Their Kampung Stories: “I went swimming before O levels”

Reuelwrites speaks to his mother to get a sense of what life was like living in a kampung.

Have you ever wonder what life was like for your parents and grandparents? Life before the comfortable HDB flat, condominium apartment or landed property which we call home? Life in 1960s Singapore when futures were uncertain and people lived in kampungs? Often, the people who can give us a snapshot of the stories and sentiments from that forgotten era are none other than the people closest to us – our parents, elders and grandparents. Inspired by Singaporean director Jack Neo’s latest movie ‘Long, Long Time Ago’, I asked my mother about life back in the kampung.

This article is the result of the interactions with my mom. The story in itself was hilarious and shocking for me. Before they became our parents, uncles, aunts, or grandparents all strict and orderly, they might have lived a different life not unlike how we lived ours.

What are the stories of your parents and/or grandparents? Speak to them, emphasise with them, and document their stories on your Instagram with #theirkampungstories. RW



RW: What did your parents (my grandparents) work as back when they were living in a kampung?

JN: My father was a taxi driver while my mother reared pigs, chickens and other farm animals. I lived in a kampung with my parents, two elder brothers, two elder sisters, and a younger brother. Life was tough, especially for my mother. She worked 3 to 4 jobs to supplement the household income. I was the youngest daughter and I was always helping my mother with everything. We grew durians and rambutans, we went fishing for prawns and crabs, we sticked the ‘gold’ on incense papers, and we peeled the feathers off ducks (for duck owners), all so that we can make more money – however little they may be – for the household.

It was dangerous for her to go fishing alone, so I decided to go with her. We had to transverse through the mud and all at night. As for the incense papers, they were also so smelly and dusty – I had to tie a cloth around my face to block out the dust. The payment for the incense job was only $0.30 per stack. In those days, the duck owners will pay us some money for helping them de-feather their ducks so that they can be sold. I helped my mom with that too.  

I did so many things when I was young. I even went picking durians and rambutans with my mother while everyone was sleeping in the middle of the night.


RW: Wasn’t it dangerous to do so at night?

JN: It was. Besides worrying that we might get hit by falling durians, there were also snakes. But it was also the best time to collect them (the fruits ripen and detach themselves from the trees at night). If we didn’t pick them, other people might trespass and steal them in the dead of the night. There was once, my mother wanted to leap from one tree to another to pick the rambutan. She fell off the tree instead and was immobilised. I had to go get help from my father.

RW: Why didn’t the other siblings help out?

JN: My sisters dislike all these work because they are dirty! I couldn’t bear to see my mom suffering so I helped her with everything. I also fed the pigs and chickens. It was a scary experience killing the chickens! And my 2nd sister practically did nothing! But my mom doted on her, I don’t know why. To my elder sister’s credit, she did cook and do the laundry. I didn’t do any of those!

RW: Did your parents (my grandparents) favour boys more than girls?

JN: Just a little.


RW: Did the 1969 floods affect your kampung?

JN: Yup, but we weren’t as affected as other villages.

RW: Did your mother (my grandmother) discipline (read: cane) you a lot?

JN: Mother used to hit me a lot! I was very naughty. I always ran out of the house to have fun with my friends. I also skipped school at times. On Saturdays, I would tell my mom that we have classes when there wasn’t any – so that I need not stay home and help with the chores. But we would go ‘gai gai’ at Beauty World. We would watch movies too.

The day before my O level exams, I went swimming at the beach in Sembawang Park – without any change of clothes! We were soaking wet after that. Ironically, I had the highest qualification (O levels) amongst all my siblings. They didn’t complete their secondary education, they didn’t like to study.

RW: Were you from an all-girls school?

JN: Mixed school.

RW: Did any of the guys tried to date you out?

JN: Of course they did! (Laughs).

Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow – Experience 170 years of Singapore History

Come witness Singapore’s defining moments as told through articles, headlines and photographs that made Straits Times headlines since 1845.

2015 is a special year in that it not only marks Singapore’s Golden Jubilee, but also The Straits Times’ 170th anniversary since its first publication in July 15, 1845. STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow is an exhibition put up by the State’s main English daily that looks back at the headline-grabbing victories and struggles that rocked the country while contemplating her present and future. The exhibition runs till October 4, 2015 (see other event listings here).

