Learning > Inspiration

Born in the 40s: Times were hard, and being able to study was a big deal

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Linette Lai on 27 Oct 2019

The Straits Times

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Seventy-one-year-old James Seah, who grew up in Bukit Ho Swee, vividly remembers the day his house burned to the ground in the famous squatter settlement blaze that claimed four lives and left thousands homeless.

 

The year was 1961. It was Hari Raya Haji and he was 13 years old. He was on his way home when he saw that a fire had broken out among the area's tightly clustered zinc and attap houses.

 

But his mother, who had lived through the Japanese Occupation, was always prepared for an emergency. Taking from their home a bundle of documents wrapped in a sarong, the family fled.

 

The blaze eventually consumed his childhood home as well as his first primary school, where Chinese was the medium of instruction.

 

Mr Seah spent several months in a relief centre before moving to a one-room emergency housing flat with a communal toilet, built by the Housing Board. All this happened months before he took the Primary School Leaving Examination.

 

"I was reading my books in the relief centre, saying to myself: 'Die, my exam is coming'," recalls Mr Seah.

 

The trajectory of his life is not unusual for those of his generation.

 

According to the Finance Ministry's report, he and his peers would have grown up in a "fragmented school landscape".

 

Few would go on to achieve more than secondary education.

 

Even now, a smaller proportion of people from that cohort own their own homes compared with those younger than them. Marriage rates in this group are also the highest.

 

Mr Seah says that he started work after completing his Cambridge School Certificate, the precursor to today's O-level examinations.

 

His first job was doing clerical work for the Health Ministry. He later went on to carve out a career for himself at the HDB, working his way up from cashier to financial supervisor over the course of 28 years.

 

Along the way, he got married, moved into a four-room flat in Clementi, and had two children.

 

"It's very common for young people to attend university these days," Mr Seah says. "In my time, studying until Secondary 4 was already a very big deal."

 

He adds that his former job as a cashier - collecting money from those applying for flats and bringing the cash to the bank - is now virtually obsolete as everything has been computerised.

 

Mr Seah, who now works as a dishwasher, feels that he grew up alongside the country. He is by and large happy with the progress that has been made, although he feels that hawker food is getting expensive and children's lives, less carefree.

 

"In the past, you could have lunch for 50 cents," he recalls. "Now, you need at least $5."

 

Parents also put a lot of pressure on their children to do well in school, he adds.

 

When asked if he has plans to retire soon, he replies: "I think it's important to keep myself active. And this way, I can earn some pocket money."

 

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

 

 

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