Singapore – Colonial Memories

I had the curious experience of living in Singapore while it was still a British Colony… Here are some of my memories of that time

Back in the late 40’s and early 50’s of the last century, we lived in Singapore, which in those far off days , was of course, still a British Colony, which in the case of the Malayan peninsular (what is now called Malaysia) meant it was ruled to Britain’s advantage by lower middle class Brits, and in the case of Singapore (which was still part of Malaya), we Brits pretended to rule it, but it was in fact ruled, as now, by the Chinese.

It was a strange place to live in back then, an atmosphere of suffocating Petit Bourgeois attitudes, tremendous racialism – the poor old Indians being at the bottom of that particular heap, a very unpleasant guerrilla war (more about that below), and annual racist riots in which the whites were the target of mass hatred and killed if possible by hordes of infuriated Muslim Malayans.

A scary Anniversary:

This last was the result of a sad story.   When the Japs invaded Singapore, the whites all left as hurriedly as possible, all was chaos obviously, and in this chaos, a small Dutch baby girl got left behind, but was found by a Malay family, who took her in and cared for her.   Obviously, being Malay they were Muslims, so naturally, the little girl was brought up as a Muslim.

All was well until the Japs were chased out of Singapore, and the little girl was discovered by the European authorities, and it was decided that she should be sent to Holland to be brought up as a Dutch girl (even though I believe her parents were never found).

So over the protestations of the Malay family who had looked after her during the war, this little girl was sent off to Holland, and put into a Catholic convent orphanage, and brought up further as a good little Catholic.

This infuriated the Malay community in Singapore and the rest of Malaya, so every year on the anniversary of the removal of this little girl, there were terrible riots in which gangs of angry Malayans rampaged around, smashing any European objects they came across, and killing any Europeans they could catch.  Scary times.  Not least since the cops there were almost all Malay, and thus sympathised with the rioters, and looked the other way.

A Guerrilla War:

As I mentioned above,there was also a pretty serious guerrilla war going on in the jungle of the Malay Peninsular at this time as well.

This was being reported as a “Communist Terrorist War”  (those were the bogey men of that period, same as the ISIS now).   In fact the origins of this particular war had nothing to do with Communism, but was caused by the duplicity of the then British government – sound familiar?

What had happened was that when the Japs were on the point of kicking the Brits out of Malaya, the Brits recruited a number of Chinese and armed them and asked them to stay behind in the jungle and make life difficult for the Jap occupiers, in return for which, the Brits promised that on their return to Malaya (how about that for arrogance?), they would pay the Chinese soldiers much fine money, give them land to farm and generally look after them.

So these faithful Chinese stayed in the jungle, and with great suffering did exactly as requested.

The Brits duly came back, and the Chinese came out of the jungle and asked to have their promised payment.  Reasonably one might think.  Sadly,the Brits kept putting them off.

So after a couple of years of prevarication on the part of the Brits, the annoyed Chinese said damn you, turned around, grabbed their guns and went back into the jungle and started shooting Europeans.

This is when the Chinese Communists stepped in and made the battle their own.  So the origins had nothing to do with communism, but with broken promises.  Also familiar?

An Unnerving Experience:

One small result of this war for me was finding myself in hospital in the bed next to a guerrilla fighter who had been condemned to death by the Brits.

I was in hospital for a minor complaint, but it kept me in hospital for a couple of weeks in a public ward which gave me time to get to know this guy a bit (for complex reasons I could speak a fair amount of Cantonese so he and I could talk).   He had been captured by the British army, and then tried and condemned to be hanged, but owing to his years in the jungle, he was in very bad health, so the Brits felt he was too unhealthy to be hanged!!!  I know, sounds insane, but I promise you it is true.

So he was bunged into hospital to be fed and made healthy again – and once he was in good shape, they were planning to take him out and hang him.

So there he lay in his bed next to mine, with a heavily armed Sikh soldier guarding him 24 hours a day, being fed on vitamins, good meals and all manner of antibiotics to get him healthy enough to be hanged.

We became quite good friends before he was taken away to be killed finally.

Made one hell of an impression on me I can tell you – I was about 9 years old at the time.

Copyright:  Tony Cole

More Colonial Life – Singapore Again

As a number of you guys seemed to find my other post about my life in Singapore way back in the middle of the last century entertaining, I thought I would add another to the collection for your amusement.

