I know I’ve been a bit lazy when it comes to sequels, I still have yet to write ending parts of certain blog posts, but since it’s a new year, I think I should at least complete this series. You can read the first part here. And now to Part 2, once again in no order of significance.
26. Lee Kuan Yew’s word was ‘Law.’
Oh how current PM Lee Hsien Loong would wish for those days when Lee Kuan Yew was master of all he surveyed. Whatever he deigned inevitably came to pass, as JBJ once remarked -‘Parliament is the rubber-stamp of the PAP.’ Of course Parliament is still very much a rubber stamp today, but the key difference is that in those days, dissent was very swiftly dealt with. The ISD was very feared and many had the unfortunate experience of ‘getting to know them better.’ Would I consider writing a blog which criticises the Govt back in those days? No way, Hosea.
By the mid 80s, Lee Kuan Yew’s control over the Singapore political scene was complete.
Even the smallest dissent was likely to attract needless attention and for those organisations who were a thorn in the Govt’s side, well Parliament swiftly moved to curtail them. We had numerous newapapers then, all were forced to comply with the Printing Press Act. The Law Society was a nuisance, they were brought in line. Even the Courts had to undergo changes. Until 1986, the Privy Council of the UK was our highest court. However soon after it quashed JBJ’s convictions of impropriety relating to election laws and called for his reinstatement to Parliament, LKY moved an emergency sitting of Parliament, which removed their position in just 1 day. There was another similar Bill passed, I forget which, that also had its first reading, 2nd reading and passage, all in 1 sitting. Who says Parliament can’t be efficient!?
27. Lee Kuan Yew got ‘Lucky’ 3 times.
Fidel Castro is the longest serving ‘ruler’ in the world, he came to power with a New Year’s day coup in 1959. Guess who’s No 2? Yes, it our very own LKY. No doubt his powers are waning, but as mentioned above, he rose to a position of dominance and was unchallenged throughout his political life.
A beaming younger LKY smiles as his son (Hsien Loong) and daughter play with the family dog on the Istana grounds. He did not expect to last very long in those days.
But what’s not commonly known is that he got lucky, not once but 3x! He wasn’t expected to become PM, or even if he did, he certainly didn’t expect to last beyond 1 or 2 terms. The darling of the PAP in the 50s was Lim Chin Siong. He was the most popular, especially with the rural Chinese masses. LKY and Co were from the ‘English educated faction’ of the party, They were viewed with suspicion as such. The Labour Front won the first state elections in 1955, the PAP was just a small opposition, but under Lim, they grew in strength. Lim Yew Hock and not LKY successfully petitioned the British to grant full statehood in 1959, but he was given an ultimatum – deal with the growing Communist threat. That was political suicide – Lim Yew Hock was forced to jail Lim Chin Siong and the more vocal faction of the PAP, which left the path clear for LKY to take over the leadership. Still it wasn’t smooth sailing, he won by just 1 vote, Toh Chin Chye was just as popular.
Lim Chin Siong might have become PM, had he not been arrested twice before crucial elections in 1959 and 1963.
In 1959 elections, Lim Yew Hock was castigated as an outcast and a British ‘lackey’ for his actions, and the PAP swept to power. However, LKY had no choice but release political prisoners, and his party was once again facing a split. Some broke away to form the Barisan Socialis, which was seen as a very strong opposition and future Govt even. But LKY got his break in 1963, when the Tunku agreed to take Singapore into Malaysia. However he was already facing problems of his own with the Communist Party of Malaya, and he feared another long drawn out battle in Singapore with its Chinese majority. Now this part is murky, it depends whose version you wanna read, some say it’s the British, others say it’s Tunku and finally the others said, it’s LKY’s. Whoever it was, Operation Coldstore took place and all political dissidents including Lim Chin Siong were detained. The Barisan Socialis made a huge error in walking out of Parliament, and from then on the PAP faced no real opposition until the present day.
Twice Tunku Abdul Rahman decided LKY’s political fate. The first before merger when he insisted on Lim Chin Siong and Co being dealt with by the British and the second in 1965, when instead of arresting LKY, he allowed Singapore to breakaway.
LKY’s 3rd lucky break came in 1965. By then we were in Malaysia, but LKY continued to ruffle feathers with his ‘Malaysian Malaysia policy’ of meritocracy, much at odds with the affirmative action or ‘Bumiputera policy’ of the governing Alliance (pre-cursor to present day Barisan Nasional). LKY’s speeches in KL’s Parliament also made him a number of enemies. KL was worried that Singapore under the PAP would pose a grave challenge to security and racial harmony, and the possibility was raised of arresting and jailing LKY, under the same laws that were used to jail Lim Chin Siong and Co or to grant independence. The key was the Hong Lim by-elections in July 1965. Had the PAP lost, it was almost certain that LKY faced arrest, and there would be no independence. The seat was an opposition held seat but against the odds, Lee Khoon Choy triumphed rather convincingly, and this caused Tunku to realise that the PAP still enjoyed the support of the majority. Accordingly, he decided to kick Singapore out and our National Day was set as August 9th. Lee Kuan Yew became PM of an independent country and the rest is history.