Ask anyone how they feel about The Straits Times and you will probably get a varied response like “Propaganda lor“, “Garment’s mouthpiece la” or “My daily essential” (it’s mine at least – I read the news faithfully everyday). But beyond what we think or feel, I would say that The Straits Times and its 170-year-old archive of photos and stories is every bit an irreplaceable piece of Singapore’s history, culture and art, in a sense. Quote The Monuments Men.IMG_0961

“You can wipe out an entire generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and that’s exactly what we are fighting for.”
– Frank Stokes (George Clooney), The Monuments Men (2014)

The exhibition is categorised into six themes; Business, World, Home, Sport, Life and Forum which mirrors The Straits Times’ current core segments. As a writer and journalist of sorts, needless to say I was really looking forward to the exhibition. And I was not disappointed.

In the beginning… IMG_0964 Did you know that The Straits Times was first launched as a weekly and its founder-owner was Catchick Moses, an Armenian? The Armenians also built the Armenian Church, the first Church in Singapore.

Dedication to Growth and Progress

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Are you ready to know your country’s history? All throughout the exhibition, I was amazed by the stories and photos of Singapore that I never knew of. For instance, Singapore was always ahead of her competition in trade and commerce since the 1800s. Did you know that our Government was so aggressive in pushing for foreign investment and development that back in 1969, $6 million Texas Instruments Plant was set up in the Kallang Basin Industrial Estate in just 50 days? How amazing is that. Such is Singapore’s efficiency and fervent endeavour to bring in foreign investments into this tiny island country.

Opportunities to Succeed

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This dorky-spectacled guy is Sim Wong Hoo, founder of Creative Technologies and one of Singapore’s richest man at present. The country’s push for technological development in the 80s created opportunities for Singaporean entrepreneurs such as Sim to make his multi-millions.

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I mentioned in my previous article that one of the best ways to truly enjoy and appreciate an exhibition is to join the curator tours (if any). The two curators leading the curator tours are Straits Times correspondent Huang Lijie and ArtScience Museum project manager Julia Vasko. How fortunate was I to have made it for Vasko’s tour.

I found it rather amusing that an ‘ang-moh’ is giving the mostly Singaporean crowd a tour of the exhibition. Not to take away any credit from her, her ample knowledge that was the result of countless hours of research shined through, helping us Singaporeans know our Singapore better (Laughs). I also like it that she use the possessive adjective ‘Our’ instead of ‘Their’ or ‘Your’. That showed how Singapore has done a pretty good job in attracting talented individuals to make a home in Singapore.

Personally, I thought that she looked a lot like Natalie Dormer’s Cressida in The Hunger Games (Margery Tyrell in Game of Thrones). She even looked in my direction for this photo! I think I’m in love, she has left me spellbound. Just kidding. Or am I?

Moving on, Straits Times also saw the citizens through their transition from attap houses and villages to modern HDB flats. IMG_0980IMG_0983 It may be hard to imagine now but there was a time Singaporeans were extremely opposed to living in HDB flats, preferring to stay in their attap houses because of inconvenience in moving house, rent, etc.

Children and Education

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Back in the old days, children are conceived for the purpose of helping the family with work and household chores. Education was never a primary priority. But when that was deprived of them during World War II, the end of the war saw many children, and even women clamouring for a spot in schools in a bid to catch up with their education. Back then, it goes against social norms for women to be educated.

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It is unheard of now but back in the 1960s, brushing was not common among Singaporeans. In fact, many did not even own a toothbrush. The Ministry of Health stepped in, enforcing daily mandatory toothbrushing drills in schools. I overheard quite a few adults like the lady in this picture reminiscing and recounting those moments to their children (Laughs).

Transport, a contentious topic since 1960s

IMG_0991 Complaints has spurred the public transport industry to do better in the past, and possibly till this day (Laughs). Back then, buses were so crowded, ‘people-packers’ were hired to push people into buses.

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Two Taiwanese at the exhibition. The exhibition’s opening weekend was a big hit with both the locals and foreigners.

