Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Journey to Retirement  - Chapter 2..... How a school dropout emigrate to Canada.

Following the posting of my article,  “Retirement in Canada vs Singapore “ on Oct 5th, 2011, I received numerous comments - mostly positive views asking for advice on emigration to Canada accompanied by a fair share of negative comments calling us "quitters" to stay away since we are no longer Singaporeans.

One reader posted a rather comical statement that he too was a school dropout so he should qualify to emigrate to Canada.   

Being a school dropout or an illegitimate child is not a prerequisite for entry into Canada or any other country for that matter. These were mentioned in my article because they were facts pertaining to my background.

My mother gave birth to me out of wedlock when she was only seventeen years old. She was an uneducated and naive young girl who immigrated from Guangzhou, China before the 2nd World War and met my biological father during the occupancy of Singapore by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The man who fathered me was a much older man than my mother. He abandoned us before I was born soon after the surrender of the Japanese Army.  My mother, a helpless young pregnant girl,  went looking for him at his home town of Port Klang in Malaya only to discover that he already had other wives - 3 or 4 according to what she was told. It was whilst my mother was in Klang, Malaya that I was born in the toilet. The details of how my mother and I survived was unclear and better left unsaid given the lack of hospital and poor health conditions during post war era.

To avoid domestic trouble amongst his many wives, my father cleverly arranged to ship my mother and I back to Guangzhou, China to be taken care of by his 1st wife with promises of a better future for us.

My mother was too young and innocent to deal with a sly old man.  We fell into his trap and left for Guangzhou. We lived in a village near the city of Guangzhou for about two years. In the beginning life was tolerable as my father did send some money to his 1st wife to cover household expenses. However when the fund stopped, it was understandable that my "big mother" changed to an uncompromising wicked old witch. One day when my mother asked for food, she snapped, snatched me from my mother and threw me into a well. Fortunately, the commotion caught the attention of other villagers who came and rescued me. My mother then decided to run back to her home village where her relatives helped bring my mother and me  back to Singapore. 

Photo of myself upon arrival from Guangzhou, China. 
Photo of my mother, my elder brother and myself in 1949

I was two and a half years old when I arrived in Singapore from China. We lived in a small rented room of 8 feet by 10 feet at Tanjong Pagar Road with my grandmother and my elder brother. My grandmother was looking after my elder brother during the time my mother and I were in China. (now the house at Tanjong Pagar Road was demolished to make way for a road).

Photo showing my home at Tanjong Pagar Road that I lived from 1949 to 1969 when I returned from China.

There were five families with a total of 21 people in five rooms of various sizes rented out individually in the second floor of the house. The back of the house was used as a mass kitchen for the five families, there was a make-shift bathroom where the "door" was a piece of corrugated zinc sheet and a toilet with a pull-out bucket system.

There were only two water taps for the entire 5 households of 21 people - for bathing, for cooking and for washing. Toilet rolls were not invented then or not available in post-war Singapore. We had to use recycled newspapers that we cut into A4 sizes to be used for toilet paper and for starting fire in wood burning stoves. Cooking was done with firewood as there were no gas or electrical stoves.

Tanjong Pagar was a poor part of Chinatown in Singapore. The area was infested with gangs (08 and 24) and populated mainly by poor uneducated manual labourers, blue-collar workers (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc.,) maids and prostitutes. Gang wars and pick-pockets were common sights in that area.
   - video showing Singapore Chinatown in the 1950s  where I grew up.

Life was tough but interesting as I learned to survive independently with hardly any money. Both my grandmother and mother had to work practically the whole day - 12 to 15 hours - to make ends meet to pay for food and rent. I hardly see them. They were gone soon after I woke up and returned just before I turned in with whatever food they managed to savage during the day. They worked as cooks, cleaners, general workers, hair-dresser, etc.  Arrangement had been made for my elder brother to be taken care of. I was left out because my poor mother earned only enough to pay for one child to be looked after. My brother did not fair much better as he only got food and a bit of money for schooling.

Fortunately, I was born a happy-go-lucky person and did not harbored any anger against my mother or the society. There were no self-pity or lack of self-esteem. Of course, there were times I felt a little depressed and angry when some less discreet neighbors, school mates and even relatives mocked at me and called my mother by derogatory names. I have never fought with anyone over these matters. Instead I would volunteer to get their drinks and then spiked the drinks with urine or spit before handing them the drinks.

