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


  1. Thanks bro! interesting read especially for younger singaporean. A real life lesson indeed! Keep posting.

  2. Keep it coming eh... =D

  3. Wow what a story. Thanks.

  4. Hi Mr Cheong

    How much tax does a person earning 60,000 Canadian dollars a year have to pay and how much does he have to pay for his social security (pension) in addition to this?

  5. I have written an article on Canadian vs Singapore tax in this blog earlier. You pay a maximum of 29.7% tax but if you have deductions like children, personal allowances, etc. you pay much less. In short, you pay less tax than Singapore although Singapore appears to have a lower tax bracket. Please read the article or google and find out the details. Singapore has lots of hidden taxes in cars, houses, CPF, health care, etc.

  6. That was a great read. Thank you for sharing. Can't help but feel really happy for how far you have come. :)

  7. Great article. Brought me back to those simpler and carefree lives of the 50s and 60s. Do you know what happened to any of your classmates?

  8. One of my classmate read my article and found me. She is living in Australia. Several childhood friends immigrated to other countries also found me. Thanks to the internet.

  9. Hi,

    Just curious, did your classmate immigrate for a similar reason as you, such as 3 children and above or some other policy such as lack of welfare.

    Other than that I look forward to your next article. Thank you for sharing.

  10. Chapter 3 should be posted in the next few days. There are 20,000 or more Singaporeans emigrating each year and each have their own reasons. Most of them to provide a better future for their children and for themselves.
    Is Singapore good? If your answer is yes, then stay. To each his own.

    Just don't regret when you are old and without pension and healthcare.

  11. Hi Wing

    Amazing life story! So much to learn from you. You have been an inspiration! Keeping posting & may our good Lord continues to bless you richly!

  12. Wow, what an interesting life you have! This just proves one thing. It's not in the institution or school where you got your education; it's up to the person whether he wants to succeed in life or not. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    Darwin Feldman
    Got the time? I'm inviting you to visit our website about retirement planning here!

  13. Thanks for the read. I came across your blog because I was keying in Trafalgar School. It actually has no Primary to it. you are lucky . you have a picture. i remember that area very well even though it was 40 plus years ago. the window is actually led to the principal office. wow, you are my senior then. i joined only in 1970

  14. Hello sir, It was exciting for me to see a glimpse of a memory for me which you show of the Trafalgar School. I sent you a message but I am not sure if you received it. I went to Trafalgar School from P1 to 6 and used to stay at Palmer Road. Tanjong Pagar has so much memory for me that now I am working around here. Hope you receive my mail now. Thanks