Every morning reciting the pledge, repeating every word, instilled in me a belief of the greatness of this nation. When I grew up, everywhere I turned, I had friends of different races and faiths. I could go to the mainstream PAP kindergarten in the mornings and I also went to the mosque kindergarten in the afternoon. I was exposed to different customs and languages and I had the opportunity to bask in the rich multi-racial flavour of our nation.
"Pledge ourselves as One United People, Regardless of Race, Language or Religion...", I oathed. Every pledge taking ceremony, this line mattered to me most.
This was what made me different. Whether you're Malay, Chinese or Indian, this is what makes us different from our ancestral nations. Chinese law states that you must be ethnically Chinese to be a citizen of (PRC) China. In Malaysia, non-Malays don't get Bumiputera rights. And in India, while you could now naturalise as an Indian citizen, one needs to be a resident of India for at least 11 years. Of course, it would be quite difficult to find Indian citizens of non-Indian ethnicity in India though there is evidence of mixed ethnicity due to the large diaspora of Indians who have since returned.
But in Singapore, no matter what colour your skin is, what language you speak, or what religion you profess (or not), you are always welcome. So long as you pledge yourself as One United People.
The British Surrender
I used to frequent Johor as a child. I have relatives in a kampong at Jalan Setanggi. I remember one morning when my cousin and I talked about our countries, and learnt what it was like in our different countries. I was curious what it was like living in my ancestral land. I asked what was school like, and what they do in school. And we suddenly broke into patriotic competition. We'd sing our national anthems and we'd recite our pledges. I was a darn proud Singaporean but I respected my Malaysian cousins for what they have.
We don't have kampongs anymore. Gotong-royong is still alive across the border. Here, it's a different story. We exchanged our simple pleasures for the ones provided to a metropolis. Without the Internet, we wouldn't know what to do with our time, as evident when I made my trips to Malaysia and Indonesia. Or perhaps, the connectedness with our virtual reality is a way for us to escape the realities of life.
I remember in one of my trips to my cousin's kampong, I flipped through their photo albums, and in one of them, I discovered a historical relic. There slit behind the clear plastic was a Japanese banana note.
This was a time when Singapore was a significant part of Malaya. What Singapore went through, is shared with our brothers up north. This was a time when you could cross the causeway without a passport. A time when Singapore residents got along with each other, no matter what race.
"I want you to surrender without conditions! We shall stop all firing by 0700 hrs " said General Yamashita to the British officers, led by General Percival. Percival tried to negotiate a later end to hostilities so that there would be enough time to destroy all British government documents. It was a convenient solution for them. Our men battled at the front, bled and died. And they raised their hands in surrender to save their lives.
What Percival didn't know was that Yamashita was forcing the British to accept a quick surrender as the Japanese had almost run out of ammo and supplies, and had far less men than the Allies.
Had the British any idea of the custom of Ta'at Setia, Singapore as with the rest of Malaya would not have fallen to the Japanese. It was a war of attrition. A war which apparently was in our favour to win, despite the odds and the well-trained Japanese army.
Percival nodded, eventually agreeing to the Japanese terms. "I want to hear from your mouth that you agree to the unconditional surrender!" demanded Yamashita. Percival said in a dejected tone, "Yes, I, on behalf of the British and Allied forces in Singapore and Malaya, agree to surrender and stop all hostilities at the agreed upon time".
Malay women used as comfort workers turning Geylang into a Red-light district
And then began 3 years of military internment for all in Malaya and Singapore. The Japanese used the British system of administration by race. Colonial master to colonial master, race was seen as an efficient way to administer its territory and subjects. The Chinese would suffer the worst from the racial discrimination of the Japanese. Chinese men were executed at random. They were tortured, and mutilated. Shot and bayoneted.
Every race was used differently by the new colonial masters. The Chinese were treated worse than animals. The Indians were to be re-used as soldiers to fight for the Japanese against British India. But the Japs weren't quite sure of what to do with the Malays, so they tried to put them to work as labourers in place of the Chinese to revitalise the Japanese administered Syonan and Malayan economy.
Despite the better treatment to the other races, the Japs didn't pay well. Inflation soared and life was hard. Everyone suffered under the Japanese. Food was rationed and the Japanese encouraged planting our own crops. But hard as it was to buy anything to plant, the only cheap crop was tapioca.