28. 3 PAP Ministers were guilty of corruption, 1 committed suicide.
Obviously we’ve been brought up to believe that the PAP is ‘squeaky clean.’ To be fair compared to other countries that achieved independence during the same era, we cannot accuse the PAP or LKY of being corrupt. Other national leaders on achieving power went straight for the ‘money.’ They and their cronies got rich, just look at many African states and even some in South-East Asia. But LKY was smart, instead of going after the money, he realised it was more important to go after ‘power.’ It was important to ensure he and the PAP stayed in power no matter what, in order to pursue his vision. And again to be fair, he ensured that corruption was kept to a minimum and made the CPIB very powerful by placing it under the PMO and report directly to him. But this did not mean that he did not make errors of judgement. 3 of his Cabinet members over the years were themselves implicated in corruption scandals. You can read about them here.
The 3 were Wee Toon Boon, Phey Yew Kok and Teh Chiang Wan. Only Wee was jailed. Phey fled the country and escaped justice. But perhaps the biggest scandal was Teh’s, because he was a full Minister – National Development.
The Cheang Wan then National Development Minister was the 1st full Cabinet Minister to face a graft probe. He subsequently committed suicide.
In fact, LKY himself once praised him, saying he wished there were more men like him, not very well educated but through hard work, improved himself academically and professionally and rose to become a key Minister. But he took bribes of nearly a million dollars and was eventually found out and arrested by the CPIB in 1986. After being released, while charges were drawn up, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of drugs.
29. 2 Presidents died in office, 1 resigned.
Until 1993, all our Presidents were appointed by Parliament rather than through a plebiscite. The first was of course Yusoff b Ishak, who as Yang di Pertuan Negara (Governor-General), automatically became President upon our independence. The Presidency then was for life, unless Parliament removed them or they retired from office. However none of the first 3 retired. Yusoff Ishak died on 23rd November 1970, he was succeeded by Benjamin Sheares, who became President on this day (January 2nd), 1971 and died in office on 12th May 1981. In both cases we had a full State Funeral, and we experienced a new phenomenon – national mourning. Schools and Govt offices were closed as a mark of respect, the State Flag flew at half-mast and television/radio programmes were taken of the air and replaced with suitable mournful music.
President Dr Benjamin Henry Sheares’s tombstone at his grave at the Kranji Memorial Cemetery.
Devan Nair was chosen to replace Sheares, and he took office on 23rd October 1981. He became the first (and so far, only) President to resign his office (28th March 1985). Again reasons here are murky – he was proclaimed an alcoholic who disgraced his office by acting improperly both at home and abroad. That he took to drink is true, but another version has come out beyond the official one. Mr Nair himself rebutted that version writing in foreign journals – when he moved to Canada. Nair claimed he was drugged because he was disenchanted with the Govt. Some people who worked in the Istana at the time suggest that Nair actually did all of this on purpose, he was fed up with the way Singapore was governed and sought to embarrass the Govt by acting rashly.
Chengara Veetil Devan Nair was the first and to date only President to resign his office, on 28.3.1985
Whatever it is, Nair was replaced by Wee Kim Wee, who became the last President appointed by Parliament. The elected Presidency was created during his tenure, and he was the de facto 1st Elected President by virtue of his position. He became the first President to retire when he decided against contesting the first presidential elections in 1993.
30. Parliament Sittings were televised in full
The UK’s House of Commons brought in the TV cameras for the first time in the early 1980s. For the 1st time, Britons could watch the debates either ‘live’ or ‘delayed.’ The most keenly watched was of course PMQs – Prime Minister’s Question Time. Once a week, the PM (then Thatcher) would answer questions posed to her directly. We decided to follow suit and SBC (as TCS was then known) began showing debates in the House. Most of it was delayed telecast although some interesting ones were telecast live. But editing was kept to a minimum for the main debates, especially PMQs. For the 1st time ever, Singaporeans could watch their elected representatives in action on television.
J B Jeyaretnam after taking his oath at the opening of Parliament in 1985. His sharp and cutting remarks made for great theatre as Parliament sittings were televised for the first time in the 1980s.
And it was real ‘theatre.’ We finally had 2 opposition MPs – Chiam See Ting and JBJ, and between them they took on the might of the PAP. JBJ was really a thorn in the PAP’s flesh and many times he got the better of their MPs even Ministers. Only LKY it seemed could stand ‘toe to toe’ with him. JBJ was a wily operator and you could sense LKY’s anger in having to deal with his antics and questions. Sometimes he ‘won’ the exchanges, sometimes it was JBJ, and others you could call a draw. But the key thing was that for the first time, Singaporeans could understand the politics of the nation and make their own conclusions, rather than depend on heavily edited versions by the main stream media.
