A Woman of Substance: Sister Valerie Tseng IJS

Sister Valerie in the 1950s
Sister Valerie in the 1950s

Sister Valerie Tseng, or Aunty Mary will celebrate her 91st birthday this year. It will also mark the 62nd year of her vocation as a nun with the Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a Catholic order founded in France in 1675.

While many of us would be in awe of her life-long commitment to her vocation, it is her achievements within the Order that mark her truly as a woman of substance.

Sister Valerie was born in 1924. She was the third in a large family of eight siblings, and the only girl. Originally named Mary, she was confident, intelligent and outspoken. They were Anglicans but after a few years of attending school at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, she and her brothers, who attended St Joseph’s Institution decided to convert to Catholicism. She remembers that her brothers egged her on to represent the siblings to get permission from her mum and dad. Her parents were strict, and it took guts to broach such a sensitive topic, but she did it. The parents relented, and they converted shortly after.

Aunty Mary never intended to be a nun. She was a qualified teacher, had a steady boyfriend and the plan was to get married and settle down.

Mary at her family home

God obviously had other plans for her.

It was 1950. The boyfriend had gone for an extended business trip to India. While he was away, Aunty Mary went with her friend, Margaret, to Kota Kinabalu (it was called Jesselton then) to promote the Legion of Mary in the nearby villages. The mission trip was far from easy. There were no roads, no running water, no proper sanitation. Her mode of transport was on foot via  muddy ruts through padi fields and the Mill House Congregation of nuns that worked in the area lived with only the barest of necessities.

It was then that she received the calling to serve.

“Why me, Lord? I have a boyfriend already!” was her initial reaction. Confused, she returned to Singapore and went to her parish priest, Father Meisonniere, for guidance.

Father Meisonniere, however, sent her on her way. “It is not a calling,” he told her. Little did she know that this was actually the padre’s test. The religious life was not for everyone, and it would mean a lifetime of sacrifices for Mary.  If the calling was real, it would persist.

Mary (centre in flowered dress) with her family

True enough, the gentle urging never went away. “No matter how hard I tried to push the voice away, it kept coming back,” she reminisced. She was conflicted and confided in Margaret. “If I were you, I would go see Father again,” urged Margaret. When she went back again to see the priest, he knew that this was the real thing. “When he finally confirmed that this was genuine and I accepted that this would be the path I would take, the urging went away and I felt a great peace,” she said.

In her nun's habit
In her nun’s habit

The priest then asked her which religious order she planned to join. The Mill House Congregation based in Jesselton was her first choice but at the time, they did not accept local girls, as it was a British order. The Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus (now known as the Sisters of the Infant Jesus) was the other option that she was familiar with but it was not her preference. She had an unpleasant experience with a few of the Lay Sisters, Europeans who were too “colonial” in mindset. They were kind and friendly to the privileged but were rude and gave no time of day to the poorer students. Father Meisonniere had a different view point. “Pray, don’t imitate the Lay Sisters. Be a good religious and an example for them to follow,” was his advice.

A full fledged sister of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus
A full fledged sister of the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus

So it was settled. Mary joined the Infant Jesus Sisters and was sent to Penang. After her first year, she took the first formal step with the Pris D’Habit, or the donning of the habit. Wearing the nun’s habit in the fifities was a sacrifice in itself. Made for the cold European climate, the habit was made of serge and and comprised many layers. Aunty Mary remembered quite a few novices passing out from the heat at the Pris D’Habit ceremony – it was just too hot in those clothes!

As a young nun, Mary’s task was to teach Mathematics to the senior middle students in the Ave Maria Convent in Ipoh, a task she initially found daunting as she felt she was not qualified enough to teach Advanced Mathematics. Nevertheless, she soldiered on.

Three years flew by and in 1957, Mary travelled to Paris, France where she received her Final Vows and took on the name of Sister Valerie. Thereafter, she was sent to Liverpool in the United Kingdom to study Advanced Mathematics for a year before returning to Malaya to teach.

The Malaya that Sister Valerie returned to was radically different. It was no longer a British Colony and was now an independent nation. As a holder of a Malayan passport, Sister Valerie taught at the IJ Convent in Pulau Tikus, Penang, for the next 13 years.  A capable and strong leader, Sister Valerie was eventually elected Mother Superior in Malaysia.

