories of our past. Sometime in Primary Five, I bought a copy of HF Pearson’s A Popular History of Singapore and read it cover to cover many times. My deep interest in history (generally) was further fanned by my interactions with my uncle George – my mother’s only brother – who lived with us.
Uncle George was also very interested in history and had a nice collection of Pelikan books on various historical subjects, such as Ancient Egypt, Roman Britain and the Greeks. He also collected coins and got me interested in collecting stamps and coins as well. We decided that beyond collecting the coins of the Straits Settlements and Malaya and Singapore, we would collect commemorative coins – coins that were struck to celebrate or remember special events, personalities or organisations. Commemorative coins were also quite affordable for a junior collector like me. They were often struck in smaller denominations and in large numbers so it was easy to pick up such coins for a little more than their legal tender value. What was important was the history behind these coins.
To determine the significance of the coins we collected, we spent many hours researching the events or personalities they commemorated. I remember vividly how Uncle George came home one day in 1969 with a gold $150 coin commemorating the 150th anniversary of Singapore. It was a beautiful coin – and must have cost Uncle George half his monthly salary – and it depicted Raffles Lighthouse on the obverse side and the Singapore coat of arms on the reverse. That set us off researching the history of Singapore’s ‘founding’ and the life of Raffles. On another occasion, he bought a silver Egyptian one-pound coin commemorating the building of the Aswan Dam. I was not terribly impressed with the coin as it depicted a bland-looking ultra-modern dam and power station. But as we dug into its history and significance, I became totally hooked, studying the history of ancient Egypt and how modern engineering was brought in to save the Great Temple of Abu Simbel from the plains that would be flooded by the damming of the Nile.
Like most other government schools, we had two sessions. Primary 1, 3 and 5 classes were held in the morning session (which ran from 7.30 am to 12.50 pm) while Primary 2, 4 and 6 classes were held in the afternoon (which ran from 1.00 pm to 6.20 pm). I remember all the wonderful and caring teachers we had at Farrer Primary School, some of whom I am still in touch with today. I was very active in the 2213 Farrer School Cadet Scout Troop and there met many friends outside my class. My father, who had been a very active scout in his school days encouraged me to join. I spent most of my time outside the classroom with the Scouts and very quickly passed all my progress tests. By the time I was in Primary 5, I had attained the District Commissioner’s Award – the highest possible for a Cadet Scout. My classmate Goh Keng Tiam and his elder brother Goh Keng Hock also received the same distinction and the three of us became the very first scouts in Farrer Primary School to gain this badge.
I really enjoyed my time in Scouting for it offered me tremendous exposure to so many things. I was always a rather bookish person and the need to engage in a wide range of outdoor activity got me interested in team sports, hiking and camping. I loved camping so much that I persuaded my father to buy me a small tent which I pitched in our small garden and slept in it for several nights. And when I wanted to learn photography – for the Photographer’s Proficiency Badge – I borrowed my father’s old Ricoh camera, went around taking photographs and learnt film developing from Uncle George who was also a keen amateur photographer. Later on, my father bought me my own camera, a small Olympus Trip 35, which I used for many years afterwards.
One of the badges I earned in the course of completing my scout tests was the Civics Proficiency Badge. I think I was the first person ever to earn that badge because its requirements were too difficult for most of my friends. To pass, I had to learn about the life and politics of David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock and Lee Kuan Yew; explain how Parliament works and how laws are made; and visit a community centre and write a report on the activities held there. In the course of working for this badge, I learnt about the Singapore Constitution for the first time. It was also my first ‘encounter’ with David Marshall. Never did I imagine that I would later write a biography of this fascinating man. While this was not a life-changing experience, it made me very aware of the political scene in Singapore and I began reading the newspapers much more carefully, especially the speeches of leaders like Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Keng Swee. And one day in 1973, my father returned home with a copy of Alex Josey’s Lee Kuan Yew. It was a huge tome which had all his speeches arranged in chronological order. I also read it cover to cover, during the December holidays. I became fascinated by Lee and his oratory made me proud to be a Singaporean.