Alas this didn’t last, eventually SBC began cutting back on coverage, until finally what we now have – a short heavily edited snippet of the day’s debate. Naturally it tends to show PAP MP’s in a ‘better light’ – showing their rebuttals to arguments or proposals made by opposition MPs, and ignoring or heavily editing remarks made by opposition MPs. Let’s hope with SG50, we can return to those days, where Parliamentary debates are made available in full on national television. Since most of it occurs in the day where viewership is low, it can be shown on Okto. Those who want to, can watch or record it.
31. We had a Major Recession in 1980s.
We had somehow managed to get going on our own from 1965 onwards and was growing steadily until the mid-80s, when out of a sudden there was a major recession. No doubt there have been others since – the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the early 2000s (brought on by SARs and the Iraq/Afghan Wars) and the 2008 banking crisis, but we were more prepared for these than the first one in the 1980s.
A 1985 newspaper strip explaining the recession and what people needed to do.
The US economy was slowing down and the Japanese cutting back on foreign investment, culminating with the Wall Street crash of 1987. Singapore suffered during this time. Having a long term job was difficult to procure, even the Civil Service took a hit. Bonuses were held back, increments hard to come by, what more the private sector? Most people took to temporary or contract jobs. Fortunately in that era there were still quite a number of Japanese MNCs, many housewives were able to find factory jobs to help ease their husbands’ burden. But most of them were just short term contractual work. Singaporeans in general then were just happy to find work – any work. Eventually before the decade ended, things began to return to normal.
32. All Taxis were ‘yellow cabs.’
All registered taxis were yellow tops, until NTUC Comfort came onto the scene in 1970.
50 years ago, all taxis were privately owned or ‘yellow top taxis.’ And we had ‘pirate taxis’ – unregistered taxis or persons and groups forming their own taxis service. Turf wars were frequent, and charges were not streamlined. Finally in 1970, NTUC started their taxi service – Comfort Transportation with 1000 NTUC Comfort cabs. It has since grown to become Comfortdelgro – the 2nd largest transport operator win the world.
33. Basic things were cheap.
Of course we can’t compare living standards, but back in the 70s through to the mid-80s, $1 could go rather far. Minimum bus fares as mentioned were just 5cts, then 10cts, 15cts and around 20-35cts in the mid-80s. Taxis too did not have a flag down fare to begin with. I can’t recall when it started or what the amount was, I think it was 80cts. When I took my first cab ride, it was $1 for the flag down with 10cts increments. Hawker food was also cheap, 5cts and 10cts could get you a bowl of mee rebus or prata. Those days if you wanted an egg prata, you could bring your own egg and give to the hawker. The same with most other stalls, you could bring your own egg for your plate of ‘kway teow,’ ‘char bee hoon’ etc. School pocket money was 5cts too, gradually increasing to 10cts and so on. You were considered ‘rich’ if you got $1 pocket money. Heck even 50cts, made you the envy of your classmates.
34. First to ‘Bata’, then to school.
Bata not only opened a store at the Capitol building but had a factory here as well.
The name Bata was synonymous with school going those early post independence days. Bata opened its 1st store here in 1931 at the Capitol building in Stamford Road. It’s still there! Every school kid wanted to wear a Bata shoe. First of all it was ‘branded’ and secondly, it was more comfortable. To begin with most parents couldn’t afford to buy Bata shoes, so we had to make do with Chinese made ones. But we all secretly wished for the day our parents could buy us one. So come end of December, we all trooped happily down to Bata (they opened a few more branches) and were thrilled to have our 1st pair when school reopened after New Year’s Day. The Bata store at Capitol also had the distinction of being the first store in Singapore to have an escalator in its premises, when it completed its refurbishments in 1966.
35. Not everyone went to kindergarten, Primary 1 was a culture shock!
It’s pretty much the standard now – pre-school, nursery and kindergarten before we plunge into school life proper. In those days, going to kindergarten was a rarity. We went straight into Primary 1, with very little schooling in us. Of course since we were already 7 years old, some could read and write simple stuff. But many did not even know the basics, so lessons had to start from scratch. We had to learn the alphabet, how to add, subtract, then multiply and divide. We had to memorise our ‘times-table’ – we had to know the multiplications of 2 through 10 or 12, by heart. Calculators you say? Nope, we could use an abacus though.
Parents stand outside and at the back of classrooms as their children begin their first lessons in Primary 1.
Since many never attended school before, Primary 1 was a frightening experience for most of us. There we were stuck in unfamiliar surroundings, faced by a very stern teacher, who’d ask us questions on things we didn’t know. Obviously some kids would cry, so for the first few days, most schools allowed parents to stand outside the classroom, while lessons were going on. This helped calm most children down.
Most of us went to neighbourhood schools. But unlike today when neighbourhood primary schools tend to be within 1-2 km of your homes, those days neighbourhood schools were several kilometres away. Some were too far to walk to, so we had to take a bus. But generally, we tended to run to school and back. Everything we required/did, we ran. If we had to run an errand, we ran, when the bell rang for recess, we ran, when school was dismissed, we ran. Kids were much tougher then for sure. But there was a downside to running, especially if you lived in a kampong. Very often our running would stir the neighbourhood mongrels into action, and being chased by neighbourhood dogs was a rite of passage especially if you were a young boy below the age of 10.