In 1971, Sister Valerie was sent to attend the General Chapter, a meeting of the IJ Order that took place once every five years to chart the future of the Order and to elect the international leadership team. At the General Chapter, Sister Valerie was one of five Council members elected to assist the Superior General, Mother Maria Del Rosario Brandoly, in leading the Order. This was a significant step as Sister Valerie was the first ever Asian Sister to be elected to the Council. She went on to serve two terms on the Council, each lasting six years.

For the next 12 years, Sister Valerie was based in Rome, Italy, as part of the core group that developed the new constitution for the Order. As part of the Council, she had a hectic schedule and travelled the world, accompanying the Superior General in seeing to the smooth running of the Order. Not unlike a busy CEO, Sister Valerie travelled from Japan to Spain to Bolivia, learning Spanish, Japanese and Italian to better communicate with the people in each market. She did not like Rome much – ‘much too hot in Summer, and dust everywhere!’, but relished her travels, as it opened her to new experiences and viewpoints in engaging with the community and ensuring the growth and renewal of the IJ Order.

With IJ students in Malaysia
With IJ students in Malaysia

When her term was over, Sister Valerie returned to Asia where she was tasked with explaining the recently amended constitution to IJ institutions in the region. Ironically, despite being home, she did not feel entirely welcome. The nuns in Asia were too much in awe of her ‘seniority’, and kept her at arms length. “They sent me to Cameron Highlands when I first returned. I guess they had no idea what to do with me and probably felt a little threatened. It was a bit of a double-edged sword,” she mused.

Sister Valerie, ISJ, hale and hearty at 90 years
Sister Valerie, IJS, hale and hearty at 90 years

Over the years, she went wherever she was needed, travelling throughout Asia and moving from Convent to Convent in Malaysia as a teacher.

Today, she lives quietly in Johor Bahru, still helping out with the community. Until recently, she cared for a little girl who was abandoned by parents who were drug addicts. Looking back at her life, she says simply: “This was my path. The Lord had planned it this way. No matter how hard you try, if he calls, you follow, or you will never truly know peace.”


Lee Kuan Yew: Not the Leader, but the Man

Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015, photo from The Straits Times
Lee Kuan Yew, 1923 -2015, photo from The Straits Times

The mourning for Mr Lee Kuan Yew has passed. This week, as we go back to our daily duties, I wonder if we will continue with the status quo.  Already, the naysayers are slowly coming out of the woodwork and populating social media, bringing up the negative aspects of LKY’s legacy to provide balance to the overwhelming positive tributes of the local media in the first seven days following his death. I suspect the literary juices of many will continue to flow: The Man, his policies, history, personal life, public life, the good and most definitely the bad – all these will continue to be dissected and covered in minutiae.

What really touched me, however, was how we Singaporeans reacted. Watching the emotional eulogies at Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral service that was broadcast live on TV, I was surprised at the depth of feeling that we displayed at his passing.

100,000 people came in the rain to bid LKY goodbye
100,000 people came in the rain to bid LKY goodbye

Last week, emotionless, sterile, robotic Singapore came together in a beautifully touching show of grief and solidarity that has never, ever happened in this young nation’s history. Our apathetic hearts thawed when we saw Lee Hsien Loong barely hold it together as he fought back the grief of a son, to deliver the message of his father’s passing, as Prime Minister.  Then over the days, we read the stories of LKY’s deep, abiding love for his wife, stories of his immense frugality, the random acts of kindness, and that unwavering sense of duty to his country.

We saw the tremendous queues at the Padang as State funeral for Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yewalmost half a million Singaporeans patiently waited up to 10 hours to pay their respects to LKY at Parliament House. We saw the millions of heartfelt notes, tributes, flowers and tears. We saw the 100,000 people lining the procession route as they came to bid the Man farewell.

I am a daughter of Singapore. I have known LKY all my life. Every Singaporean of my generation has. For the first 20 years of my life, LKY was Prime Minister and he was my other father. Just as strict, he was always telling us Singaporeans what to do, who we should marry if we were graduates or not, if we should stop at two children or have three, not to litter and definitely not chew gum. Some of his policies and laws bordered on the draconian, but if you tried to stand up to him, be ready to get smacked down. Many of his opponents, real or perceived, were swiftly removed and put away under the Internal Security Act.

