The Quiet Evangelist: Father Gerald Tseng, S.J.

Father Gerald Tseng S.J. with my family in the sixties

Father Gerald Tseng S.J. with my family in the sixties. I was not born then.

When I was a child, I looked forward to Chinese New Year, not just for the feasting, but also because a special guest would come round to visit. As I come from a very Catholic family, the presence of Father Gerald Tseng S.J., or Uncle Jerry in our house was always an honour, and most of my relatives would try to coincide their visits to be at our place when he came by.

Father Jerry is one of the most congenial men I know. Always smiling and eternally affable, his mild manners and gentle ways are for me the epitome of Christian gentleness.  I’ve always had a fascination with people who receive the Calling and consequently dedicate their lives to God.  I asked Uncle Jerry about his journey and it was interestingly his school experiences that converted him to Catholicism and subsequently to becoming a priest.

SJI football team, 1946. Father Jerry on the front row, extreme right

SJI class football team, 1946. Father Jerry on the front row, extreme right

Class Photo SJI, 1948. Brother Ignatius and Uncle Mallen were his teachers

Class Photo SJI, 1948. Brother Ignatius and Uncle Mallen (Nicholas) were his teachers. Father Jerry is standing behind Bro. Ignatius

Father Jerry studied at St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI) for most of his early school life,except during WWII when he hunkered down with his family in Devonshire Road.

During those tumultous years before and after the war, school was a place that had a semblance of normalcy for most teenagers. The La Salle brothers who taught at SJI had a profound influence on Father Jerry and he aspired to be a teacher like them, dedicating his life to moulding young boys to be men for the future.

Father Gerald Tseng's ordination in Dublin, Ireland in 1963

Father Gerald Tseng’s ordination in Dublin, Ireland in 1963

Father Jerry wanted to be a priest as well as a teacher and therefore chose to be a Jesuit. After receiving his Senior Cambridge certificate at SJI at the age of 21 in 1950,  he left Singapore to join the Jesuit Novitiate in The Philippines.

What followed then was a path round the world in an arduous 13-year journey to become a Jesuit priest: seven years in The Philippines; another four years studying theology in Dublin, Ireland (he hated the cold); a year of tertianship (the final year of formation in the Society of Jesus) in Murcia, Spain, followed by a final year stint in London at St. Mary’s College.

After his ordination in 1963, Father Jerry was posted to Kowloon to teach before transferring to St Francis Xavier church in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia for eight years. He finally returned to Singapore in 1976 to teach at his alma mater, SJI while playing the role of chaplain at the Catholic Junior College hostel.

Father Jerry’s quiet spirituality touched many throughout his journey as a priest and teacher, and ex-students speak fondly of him as one of the nicest teachers at SJI. “Father Tseng taught me Science and he was very kind. He would tell us to mark topics in order of 1st importance, 2nd importance and 3rd importance, Basically, if you studied only the 1st importance topics, you would be all set,” reminisced Matt Lee, an old boy of SJI who was taught by Father Jerry in the eighties.

Father Jerry speaks with pride about the many boys under his care who have gone on to be ordained as Brothers and Priests in various Catholic denominations. He recalls how he encouraged many boys, even non-Christians, to join the Legion of Mary, and it was through a deeper experience with prayer and fellowship that led to many finding their calling. In a recent Catholic News article, Deacon Gerard Louis cited Father Jerry as a source of inspiration during his days as a student at SJI. “He was such a simple man,” he recalls.

Father Jerry is retired now, and passes his days in prayer and contemplation at Kingsmead Hall, a residence for the Jesuits located next to St. Ignatius church in Bukit Timah. I drop by to see Uncle Jerry every few months, and I always come away with a sense of peace after my visits. With him, the passage about Ezekiel’s encounter with God (1 Kings 19:11-13) comes to mind: that God comes not as a strong wind or force but as a gentle breeze.  Or like the shepherd in Isaiah 40:11: He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.

One does not need to be a rockstar preacher to be a fisher of men, and Uncle Jerry, the quiet evangelist,  is a shining example.