37. We liked or were forced to fight.
This TCS drama entitled ‘Fighting Spiders’ depicts the ‘spider fighting’ that kids then used to indulge in.
Another rite of passage for boys then was ‘fighting.’ Older boys almost always bullied younger ones. So we had no choice but to fight from a very young age. Even amongst ourselves we fought, recess time was as much a time to settle a few scores, as it was to buy food. We also played ‘hantam bola,’ where a small rubber or tennis ball was used to hit someone. If you were strong and had a good technique, you could inflict a lot of pain on the back of your ‘opponent.’ Even if we didn’t fight, we liked to watch/create fights involving insects and fish. We would catch spiders, put it a match-box and challenge our friends. The same with ‘fighting fish.’ We’d keep our fish in a small bottle and some one would bring his and we’d place them together and watch them attack each other. In both games, the spider or fish that ‘ran away,’ was declared the loser.
Kite flying (or laying-layang) was a cheap and fun way for kids of all ages to occupy themselves.
Of course girls wouldn’t engage in such violent or rough games, they had more docile ones. I mentioned ‘chapteh’ earlier. Other common games were ‘5 stones,’ ‘musical chairs,’ playing with dolls and of course, the most common – ‘masak-masak’ (cooking). Good dolls in those days were expensive, so girls had to be content with plastic China made ones. Heck back in those days, most of our toys were China made. You were the envy of friends if you had a ‘US’ or ‘European’ made toy like a match-box car or train set. We had to improvise and be innovative. If we couldn’t afford to buy a kite, we made our own. Girls also flew kites then. And for ‘masak-masak,’ if they didn’t have a toy set, then they’d try and sneak a few of their mother’s pots and pans and pretend to cook for their friends. Games then involved a lot of make believe and role playing.
39. Family and adult games.
Mastermind was a popular family game in Singapore in the 1970s.
As we progressed, we were able to afford board games. And some of these the whole family joined in, because there was nothing else to do. TV shows only started in the evenings, so there was a void to fill in the afternoons. ‘Snakes and Ladders,’ ‘aeroplane chess’ and ‘dum’ (droughts) were the initial cheaper ones. Then came Monopoly, Scrabble, ‘pick up sticks,’ Mastermind and Snap. Other family games included ‘Old Maid’ and ‘Donkey’ or maybe ‘fishing’ and jigsaw puzzles. Rubik’s Cube hit Singapore in the early 80s, and this was a popular gift during Christmas then. I confess I’ve been unable to solve that. Of course there had to be adult games for the grown-ups. No, not that ‘adult games,’ but something along the lines of ‘mah-jong, ‘chap ji ki’ and other card games. These were usually small scale gambling to pass the time, although there were of course places where you could gamble illegally and for higher stakes.
40. Violent crimes were not uncommon.
Of course today, we still have violent crimes like murder, armed robbery or serious ones like house-breaking and vehicle theft. But it was far more rampant then than now. Kidnapping was a common worry for the rich. Either they or their kids could be held for ransom. Some of the early cases involved gun-totting kidnappers. If I’m not mistaken a scion of the Shaw family was kidnapped. CK Tang was also kidnapped. Ransoms in the hundreds of thousands were paid (a very princely sum then). Some victims were released but a few were killed. I believe in 1 particular case, the kidnappers used a great ruse, – they instructed the family to place the ransom in a dustbin along a road. Having done so, the Police waited to ambush the gang when they came to collect. Several hours passed with no action whatsoever. Finally they went to retrieve the money but found it was gone! The kidnappers had the dustbin placed over a manhole and cut a hole at the bottom of the bin to grab the loot from under the noses of the police and made good their escape via the drains below!
The disappearance of 2 school boys, Keh Chin Aun and Toh Hong Huat remains a mystery until today.
Another famous case involved the disappearance of Keh Chin Ann and Toh Hong Huat, both 12 year olds, who went missing after school and have yet to be found. McDonalds even offered a $100,000 reward for information to no avail. We also had shocking murders and robberies. The murder and rape of 2 young kids in 1981 by Adrian Lim and his 2 accomplices sent shock-waves across the island. People believed rumours that there was a ‘headhunter’ going round kidnapping and killing kids. Many parents escorted their kids to and from school for several months. Another unsolved crime was the murder of 4 children aged 5 to 10 in a Geylang Bahru flat in 1979.
A major crime that did not involve guns was the ‘1971 Gold Bar Murders,’ where a group of 10 men robbed businessman Ngo Cheng Poh of 120 gold bars and then proceeded to kill him and his 2 employees. This probably the last case where so many accused faced the death penalty in 1 trial. 7 were hanged including ring leader Andrew Chou, 2 escaped death because they were below 18, while another was detained under Section 55.
The Curry Murder of 1984 which came to light in 1987, shocked the whole nation.