Lee kuan yew pictures10_0_1“If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.” The Man and His Ideas, 1997

Even after giving up the reins as PM to Goh Chok Tong, we could feel the long arm of papa LKY. He was a punishing taskmaster and ruthless in his goal of building a first world Singapore. His exacting requirements and attention to detail were legendary. Friends in the diplomatic service and media pool would tell me of the feverish preparations they would make before meeting the Man, for anything short of perfection would be a mortal sin and they would have been roundly chastised.

It was said that Deng Xiao Peng used Singapore as a case study in modelling Chinas economic reforms
It was said that Deng Xiao Peng used Singapore as a case study in modelling Chinas economic reforms

Before his death, LKY, to me, was a superhuman. A man that I greatly respected from afar but with no deep emotional attachment. After all, he was a demi-God operating in another sphere, too far beyond the reach of mere mortals like me. Generations of leaders from the US and China sought his advice, for heaven’s sake. I suspect, like most Singaporeans, we were lulled into complacency that LKY would live forever.

Didn’t he famously say at a National Day Rally in 1998: “And even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

But the inevitable happened, the demi-God died.

lee-kuan-yew-funeralThe pathos and outpouring of grief that followed is perhaps a reflection of the foibles of human nature. we had come to realise last week that we had lost a living hero of our time. One that we had not truly appreciated enough. We cried because through the many beautiful stories and anecdotes that have been shared, we had now come to realise that this demi-God was actually one of us.

convent girlsLKY’s youngest son, Hsien Yang, nailed it in the final eulogy of the service. “And although he kept the two threads of his private and public life apart, and shielded Mama and the children from the glare of the media, in his passing, the two threads come together as we share the grief of loss.”

As a communications professional, I know of the power of stories, but reading the personal anecdotes of people who have interacted with LKY have really touched me, and I suspect many other Singaporeans. We saw facets of the Man that we were not privy to before. As a tribute, here’s a compilation of anecdotes, quotes and excerpts of LKY, not as the feisty leader, but as a father, husband and friend:

The Love Story

lky-bridge-2503eEven his children did not know that LKY had secretly married his sweetheart, Kwa Geok Choo, in Stratford-Upon-Avon when they were both reading Law at Cambridge. This was only revealed when he published his memoirs. Their love spanned 60 odd years.

PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Eulogy: “They were a deeply loving couple. She was his loyal spouse and confidante – going with him everywhere, fussing over him, helping with his speeches, and keeping home and hearth warm. They were a perfect team, and wonderful parents. When my mother died, he was bereft. He felt the devastating loss of a life partner, who as he said had helped him to become what he was.”

File photo shows Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee and his wife Kwa attending a May Day rally in SingaporeLee Wei Ling, daughter of LKY: “… over the years, especially after my mother’s health deteriorated after she suffered a stroke, my father was the one who took care of her. She clearly indicated she preferred my father’s care to that of the doctors’, in itself a revelation of the quality of his care.

He remembers her complicated regime of medications. Because she cannot see on the left side of her visual field, he sits on her left during meals. He prompts her to eat the food on the left side of her plate and picks up whatever food her left hand drops on the table.

I have always admired my father for his dedication to Singapore, his determination to do what is right, his courage in standing up to foreigners who try to tell us how to run our country. But my father was also the eldest son in a typical Peranakan family. He cannot even crack a soft-boiled egg – such things not being expected of men, especially eldest sons, in Peranakan families.

But when my mother’s health deteriorated, he readily adjusted his lifestyle to accommodate her, took care of her medications and lived his life around her. I knew how much effort it took him to do all this, and I was surprised that he was able to make the effort.

lkyvalentineLKY at his wife’s funeral: “Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life… I should find solace in her 89 years of a life well lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sorrow and grief.”

lky wife funeral

LKY’s wishes addressed to his children: For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama’s, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.”

Total Commitment to the End:  LKY’s Red Box

This was publ20150324_redbox_mciished in The New Paper: Mr Lee Kuan Yew always had a little red box with him at work. The box would arrive at work before the man and he would bring it home with him after work. The red box, a large boxy briefcase about 14cm wide, was a hand-down from the British days, when ministers would use them to transport documents between offices. Singapore’s early ministers all had red boxes as well, but Mr Lee was the only one who continued using his 50 years on, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat recounted in a Facebook post. Mr Heng worked for Mr Lee as his Principal Private Secretary from 1997 to 2000.