Rethinking about Singapore’s ‘Allies’

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Who could have thought that neighbouring country Indonesia would be so upset about the Malaysia-Singapore merger that they would be the mastermind behind some 80 bomb attacks in the country?

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Despite the tensions, Singapore’s boot out of Malaysia was sudden and swift. Late prime minister Tengku Abdul Rahman initiated the separation and spoke out on sponsoring Singapore’s admission into the United Nations, perhaps as a form of pity and restitution. I wonder will he jump out of the grave if he saw the state of his country and Singapore’s today?

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The separation meant that Singapore needed to quickly form new alliances. Envoys were quickly named and send to the various organisations to forge an understanding and alliances to secure Singapore’s future which looked bleak back then. Diplomacy was on the mind of the Government at all times, and it paid off.

As I scan through every headline and every photograph in the exhibition, I had a sudden realisation that most of the people in those stories are either in their twilight years or are no longer.

All in the photos and stories strived towards the Singaporean dream and in hindsight, who could have thought that their stories will be exhibited for the next generations to study and appreciate? Morality versus Legacy. And one day, we will no longer be and ours will be exhibited for the next generation as well. All that made the exhibition that much poignant and profound.

Fusion Fashion IMG_1047 A young and volatile nation, Singapore is constantly trying to grasp her identity on what it means to be Singaporean. One of which being the national costume. In the picture, you will find a dress of sorts; a combination from the cultures of the three main races in Singapore. Question: Would any of you ladies wear this out?

Sports that Brought People Together

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Dragonboating, sailing and kayaking may be popular with Singaporeans but did you know that its predecessor pulled in massive crowds back during its heyday? I mean, a tub race! How funny and exciting is that! (Can some water sports enthusiast bring this sport back?)

Hawkers and CoffeeshopsIMG_1040 While an integral part of Singapore’s culture, hawkers in the 1960s congested roads and caused hygiene concerns. The Government took on the mammoth task to relocate hawkers to permanent and hygienic premises. IMG_1057 You want Kopi (Coffee)? Or Kopi Siu Dai (Coffee less sweet)? Or Tak Kiu (Milo)? Watch this humourous video on coffeeshop culture and learn the different terminologies to ordering your preferred beverage at a coffeeshop.

Looking into the Future

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A future with Robocop, Chappie, iRobot, Wall-E (and hopefully no Terminator) is real.

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Contemplating our future. #BuildSG2065 is a campaign by The Straits Times and real estate company CapitaLand that showcases ideas contributed by the public on how Singapore’s future buildings, homes and green spaces will transform the way people live, work and play. The contributors both young and old are actually quite creative. One kiddo envisioned a lunar lift that takes us to the moon for a holiday while a mother envisioned baby cries powering homes and electrical appliances. Very clever.

All in all, I really enjoyed the exhibition. So much that I actually read through every headline and caption in the exhibition (which explains why I spent 4 hours there). Except for a few grammar and typo errors in the texts, the exhibition is perfect in every sense. I like that the exhibition was dissected into categories instead of the usual walk-through-the-timeline.

While curator tours were only available during the opening weekend, you can still join a guided tour by one of the qualified docents or participate in a a letterpressing and typesetting workshop (details at the end of this article).

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There are many interactive exhibits that will keep the kids entertained. I also saw many elderly Singaporeans enjoying themselves as they reminisce of the good old days. It’s guaranteed to be an fun exhibition for the entire family, young or old, local or foreigner.

Each headline, article and photograph was representative of Singapore in that particular time period. Put these pieces and you will find Singapore as she is today, both the good and the not so good. The exhibition was very informative, introspective and well-curated. All that remains is for Singaporeans to pursue our future and dreams, bringing Singapore forward as we look ahead to the next 50 years. RW

Printing from the Past: Letterpress and Typesetting

Saturday, 18 July, 2-3pm
15 August and 9 September, 3.30pm-4.30pm and 5-6pm

Limited to 12pax per session This hands-on workshop provides an introduction to letterpress printing and basic typesetting, introducing tools of the trade and the basics of typography. Participants will learn the stages of typesetting, including layout, lockup, make-ready, ink & colour and packing, and will also get the chance to operate the press, printing their own card in letterpress metal types. S$15 per person. Purchase tickets from Sistic.