Our Scout Den was a small little room at the back of the stage, which sat at one end of an open multi-purpose ‘hall’ which doubled as sports and concert venue. At the end of the hall was the tuckshop. Each day, my parents gave me 20 cents for our tuckshop break. I would use that to buy various combination of things: plate of noodles (5 or 10 cents); sugared drink (5 cents); kacang puteh (5 cents); keropok (5 cents); Magnolia flavoured milk (15 cents); curry puffs (5 cents) or cake (5 cents). Sometimes I would just drink water from the tap and save the 20 cents and join my friends for a game of marbles or ‘hantam bola’ (literally ‘hit ball’). The game of hantam bola was simple. There was just one ball (usually a tennis ball) in play and the object is for players to get hold of the ball, take aim and hit the nearest player with the ball. Nowadays it would be considered a violent game, but in those days, it was just fun, learning to duck the ball and running away from danger.
When I was much younger, my father would insist on sending me (and later my sister as well) to school, and them picking us up afterwards. I felt that he could do this since he was running his own business and his time was his own. Unfortunately, as any businessman will tell you, their time is not really their own and he sometimes kept us waiting in school for an hour or more while we waited for him. This was made worse by the fact that we would have spent our daily 20 cent allowance at recess already and were desperately hungry as well. Later, we decided to take a 10-cent bus ride or simply to walk home. When he moved his office from Great World to Bukit Timah, we sometimes walked to his office (which was mid-way between our school and our home). I learnt many shortcuts in my trek to his office and to my home from Loh Ghim Chong, one of my best friends at Farrer. We got to know each other in the Scouts and we somehow got along fabulously. His father was a night-watchman at the Chinese High School and they lived in a small house on the Chinese High compound. We would often walk together, and sometimes stop to play table tennis at the dozens of table-tennis tables in the Chinese High School. Although Gim Chong’s father was himself Chinese-educated and worked for a Chinese school, he determined that his children should all attend English schools as prospects for employment were much better if one had an English education.
One other thing I did while in primary school was to take part in local radio programmes. One of my elder cousins, Wrisney, was working in the radio division of Radio Television Singapore (RTS), the predecessor of MediaCorp and was helping her friend, Evita Lee, produce a children’s talk show called ‘Can I Say Something, Please?’ Each week, a group of children would assemble at the studio to talk about a common subject. It was my first experience in front of a microphone and helped tremendously in overcoming any fear I had of speaking in public. The great thing about radio is that no one can see how nervous you are so long as you project your voice confidently. RTS payed us a $5.00 honorarium for each appearance so I never hesitated to turn up whenever I was asked. Besides, it helped build up my confidence in front of a crowd and I never feared public speaking thereafter.
Raffles Institution 1974–1979
In 1973, I sat for my PSLE and did well; well enough to get into Raffles Institution (RI) – the premier boys’ school in Singapore. Even though I had always been a good student, there had been no pressure – either from my teachers or parents – to get into RI. I was always just told, ‘Do your best, and the rest does not matter.’ So, when I got my results, I was happy but not particularly elated. It was only later that I realised that so many of my uncles from my mother’s side had been old RI boys. Indeed, my mother herself had studied at Raffles Girls’ School. She was of course delighted that I could carry on the family tradition.
Before my first day at RI, I thought it prudent to find out a bit more about the school, its traditions and history. Uncle George, who had been an old boy in the 1950s offered me some advice, and regaled me with stories of various old-time teachers (who were still on the staff), and especially of Philip Liau, the Principal – who had taught him literature. All I remember about my first day in RI was the awe-inspiring school hall. It was huge, filled with boys like me, all staring at the magnificent honours rolls. The list of Queen’s Scholars, State Scholars, President’s Scholars, Head Prefects was a list of the “good and the great”. Knowing that Lee Kuan Yew had been and old boy, I scanned the rolls for his name. It wasn’t even there. What kind of school was this?
We were greeted (or should I say, primed) by the Senior Assistant, Mr Patrick V Pestana, a tall, well-built Eurasian Physics teacher who was a true inspiration. We were all told, that the RI boy was an all-rounder – good in class and good on the field – and that we were all expected to join one uniformed group, one sport, and one other activity or club. For me, the first was easy. I was sure I wanted to continue Scouting but there were two rival Scout troops – 2101 and 2102 or 32nd and 2nd Raffles – as they preferred to be called. I joined 2nd Raffles (2102) for no other reason than that they claimed to be the oldest scout troop in Singapore. Many years later, when researching my book Scouting in Singapore: 1910 to 2000,I found out that this was not true. Everyone had gotten the history of the RI Scout Troops wrong! I was not terribly good at sport. I only played table tennis decently well – thanks to my sparring matches with older boys from the Chinese High School – but surely not enough to make the school team. I took my chance with the school’s premier sport – rugby or ‘rugger’ as everyone called it. I figured that I had a small chance at making the school team since I was stocky and strongly built and could run quite fast. For my third choice, I decided to join the Hullett Memorial Library as a librarian.