Mr Lee’s box contained a wide range of items, including his draft speeches, letters, readings, and a whole range of observations, reflections and questions that he had scribbled down. Mr Heng wrote: “It could be communications with foreign leaders, observations about the financial crisis, instructions for the Istana grounds staff, or even questions about some trees he had seen on the expressway.”Mr Lee was well-known for keeping extremely alert to everything he saw and heard around him – when he noticed something wrong, like an ailing raintree, a note in the red box would follow.”

He added: “Inside the red box was always something about how we could create a better life for all.”

Even when Mr Lee was in hospital in 1996 to for balloon angioplasty to insert a stent, he asked his security officers for his red box – soon after regaining consciousness and sitting up in the hospital bed.

Mr Heng said that the red box symbolised much of his former boss’ “unwavering dedication to Singapore”.

“The diverse contents it held tell us much about the breadth of Mr Lee’s concerns – from the very big to the very small; the daily routine of the red box tells us how Mr Lee’s life revolved around making Singapore better, in ways big and small.”

Mr Lee was admitted to hospital on Feb 5. He continued to use the red box until Feb 4.

Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat: “As his PPS (Principal Private Secretary), I saw the punishing pace of work that Mr Lee set himself. I had a boss whose every thought and every action was for Singapore. In fact, I think the best description comes from the security officer who was with Mr Lee both of those times. He was on Mr Lee’s team for almost 30 years. He said of Mr Lee: “Mr Lee is always country, country, country. And country.””  

Frugal LKY

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has said that one key lesson he learnt from Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew was on frugality, something that he exercised both personally and in Government.

shortsHe said: “His exercise shorts for example – for 17 years he wore the same shorts. And when it tore, he patched it up, or his wife patched it up for him. That is the man. And he was very careful with Government money in the same way because it is your money.”

Lee Wei Ling on LKY’s frugality: We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.

My father’s frugality extends beyond lights and air-conditioners. When he travelled abroad, he would wash his own underwear, or my mother did so when she was alive. He would complain that the cost of laundry at five-star hotels was so high he could buy new underwear for the price of the laundry service. 

LKY, The Friend 

The Tale of Four Powerful friends

ST-Lee Kuan Yew & Henry Kissinger
LKY with Henry Kissinger

Once they were powerful. Dreaded. Admired by many, hated by some. Their lives are coming to an end. Yet, there is still one story to tell, the story of a friendship. It is about four men who cannot be more unemotional. Helmut Schmidt, Lee Kuan Yew, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz: cool, if not cold, power-hungry politicians. Yet, for more than forty years their friendship has been close, almost intimate. Now they are slowly saying their farewells to each other.

ST-Lee Kuan Yew & Helmut Schmidt
LKY and Helmut Schmidt – their last meeting

Singapore, at the beginning of May, conference room “White Magnolia” at Shangri-La Hotel. Helmut Schmidt wanted to meet with Lee Kuan Yew, the founding premier of the Asian metropolis, for the last time. He has not looked forward to a trip for a long time as much as this one to see “Harry”, how Lee Kuan Yew has been called among his friends since he was a student at Cambridge in England. From Singapore he will be travelling to China for five days, also a long-cherished wish.

Schmidt is 93 years old. Who would still go on a 15-hour trip from chilly Hamburg to hot and humid Singapore at that age? In March, his doctors gave green light: the thrombosis he is suffering from does not prevent him from flying.

Lee, 89 years old, wrote to him to say how happy he was about the visit. Also, that his friend would need some rest after arrival, at least one night, to overcome the jetlag. The next evening he would invite him to dinner.

Afterwards, they want to sit down together on three afternoons, to talk with each other. About China, America, Europe – the big picture, in the way they always used to do. A book shall be produced, a collection of their conversations on the world’s situation. Neither would accept anything less.

And then the conversation begins very softly. “My wife passed away and left me at the age of 91”, says Helmut Schmidt. “Loki died at 91?” – “Yes, it was a big loss. Must be the same for you.” – “Yes, it creates a deep hole in our life, nothing can fill it.”

Excerpt from article by Matthias Nass, Article in Zeit Magazin (5 July 2012)

Squatting By the Sea

It’s F1 weekend and the jetset are in town for some vroom.  With the impressive line-up of after track entertainment, Singapore’s all geared for some hedonistic partying in and around the deluxe tents set up along the circuit.

But just a few kilometers down along the ECP, there are tents of a very different variety.

photo 2 (16)Primary schools were closed today for the PSLE, so I went for an early morning beach walk with Megan. As we passed the usual joggers and aunties practicing qi gong, I pointed out the “permanent tents” set up on the beach to the daughter.

