On 27 May 2006, there was an article in the Straits Times that really pained my heart.
It was reported that Matt, a nine-year-old Primary 3 student, skipped dinner and drank tap water most of the time.
Is he alone? No, he belongs to one of the estimated 116,300 families or 12.6 percent of households – who often goes unfed and unsupervised. This data is based on the Year 2000 population census in Singapore. I am sure that there are millions of people in the world who are worse off than Matt.
In 1965, I drank tap water to stop the drum beat in my stomach. Today, I speak to you with these chilly memories still fresh, still feeling the pain that, even now, there are many people in the same boat as me 42 years ago. While some people do not hesitate to enjoy a five-dollar Starbuck coffee, I like them to remember that there are many more people who could not even afford a simple meal. Yes, there are some financial schemes to help needy kids. Should we do more to help them? Should we do more to bridge the rich-poor divide?
MY LIFE STORY
In primary school, how much pocket money did you get per day? (Share with us how much a bowl of noodle cost in your era? When I was in Primary One, my father gave me 5 cents as pocket money. A bowl of noodles cost 10 cents. So, I had to go hungry on alternate days.
As my pocket was empty, I had to drink water from the tap. As I drank, I saw a long queue at the ice-cream stall. I thought ice-cream was a luxury item which only the rich could afford. These kids were taking ice-cream as feely as I drank water from the tap. In fact, my family was so poor that I had to survive on porridge with soya sauce or salted vegetable.
Not only I was deprived of ice-cream, I was also deprived of a pair of slippers. At home, I was the only one who went bare-foot. I sold my favourite pet, for $2 to buy my first pair of slippers when I was seven years old. Also, I used this money to buy my first ice cream.
I felt so lousy when I was growing up. I developed a severe inferiority complex.
On my first day in school, I learnt a great deal, not about English or Arithmetic but about the haves and have-nots. I knew my family was poor. I thought the whole neighbourhood was poor. That day, I learnt that even among the poor, some could afford ice-cream while others could not.
This rich-poor divide existed even within my own home. When my younger brother, Little Emperor, went to school the following year, he was given 20 cents daily pocket money. I continued to get 5 cents until I reached Primary Four, when my allowance was raised to 10 cents. Finally, I could afford a bowl of noodles. But I still had to drink from the tap.
My father hated me. He called me suay kia, which, in the Chinese Hokkien dialect, meant "child who brings bad luck". I was his jinx.
I asked my mother: "Why?" She refused to tell me until the death of my father.
My father caned his children whenever he was drunk; whenever he had lost in gambling; whenever at his own whims and fancies. Sometimes, he would strip us naked, tie us up and hang us from a ceiling hook in the living room before caning us mercilessly. Canning us was an outlet for his frustration.
My father was deeply frustrated because he had sailed from China to Singapore in search of the good life, but ended up earning a meagre wage as an odd-job labourer – just enough peanuts to feed the monkeys. My mother had to take on two jobs to feed a family of nine members. During the day, she worked as a school cleaner. At night, she worked as an illegal hawker selling bread, living a life of fear of being caught by hawker inspectors who conducted surprise raids. After his death, my mother told me that he had left behind another family in China, which added to his frustration.
He would cane us until the cane split; until our skins split, until his energy was spent. He would cane his jinx more than any other child. Once, he produced a bunch of burning incense and poked them into my face. He vented his frustration like a mad man. But he never once caned the Little Emperor, whom he loved.
When I was eight, my family moved to Bukit Ho Swee, a neighbourhood notorious for its secret societies and hard-core gangsters. As the saying goes – "Birds of the same feathers flock together". And so I grew up as a 'gangster kid'.
By the time I was eight years old, I was addicted to gambling and the 3Vs – vulgarism, vandalism and violence. Needless to say, I did badly in my studies, scoring as little as 22 marks for Mathematics and 19 marks for English.
Yet my mother constantly nagged me to become a top student. My mother had always been looked down by her relatives and friends because her children did badly in school. By the time I was 14, all my brothers had dropped out of the education system. I became my mother's last hope to redeem her years of humiliation.
In summary, I was a poor 'gangster kid'. But, I was not a bankrupt. Certainly, I was a 'BRAINKRUPT' in my younger days. (????, Otak Kosong).
My most traumatic experience in school, however, had nothing to do with failing examinations and disappointing my mother. It had to do with (black socks…)
One day in Primary Three, my teacher saw me wearing black socks. I explained that my white socks were wet, but she would not believe that I had only one pair. Before I could explain further, she made me leave the classroom, remove my shoes and walk round and round the school field. I walked in the hot sun until I nearly fainted. During recess, hundreds of children laughed and jeered at me.
Can you imagine the humiliation I felt?
I felt very lousy. I felt very small. I felt very terrible.
My self-esteem sank to its lowest. It would take me another 16 long years – when I topped my class in post-graduate studies, not once but twice – before I re-gained my self-confidence.