Public Guided Tour

Exhibition Entrance

  • English: Sundays from 26 July 2015, 11:30am
  • Mandarin: Saturdays & Sundays from 25 July 2015, 2pm. Friday & Monday, 7 & 10 August 2015, 2pm (SG50 & National Day)

Learn the stories behind the headlines in this revealing tour of Straits Times front pages, spanning 170 years of Singapore history.

Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow

ArtScience Museum Opens 17 July to 4 October 2015

The fascinating and multi-layered stories of Singapore will be told through the lens of the nation’s oldest newspaper The Straits Times, in an upcoming free exhibition Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow. Drawing from the archives of the publication’s 170 years of covering the Republic’s growth, the exhibition will feature hundreds of images and headlines depicting pivotal milestones in Singapore since the newspaper’s launch in 1845 – some 120 years before the nation’s independence – with an eye cast on its future.

Ticket Pricing: Free

Web Link: Singapore STories: Then, Now, Tomorrow

Imaginarium: A Fun-filled Art Exhibition for You and Your Kids

“CANDY HOUSE~~~~~!!!” shrieked an excited young girl when she saw the fabled stuff of legends; a real life ‘Candy house’. The mixed media installation titled ‘Dream House’ is a work by South Korean artist, Lee Jeeyoung and part of a greater exhibition collective, Imaginarium: A Voyage of Big Ideas.

A contemporary art exhibition centered around children (and the young at heart) as their main target audiences, Imaginarium: A Voyage of Big Ideas invites adventurers, dreamers, sojourners and today’s young explorers on a journey of self-discovery.

Imaginarium is the new edition of SAM’s much-loved annual contemporary art exhibition for children, begun in 2010 and now in its fifth year. In the spirit of SG50, this year’s exhibition is inspired by the crescent moon on the Singapore flag, a symbol of a young nation on the rise with the capacity to dream big and think large. What might we be able to envision and aspire to? What worlds could we imagine for ourselves and create for others?

– Singapore Art Museum


Create your own work of art. The embroidery installation is the brainchild of talented Singaporean artist, Izziyana Suhaimi. Using embroidery as meaningful way of expressing creativity, the installation invites visitors both adults and children to get their hands on creating their own works of art. Over time, the artwork occupies a space on the installation, adding to the installation’s tapestry of dreams and weaving together the makers’ shared future.


Plant your own desire and let it grow. Visitors, both adult and child are invited to take a candy – symbolic of one’s wishes and desires for the future – from the Dream House and plant it in the adjacent garden. With every candy planted, the garden takes shape, eventually transforming into a garden in full bloom and shared dreams.


Find a spot and watch local short films and international feature films together with your family and friends.


Doodles from Singapore’s folklore by the ‘Band of Doodlers’ fill the walls of the 4-storey SAM 8HQ stairwell. Parents, look closer. You might recognise a few of these doodles from your childhood days.

Other exhibits include Chang Yu Xiang’s We Built this Estate!, Vincent Twardzik Ching’s Greenroom II: Interstellar Overdrive, Takashi Kuribayashi’s Trees, and Kumkum Fernando’s Kiko’s Secrets. Other activities include educators’ tour and talks, keeping yourself occupied in a ‘moonroom’, activity sheets for both children and adults, and more.


While not exactly the type of exhibition that will satisfy the curiosity and inquisitiveness of adults, Imaginarium promises to be a fun-filled museum experience for parents and their children. Overall, the exhibitions gives children the opportunity to experience art in an interactive way, and adults to reminisce on past dreams and aspirations. I would like to think that the exhibits establishes in our children – and invokes in the adults – a sense of hope and optimism of one’s future, something all our children and we ourselves can do more of.

Imaginarium: A Voyage of Big Ideas is one of two exhibitions put together by the Singapore Art Museum. Locals get complimentary access to both exhibitions (please bring your identity card) while foreigners pay a nominal $10 entry fee for both exhibitions.

Imaginarium: A Voyage of Big IdeasImaginarium

Singapore Art Museum

Now showing until 19 July 2015

Ticket Pricing: $10 / Free (local)

Exhibition eBrochure: Imaginarium: A Voyage of Big Ideas