I got inspired by contributing columnist Kishore Mahbubani, from my local newspaper The Straits Times, to write a thank you letter to Singapore as a tribute for her 50th birthday. I was going to write it and publish it on our National Day, 9 August but I thought it’d be more meaningful if I had it publish on my birthday because it was the day I was a Singaporean.
I come from a non-traditional Singaporean family because my both sets of grandparents never differentiated girls from boys. They loved us equally. My both grandfathers were bilingual but they wanted their grandchildren to get ahead hence they encouraged us to only speak English at home. My both grandmothers came from Peranakan lineage that meant, they were absolute great cooks. Interestingly, in my family, the men cook better than the women with exception to my grandmothers. My male cousins are definitely better cooks than I am.
What Singapore did for my grandparents was to give them a mindset that there was equality among genders. It didn’t matter if you were male or female. Gender was not something that would hinder you from pursuing your passions. That value passed from my grandparents to my parents and now, us, the present generation.
Being born in the early 70s, I was part of the generation that went through a number of changes in the education system in Singapore. I was an under weight, skinny kid that had to be part of the milk programme. To give you an idea of how skinny I was, my family had a pet name for me, I was “Sticky”. I was called that because I looked like a stick. The milk programme here in our schools basically gives students like me who are under weight extra nutrition by supplying us a week’s supply of milk and a special brew that we had to line up for it with our mugs.
Frankly, I hated it so much but the Flame of the Forest tree at St. Hilda’s at Ceylon Road thanked me for it. She blossomed every season while I remained under weight. I went to St. Hilda’s because all the women in my family did. My mother went there so did her sisters so I got in because I was a legacy child. If not for my alma mater, I would not be where I am today.
I have loads to be thankful for because I was a handful even as a young child. My kindergarten principal told me that if I wouldn’t stop bullying the boys in my class, she’d have to kick me out of school. Since I chose to go to that particular kindergarten, I got my act together and spared one of the boys in my class. (For the record, we’re still friends today!)
In the 80s, there wasn’t a programme for kids with special needs. The only programme that was pioneering then was the gift programme. To my teacher’s dismay, I was one of those kids that would day dream in class and if something caught my attention outside, I’d happily leave my seat to investigate the matter. My classroom was an old colonial one which meant we had big and wide doors lining each side. That meant you could walk freely into the school garden.
However, my form teacher who suspected I was a kid with special needs, had a better idea. She gave me a task in class. She told me that I could doodle on the right hand side of my notebook instead. She also told me I could write my thoughts, draw them or put down questions on that right hand column. That got me to be able to focus better in class. I am ever grateful to her because I still do that today to help me focus when I need to be seated. What she did for me was to be flexible even in a rigid system.
By some miracle, I passed my primary 3 exams and didn’t get kicked out of school to an abnormal school. I got to stay on in school until PSLE.
School was a chore for me. It was probably the hardest time of my life as a young child. Looking back, I am grateful to my teachers who had so much patience and dedication to make sure each of their pupils had a good chance within a rigid education system.
Secondary school saved me although I hated it then. My form teacher Mrs. Sundram nominated me to be a prefect in school. I detested it because that meant I had to be a model student. Blah. I was a rebel at heart.
But what that did for me was to cultivate my character and leadership. Through being a prefect, I got to attend leadership camps by NACLI and many other symposiums that I wouldn’t have had opportunities for. Although we had a rigid education system, we were encouraged to take on an ECA (Extra Curricular Activity). I chose to be part of my school band. Juggling school, band and youth ministry, that kept me off the streets and out of trouble because I was labelled as a latch key kid – meaning my both parents were working parents.
Although I didn’t have stellar grades and struggled through the rigid system, I survived. Thank God.
What I really treasured from school really were my friends. I had friends from various races. And we would be invited to celebrate our New Year’s. I remember spending a lot of my Deepavalis at my good friend Varsha’s home. Her parents would have an entire open house day and a bunch of us would just go and hang out together. It was the same for Hari Raya.
Frankly, I was like many Singaporeans today who complained and disliked the government a lot. Everything changed when I went to the US for college. Having to studying American Government taught me to learn to separate ruling party from love and devotion to my country.
Everyone thinks living abroad is easy. It is not. I’ve lived in the US and in England. Having travelled extensively around Europe and the United States, the number 1 thing I missed about Singapore while living abroad is safety. The second thing I appreciate about my home country is her public transportation. (I’m not saying we don’t have room for improvement, there’ll always be.) The third thing I love about Singapore is we’re truly mutli-cultured. How do we know? We can switch from English, to Mandarin to Malay words or throw in a dialect or two. The last thing we always take for granted is our weather. Wait till you have to shovel 2 to 3 feet of snow and you’ll be thankful for the tropical storms.
What I love about celebrating Singapore’s 50th birthday is that I have the rare privilege of being part of that generation to see Singapore grow from her teenage pangs into maturity. I’m part of that generation that stands at the threshold to bear witness of our forefather’s legacy. I’m also part of that generation that has to fight hard to keep that legacy and not squander it away.
So, Singapore; I’m glad I call you home. I’m glad that as a woman, I had equal opportunities. I’m thankful that I can have the privilege of being a home owner at 35. I’m thankful that I have security here to walk the streets at midnight or at dawn. I’m thankful that I don’t need a car to go anywhere. I’m privileged to have seen our airport grow from being at Paya Lebar to the current Changi International Airport. I’m thankful that I don’t need a visa to go visit most countries. And it is because of this that I’ve had the privilege to see many countries even before my 30th birthday. I’m so thankful that as a young child, I had so many trips to our wonderful zoo. That taught me to respect nature. It taught me to appreciate wildlife and created a sense of adventure.
While the years ahead look blurry, I stand hopeful because I know there will be fellow Singaporeans who will continue to stand for what is true and good for this sunny island we call Home.
Happy 50th birthday Singapore, I’m so glad God placed me here.
Charissa works in the Arts and loves to put her observations and musings down in writing on her blog “The Orange Chalk”. Very often, you’ll read about her rescue mutt, Lady-Mae, whom God uses to refine Charissa to serve like a servant and lead like a royal.