When we moved to Singapore we found ourselves in a very odd situation, in so far as my Mother was to the extreme left politically, and my father was an Australian dentist, not much given to enjoying the drearily “correct” attitudes that were considered essential for the whites who ruled that place back then.

No schools for English kids over 8 years old.

So socially we had one or two problems, and one of the major problems was to find a school for me to go to.   The normal practice for the ruling Brits was to send their kids off to boarding school in England as soon as they were 8 years old, and keep that up until their entire education had been achieved (or not).   The result of this was that there were no English schools in Singapore or Malaya for English speaking kids over the age of 8.  Nor any kids of my age for me to play with either of course, as all of them were languishing in one or other expensive English boarding school.

Since my parents found the idea of sending their kids off to school on the other side of the world totally repugnant we had a problem.

Happily for me, rather than simply giving in and sending me off into exile in the UK, my parents decided that it was more important for me to be part of the family than to have an English education, so it was off to a Chinese school for me, as it was felt that given the choice between an Indian, a Chinese or a Malay school, I would probably do best and get the most out of a Chinese one.

And in fact I did get a lot out of my Chinese school, and loved it.

It was a huge school as I recall, catering for all ages from kindergarden to the then equivalent of Grade 12, and I was the only non-Chinese kid in the entire place!

Continue reading “More Colonial Life – Singapore Again”

Borneo – Strange Place – Strange Reminders Of Time Past

Recently my wife had work for the Malaysian Ministry of Education, which entailed her dashing around Malaysia like a mad thing – a few days here, a few days there.  I accompanied her on her peregrinations of course, even though I had retired by that time, so I was a gentleman of leisure, and happily passed my time in these places writing a blog I had in those days, and gently absorbing the pleasures of the places we were in.

Two of these places really appealed to me – for different reasons.

Kutching:  Singapore as it was.

The first was Kutching in Sarawak.   A small but active little city on the banks of a river.  I was wandering around it on my first visit there, and had a strong feeling of deja vu, which to begin with I couldn’t understand.

Kuching Street Scene
Kuching Street Scene

And then it came to me.   Kutching today is almost exactly how Singapore was in 1950 when I lived there.   Generally low buildings, very dirty and cheerfully chaotic, each ethnic group living and working in their own section of the city and the greater part of the street commerce taking place on the street rather than closed-off in shops.   It was a strange and mildly disturbing experience finding myself back in the word I had lived in when I was about 9 years old.

And it brought home to me strongly how much Singapore has changed since it belonged to us Brits.   For the better?   Not sure.  In some ways, certainly, but at the cost of the loss of its character I feel.

Labuan – Small but fine

The other place that intrigued me was the small island of Labuan, which is off the north western tip of Borneo, and is chiefly notable for being a free port and for being in the middle of an oil field.

The first means that it is full of “duty free” shops, so a great place to buy booze and smokes, the second means it is entirely surrounded by drilling rigs and full of oil workers of all nationalities.

It also had it curious characters too.  We stayed in one hotel on the sea front, which was about 200 meters from one of the other main hotels there, which belonged to two very rich young men.  Each of whom had a luxury sports car, one a Lamborghini, the other a Ferrari, (or something similar, not very good on car models) which they kept parked on the forecourt of their hotel.  Each evening, at about 7 pm, they leapt into their respective cars, and with much roaring and spinning of wheels, drove to our hotel, where they spent the evening drinking gently and talking to their friends, and then at about 11 pm, they leapt back into their monster cars and roared back to their hotel.  As far as I could tell that was the extent of the use they put those two cars to.

The two sports cars..... with one of the proud owners
The two sports cars….. with one of the proud owners

I came across another intriguing thing there.  In the centre of the town is a small grass covered square, with two small stone monuments in the centre, the first a memorial to a Japanese General who died in a plane crash during the war, the second being a statement of imperial arrogance that I found quite breath-taking.

It stated that Captain so and so had arrived on this island in about 1828 (or thereabouts) and that he had claimed the island for Queen Victoria in the name of his Admiral.  Wonderful arrogance indeed, the damn place as already inhabited by its own owners after all.  Howsoever, it remained British until some time in the early 1950’s I believe.

The other curious thing was a small graveyard in the botanical gardens, which was reserved for pirates!

Odd place – the world.

Share with us:

If you have wandered in these two places and have any thoughts about either of them, do share them here with us.