Zaman Ubi Kayu
My uncle described how it was like under the Japanese. "Zaman Jepun, kita takde apa-apa nak makan. Semua mahal. Ubi Kayu aje lah."
I couldn't quite imagine eating just tapioca.
"Kalau dapat ayam tu masa raya je. Tak macam zaman sekarang, hari-hari makan ayam," he continued explaining how luxurious our life is today.
"Duit Pisang ni, jangan di bawak keluar. Ni lah kenangan Zaman Ubi Kayu tu," he ended his short story about the hardships of war.
I could not help being reminded of the Banana Note as I crossed back the causeway into Singapore. No one in class had ever seen a real Banana Note. Most of my friends in class were Chinese.
And then it struck me. Of course none of them had seen it. Most of them were killed. And these memories were too painful for their grandparents to have. Why would they keep a relic of the past that reminded them of the discrimination against them?
I don't have fond memories of my time in PAP kindergarten. As much as I appreciated being exposed to the richness of multi-racial cultures, my best memories were the afternoons at mosque kindergarten. Mostly because after lessons, we got to play at the neighbourhood playground, supervised by our teacher. I learnt the same things in mosque kindergarten, except for Chinese language and the ritualistic Islam that were taught to me.
Why? Because I enjoyed mosque kindergarten. People were nice to me, and we had lots of fun. We were taught Malay and English but were mostly instructed in English. At PAP kindergarten, we didn't get to play. But it was ok. I made some friends there, mostly Chinese. For a kid, if you had a friend, it was fine.
Malay students learning Japanese under occupation
But what made my time there least memorable was how I was discriminated as a non-Chinese speaker. Everyone was expected to take the same subjects. And even if you were a Malay or Indian, you had to learn Chinese. Other mother tongues were not offered yet because the resources were not yet available.
I couldn't understand a single thing in Chinese class. The teacher kept speaking Chinese! I sat at the back everytime she came in, and she often gave me the least attention. Perhaps, she didn't think Chinese was important to me. But I tried hard to absorb whatever was taught in class. I didn't care what the mother tongue was, passing was very important to me!
In my 2 years there, all I understood were the words "mouth" and "people", mostly because of the gestures and the occasional slip into English. I could write those words too and I was proud of it. But what I couldn't do was pass Chinese. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't because firstly, my Chinese friends spoke to me in English, and secondly but most importantly, my Chinese teacher did not give me the desired attention of a non-native Chinese speaker. So only knowing those 2 words, imagine how shocked I was when I arrived for school to take an exam. Apparently, even the words "exam" was instructed in Chinese, and I was hardly prepared.
Like the British, and the Japanese masters, this one Chinese teacher didn't know what to do with the Malay boy sitting by the window. She probably thought I was lazy for not studying hard enough, but I tried very hard to get along. I'm a Singaporean! Regardless of race and language remember?
Malays were given free education under the Japanese to prepare them for economic revival
Mum was mad at me for failing Chinese. Mum, a Malay lady, mad at me for failing a language I hardly spoke at the age of 5 or 6? I rebutted Mum, "It's not MY language!", only as a frustration of how difficult it was to pass the darn thing when my teacher did not make the effort to teach me well. I aced all other subjects, so don't tell me I was stupid or lazy!
And then, primary school came and I was introduced to the pledge. I already understood the national anthem. It was in Malay! I felt patriotic everytime I sang it, because I understood what it meant. This is my country, and I was singing my anthem in my language! In a way, I pitied my Chinese friends who struggled learning the anthem and could never quite get the words right. I was there before just a year ago, never understanding what was it I was asked to mouth during Chinese lessons. We were an anglicised society and my generation no longer had Malay as the lingua franca. We were asked to preserve our individual community's languages and customs, maintaining Malay as the only official language at the risk of it being used only for ceremony, whilst using English as a common tongue even though our former British masters had left us to our doom during the war.
The only thing that bonded us, that we often used as inspiration, was the pledge. It was the only thing we understood as One People. In a country where we sing Majulah Singapura, perhaps our disconnectedness from our anthem is a way for us to escape the realities of Singapore life. Maybe we could do better if "One United People, Regardless of Race, Language or Religion", meant that we embraced each other's cultures and languages, and treat them as part of our own. Have we surrendered too much of our heritage and our common sense for the sake of "progress and prosperity for our nation"?
Memories at Old Ford Factory. Where the British surrendered.
(End of Part 3)