Time Travellers

My mum came from Malaysia in the late 60s, with little education. She met my father in Singapore and started a family. We were considered a low income family. To make ends meet, mum often had to pick up odd jobs to supplement dad's income. Later on, we also had to rent out one of our 2 bedrooms in our 3-room HDB flat. I was too young to remember if our whole family of 5 squeeze into the other bedroom or some of us slept in the living room. Still, we were considered the upper tier of the poorer people. I had many classmates with families of 6 or 7 living in one room flats in Meiling Street.

Before I was born, she worked as a waitress, a worker in an electronics factory nearby and also helped in grandma's temporary food stall at an industrial canteen. Later, she became a cleaning lady. When I was a little boy, I often had to follow mum to work because there wasn't anyone to take care of me at home. Mum once cleaned at a private apartment about a 30 minutes walk from home. It was still the same street name but the status of the owner and us were worlds apart. That was the first time I stepped into a non-HDB apartment. I couldn't forget how amazed I was to see carpets on the floor, how rooms were positioned for style over practicality and how lavished the decor of the place was. My time were spent running and hiding around my imaginary bases while mum toiled. To save money, we never took a bus to and fro. I often grumbled as we walked home in my sleepy stupor by the late afternoon.

Later on, Mum found a cleaning job in the Singapore American School. Again, the experience of walking through the school felt like I was magicked away to a faraway land. Every single thing in the school was different to anything in my world. Classrooms were linked, with no doors separated them. The furnishing was unsymmetrical, unlike every classroom in my Primary School. The playgrounds were unseen of and fascinated me to no end. On many occasions I found myself lingering outside one of the playgrounds, restraining myself in indulging lest I get mum into trouble. I wished someone would see me and tell me to have a go. By the time we left the job for another, I never stepped into one of those amazing playgrounds I knew I would never see again in my own Singapore realm. 

Later, my mum worked as a seamstress in a flatted factory in Sunset Way. That was where I had my first ever job in Singapore. I was about 9 years old then. I would spent most of my school holiday running around the factory areas, picking up discarded waste of other companies such as acrylic sheets or cardboard cores to make toys for my self entertainment. Later on the mum's employer asked me if I wanted to help out in the factory and I agreed. My job was to cut rolls after rolls of branding tags (used in garments) into small pieces as we see in our clothing and distribute to the many seamstresses working there. I was to do a daily log of how many pieces of tags I cut and submit to the boss every month for my pay. I was to be paid 1 cent for every tag I cut. It wasn't hard work, even for a young boy. Except for blisters forming at parts of my fingers in contact with the scissors, there wasn't a major problem about work. Still, it was hard work for the money. If you do the sums, for every 100 tags I cut, I make only $1. I would be lucky to do 1000 tags a day to earn $10 a day. Having said that, it wasn't that bad for a 9 year old. I can only blame myself for not being born glib else I might be able to make hundreds by being a door to door salesman or setting up an illegal lemonade stall, right under the nose of the (then) NEA HQ right across the canal.

12 hour shift, $900 a month, ok ?
The seamstresses, including mum, didn't earn a lot too. For their month worth of 12 hour shifts, their pay was around $800-$900 gross, taking home about $640 - $720* after CPF. (*though I can't remember the deduction % back then) Still, that was considered okay back then. Families survived on such income because a chicken rice meal was $1.50 and a feeder bus fee was just $0.30.

Ah, the fond memories of my first job. Unlike the seamstresses, my pay for my full month of school holiday work yielded me $150. Hey, hey! Not bad already. Some of you were still sucking lollies when you were 9, yeah?

This picture (left) that appeared on my FB news feed brought back my memories of working in a factory in Singapore. Later on in my earlier life, I picked up packing and assembling factory jobs. Production work isn't easy if you have some sanity in you, unless working repetitively rooted on the spot without much human interaction or breaks for the entire day is your cup of tea. I can accept that production drones cannot be paid handsomely or risk the company going bust. Having said that, is it perfectly fine to pay the production worker today a similar wage to a pioneer 3 decades ago? 

Recently I came across a well written, well delivered eulogy by Mr Li Shengwu for his late grandfather. Apparently it was so impressive that many Singaporeans were noted to hail young Mr Li as a "potential next PM of Singapore." So I watched his eulogy with interest to see what the hype was about. Indeed it was delivered with the level elegance which I could only dream of. What caught my attention though, was really this paragraph;

"Today Singapore is one of the most developed countries in the world. The Singapore economy has advanced more in fifty years than the American economy has advanced in 150 years. This is a pace of progress that's less like economic development, and more like time travel."
- Li Shengwu, 29 March 2015

Perhaps Singapore has indeed advance so rapidly that many of us can liken to time travelling, with an enviable skyline of concrete monuments to celebrate to. This is the evidence that every Singaporean cannot deny that progress has brought us so far, with no cost being too big for the net progress we are take pride in. But if you advance pass the fireworks, float across the intricately clad buildings, swoop down to some obscure industrial park that wouldn't be pinned on a national poster and get your feet down on earth again, try walking in one of these factories and watch the workers. These workers, thousands of your Singaporean brothers and sisters, part of your One People, One Nation, were left behind in your amazing great glass time elevator.


  1. Excellent piece time traveller! Singapore time travelled forward but Singaporeans time travelled backwards.

  2. More like the Lees (Lis) live in a world all their own - high up in the ivory towers. They are smug in their helicopter vision of a Singapore bereft of the daily blood, sweat, tears and toil that it takes the average Singaporeans to make this "pace of progress that's less like economic development, and more like time travel"!

    By the way, if not mistaken, Li Shengwu's oratorical skills were honed at university overseas.

  3. You reminded me of the time when, to make extra cash, mother brought home big plastic containers of small part components from a mechanical part company, where we as children were supposed to inspect the small parts each less than half a cm long, as quality control at home.

    Under poor lighting we did our best to get to do as much as possible at night, but it gave us a lot of head and we stop doing homework and ended up getting some ridiculously small amount of cash like $20 a month while it gave us double vision poor eyesight and headache

    That was in late 1980s for the whole family work ($20/month) and father said to stop doing it, he rather save money by packing all his lunch than to see his children not do any homework.

  4. Great article! I spent my childhood days in a kumpung lacking the modern comforts. No flush toilet. Bucket system where nightsoil carrier came onoce a week! We are still struggling with our daily life paying never ending bills but then it's still better than those kumpung days!