Majulah Singapore

Photo: Merdeka! Happy 49th, Singapore! With love from HA-SG

Happy Birthday Singapore!

Today Singapore celebrates its 49th year as a republic. After a couple of pages of the local rag, I had enough of the ra-ra and went onto the digital sphere to check on local sentiment on this special day. As expected, social media was rife with multiple musings on our little island.

There’s the positive – quite a few posts reciting the pledge, YouTube reposts of Kit Chan’s all-time best National Day song, ‘Home’;  lots of red & white themes, a jaunty “See you later at National Day Parade” from our fearless leader. And of course, a whole lot of intellectual rants about Singapore’s shortcomings – SG’s too expensive; SG’s no longer SG because of the foreign invasion; SG’s too damned uptight; Where’s the SG I used to know, etc, etc.

Hmmm.

I have grouses aplenty with our illustrious land and I swear some of the things (which I shall not go into) give me heartburn, but looking beyond at the craziness with ISIS in Iraq, the devastation in Gaza and the Ukraine, Ebola/strife/famine in Africa, there is much to be grateful for in peaceful Singapore. So today, rather than gripe, I’ve chosen to list a few things that we should be thankful for:

1. We’re the Little Island that could

For a tiny unremarkable island surrounded by much larger, resource-rich lands, Singapore has no business being a republic. Let’s face it, we have nothing going for us except for our strategic location (now perilously tenuous with rival ports/airports mushrooming around the region) and us – the people. We were a nondescript backwater just a hundred or so years ago but in the last 50 years, we have come far. Today, we’re the island of superlatives – best airport, best port, best infrastructure, ad nauseum. I may chafe and gripe under our overbearing nanny of a government and everything’s getting just too damned expensive, but they have done good in most respects.

2. Things Work

Our infrastructure works. We can complain like hell about the MRT trains not working but try comparing it with the Tube’s infamous Northern Line in London, or the trains that may or may not turn up in Italy. Everything is relative.

Our government agencies may be ngiau and irritating, but they mostly work well too. I’ve only had the best experiences at the ICA. I don’t know of any other country where the waiting time is about 0-10 minutes if you schedule an appointment beforehand. I’ve had my run-ins with the AVA, but even they have been honest enough to return a cheque when I accidentally paid twice for my doggy licence.

3. Our Multicultural Society 

Singapore’s most beloved obsession – food – is a product of our multicultural society. That’s what binds us, it’s what all Singaporeans overseas miss most. I tell my kids that they are lucky that they can enjoy roti prata in the morning, laksa in the afternoon and spag bolognese at night, and all from the nearby hawker centre. That alone is worth celebrating in my book.

Actually, I’ve come to truly appreciate our multicultural heritage more in the past years. It must have been hard going forging a nation of different races and cultures back in the fifties and sixties. My mother still remembers the curfew days in the height of the racial riots and the fear of encountering angry mobs when taking the bus home from work.

Today, however, my close friends are from all races and in fact, people overseas can always make out the Singaporeans because a Malay, Chinese and Indian will share lodgings together. This apparently is quite rare outside of Singapore. And the ultimate sign of integration is when friends can make racist jokes with each other as a sign of endearment and invoke no hard feelings or picketing lines. I see daily proof of it in my son’s school.

But this too is tenuous. Lately, I’ve been seeing xenophobia rearing its ugly head in the name of nationalism. My husband, an outsider, sees this in sharp relief. He has aquaintances who have been targets of ant-foreign sentiment. The rumblings are evident too on social media,  and disturbingly so among youth, who have been vocal with their Angmo-Chinese-Indian-Pinoy-go-home clarion calls.

Yes, we are unhappy with the recent influx of “foreign talent” and my forays to Changi Business Park, the new home of data centres and banking, makes me wonder sometimes if I’ve stepped into Bangalore business park. But weren’t we immigrants and “foreign talent” a mere 100 years ago too? Do we really have a right to deny them the chance of making it in another land?