Contrary to what most people thought, there were no hardship as I enjoyed my unrestricted freedom that today's children do not get to experience. I enjoyed my childhood days to the fullest - I got to play, learn to cook and interact with people. There were no pressure to study (too poor to buy text books), no home work, no expectations. I could do whatever I like because most of my relatives and neighbors labelled me as a good for nothing “wild kid” with bad luck. Once I overheard a relative said that I was a human debris that should have died in China. There were times I would disappeared for days living with friends or relatives and I was not missed. Several times, I hitch-hiked to Kuala Lumpur and Penang during school holidays to see the world outside of Chinatown, Singapore. I did not need to lie or explain my where about  because nobody cared.

To me, being born an illegitimate child was fated and being poor was normal as all the people I knew then were poor. Although I hardly had any money, I was never hungry. The society during the 1950s to 1960s was much different compared with today’s .

1950s - Wet market along the streets of Chinatown were individually owned. Anyone can be his/her own boss.
Today, citizens are educated and trained to work for others. Entrepreneurship and creativity is lost. 

1950s - cooked food stall on tricycle were common .
Today, citizens depend on being employed and have no idea on how to survive on their own.

 During the 1950s and on to the 1960s, there were lots of independently operated hawkers and street vendors selling all kind of cooked food, Chinese, Malay, Indian and others. Since the hawkers and street vendors were self employed they were more flexible and not governed by strict company rules and management. That was in contrast with staff working at today’s modern food courts. They were not permitted to interact much with outsiders and must work according to job descriptions. 

Most of the hawkers in the 1950s were more humane and kind to me as I was always very willing to help out for free during peak hours. I would help served their customers, clean the tables, wash the plates, etc. In return, most of the hawkers would give me food and whatever they could spare. I could get free unsold bread from the bakery, free bowls of rice with vegetables, free noodle soup from the hawkers. I was better off than most other kids because I always get to choose what I like to eat. I did not eat leftovers from customers but got freshly made food and at times I did my own cooking after learning from the chefs. I observed, asked and during less busy time I get to try cooking.  This is why I was able to cook at a very young age.

Small business in Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong account for more than 50% of the GDP. These countries encourage entrepreneurship and small cottage industries account for up to 70% of the work force. In these countries, citizens do not need to go through extensive red tapes to obtain licence to operate small business.If you have skills in trades like carpentry, machine operators, electricians, you could start your own business.  In the case of food industries, if you think you can cook well, you can start a small business stall with little capital. The test is in the cooking. 

In modern Singapore, most food are supplied by central kitchens with state-of-the-art commercial cooking equipment and distribute to food courts throughout the island. The hawkers’ personal touch is lost except for a limited number of celebrity chefs stalls or restaurants. 

Singapore's economy has changed to favor multinational companies and big local corporations. Small individual business are less attractive choice for the today’s youth. Renewal of licenses when expired were denied and the business be taken over by big corporations. Today, it is difficult to find small business entrepreneurs as there are few and scoff by the younger generations. Food courts and hawkers’ centers are owned and operated by big chains. There are no independent taxi drivers like in the 1950s as taxis are owned and controlled by big corporations.

The main aspiration of today’s youth is to study hard and hope to qualify for a scholarship and be set for life. Next alternative is be employed by big corporations or the government in top or middle management positions. Those who fail to make the academic grade will be left to fill the less desirable working class jobs or socially demeaning jobs. Singapore has become a society not favorable for entrepreneurship or creative work. Self actualization or individualism is taboo in Singapore. MM Lee has repeatedly said that individualism, freedom of speech and western democracy are not for Singapore. The gap between the rich and poor is getting wider and wider. 

By age seven, my mother tried to register me in a primary school but was initially rejected because I was born in Malaya and not a Singapore citizen. My mother had to pay "coffee money" or a commission to a corrupted official to get me registered in Trafalgar Primary School . At that age I had not read a single book or learn to read or write. All I ever did was to draw on discarded carton boxes and blank spaces on waste papers with short pencils thrown away by others. In today’s society most children are well prepared and parents spend tons of money on baby gym and kindergartens at ages as young as two years old. It is almost impossible to find a child who does not know ABC or has not read books.

