DURING the week when all of Singapore was grieving the death of their founding father, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, I was reading Josephine Chia’s “Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong” (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013).
It was very timely, for this book turned out to be about the establishment of Singapore as an independent republic half a century ago. And the man who rallied everyone in a former British colony and also a former island state member of the Federation of Malaya was Lee, of course.
The book is subtitled “Life in Potong Pasir, 1955 to 1965.” It is creative nonfictional work divided into 11 chapters representing 11 years of the turning point of Singapore’s postcolonial history. “Kampong” is a Malay word for village while “gotong royong” is the Malay phrase for “coming together of the community to help and sustain each other.”
In her foreword, Chia describes gotong royong in the Kampong Potong Pasir of her childhood: “Multiracial communities lived in the kampong like an extended family where everyone’s doors were kept open, neighbors kept a look-out for each other and the children played with one another without any thought of discriminating against the other for being of a different race. This is kampong spirit at its best.”
Life in Potong Pasir is a life of poverty. Josephine’s family lived in a small wooden house infested by rats and cockroaches. They don’t have electricity and running water. The outhouse toilet is shared by several families. Chia and her friends would look for food and toys in the garbage thrown out by English families living in grand houses on top of the hill near their kampong.
Chia recounts her mother’s hardships: “Growing up in the kampong, we were deprived of many comforts. Our family was extremely poor. There were days when we did not have any food to eat. Some days it was just soy sauce on boiled broken rice, the lowest quality of rice which was used as feed for chickens. But the greatest thing we had was our mother’s love. She was as special lady, beautiful, devoted, compassionate and inspirational, not just to our family but to all the other villagers.”
Like most of the fathers during that time, Chia’s father did not believe in educating women. But Josephine’s mother was able to convince him to let their daughter go to school. Her father allowed Josephine to study as long as he would not spend for it and she would help her mother sell cooked food to finance her education. She was more than happy to do it.
“Kampong Spirit” is full of memorable real life characters. Like Karim, a cheerful young man whose day job is to collect the filled buckets of the outhouses but is a first rate singer. He was hurt badly in the infamous riot between ethnic Chinese and Malays in 1964 and he lost his voice and zest for life. There is also Parvathi, Josephine’s best friend who dreams of being free killed herself to escape marrying an older man arranged by her father.
And, of course, Lee Kuan Yew, who was already a Prime Minister at the age of 36, and who cried on TV when he announced on Aug. 9, 1965, that Singapore was kicked out from the Federation of Malaya. Singapore is very small and has no natural resources, not even enough fresh water for its people.
“I have a few million lives to account for. Singapore will survive,” he said with conviction. And the rest, as they say, is history.
“Kampong Spirit ” is a good read. Not only engaging the reader emotionally—I laughed and cried in the many parts of the book—but also enlightening and informative about Singapore’s early history. It really deserved to win the Singapore Literature Prize 2014 for creative nonfiction. Reading this book is not only like opening a window to Josephine’s heart but also to the heart of Singapore.
She is proud of her Peranakan heritage. Peranakan is Singapore’s version of our Intsik. Her father was Chinese and her mother, Malay. Her fiction and nonfiction is published internationally. She has lived in London for over three decades but is now back home in Singapore where she recently enjoyed a writer’s residency to write her third novel from the Gardens by the Bay and the Singapore National Arts Council.
“I grew up in a kampong in a poor family. But I am not ashamed of it,” she told this writer without a tinge of bitterness.
In fact, she always smiles. And when she smiled, her beauty reminded me of the orchids and the bougainvilleas of Singapore.
Last December, I spent Christmas vacation in Singapore and Malaysia with two friends. On New Year’s Eve, we were on the 48th floor of Marina Bay Sands watching the fireworks below on Marina Bay. On the water below are giant letters “SG50” formed by thousands of white and red balloons.
This 2015 Singapore is celebrating its 50th year as a nation. While looking at the skyscrapers around the colonial district and having enjoyed the efficient facilities (like the train system) of this garden city, I wondered what happened to the Philippines? Why is Singapore so advanced and the Philippines so backward when our country celebrated its centennial in 1998?
I can’t find any definite answer during that time. Until Lee Kuan Yew died last March 23 and I read Josephine Chia’s “Kampong Spirit.”
The Singapore of today is made possible by a leader who was really sincere in serving its people. Our country is not lucky to have a leader who is sincere enough to serve the Filipinos. This was why I cried when Lee Kuan Yew died and when I finished reading Josephine Chia’s beautiful book.