My days in RI went by like a blitz as I was always involved in one activity or another. Studies took up some time and while I did well in Secondary One, I began to struggle with Mathematics in Secondary Two and then with the hard sciences like Physics and Chemistry in my upper secondary years. The humanities were easy because I loved to read and write and soon, English Literature became my favourite subject. I quit rugby after making the school team as my studies began to suffer and I found little time to practice solving math problems. However, I continued to enjoy and excel in Scouting. Later, I also quit the Library and joined the Chinese Orchestra which was being start up in 1975. I stuck with Scouting and the Orchestra right till the end of my days at RI. In between, I joined the Musical Society, the Photographic Society, the Literary, Drama and Debating Society, the Art Club, and even picked up squash, but it was with the Scouts that I spent the most time. There I made many life-long friends and learnt many survival and life skills that continue to stand me in good stead today. I was the only President’s Scout in my year, and in my final year at RI, represented the school in debates, current affairs quizzes and at the Pre-U Seminar where I won first prize for my essay, ‘Traditions and the Singaporean’. Academically I struggled to keep up with the top boys (and later girls in pre-university). After my GCE ‘O’ levels, I decided to switch to the Arts stream so that it would be less of a struggle and would afford me time to do all the other interesting things I was engaged in outside the classroom.
Indoors and Out
Growing up in the 1970s, we spent much of our time outdoors. As I was very active in the Scouts, I spent a lot of time hiking, exploring and camping which I enjoyed tremendously. I remember failing my Explorer’s Badge six times and being rather non-plussed because it afforded me yet another opportunity to explore yet another part of Singapore. So many beautiful parts of Singapore that I was fortunate enough to explore, are all gone. We camped at Tanah Merah (which had the most magnificent beaches in Singapore), Telok Paku, Telok Mata Ikan and Changi beaches. Today, they are all part of Changi Airport. I remember getting hopelessly lost in the Mandai forest and camping on Pulau Tekong (before it was taken over by the military) and on Pulau Ubin, fearing each night that a wild boar might attack us. There was a spell in 1973-1974 when we were warned not to camp in the central catchment area as a black panther had escaped from the Singapore Zoological Gardens.
In school we played the usual rowdy ‘boys’ games’ like soccer, rugby and ‘hantam bola’, but when girls were around, we invariably ended up playing Captain’s Ball. Soccer was of course, the most popular and hottest game in town, and the Singapore team was a joy to watch. Those were the days of the Kallang Roar, when 80,000 people crowded into the National Stadium that had been built for 55,000. The National Stadium had been built to provide Singapore with a proper up-to-date venue for the Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games which Singapore hosted in 1973. It was a spectacular architectural achievement and we all visited the stadium as part of our school excursions (which typically also included a trip to the Southern Islands). I felt terribly sad when the National Stadium was finally torn down in 2011 to make way for the present stadium for it held so many wonderful memories for me, especially of the heady days of Malaysia Cup fever. Everyone knew the names of the Singapore team and supported it fanatically while it took on the best state teams in Malaya. Hordes of supporters would board buses and trains for ‘away’ matches, and queue for hours for tickets for ‘home’ matches. My friends and I were totally caught up in this football frenzy. No one who was there at a home match at the National Stadium who experienced the full force of the Kallang Roar will ever forget it. As far as I can tell, the Kallang Roar of the 1970s has never been matched anywhere or any time since.
At home, the television had yet to become all-consuming so when we stayed indoors, we would read, listen to music or play board games. I remember that in the 1960s we had an old black and white television set that expired round about 1970 and my father made no effort to replace it. It was rather massive so it sat in our house as a piece of furniture for several years before it was finally given away to the karang guni (rag and bone) man. One day in 1974, my father surprised us all when he suddenly went out and bought a new colour television set. Why did we need a new television set after living without one for so long? ‘Well’, my father said, ‘they are broadcasting this year’s World Cup in colour!’ None of us thought this a good enough reason to spend a small fortune on a colour television but my father thought otherwise. Not that we were complaining. My mother – who is a big movie buff – was quite happy to have a television set at home so she could watch her Cantonese soap operas – mostly starring Tse Yin (Patrick Tse) – on Saturday afternoons. That’s how we all picked up some conversational Cantonese. Other shows that kept us riveted to the television were: The Rado Show (hosted by Tan Tock Peng); Talentime (which businessman TF Tan won 3 times); the the inter-school Science & Industry Quiz (hosted by Dr Tay Eng Soon) and the Inter-school Debates (chaired by Dr Max le Blond).
