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Transmitting our memories to the next generation

Memories of Singaporeans’ childhood are triggered by familiar places, but many of these have been demolished by development, says Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Thus, the Singapore Memory Project is important and stories of the pioneer generation should be passed on through photographs, writings and books, Mr Goh said at the launch of the coffee table book “Once Upon a Tai Seng Village” last Saturday. Speaking off the cuff, Mr Goh recounted his childhood memories and his link with Tai Seng. Below are Mr Goh’s remarks at the launch.

Transmitting our memories to the next generation

(From left): Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong signing a copy of Once Upon A Tai Seng Village for a reader as co-author Ann Phua looks on. At the book launch, Mr Goh recalled how an episode in Tai Seng and Defu Industrial Estate led the Government to change policies to be more flexible. Photo: Facebook/Once Upon Tai Seng

Memories of Singaporeans’ childhood are triggered by familiar places, but many of these have been demolished by development, says Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. Thus, the Singapore Memory Project is important and stories of the pioneer generation should be passed on through photographs, writings and books, Mr Goh said at the launch of the coffee table book “Once Upon a Tai Seng Village” last Saturday. Speaking off the cuff, Mr Goh recounted his childhood memories and his link with Tai Seng. Below are Mr Goh’s remarks at the launch.

I do not do book launches. But when I was invited by Ann (Ann Phua, 64, co-author of Once Upon A Tai Seng Village) to do so, I agreed because this book launch is part of the Singapore Memory project, and it is very important for us to capture our memories.

The sad part about development — about new HDB homes, tall buildings and so on — is that old places have to make way for new developments. So schools have to be demolished, our homes have to make way, and in the case of Tai Seng, the whole village had to be resettled.

My own home in Pasir Panjang, where I grew up, had to make way for a condominium. And those were very happy years for me; I was six to 20 years old when I grew up there.

(But) when I moved to Queenstown’s Commonwealth Drive, a three-room HDB flat, I was happy there because I had modern sanitation. Many of us had no modern sanitation and electricity in our old homes then. Well, that block of flats has now been earmarked for demolition and en-bloc redevelopment. So, those places of my childhood memories are gone or will be gone.

The place where I had the happiest memories was in school, in Raffles Institution. But now, if I walk along Bras Basah road, what do I see? Westin Hotel and high-rise buildings. So the memories of our childhood cannot be triggered by familiar places.

I support this Singapore Memory Project because if the pioneers are gone in 10 to 20 years’ time, their memories will also be gone.

How do we transmit our memories to the next generation?

So people like Ann, who could capture the memories of their grandfathers, great-grandfathers and so on, must put them down in photographs, in writing and in books to be passed on to the next generation. It is not quite the same, but better than nothing. (Ms Phua’s grandfather is Ang Yong Huat, who built the Tai Seng Rubber Factory almost 100 years ago and after which the area takes its name.)

In Singapore, even the dead get resettled! Cemeteries are gone: My own grandfather’s, grandmother’s, my father’s graves are all gone! We used to do Qing Ming (清明). As a young boy, you’ve got to pay respects to your ancestors. All those are gone. That is a very sad aspect of development. But life must go on because life is about the future, not about the past.

Some years ago, I decided to visit my old primary school — Pasir Panjang Primary School. Fortunately, the school is still around.

But I am wrong. It is not the school but the building that is still around. The school has been closed many years ago. The building is now a halfway house for drug addicts to overcome their habit, get taught some skills and so on.

Recently, I visited it with two other schoolmates. We went to the principal’s office and old classrooms, but I purposely visited the lavatory. When I was there (as a student) the lavatory was very smelly and I wanted to see if the smell was still there! But now they have modern sanitation, so there is no more smell.

Now, what is my link with Tai Seng? I never lived here. But as a young minister about 30 years ago, I did walkabouts and they were whole-day affairs. They included Jurong, Sembawang, Yishun, Queenstown and Paya Lebar.

Wherever I went, there were lion dances to welcome me and I would be garlanded and presented with scrolls. But when I came to Lorong Tai Seng, I felt a sudden chill in the air. The people folded their arms and looked at me with very sullen looks; no cheer and no welcome garlands.

I thought, what was happening?

Then I discovered Tai Seng Village was in the process of resettling. Many residents had gone off and few shops were left. The shops that were left had no business. They were not against resettlement. They wanted speedy resettlement of their shops, because each month without business meant losses.

So, (I got a) very cold reception. I went to the stage; instead of giving me garlands and scrolls, they gave me petitions. They were from Defu Industrial Estate — their business was very poor. The manufacturers and tenants wanted to have a change of business as their business was not doing well.

But you know, bureaucracy — rules are rules and you cannot change the use of the factory. There was no business but you cannot change your line of business. So I told them: I will look into the problem, I cannot promise you but I will try to do something.

Fortunately, I was a young minister who was on the way up; so when I discussed the problem with the other ministers, they listened and were reasonable. So, I was able to get a change of use for the Defu industrialists.

The tenants were happy. They invited me one year later to a big party in Mandarin Hotel on Orchard Road. They must have done reasonably well and recovered!

But more importantly, from that episode in Tai Seng and Defu Industrial Estate, the Government decided to change policies to be more flexible. The big policy that they changed was that all industrial estates were to be managed in future by JTC. The HDB was then into industrial estates but the HDB would not be the right owner for industrial estates — they should just build homes. So they passed on the industrial estates to JTC. JTC, of course, understood the changes in business weather for the industrialists better than the HDB.

So, I come here to support your book launch. But more importantly, it is also to signal the importance of the SG50 Singapore Memory Project.

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