The next major multiple accused murder case was the infamous ‘Curry Murder,’ that took place in December 1984, but only came to light in 1987. The Police learned through informants that a caretaker, A. Marimuthu was killed in 1984 at Orchard Road Presbyterian Church. His body was then cut into pieces and cooked into a ‘biryani meal.’ The bones and skulls were disposed off in garbage bags into bins at various places. 6 persons were arrested – his widow, her mother, her sister-in law and 3 brothers, 1 of whom was a butcher. After a short detention they were brought back to court, where the prosecution admitted it did not have enough evidence to prosecute. Only 1 of them confessed but without any other supporting evidence, the case had to be dropped. The 3 women were later released, while the 3 men were detained under Section 55 for almost 4 years before successfully challenging the detention orders.
Another major case was the 1983 Andrew Road Murder,’ where businessman Robert Tay, his wife and maid was robbed and killed by Sek Kim Wah, who was armed with an M-16 rifle. His accomplice spared the life of Mr Tay’s daughter and her tutor. Sek was also responsible of killing 2 others a month earlier at Seletar Reservoir.
Of course we’ve had more recent shocking murders – the ‘Body Parts and Hung Na’ murders, even the shooting of a money changer cum murder of a taxi driver and another ‘body parts’ murder by Briton John Martin, who was also believed to have committed a similar crime in Thailand and elsewhere.
We may not have an ‘FBI Top Ten Most Wanted’ list here, but the Police then had their hands full solving major crimes and bringing the crooks to justice. And some were very dangerous, even armed with guns. Tan Chian Lai aka ‘Hun Cher’ shot a watch dealer in 1970 before being cornered in a flat at Blk 64 Toa Payoh, where he turned the gun on himself. The Hassan brothers twice escaped from police custody and went on a shooting spree, robbing petrol stations and goldsmiths. The elder, Wahab escaped from Changi Prison, then joined his brother Mustapha on their 1 1/2 month campaign of terror in late 1972. They had a few run ins with the police, including 1 at Labrador Park, where a policeman and Mustapha were shot. Wahab escaped but engineered a daring rescue of Mustapha, who was warded under police guard at Outram Road Hospital (SGH). A policeman and taxi driver were held hostage as the duo made their getaway. They hid out at Aljuneid Madrasah and cemetery at Jalan Kubor, before being cornered by the police. Outnumbered and outgunned, they refused to be taken alive. Wahab shot his brother dead before shooting himself.
Most wanted and very elusive, notorious armed robber Lim Ban Lim eluded capture for 9 years before he was gunned down in 1972.
Just before this chapter ended at Jalan Kubor, the police finally managed to track down notorious gunman and probably the most wanted – Lim Ban Lim. He was on the run for 9 years, and amassed $2.5million from his spate of robberies. He had managed to elude the police by disguising himself. He was finally tracked down I’m told by an off-duty police detective who happened to patronise the same gambling den as Lim. Recognising Lim through the disguise, he alerted his superiors and a crack team from the then Police Tactical Unit cornered him at a Margaret Drive flat, where a gun battle ensued and he was killed.
Even the Police were not so lucky, they too lost a few men to these gunman. A shootout with Ng Ah Bai in 1973 saw a detective shot and killed. In 1978, NSman Lee Kim Lai who was on sentry duty at Mount Vernon (then home to Police Task Force II), was abducted into a taxi by a trio – Ong Chin Hock, Yeo Ching Boon and Ong Hwee Kuan. They had earlier killed the taxi driver, Chew Theng Hin. They wanted to rob Lee of his revolver and use it for a robbery. Lee was killed with his own gun. A massive manhunt followed in a bid to apprehend the culprits. One of the trio (I forget who) was overcome by guilt and surrendered to the police, thus leading to the arrest of the others. All 3 were hanged, if I’m not wrong.
Straits Times article on the Coroners Inquiry into the shooting death of notorious gunman Ah Huat.
Another long manhunt was for Lim Keng Peng aka ‘Ah Huat.’ In 1985, he had shot and killed a coffee-shop owner in River Valley, believed to be a ‘gun for hire killing.’ He escaped and little was known about him. It was very likely the police did not know of his identity. But Ah Huat believed they did, and he hid out in a rental house at Jalan Pelikat at Charlton Estate. He got into some trouble with his landlady who alleged he stole something from her. She then called the police. A pair of detectives from Toa Payoh division responded. They confronted him along Aroozoo Avenue and asked him to stop. Thinking they were after him for the earlier shooting, he turned around and shot 1 of them – Goh Ah Kia, dead and promptly fled. He would go on the run for almost 3 years, with the PTT led by ASP Stephen Koh tasked to confront him if and when he was cornered. I met ASP Koh later on after he retired and he described the encounters with Ah Huat. The police had traced him to an AMK flat, and ASP Koh and his team raced to the scene. But there was some delay before they decided to move in as information given suggested that there were 2 women in the flat as well. During this period, Ah Huat managed to give them the slip and it would take more than a year before he was traced to coffee-shop at Sunset Way.
A legend of his time. Long time Head of the Police Tactical Team – ASP Stephen Koh confronted and shot Ah Huat dead.