At first glance, you’d think that these are weekend campers but a closer look tells another story. The tents have an added sheet of tarpaulin to prevent wear and tear and trolleys bearing all manner of household items are parked alongside. An assortment of chairs are strewn haphazardly around the area and clothes recently washed at the East Coast Park toilets flap happily on lines strung up between coconut trees.

Welcome to Singapore’s “squatters”.

photo 1 (1)From newspaper reports, these are believed to be individuals displaced by divorce or bad times. With nowhere to go or stay, they have set up permanent camp by the sea. Campers generally need permits that are valid for a few days, but these are very obviously staying for longer. I saw a whole family that had parked their tents conveniently by a park gazebo, the stone benches turned into make-shift tables bearing newspapers, deck chairs, pots, bikes, canvas bags of clothes and I-don’t-know-what. You know, the kind of stuff you’d normally find in a well-lived home.

In the toilets, I see the families washing their clothes and utensils. Others are sleepily brushing their teeth. One of them turns to glare at me, silently accusing me of invading her private bathroom when I go in to wash my hands.

This weekend, Singapore will turn on the glitz to show the world her shimmering beauty. Just don’t look too hard under that glamorous veneer though. You might see a non-too-pretty underbelly beneath.

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.


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!

Letter from The Past

An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past
An old letter from Peking that tells a little more of our past

This post would be appreciated most by the Tseng clan, but anyone with an interest in old letters and China in the last days of the Qing dynasty may find something in it.

My Uncle Michael (Mike) Tseng faxed me an old letter a few weeks ago. It was dated 1978 and possibly the last letter from a relative still residing in China to our family. It was written by our Grand Uncle, Professor Gordon Kuo Cheng Wong, to Roland Tseng, eldest son of Harry Wei Han Tseng.

The letter sheds a little light on the childhood of Peter and Harry, the forefathers who brought us Tsengs to Singapore. I’ve tried to copy it verbatim so you’ll see some grammatical mistakes (this was not his native language), but bits have faded away and the Chinese characters are garbled.

Bear in mind that when he wrote this, he had been living in Communist China for decades already and correspondence with family and friends outside China would have been limited. It’s long but it is family history, after all:

Peking, March 10, 1978

My dear Roland,

 It is indeed a great surprise to me to receive a dear letter from the Tseng’s family. Your brother John’s last letter to me, was about a year ago. I was longing for his answer, but no result. I don’t know the reason and I am intending to write to him, and I get yours.

As relatives, the Wong family and the Tseng family were very closely and intimately related to each other. In the olden days,  I and your father lived, ate, drank and slept under the same roof, and went to school together. That was a joyful and delightful memory. It is my duty to tell you your family tree and our relationship. It was so many years ago, and now I am already seventy-five years old and have a bad or poor memory of the past which was so many years ago. But anyway I shall try my best to recollect and to tell you what I can remember (of) the old facts. To begin with, in regard to your family tree. As far as I can remember your great grandfather when I was only three or four years old, I saw him. He was a tall fellow, with a small moustache under his nose and wearing spectacles. At present, I cannot recall his name.*  He spoke very good English and was educated in Hongkong. He had a wife and a concubine with six sons and nine daughters. His first son or eldest one was your grandfather (Ho Tung) had a wife and two sons. The eldest son (Wai Mun)** your uncle, you must have seen and his family when you were young in Singapore. The younger son was your father (Wei Han).

Your grandfather was a customs clerk for the Ching dynasty which was controlled by the Imperialist British and other foreigners. The foreign service commissioner, because your father was in ill health, dismissed him. He was out of a job then. So since 1908, he and his family came to Hankow and lived with us and were taken care of by my mother and father. We were getting along very happy and well. Your father and uncle’s education was taken care of by my father*** because your grandfather was out of a job, without any income. Their early education, in the middle school in Hankow was (XX–couldn’t make out the Chinese character) middle school. I and my sisters with your father and uncle went to the same school. Later your father and uncle were graduated from XX school,  and they were sent for higher education to Shanghai, St John University, this was also taken care of by my father. While in the University, your father was a good athlete, he was chosen to be the team member of the football and crew varsity team.  

Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.
Staff of the Bank of Communications in China. My father, Peter Wai Mun is seated cross legged. His Uncle, the head of the bank is on the extreme left.