The alphabet and English language were foreign to me. Going to school and studying was a new experience to me. By today's standard, I would be a laughing stock - at age 7 and not able to speak English, Mandarin or know ABC. I would have been put in classes for the mentally challenged. I got along by sharing and looking at my classmate's books. Somehow I was always fortunate enough to just make the grade to the next level. Since I did not have any textbooks I did not need to prepare for examinations like others. While most classmates studied hard for every examination, I continue to play and roam the streets. Neighbors and relatives believed that I must have cheated during the examinations.  On one occasion, my art work was rejected because the teacher suspected that I got someone else to do the work for me.

My aspiration to be a scholar came to an abrupt end in 1963 when I was expelled from school. The reason was a combination of poor academic results and unacceptable school behaviors (I fought with a school teacher). It was undeniable that I did fight with a teacher and threw him to the ground but  the truth was never told to the principal. 

A class bully was intimidating other classmates when the class teacher was out. I intervened and threw the bully onto a desk.  A teacher by the name of Mr. Chu happened to walk by the class as the bully landed on a desk and broke it. Without investigating,  I was immediately singled out as the aggressor and the bully became the victim. 

Mr. Chu was a 200 lb potbelly person, more than twice my size. He caught hold of me by the collar and gave me a slap across the face, then another.He shouted at me, "So you are a good fighter? Breaking school furniture? Want to fight with me?" Getting into a fight with a teacher was a nightmare but Mr. Chu was relentless and kept pushing and slapping me until I was forced into a corner. When I was cornered and with nowhere to go, I snapped and caught hold of Mr. Chu's hands and threw him to the floor.  

What Mr. Chu did not realized was that I was trained in martial arts by martial arts masters near my house in Chinatown. In the evenings I volunteered my time as an assistant for the martial arts masters during training. I carried their sticks and weapons, bring them towels, tea, etc. In return I got free lessons as their assistant and "punching bag". 

After Mr. Chu's heavy 200 lb body landed on the floor with a big bang, the entire class was silent. I knew at that time I was dead meat. It would have been funny if I was not the one who threw him.  Boy, he was stunned, embarrassed and  furious.  He struggled up and marched me to the Principal's office and told him that I was a bully terrorizing my classmates, broke school furniture and attacked the teacher. In the 1950s, students had no rights and not allowed to speak. The principal gave me a few strokes of the cane and a big lecture. By year’s end, together with a group of naughty students, I was asked to leave the school and given a school leaving certificate. 

I still keep the certificate because it was unique. It was a certificate that few students could get or hope to get.  What was interesting about the certificate was that the reason for leaving was stated as, "superannuated". With my limited vocabulary I had no idea what the word meant but  "super" sounded impressive and I thought it cannot be bad. Hey, I achieved something "super" when everyone had written me off. Later, I learned the word was not complimentary at all.

News of my expulsion from school caused a sensation in my part of Chinatown. My neighbors and relatives all claimed credit in predicting my academic demise. Almost all said, “ I told you so.” They further predicted that I would end up in jail as a drug dealer or a homeless scum bag earning minimum wage. A slim number of people who harbored some hope for me also began to realize I had fat chance of getting any academic qualification. I felt terrible that I had BETRAYED the very few who believe in me. My grandmother and mother were too depressed  and disappointed to talk to me.

I stayed away from Chinatown for a few months, roaming aimlessly in the northern part of Malaya, hundreds of miles from Singapore wondering what to do at age 14.

Primary three class photo at Trafalgar Primary School. I was standing 2nd row from top, 4th student from the right or 8th from the left of photo.

I managed to win some medals in swimming without any formal training or coaching.

I was the 5th person from the left or 6th person from the right of photo.
That was the year I was expelled from school.


Singapore from 3rd world to1st world status.
After 50 years same standards for the poor and homeless.

1950s - Singapore 3rd world country - seniors have to work - unable to retire.

2010s - Singapore 1st world country - seniors still have to work - unable to retire..

1950s - HOMELESS
2010s - HOMELESS


1950s - Taxi drivers need only driving license.