He would normally patronise a stall there at around 6.30am before going off to work. He was spotted by member of the public who recognised his wanted poster and the police were informed. ASP Koh led a team of officers in plain-clothes to stake out the coffee-shop. Ah Huat arrived carrying a sling bag and ordered his breakfast. That’s where ASP Koh moved in, guns drawn and ordered him to surrender after identifying themselves. Ah Huat attempted to get his gun from the bag and was promptly gunned down. In his long career, ASP Koh shot and killed 8 gunmen.
43. 3 actual cases of Terrorism in Singapore.
Now when we think of terrorism here, we think of Al-Qaeda and Jemayah Islamiyah or maybe the attempts by ISIS to recruit people from this region. And of course, Mas Selmat – the poster boy of terrorism in Singapore. But all of these were/are related to intelligence reports and arrests before any acts were committed. But in the past 50 years we actually had 3 terrorism acts in Singapore.
Straits Times headlines following the terrorist bombing at Macdonalds House in 1965.
The 1st was the March 1965 bombing of MacDonalds House at Orchard Road, where the Israeli, Australian and Japanese Embassies were situated. This was the period of ‘Konfrontasi’ where Sukarno’s Indonesian Govt opposed the formation of Malaysia. A campaign of sabotage was mounted throughout Malaysia and Singapore to spread panic. Some say the bombing was meant to target the Israeli Embassy, but this was just before independence, so I doubt the Embassy was there at the time, it certainly was later, but I doubt we recognised Israel then as we were part of Malaysia. The most probable reason was to create panic and target the Australian and Japanese embassies, making them withdraw from Singapore. 2 Indonesian marines – Usman Ali and Harun Said planted the bomb, which killed 3 persons (all Singaporeans) and injured 33 others. They were caught 4 days later, tried and later hanged in 1968 for their crime. 5 months after the bombing, Singapore separated from Malaysia and relations with Indonesia steadily improved especially when Suharto came to power.
A team of 13 officials led by future President S R Nathan escorted the terrorists back to the Middle East after they kept to their word and released the hostages. Hostage taking by Palestinian and Japanese Red Army members were a common feature in the 1970s, even KL suffered a similar fate in 1975, with similar results.
The next was the 1974 Laju Incident. 2 Palestinians from the PLFP and 2 Japanese from the Japanese Red Army (JRA), armed with machine guns and explosives attacked the Shell refinery at Pulau Bukom. Their attack was to punish Shell and other oil companies and highlight their cause. But their attack did not go as planned, their boat ran aground and although they shot at vehicles and people and managed to set off 3 of their explosives, they did not injure or kill anyone and caused little damage. In fact a few workers managed to flee during the attacks and raised the alarm. The terrorists fled to the jetty and hijacked the ferry – Laju and held its 5 crew, hostage. A high seas chase ensued and they were surrounded. A few tense days of negotiations took place, and they agreed to release the remaining 3 hostages (2 had escaped earlier by jumping into the water), in exchange for ‘guarantors’ taking their place and safe passage to Kuwait. The 4 terrorists were escorted to Marine Police HQ and transferred to Paya Lebar Airport where they boarded a JAL flight with 13 Singaporeans acting as guarantors. They were led by S R Nathan, the future President.
SQ 117 on the tarmac as passengers are evacuated following the end of their seizure by Pakistani hijackers.
The 3rd incident occurred on 26th March 1991, when 4 Pakistani nationals hijacked an SIA flight from KL to Singapore. Armed with kitchen knifes, they held the 129 passengers hostage. The plane landed at Changi at 2215hrs, and negotiations ensued. They demanded the release of Pakistani political detainees in Pakistan, including Benazir Bhutto’s husband and future President ,Asif Zardari. At 645hrs the next day they suddenly gave a 5 minutes deadline, and threatened to kill a passenger every 10 minutes if their demands were not met. However they had earlier released 2 flight stewards who alerted the authorities that they were unlikely to be armed with guns or explosives. A crack team from the Commando Unit stormed the plane just before the deadline expired and killed the 4 hijackers.
44. The Israelis helped train our ‘infant’ SAF
Then Defense Minister, Goh Keng Swee with an Israeli general in 1967, after the Israelis agreed to train the first batch of SAF soldiers.
Following independence and the subsequent decision of the British to pull-out of South-East Asia, the Govt realised it had to do something as there were only 1000 troops on the island mainly from the British Army. So NS was adopted in 1967, however they were unable to find assistance from any country to train their troops. So they contacted the Israelis, who agreed to help train the ‘infant’ SAF. The NS scheme was modelled after Israel’s own conscription. They provided instructors and expertise, and gradually the SAF was able to grow and become a professional unit.
45. Malays were initially exempted from NS.
Since NS started out as a program to grow the SAF, all recruits then went straight into the SAF. Malays were almost always exempted in the first 10 years of NS, before it was decided to expand NS to cover the Police and Civil Defense Force. Almost all Malays went to serve in these 2 branches from then on. But Malays were basically barred from serving in the SAF or holding key or senior positions. You’ve heard LKY say just as much, and here’s what his son, the current PM had to say then:
‘In 1987, Lee Hsien Loong (then Second Minister for Defence) stated that “If there is a conflict, if the SAF is called to defend the homeland, we do not want to put any of our soldiers in a difficult position where his emotions for the nation may be in conflict with his religion’ – Wikipedia extract.