Switching gears, Chan Chun Sing is not my favourite politician but his thoughts on whether the Singapore we know will be around to celebrate SG100 struck a chord. Looking at port cities that are similar to Singapore in history, Malacca and Venice come to mind. They were illustrious in their day but now they languish only as tourist attractions. They fortunately have the hinterland to buffer their fortunes but we as an island have none. Will Singapore suffer the same fate and worse in the next five decades as China, India, Indonesia and all the other SE Asia rise in prominence?

Yes, the gahmen has focused too much on the economics in their planning and social engineering over the decades to ensure Singapore’s longevity, and they now have the pleasure of dealing with a disgruntled population. However, I do see a genuine effort by the powers-that-be to try to work the “heart” into the equation now.  According to an FB posting, LHL been working on his National Day Rally speech for weeks. It will be interesting to see what is in store.

Red and White Pasta Bake to celebrate National Day

Red and White Pasta Bake to celebrate National Day

Meanwhile, to celebrate our homeland’s birthday, I made a white sauce pasta bake with local and Italian spices, topped with red sundried tomatoes and white mozzarella in honour of our nation’s flag.

Majulah Singapore! You are my home and I hope, for all our sakes, that you will find a healthy, happy balance to your heart and the hard economics of survival in the years to come.

 

 

 

Selamat Hari Raya

The great thing about living in a multicultural society is that you get to enjoy the festivals and gastronomic delights of the various races. One celebration I look forward to is Hari Raya or Eid, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

I have utmost respect for the Muslims during Ramadan. I can’t diet to save my life (to me that’s the ultimate torture) so the thought of fasting from dawn to dusk without water or food for a whole month is completely herculean in my book. It must make their celebrations at the end of Ramadan all the sweeter after such a sacrifice.

Hari Raya at Nenek's

Hari Raya at Nenek’s

During the day, the makciks in my ‘hood cook up a storm to prepare for the feasts that occur at sundown when the Muslims “buka puasa” or break their fast. There are a number of Muslim families that live along my road and the smell of rendang, satay and baking cookies in the days leading up to Eid is mouth-wateringly tantalising. If we’re lucky, the neighbours next door would pass over a basket of kueh, dates and cookies so that we can break the fast with them too. Yums.

Hari Raya is special because I get to visit the Nenek up the road for some truly authentic Malay cuisine. Nenek and her helper, Fatimah, were my first friends when I moved to Bedok, and they have always welcomed me and my family. Nenek speaks no English and my Bahasa Melayu is probably limited to 50 words but we have a wonderful thing going.  Nenek, like all proper makciks,  has a well-stocked spice garden at her place. So whenever we’re out of lemongrass (serai), lengkuas or limau purut (kaffir lime) for cooking, we will run up the road to Nenek’s to grab some. Yep, it’s a real kampung, my ‘hood!

Whole roasted lamb in a bed of briyani goodness

Whole roasted lamb in a bed of briyani goodness

This year’s celebration was an orgy of feasting. First stop, my mum’s neighbours. The Alsagoffs are a venerable Arab family in Singapore, and each year, Hari Raya is celebrated in style at their home complete with marquee, hotel-style buffet spreads of Arabian and Malay cuisine, including a whole roasted lamb resting on a bed of briyani rice. Stomach groaning, we then make our way back to Bedok to Nenek’s for round two.

Hari Raya Goodness at Nenek's

Hari Raya Goodness at Nenek’s

Nenek is 82, but still whips up a mean Serondeng and her home made ketupat is the real deal. Fatimah has picked up all the culinary skills from Nenek and the meal they have waiting for us has been a week in the making: Apart from all the kuih-kuih, there’s Rendang, Masak Kicap, Sambal Goreng, Sambal Tumis, and of course Lontong. Fatimah tolds me that she slept about four hours in the last 48 preparing the food for Hari Raya.

I must have put about about 5 pounds in the last week, but I comfort myself that it’s only once in a while that this happens. Selamat Hari Raya!