2010s - Taxi drivers may be holders of MBA or PhD.


2010s - Youths get maids to carry their stuff.
1950s - We carried our own stuff.  That was really me. No help.

     Next chapter - How I worked my way out of poverty

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Retirement in Canada vs Singapore - A personal experience.

Prior to my retirement, I was rather apprehensive as most stories I have heard about retirement were depressing, i.e. inadequate retirement fund,  raising health care cost, being subjected to the mercy of uncaring nursing homes, lack of companionship, diminishing respect from others, difficulties adjusting to lower standard of living, etc., etc.

As if these were not enough anxieties, in 2002, then PM  Goh Chok Tong labelled us who have immigrated as quitters and losers. We were looked upon as traitors and most Singaporeans hope that we would rot as second-class citizens in foreign lands and not to be welcomed back. It was not the kind of lifestyle anybody would look forward to with enthusiasm.

At 64 years, I was one of the oldest member of the ceremonial dragon boat team for the Winter Olympics Games.
It has been eight years since I have retired. Fortunately, to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that retirement is not as bad as I was lead to believe if a person is prepared to live within his means and be adaptable to prevailing situations. In fact, it is fun and enjoyable. I wished that I had retired earlier and enjoyed more of this carefree quality life style instead of pursuing a meaningless life style of a relentless search for money and status at all cost.  In retrospect it was indeed a  waste of valuable time. Most of us are blinded by greed to understand what is enough is enough. It is an irony to keep pursuing more money than we need instead of enjoying what we already have.

In a materialistic society,  the maxim is to amass millions upon millions of dollars in order to command respect and to achieve quality lifestyle. However from my experience I realized how misguided we are to believe such a self destructive theory.  We have only one life and we must learn to live it right - not only for ourselves but more importantly for our children.

My wife and I are living a meaningful and eco-friendly lifestyle on a frugal budget. We built our own environmental friendly retirement home with a budget of less than the price of a 4-room HDB apartment.  In our mid sixties, we are proud that we live independently and do all our house chores without hired help (no part-time or full time maid) . It is nothing to be ashamed of. We drive, do our laundry, cook our meals, attend to our vegetables, fish and catch crabs, maintain and clean our modest house, do volunteer work at the hospital, regular potluck fellowship with friends/ relatives at our homes, practice tai-chi, dragon boat paddling, drawing and writing, go on vacations, etc.  What else can we wish for?

Mr. Thye Wong, a Colombo Plan Scholar and a personal friend of mine, also immigrated to Canada to enjoy a peaceful and meaningful life.

We managed this quality lifestyle on a monthly budget of between C$1,500 to C$2,000 excluding housing mortgage or car loans that are fully paid. For Canadians who are 65 years or older with little or no income, the Canadian government provides monthly Old Age Pension of about C$530 plus Guarantee Income Supplement of about C$750 per person. A retired couple would get a combined monthly income of C$2,560. In addition, they are given free medical, subsidized transportation ($36 for a one year unlimited ride pass) and free ferry rides. With the government Old Age Pension and Guaranteed Income Supplement most retirees have enough to retire comfortably and with the peace of mind that they would not be bankrupted by serious illnesses, chronic diseases or accidents. Not all Canadians depend on the government pensions as most Canadians have their private retirement insurance, other incomes and companies retirement benefits that provide better alternatives .

Breakdown of my monthly expenses:
1. $400 for grocery (much less if we grow our own vegetable and catch our own fish)
2. $100 for TV and internet cable,
3. $100 to $200 for petrol and maintenance (almost zero if we take public transportation)
4. $70 to $100 for two mobile phones.
5. $102 for medical insurance.
6. $50 for utilities, i.e. gas and electricity (water is free)
7. $200 to $300 for entertainment (occasional movies, restaurant meals, etc)
8. $300 for property tax.
9. $500 to $1,000 budget set aside for miscellaneous and  vacations 
    (there are lots of special last minute budget tours for retirees, i.e. $400 for 7 days Alaska
     cruise, $650 for 7 days Hawaiian or Caribbean tours inclusive of airfare and hotels, etc.)