However there’s been a gradual shift away from this and more Malays are being drafted into the SAF and some attain senior ranks if not positions. This is what Wikipedia also quotes SAF as stating:
‘The Ministry of Defence contests the charge, noting that there are “Malay pilots, commandos and air defence personnel” and stating that “the proportion of eligible and qualified Malays selected for specialist and officertraining is similar to the proportion for eligible non-Malays.”
46. NS was ‘legal torture’ and instructors were ‘sadists.’
If younger and present day recruits and servicemen complain about their training, especially the initial BMT, I wonder how they would have coped with what the pioneer batches had to endure.
As 1 old timer who served in the early 70s observed, ‘It was legal torture.’ Indeed the very first batches in the late 60s and early 70s had it the worst, since the Israelis were still advising and training them and their instructors. Training was especially tough and rigorous and there was no tolerance for indiscipline. Many young men came home after their weekly book-outs, actually crying. My brother was 1 of them.
Recruits performing exercises under the watchful gaze of instructors in the 1970s. It was sheer hell for many of them.
It did not get any better when the Israelis left, and the instructors all locals. They demanded unflinching respect and complete obedience. Even a platoon Corporal was feared, the Sgts treated like Kings and the officers – demi-gods. In fact they were ‘sadists.’ Yupp that’s the best word to describe them. They would find the smallest fault and punish the whole squad or platoon. Your boots had to be so shiny that they could see their teeth in the reflection, before they were satisfied. Many recruits spent their weekends at home, polishing their boots with ‘Kiwi polish’ under a flame for hours on end. If your Cpl or Sgt wasn’t satisfied they’ll make you redo until they were satisfied.
A must have for all NSmen back in the day. Many bought extra tins even, as they had to ensure their boots were shiny, or else they would be confined to barracks and unable to book out.
But being made to redo or re-polish wasn’t the least of your worries. In fact many would be glad with just such a punishment. No it was far worse, inspections were held frequently and anything amiss, be it your bed, locker, the barracks, whatever small fleck of dust, and you ‘had it.’ Recruits were made to do push-ups after push-ups. And no it wasn’t just drop 10 or 20, it was 50 or 100 and halfway through or when nearing completion, they’ll say you’re not doing it properly and had to start back from zero! ‘Semula’ or again was a dreaded word. Other punishments included being made to run or march under the blazing sun, woken up in the middle of the night for inspection and punished if you weren’t in formation fast enough. I suspect most of us performed close to 1000 push ups a day or more during our BMT.
And it didn’t get much better after you passed out from BMT. NSmen were frequently bullied by regulars, and forced to stay in or do guard duty for any small infringement your Cpl or Sgt weren’t happy about. And the sadism charge was confirmed to me by my brother in law who was a Sgt back then. He said if he was assigned to stay in to conduct trainings, prepare lessons or oversee guard duties, he wasn’t best pleased about it and certainly didn’t want to see the recruits and NSmen happily booking-out while he had to stay back. So he’d go find fault and get them to stay behind on confinement with him!
47. Blanket Parties and Sabo Kings.
Woe to you if you were weak, a nerd or as they say a ‘blur sotong,’ during BMT. Because your performance wasn’t up to scratch or you were slow, the instructors would revel in making an example out of you. Because of you, the whole platoon or squad would be punished or confined. Some more sadistic instructors might purposely not punish you, instead he’d punish everyone else while making you watch and stand as your mates had to do push-ups and other punishments. You’d be given a title – ‘Sabo King.’ And it’s worst if you’re a softie, a bookworm, nerd or just plain ‘blur,’ in a unit dominated by ‘Hokkien pengs.’ These were mainly dropouts from school and ruffians, even gang members. Being the odd one educationally, and with an opposite back ground, your failings under the rigorous training would make you very much hated – a real ‘Sabo King.’ And how did they deal with “Sabo Kings?’ ‘Blanket parties!’
OCS trainees in the past had to undergo POW training like the above entitled ‘evade and capture.’ This was controlled, but in many bunks recruits conducted their own ‘evade and capture’ exercises on ‘Sabo Kings.’
While you were sleeping, a few if not most of them will sneak up to your bed and use a blanket to cover your face, while 1 or 2 would pin you down. Then the rest would rain blows after blows on you. By the time it was over, you’d be dazed and bruised but unable to pinpoint the culprits. Some might even go so far as to squeeze toothpaste on your genitals, creatinga burning sensation or rub Kiwi polish all over you. To add insult to injury, your stuff would go missing. You might not have any toothpaste or soap left to shower. Your kit disappears and you get punished for it during inspection.
This form of bullying lasted for around the first 20-25 years of NS. Nowadays, instructors can no longer give you unlimited number of push-ups of physical punishment. And bullying is severely frowned upon, although minor bullying is usually ignored.
48. We had the Singapore Swing from 1988 to 1992.
A Sunday Times headline on the revelry of Swing Singapore in the late 1980s.