In 1914, my father was transferred to Singapore as the Manager of the Bank of Communications, then my family and your family were all sent to Singapore and lived together. Your father and uncle then worked in the Bank of Communications as accountants and ever since your family has settled in Singapore.

In 1919, I as an overseas’ representative, took an examination in the Chinese Consulate office, got the scholarship and entered the Tsing Hua College in Peking. This college was sponsored by the American Boxer Indemnity Fund board and was controlled by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. When I graduated (I was) automatically sent to America for high education. When I went to America in 1926 I entered Oberlin University in Ohio and in 1923 I went to New York to take up graduate study in Columbia University till 1931, then I came back to China and worked in the banks***. After liberation**** I and my family came to Peking and got into the Institute of Foreign Trade, as professor. In 1972, I retired with a monthly pension. Now I live in a suburb in the northern part of Peking. 

Your ancestors’ place of origin or native place was the village (Sai Kiu San or Xi Qiao Shan) in the county (Nan Hai) Kwangtung (GuangDong) Province in South China.

Your great grandfather (Tseng Hai) was born in Hong Kong and educated there an once the Consulate-General of Honolulu for several years, after retired he died in Hongkong.

Your father (Harry Wei Han) returned to China twice:

1)In 1925, I was in Tsing Hua College then, so I did not see them. Your father and mother came to Shanghai, to paid a visit to my father and mother and your sixth granduncle and they also visited Hangchow, I was told they had a very good time. Your granduncle had no son, so he adopted your father as his legal son. My father was the witness, and your father was entitled to at least a share of your granduncle’s inherited properties. But after the death of your granduncle, his second wife ran away with the inherited properties, perhaps to Hongkong, nobody knows.

2. In 1932, when he came to Shanghai to attend your sixth granduncle’s funeral, which I did not see him also because I was not in Shanghai then and went for a business trip. So far the above summary, are what I remember now and later if I recall anything regards your family  shall write and tell you about it. Good-bye and good luck to you and your family.

Yours affectionately,

K.C. Wong*****

*He was referring to Tseng Hai, father of Tseng Ho Tung, my great grandfather

**Wai Mun was my grandfather, Peter Tseng

***I know, the dates don’t add up but that’s what was on the letter

****Notice that he called the rise of the Communist regime “liberation”

*****KC Wong was the son of Tseng Ho Tung’s sister, who married into the Wong family who managed the Bank of Communications.




Simple Lives: The Tale of Nelly and Rosy

Nelly and Rosy Tseng in 1949
Nelly and Rosy Tseng in 1949

This is the tale of two sisters, Nelly and Rosy.

Nelly was born in 1924, the fourth of a family of nine kids. She was small, rail-thin and frail.  Plainer, quieter, gentler and more retiring than her other sisters, you could call her the runty one in the family.  The one who would stay home and serve, the one who would not likely marry.

Rosy in her hey day
Rosy in her hey day

Rosy, born three years later, was vivacious and smart as a whip. She had a formidable memory, and even without the benefit of any schooling had taught herself enough to do simple accounting and book keeping.  Less kindly people would have called her calculating because of her strong personality and frank tongue. To me, Seventh Aunty (let’s call her Gu Por as that’s what my children know her as) would have been a brilliant CEO if she had the chance.

My aunts were like chalk and cheese, but they were inseparable, bound by the tiny horizons set upon them as women of that generation and the circumstances in their lives.

Samsui women http://bit.ly/ScI0TI
Samsui women http://bit.ly/ScI0TI

Like the heroines in any Jane Austen novel, marriage was the sole ambition of most Chinese women with no education right up to the fifties. Those who did not get the chance to marry ended up as servants, sam-sui women labourers (lady construction workers), hawkers or seamstresses. Otherwise, they ended up as the  spinster aunties to be called upon to help with the nieces and nephews of their married siblings.

Breaking out of the mould, to go out into the workforce and to lead an independent life, this would have taken sheer courage and a devil-may-care attitude for a woman with no schooling  in those times. Even now, most of my friends would have at least one unmarried aunty or two, and yes, it was and still is usually their lot to look after kids, grand-nieces or nephews and the old ones in the family.

Okay, back to my aunties.

Gu Por had a beau when she was young, a strapping, handsome young man. He was her grande passion. They pledged their hearts to each other and when he went away to America to study, he promised that they would marry when he returned.

And yup, you guessed it. He never returned.