Total estimated budget for my wife and myself is between $1,500 to $2,500 a month. A retired couple can survive decently with $1,000 or less a month. Life, especially during retirement, should be enjoyed with dignity and fulfillment and not constantly hovering at the poverty line.

Can this kind of budget quality retirement lifestyle be duplicated in Singapore since it is ranked as one of the best place to live on Planet Earth?

Singaporeans could but they would not.

For the rich elite class that constitute about 20% of the population, they have the financial resources to do whatever they want. However, in a materialistic society like Singapore that focus highly on prestige and public image, it will be politically and socially incorrect to be seen growing vegetables in your garden, cooking your meals, doing household chores or washing your own car, etc. Any such actions will be breaking news in the community. Public image will sink to new lows for those who do it.  Instead of getting the required daily exercise doing household chores, the rich prefer to have maids to do the job and then get their exercise in expensive health clubs or with personal trainers. Apparently public image and prestige are more important than practicality and common sense.

For the rich, living in a house not in keeping with their perceived wealth, going on budget vacations or tours or driving inexpensively priced cars is not an option for the sake of preserving their public image. Many Singaporeans are living beyond their means just to keep up with the status conscious society.

Singaporeans are pushed to the edge like zombies in this increasingly mad society. The poor will try to act like middle class, the middle class will try to act like the elite, the elite will try to act like the super elite - the politically powerful inner circle. Many are stressed out working 12 hours or more a day in order to keep pace with their perceived public images. Some hardly having time for their spouses, children, extended families, relatives or friends.

With the government leaders unilaterally drawing obscenely high salaries and bonuses, the society is geared towards an insane materialistic competition. There is no end in sight for these stressful social behavior .

How do you explain wealthy seniors, especially politicians, who should be enjoying their retirement  but instead are appointed board directors to as much as ten or more companies  or special advisers just to preserve their public image with the perception of importance?

Singaporeans are remarkably brand conscious and it is a necessity for them to be seen with designers' bags or branded goods that cost more than the salaries of ordinary citizens so as not to be viewed negatively.  Apparently social status is measured by dollars, not sense.

How do the middle class and the less privilege citizens retire with peace of mind given the kind of materialistic mentality engrained in the society?

The government must have the answers since the country consistently achieves a wide spread of world rankings, i.e. best healthcare, best education system, best law and order, best welfare, best housing, least corrupted country, per capita income of $62,000 ranked 5th in the world vs Canada that ranked 22nd in the world with per capita income of $39,400, etc. These world rankings cover all the necessary conditions to provide every citizen with a decent retirement.

Mr. Kishore Mahbubani , dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policies, claimed that "there are no homeless, destitute or starving people in Singapore. Poverty has been eradicated."
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said,  “Nobody will be left behind.”

MM Lee Kuan Yew said, “You go down New York, Broadway. You will see the beggars, people of the streets…Where are the beggars in Singapore? Show me.”

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s speech in parliament, March 2007:
“That allows me to say with a clear conscience to both the PAP and the Opposition MPs that nobody in Singapore needs to starve, nobody needs to be deprived of healthcare, and nobody needs to be deprived of a roof over his or her head. If someone indeed is so destitute and is starving, we have other means and other safety nets for them. ”
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has claimed that Singapore has achieved Swiss standard of living years ahead of schedule.
With so much assurances, the citizens of Singapore showed confidence in the sitting government by voting in the same party for another term.  These leaders are the highest paid politicians in the world and should have solutions to the retirement issue.  Personally, I am a simple retiree who is very grateful and satisfied with my kampong style retirement even though Canada is far behind Singapore in world rankings.

ESM Goh may mocked at farmers about their lack of understanding about quality lifestyle. With the turmoil in the global financial crisis, it may be those people who live on nature and land be the only human beings left to enjoy quality lifestyle.

I am not embarrassed to work with my hands nor am I ashamed that I was expelled from school and raised by a single parent in the slums of Chinatown in Singapore. Canada has provided me with a level playing field. It would be impossible for me to have a decent retirement if I am not a 'quitter'.

The view from my window looking at the peaceful and serene bay leading to the Pacific Ocean.
I built this house for less than the price of a 4 room HDB. You don't need the obscene salaries of $millions
to be happy and enjoy a meaningful retirement lifestyle.

The End.