Forget “Zouk Out’ or other similar styled public parties. We had the real ‘big ones’ from 1988 to 1992. LKY of all people, came out with the idea, where almost the whole Orchard Road was closed on a Saturday night as part of the National Day celebrations. Organised initially by the SAF, the whole Orchard Road became a disco styled dance floor. Music was blasted by DJs perched on mobile cranes and temporary structures using a sophisticated sound and lighting system. People were literally dancing in the street!. It was a super fun event, and almost all our youths turned up. The first year had 250,000 attendees, and the numbers kept rising – 300,000 the next year to half a million in 1992.
Orchard Road packed to the rafters during Swing Singapore 1989. Almost 300,000 people partied through the night.
Alas it didn’t last. The Police complained of having to deal with fights, drunkenness and a spate of other crimes like theft and molest, while the SCDF had to deal with numerous cases relating to binge drinking and injuries sustained from falls and fights. Still it was great fun, and we were lucky to have been able to enjoy these rare events with our fellow Singaporeans.
49. We went “Campaign Crazy.’
Campaign Crazy. That’s how it was like in the 70s and 80s, with new Govt campaigns coming out every 2-3 months.
From the late 70s right through the 80s, we had a bout of ‘campaign craziness.’ To drum their message home, on whatever policy, the Govt introduced a campaign. And it went into over-drive. I mentioned the ‘Stop at 2 and Speak Mandarin campaigns,’ in Part 1, but there were plenty more. We had the ‘Use Your Hands campaign,’ ‘Wash your Hands campaign,’ ‘Productivity campaign,’ ‘Speak Good English campaign’, ‘Save water campaign,’ “Courtesy campaign,’ it just went on and on. Some were good of course, like ‘donating blood or organs,’ but after sometime it began to look a bit silly, as if we were all little children who needed to be guided by the Govt to do the right thing. Thankfully this spate of ‘propaganda and re-education’ has slowed down and used less frequently now.
50. We had the Kampong Spirit.
Since almost 80-90% of Singaporeans then lived in kampongs and villages, we ended up having a ‘kampong spirit’ of friendliness and co-operation. You had to depend on your neighbours at some stage then. It could be to bring your attention to certain important events, like water rationing, or get the more educated ones to explain any official letters you had, or it could be to keep an eye on your kids or help you install stuff in your homes. It brought all races together. It didn’t matter whether your village was dominated by a particular race, you lived in harmony with everyone. Your religious and cultural festivals were warmly celebrated by everyone and your ‘excessive and sometimes noisy’ celebrations was tolerated with understanding. And since most could not afford to buy you gifts, we gave you some of our special food or snacks. The Chinese might give you sweets and crackers during CNY, the Malays gave you home made ‘dodol’ and kueh during Hari Raya, while the Indians gave you their ‘Murukku’ and some curry during Deepavali. But we wouldn’t just return your trays or pot empty. Those who could afford it gave some ‘hongbao’ for your kids, but generally we gave some staples like rice or sugar.
Now we must have events and be told to have the ‘Kampong Spirit.’ In the past, it was a way of life.
Then when we moved into our new flats, most of this carried over. We’d welcome a new neighbour and introduce ourselves. Our mothers would hang out with each other and have harmless chit-chat about their kids, or share some secret recipes. We even gave our neighbours our house keys, to pass to our other returning family members, because it wasn’t easy or even possible to duplicate keys then. We knew most neighbours in our block of flats. And our friends were kids from the same or neighbouring blocks. We shared the same playgrounds and got to know each other. Most went to the same schools.
Even after we moved into flats in the 80s, we retained the spirit and gathered at void decks and community centres to watch TV shows. I guess it was easier to have the spirit when you’re not rich or have the means to buy luxuries.
Sad to say, as our kids grew up and moved into new flats and new housing estates, this kampong spirit has disappeared, or is the exception rather than the rule. We hardly know our neighbours now, we hardly greet our neighbours at the void decks or in lifts, because we don’t know anything about them. A few old men and women might gather under the block and chit-chat, but most of us live in isolation. We might know only what our immediate next door neighbours look like, but many are not on speaking terms or at most, just the casual ‘hellos.’ So these are among the chief things we did back then and it appears to have died or is slowly dying, as reach 50 years.
So this concludes my series of 50 things we did, experienced and witnessed from the past. It brought back a flood of memories from yester-year, most of it good and will be sorely missed. Some like bad policies, corrupt officials and heavy handed governing, we hope to see eliminated totally as we move into the next 50 years. I hope many of you will also pause and reflect on the past, even if it’s just for the memories. Hopefully we preserve some of the things we did in the past 50 years, so that when our children or grandchildren look back at our 100th anniversary, they too will have fond memories of living and growing up in Singapore. In closing I hope that all of you will have a great 2015 and enjoy being Singaporean as we celebrate our Golden Jubilee.
As we mark our Golden Jubilee and celebrate SG 50, let’s not forget or lose sight of the things that brought us where we are today. Have a great SG 50 year ahead.