Learning > Inspiration

Ex-air stewardess still cannot shake off the travel bug

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series The Lives They Live.

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Rahimah Rashith on 30 May 2018

The Straits Times

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When a Malayan Airways plane landed at Paya Lebar Airport in 1964, air stewardess Susan Lye thought her duty was almost over.

 

She then looked through the first-class cabin window and saw a thick plume of smoke.

 

With no time to lose, Madam Lye, then 27, ran towards the exit in her high heels and guided passengers out of the plane.

 

"It was the most dramatic experience I had," she said, adding that a shaft from the aircraft had probably broken, causing smoke.

 

Amid the chaos, she saw a woman holding a baby, unable to run out of fear. Madam Lye grabbed the child and ran to safety, with the mother trailing behind.

 

"It was just adrenaline at the time. I did not even realise I had sprained my ankle. Thankfully there was no injury, except mine."

 

It was all in a day's work for Madam Lye, who returned for duty a couple of days later. The incident never dampened her spirit to fly. In fact, her love for travel only grew with time.

 

Despite her adventurous spirit, Madam Lye, now 80, almost never became a flight attendant.

 

THE LIVES THEY LIVE

 

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Born in 1937, she is the second of four daughters. After her parents died when she was 14, Madam Lye and her sisters moved into a three-storey house near Chinatown.

 

After school, she would spend her days swimming in the public pool behind their home. "A lifeguard was very kind. He taught me how to swim some strokes. I also learnt lifesaving," she said. "I wanted to be a lifeguard, but back then they didn't accept women."

 

In 1956, Madam Lye went to the teacher training college, but the lectures bored her. "I am not the kind to sit and listen to the lecture," she said. After a few job stints, including doing administration and being an assistant nurse, she applied to be an air stewardess in 1961. "I just wanted to travel," she said. "Beyond Malaysia, I never went out of the country before that."

 

Malayan Airways flights from Singapore to various parts of Malaya were short, but no less exhausting. "From Singapore, we would go to KL, Ipoh, Penang and come back to Singapore all in a day," she said.

 

"During lunch, we had to dish out hot soup from a pot for all the 28 passengers on board. In those days, air travel was for the elite."

 

Those were the pre-kebaya days, when flight attendants wore knee-length skirts and a buttoned shirt. "When we served the Sultan of Brunei, we wore a specific outfit, a gold kebaya to serve him," she recalled.

 

Later, donning the kebaya as a permanent uniform was a great source of pride for Madam Lye, who remembers it being beautifully tailored.

 

She also cherished the perks of her job, exploring the cities that she travelled to. By the mid-1960s, the rebranded Malaysia-Singapore Airlines was flying as far as Perth, Australia, twice a week. During the long-haul flights, the plane crew would spend three days in the country - often resting and sightseeing - before returning.

 

Madam Lye said she enjoyed spending time exploring the city and its shops on her own.

 

"It was very different from Singapore," she said. "It was my first time visiting a Western country and a different culture."

 

In 1968, Madam Lye hung up her kebaya after finding out that she was expecting her first child. But she could not shake off the travel bug. Two years later, she returned to the travel industry, this time receiving passengers from the airport as a tour guide. "I wanted to continue working in the travel industry. I love meeting new people and learning about new cultures," she said.

 

In 1970, Madam Lye worked for an agency, meeting tourists at the airport and taking them around Singapore attractions like the now-demolished House of Jade and bungalow Villa Saujana, where cultural dances and food were shared.

 

"I spent the whole day with them and told them about our country. I met a lot of Americans but also a good number of people from all over the world. I shared our country's stories and learnt about their beautiful countries," she said.

 

Madam Lye spent the next 25 over years showing tourists around the ever-changing Singapore on tour buses, trishaws and on foot. "Even though buildings and things changed around us, tourists were always fascinated by our heritage."

 

On some days, her schedule was so packed that Madam Lye had to work back-to-back shifts. "Sometimes I was on my feet for so many hours. And on some days, after sending the groups to the airport, I didn't go home. Instead, I waited for the next batch of tourists to arrive. Those were the crazy peak seasons."

 

Despite retiring in 1995, she has yet to lose her adventurous spirit. She is planning a holiday in Eastern Europe with friends. "There's so much to see and experience," she said. "I am just getting started."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.