I don’t remember his name. I don’t think he ever told me. But our conversation was very interesting, and it stuck in my mind for quite some time. He was telling me about his profession: Seahorse breeding for pharmaceutical purposes. Being from Europe, I didn’t know much about any of that, so I simply listened as he told me passionately about how it worked. When he asked where I was from, I replied, “Germany.” He proceeded to tell me how Germany would benefit from the use of seahorses in medicine. I agreed, because I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Now aware that I was German, he continued by asking me about the state of the country, given the refugee crisis and all. He showed great understanding of the situation, and seemed very interested in hearing about my perspective, since it was my home that was being impacted. My partner and I attempted to focus the conversation on him again, but his interest in Germany, unfortunately, was too great. What made this conversation stick in my mind, however, was when after we left, I didn’t just see the world differently —now full of seahorses and secret businesses— I saw the quiet faces around me on the MRT and in the hawker centres differently too. They were all full of stories.
The excerpt above is written by Helena, a student-volunteer at Memoirs of the Pioneer Generation: a new student-led service initiative where selected high school students interview Singaporean senior citizens to capture their oral history. Students start by building relationships with the residents of elderly homes, visiting them on a weekly basis. While engaging in friendly games and discussions, students jot down the thoughts and experiences of the residents. The collection of scribbles eventually transform into stories that are typed, edited and formatted by the students, and then published on social media as well as on physical posters for the walls of the elderly homes.
The purpose of this local service was originally to include residents of elderly homes in the SG50 celebrations by making them feel proud of their contributions to Singapore. At the same time, the service also aimed to provide residents with mental stimulation and help the residents learn more about each other.
According to Ryan Wimalasena, a founding member of the service, the senior citizens aren’t the only ones who have benefited: “Playing Jenga and checkers may be good for the older residents, but I know that it’s helped me, too. I don’t have access to my grandparents or their generation because I’m living abroad. I live in a world of students my age. This service changed that for me. I also feel more confident about interviews —both as a subject and as an interviewer.”
Mr. Rajah: The Self-Made Man
Mr. Rajah left home at the age of 6 to stay in a catholic boarding school in Sabah, East Malaysia. This was an incredible shock for us, and one of the first of many surprises to come. At that age, we realised, we wouldn’t have even been able to feed ourselves. Living alone away from family was simply unimaginable. We asked him why he went at such an early age. He responded casually, saying, “It was because of my father’s job. He used to work on rubber plantations. The rubber estates were only accessible by road, so it was very isolated. There were mountains and hills separating us, and it was a long way to school by walk. It was better to stay in one place then move everyday.”
Not only was Mr. Rajah at a boarding school from a very young age, but he also had to experience life during war at a vulnerable age. World War 2 hit Singapore before Mr. Rajah entered high school. There is no doubt about the impact this would have had on his education. With his eyes beginning to water, Mr. Rajah mumbled, “The British thought they were invincible. But . . . Mr. Rajah proceeded to talk about his life during the Malayan emergency. There were times, he remembered, when the insurgents used to shout, “give us food or we shoot you.” Mr. Rajah would have little choice but to obey their commands. He was often hungry.
Despite his difficult childhood, he completed his education and became a teacher. Though he loved his job, he eventually made a dramatic career shift and became a trader. Not just any ordinary trader, but an extremely successful one. Talking about how trading has evolved since his days, Mr. Rajah said, “At that time you could buy shares for a few cents, even quarter cents, but today it is more risky. People buy and sell very quickly; they want to make money quickly. I made $300,000 but then the oil crisis hit. I knew I should have sold them but I held on and in the end I was left with $200,000 only.”
Interviewed by Shreyam Misra
[translated from Mandarin] “I was never married; I’ve always been single. I’ve always kept to myself, just like how I keep to myself in here. The nurses here, they’re all very nice and caring. My sister sometimes visits to bring me blankets, towels, and clothes. She always calls to ask me to move back with her, but I don’t want to be a burden. Can you see my eyes? I can’t really see you. That’s why I can’t play these puzzles. I can’t hear you either; the doctor told me to eat medicine and come to this elderly home to take care of my body. He also gave me two hearing aids, one for each of my ears, but they really hurt my ears sometimes. I wasn’t always like this – but one day I just had a really bad fall. Please promise me that you’ll stay safe. Slipping and falling, especially the way I did… sometimes, it makes such a terrible change to your life. The doctor said that I had hurt my spine and that’s why my eyesight, hearing, and movement are now restricted. Sometimes when the nurses ask me to do my physiotherapy session, I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m glad you’re young. Young people inspire me. I remember when I was young and energetic. I went out to work as an accountant as soon as I could, so I could help take care of my family. But now that I can’t move, see, or hear properly, now that I’m in here, I don’t really feel a purpose. Now my only wish is that I can pass away quietly, painlessly, so that I won’t be a burden to my sister anymore. We’re the only two left, you know. I just don’t want her to worry about me anymore.”
Interviewed by: Michelle Tay
Mr. Zhen Ya Li: Blurred Emotions
‘I wake up everyday at 4 am just to eat a cup of noodles.’ I met Mr. Zhen Ya Li last year, and I have been building a relationship with him ever since. He has lived in St. John’s home for 16 years now. Every time I visit him, he is always watching singing competitions on TV alongside his friends. Even though he is going blind, he still laughs as I talk to him, and still dances along with the music while seated in his chair. Sometimes I worry that he won’t recognise who I am, but at the beginning of every session as I walk by, he waves and says my name. It brings a smile to my face as we talk; he reminds me of my grandfather.
One afternoon, he talked to me about the Japanese colonization and how the Japanese soldiers killed his parents and his sisters cruelly. Sharing this, his eyes began to water. He was angry at the British, (who had colonized Singapore at that time) for they “ran away” soon after the Japanese soldiers landed. He kept on saying that when the British controlled Singapore, he could at least live a basic life. When the Japanese came, they changed everything. They killed people ruthlessly. He then said with a firm tone that the Japanese soldiers and government should regret their actions toward the comfort women (sex slaves) in China, Korea and South-East Asia, and apologize to them sincerely. I had never seen him in this light before. Going through such a drastic change of emotions with him made me connect with him at another level, as if we had known each other for years.
After hearing the stories of the pioneer generation, we were reminded of the importance of keeping world peace. War is something we really hope we never experience ourselves. On a more positive note, our eyes were also opened to the great distance Singapore has come in its 50 years of independence. It is a true example of how good leadership can make such a big difference in the lives of so many.