My sister and I read voraciously during our spare time and I spent many Saturdays going down to the Queenstown Public Library to browse and borrow books. As junior members, we could only borrow two books each, so we commandeered my mother’s six library cards to borrow six more books. My parents also used to reward us for good school performance with gifts of books. This was a real treat and they would take us to the bookshops to pick out the books we wanted. Back then, there were two bookstores I really liked – the venerable MPH on Stamford Road; and Donald Moore’s Gallery at Liat Towers (which was a bookshop and art gallery combined). I particularly liked Donald Moore’s Galleries which not only sold books and art pieces but also luxury furniture and other items. Unfortunately, that closed down in the early 1970s. MPH was a wonderful bookstore that not only sold books but toys, games and Scout uniforms and scouting paraphernalia. Of course, right next door was the National Library where I also spent much time. The National Museum, next to the Library, was another place we had to visit. It was hard not to be impressed and awed by the skeleton of the whale that hung in the atrium above the staircase. In the 1970s, the Museum was a rather dark and creepy place. The old showcases were crowded with specimens and exhibits and I always found myself transfixed and a little scared whenever I went up close to look at the stuffed animals, especially the huge seladang whose glass eyes seem to follow you around the hall, and the enormous crocodile shot by GP Owen in the Serangoon River. I never imagined that one day I would write a book documenting the history of this famous natural history collection.
Movies were, of course, very popular and were quite affordable, especially if you were prepared to risk a neck-ache sitting in the front rows. As my mother enjoyed the movies, we watched quite a lot of shows, mostly English blockbusters like the James Bond movies but also a lot of Shaw Brothers’ sword-fighting and kungfu movies as well. We also watched a lot of spaghetti westerns, especially those be Serge Leonie and when Bruce Lee burst on the scene, all his movies as well. The nicest cinemas were Lido, Cathay and Capitol where you paid premium price for the first screenings of the latest movies. But there were numerous other small cinemas in the outskirts what screened re-runs for half the price. One cinema we used to frequent was the old Eng Wah cinema in Holland Village, which was open air and had no numbered seats but long wooden benches instead. Another memorable ‘cinema’ was Jurong Drive-in Cinema which Cathay opened in 1971. It was a novel concept and we very much enjoyed going there because you could walk around, eat, and even talk while the movie was being screened. Cathay shut the drive-in cinema in 1985 after years of dwindling patronage.
During our school vacations, starting from the time when I was about 11 years old, my father brought me down to his office to learn and help out. By this time, he was running a landscape design and contracting company, as well as a garden centre selling all sorts of gardening implements and fertilisers. I was put to work alongside his workers – many of whom were samsui women – and I learnt how to wield a changkol,dig tree holes, turf a green and propagate plants for sale. It was hard work, but my father was anxious that I learnt the value of money and how difficult life was for those who laboured for a living. He paid me $3.00 a day, which was what his workers got, and I followed them out to work in a lorry, ate packet lunches alongside them. The samsui women were particularly kind to me and often shared whatever they had with me. As they had no children of their own, they ‘adopted’ me and criticised my father for not treating me better. Of course, they did not understand what my father was trying to do. I also learnt how to repair lawnmowers and sprayers by watching my father, who was mechanically gifted, and could take apart and put back an engine without having done that before. As a result, I acquired the skills of a handyman, and can handle most household chores and repairs with confidence. At the shopfront, I helped sell everything from lawnmowers to sprayers to fertilisers. I learnt the art of sales and of persuasion, and maybe because I was so young, many customers bought a lot of things from me. I helped my father out during the school holidays till I was 16 and was due to sit for my ‘O’ level examinations. By this time, he figured that I had better buckle down and focus on my studies.