He died tragically in a car crash while in the States. Gu Por’s heart was broken, and from that day on, never looked at another man. Finding a future beyond the family for herself, contemplating a career somehow was never an option or even a consideration. She just turned inward to her family, and thus to her mother, my grandmum, and to Aunty Nelly, who remained while all the sisters married out to larger lives beyond Number 12, Siang Lim Park, Geylang.

My childhood is filled with memories of my two aunts. They were always there in their flowered samfoos. If they were not helping my dad out at our home during the times when mum was in hospital, they were  pottering around in the kitchen or sweeping the garden of their pre-war home in Geylang. They used to make little paper monsters for me when I was very little (they had the strangest names – Hood-tutus – must throw in Cantonese accent), and taught us all traditional Cantonese rhymes, cute verses that my sisters and I remember to this day.

Maybe it’s the richness of the Cantonese language, but my aunts also had the absolute best descriptions of people they encountered. Aunty Nelly was particularly adept. A young nephew with fair skin and a sharp nose was “bird-head” and “white board boy”; a skinny man was “Mr shoulders-higher than-ears”; a cousin that hunched was “camel-back girl” and another one “tortoise-boy”. Nobody was immune, everyone was labelled. Forget political correctness and sensitivity. It was not ill-meant and it was just their way. If you had a nick-name, consider yourself lucky. You were family.

Nelly and Rosy, 1987
Nelly and Rosy, 1987

My aunts’ little lives revolved round household chores, gossip and the church. Like frogs in wells, they bickered and chafed over the pettiest things. They were complete OCD cleanliness freaks, and I often marvelled how many times they could sweep one floor in a day. Yes, they’d fight over cleaning too, but come end of day, all was forgotten. Umbrellas in hand and rosaries in tow, they would then walk amiably arm in arm together to Queen of Peace church for their daily mass and devotions.

As a child of a luckier generation and the benefits it brings- education, career opportunities, travel and wide, wide horizons, I have often wondered what it would be like if our lives were reversed and I lived the life of my aunts. It is said that those who have more will always want more, and I guess I am no different. One thing I know.  I would have totally hated the confines of their tiny worlds.

But. But…

I do not think they were any less happy than I. They accepted their lot and they gave grace in the fastidious way they tended to the simple details of their day. They have since passed on but the memories of their presence, the Cantonese culture that they passed on have left their mark on me and my sisters. It is part of who we are.

Perhaps that Paulo Coelho adage is true, and one I should constantly bear in mind should I get tetchy and discontented: The simple things in life are often the most extraordinary.

Of Qing Ming and Aeroplanes

I don’t observe Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day but a coffee chat with one of my oldest friends, V, reminded me of the quirkiness of this Chinese festival that recently took place in early April.

Qing Ming falls on the 15th day after the Spring Equinox. On that day,  many Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to pay their respects and also to give the graves a good cleaning.  When I was young, dad used to drive the family, complete with pails, brooms, brushes, detergent and gardening tools to remove stubborn weeds and wash a year’s worth of grime from Grandma’s and Grandpa’s graves at the Bidadari cemetery.   These visits became less and less frequent with dad’s advancing age. Eventually, they petered out altogether when the cemetery land was reclaimed by the government and the graves all exhumed.

Now most Chinese pay their respects by visiting the niches in the neatly laid out blocks of the various columbariums throughout Singapore. Yes, these are the perils of living in a land-scarce country. Even the dead are relocated to HDB block-equivalents!

V paid her respects during Qing Ming by visiting her late grandparents’ niches. Being the caring eldest grandchild that she was, she went one further. Her grandpa never got to travel in an airplane in his lifetime, so she thought that a little springtime jaunt would be a nice gift to him.

An Airbus 380, no less, for V's Grandpa
An Airbus 380, no less, for V’s Grandpa

V bought an airplane, complete with air tickets and itinerary, as well as a passport.

Air Tickets & itinerary for the afterworld
Air Tickets & itinerary for the afterworld
Passport for the dead, very authentic except for the typo!
Passport for the dead, very authentic except for the typo!

 All these were purchased at a very reasonable $20. The next step was to make sure he got his gifts. These were offered before his niche before burning.

photo 4 (1)

When V told me what she did during Qing Ming, I just knew I had to share this. It was bizarre, funny but also very, very sweet. Love shows itself in various forms, and I’m sure V’s grandpa would have been very touched by his grand daughter’s loving,  filial actions.


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