Learning > Inspiration

Merdeka Generation: A Milo tin changed her life

Rahimah Rashith on 31 Jul 2019

The Straits Times


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While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of our Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.


A tin of Milo changed Ms Josephine Chia's life.


When she was seven years old, she spotted one outside a shop and, even though she knew what it was, it dawned on her that she could not read the words on it.


"That day, I felt like I had an awakening," said Ms Chia who, like many girls in Kampung Potong Pasir in 1958, had no education.


"I felt so stupid. I could not read it. The words looked like worms. So I started crying on the sandy ground in front of my house. It was a very significant turning point in my life."


She begged her mother, who was by her side, to send her to school - which, to a humble Peranakan household, was considered a luxury.


Ms Chia had only the bare necessities growing up. Her debt-collector father, housewife mother and seven siblings all lived in a small attap house near the Kallang River.


"We were very poor," she said.


"Some days, we could not even afford rice. We had to buy broken rice, which was used to feed the animals, like chicken."


Ms Chia, 68, is a member of the Merdeka Generation.


While her brothers attended a missionary boys' school, formal education was out of the question for poor kampung girls at that time.


Together with her mother, Ms Chia devised a plan to sell homemade nasi lemak to fellow villagers to fund her schooling.


"Nasi lemak was an 'open sesame' that sent me to school. After school every day, I would shout 'nasi lemak!' and sell the coconut rice for 10 cents per packet."


School was full of firsts for Ms Chia, from learning to read to using a toilet with a flush system.


"At home, our part of the village shared two toilets, which were called 'jamban' in Malay. Our toilet was basically a raised platform that had a hole," she said. "So when I was introduced to the lavatory in school, my jaw dropped."


"There were several sinks on one side and toilet cubicles on the other. I did not even know what to do inside the cubicle, so a senior student had to show me how to place my feet, relieve myself and pull the string to flush. I thought it was magic.


"I loved it so much that when I went back to the classroom, I kept putting my hands up to go back to the toilet all day. I was too excited."


Back in the classroom, Ms Chia fell in love with the English language. "I discovered I liked to read."


She often went to the school library to borrow English books so she could read to her two kampung friends who could not afford to attend school.


"Every weekend, the neighbours would meet," she said. "Our homes were a terrace of five houses next to each other. We would go up the sandy yard behind our homes to sit and talk for hours.


"My best friends Parvathi and Fatimah would sing and dance. And there was a guy called Karim who played the guitar. The other kids turned the pails upside-down to drum. It is one of the memories that I hold close to me."


Living in a kampung also had its downsides. Kampung Potong Pasir was prone to floods.


"Whenever the monsoon season (came), the water levels would rise," said Ms Chia, who remembers a particularly bad flood when she was 12.


"First, rain started pouring everywhere. Then, the water levels started rising. People started rushing everywhere to pick things off the floor and stack up furniture.


"The wind howled and the trees were hurling all kinds of fruits - durians, rambutans, coconuts - to the ground. It was dangerous.


"The water levels rose and the kampung was flooded for days. Those who lived closer to the river banks were evacuated to a school uphill and stayed there for a few days."


Ms Chia's house was inland and not so badly affected by the floods. She said: "My siblings and mother collected blankets and dry clothes and donated them to the victims."


In 1975, her family moved out of the kampung and into government quarters. By that time, Ms Chia had been working as a dental nurse for several years.


She had also earned enough from her job to study English and philosophy at university.


In the early 1980s, she moved to Britain to pursue a master's in creative writing. She returned to live in Singapore in 2012.


"As I grew older, I realised that I wanted to preserve my culture and memories in Singapore," she said. "And I felt that I could contribute to the literary scene here as a writer."


Over the years, Ms Chia has written several books. In 2014, her book, Kampong Spirit Gotong Royong: Life In Potong Pasir 1955 To 1965, won the Singapore Literature Prize for non-fiction.


As a storyteller, Ms Chia hopes to preserve the memories of Singapore for generations to come.


"After all, you can take a girl out of the kampung, but you can never erase the kampung memories out of the girl."


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



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