Shopping and Treats
The radio was kept on most of the time, and we listened to top hits presented on the few local radio channels. My parents and uncle also had a small stash of records which we would take out and play from time to time on my father’s old Thorens turntable. My sister and I have inherited many of these LPs (long-playing records) but we did not have many of them as they were expensive. Once in a while, Uncle George – whose taste in music was far more eclectic than those of my parents, and who had a nice jazz record collection – would take me along when he went out music shopping and at the time, most of the best music shops were in the High Street area. Kwang Sia Records and Sing Records were there as was the ‘high-end’ TMA, the only shop that allowed you to sample a record before buying. Records could also be purchased in general department stores like Robinson, John Little and supermarkets like Cold Storage and Fitzpatrick’s although the selection in these places tended to be rather more limited. Then of course, for the classical music, buff, there was the venerable Beethoven Record House located in the Heeren Building on Orchard Road. Like most children of my generation, we consumed whatever music we heard on radio and I grew up with the sound of most popular singers and groups of that era. What was more fascinating for me were the many local singers and groups who emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. This early exposure to the many different genres of music and artistes opened up my mind to what was available. I listened to more types of music than most of my friends, and later on even ventured into classical music, which has since become a life-long passion. At university, I took advantage of the wonderful collection of musical books at the library to learn all I could about the music I enjoyed and the artistes and composers I liked. Later on, I even reviewed classical music recordings for a local pop-rock magazine, Big-O, which was run by my friend, Michael Cheah.
Orchard Road was also a very popular shopping area. It was then considered a more up-and-coming area and had rather more interesting stores than High Street. CK Tang was one of my mother’s favourite stores and we could spend a whole Saturday there. We did not necessarily buy a lot of things there, but spent a lot of time just browsing and looking at the fascinating handicrafts, embroidery and furniture which was CK Tang’s specialty. For lunch, we might nip out next door to the Cosy Corner or the Bamboo Hut. And for tea time, there was always Mont d’Or across the road in Ngee Ann Building (now the site of Ngee Ann City). On the same side of Orchard Road as CK Tang was a slew of motor car showrooms that stretched till the Fitzpatrick’s Supermarket (edge of present-day Paragon), and then the Prince’s Hotel Garni, Heeren Building, Emerald Hill and Cold Storage. Fitzpatrick’s and Cold Storage catered mainly to expatriates and was considered rather upmarket and snooty.
On the other side of Orchard Road, across from CK Tang was Wisma Indonesia, which housed the Indonesian Embassy and cultural centre. Next to it was Ngee Ann Building, and then an old Teochew cemetery. The Mandarin Hotel, which opened in 1971, which was then the largest and at 40 storeys, the tallest hotel in Singapore, dominated that part of Orchard Road. Further down the street, towards the city, was the Pavilion Cinema (now part of Orchard Gateway) and the famous car park opposite Cold Storage that transformed itself into ‘Glutton’s Square’ at night. While out on Orchard Road, my parents took us out, we often ate at Glutton’s Square (best chye tau kueh in memory) or the Koek Road Market (amazing Cantonese congee). Fancier treats included ice-cream at the Magnolia Creamery or western food at Troika (Liat Towers).
I should count myself fortunate to have grown up in Singapore in the 1970s. Everything was new and exciting. Singapore was a young country in a hurry and new things were coming up every day. It was the time of colour television, of the Malaysia Cup, of the OPEC oil embargo and the closure of Nanyang University. At the same time, we saw our first drive-in cinema, our own Bird Park and Zoological Garden, and our own symphony orchestra.
To what extent did my growing up years contribute to what I became? In terms of character formation, I think that the most important thing I gained was a high level of self-confidence. My parents were firm and strict, but also quite liberal in encouraging different views. We were punished for bad behaviour – like telling lies, being rude or irresponsible – but never for having a different viewpoint. My exposure to public speaking through those early radio programmes also gave me confidence in articulating my ideas and points of view. The fact that we grew up in a small middle-income family also provided me with a stable base in which to indulge in my many interests. In terms of subjects that interest me, I can safely say that my lifelong interest in history, politics was kindled in my early youth. The fact that my parents invested a lot in books also helped, as did my regular visits to the various public libraries
Scouting also had a major role in moulding my character and outlook in life. The Scout Promise pledged us to serve God, country and humanity, and Lord Baden-Powell – Scouting’s founder – urged us all to always leave the world a little better than we found it. Scouts are also supposed to be trusted, loyal, disciplined, considerate, a friend to all, and to have courage in all difficulties. These were powerful messages and ideals which quickly became part of my persona. In the end, all these things add up. Without the privilege of growing up the way I did in the 1960s and 1970s, I might well not have had the courage to make the choices I made, taken the risks I took, or fought the causes I did.
Kevin YL Tan is a scholar of law and history and has been active in Singapore civil society for many years, having served as President of the Roundtable (1999–2001); the Singapore Heritage Society (2001-2011) and currently of the International Council of Sites and Monuments (ICOMOS, Singapore) (since 2013). He is the author and editor of over 50 books on the law, history and politics of Singapore and is currently Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore and Visiting Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.