#HDB – What it meant to me?

BY LIM LEE LEE

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,
All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.

As my parents got our HDB home in 1977, we’d only stayed there on weekends. However, I refused to follow them every weekend as I hated been confined to the four walls model. As I was a kampong girl, I felt like living in a cage. Life then was more carefree revolving around play. As the kampong was quite vast and we lived like a community, virtually, everything was shared. For example, we had only one dial telephone. When a call came in for someone opposite our home, we would shout, “— phone call!!!”, and the other party would run across. Even television and radio-rediffusion was shared too. Every evening, all the children would gather at our home and we’d watch programs. My auntie would turned up the volume of the rediffusion which entertained us all day long.

Floods and power failure were common occurrences, with snakes invading our kampong trying to kill the fowls that my grandmother reared. Children would be evacuated and the adults would kill it with a bamboo.

My uncle would climb on the rambutan tree to pluck the ripe rambutans and we would catch it before it landed on the ground. Sometimes, my elder cousins would tie a hook on one end of a bamboo and attempted to pluck them.

When ever a power failure came, I’d be the happiest. When the candles ran out, I would take people from place to place within the vicinity. It was fun. I knew my disability had become an asset then. We had a well in which we used the water for washing and bathing. My grandmother had a big basin in which she would filled water from it, released the ducklings to swim in it. I would usually enjoy listening and sometimes be allowed to catch one to play with it.

As we lived under one roof with my uncle’s family, we had two kitchens. As children, we had the privilege to binge.

Every household had to find a way to make a living. As my father had his business, we had no lack. My uncle wass taxi driver and my auntie started a cottage industry making paperbags. As kids, we would help in the various stages so we could earn a small income. It was laborious but we all had fun.

Every Lunar new year, my auntie and mother together with grandmother would bake goodies like egg rolls, kueh bulu, pineapple tarts, etc to usher in the new season. Our reunion dinner would be a bustling affair, after which, we ventured into card games till school came calling. Before firecrackers were banned in the mid 70s, I was exposed to not only the loud “Pop!” but also to set it alight. Was it scary? Hmm! It was just pure fun.

Every evening, the boys would play football or badminton with the girls and we the younger ones would skip or played “Zero point”, hot scotch. We had no lack of entertainment and would invent games to occupy time.

When my other cousins moved into their HDB homes in 1980, my eldest brother, Jay got some puppies from his friend. My best friend then was a 6-month-old alsatian named Susie. When she arrived, she ran to me who had no treat in my hand instead of my brothers who each held one in theirs. We were buddies until she was given to my mother’s brother in 1982 when we had to officially move into our HDB home.

It was a turning point. I failed the PSLE the previous year and was given a second chance. We shifted into our flat in December 1981 in which life was incapsulated in the four walls. I felt miserable and self-esteem plummeted. I buried myself in books, often reading till past dinner time. Besides, I cried a lot and took quite some time to adapt to this new life. I wasn’t allowed to play my favourite games like skipping, etc. When I eventually managed to pass PSLE, my parents attempted to discontinue my education. My grandparents fought for me. Despite acquiring the Orientation and Mobility skill and the correct technique to use a white cane for independent travel, I had to stay in my uncle’s home as it was nearer to Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School which was then at upper Thomson Rd. Reluctantly, I obliged. Like any other youth, I thought I could use my newly acquired tool to be more independent. My parents paid my auntie $50 a week for my food. I was striving for independence, my late grandmother’s cancer relapsed. Although her health was failing she said, “Your ah gong will take you to school every day”. I said, “He is old and I can manage by myself.”. My protest went unheeded until she passed on about two months into my secondary education, on February 26 1983. Then, I saw my world came crashing as she was my strength of support and hero. In my ignorance, anyone can die but not grandmother. I realized the Normal academic stream would set me back by another year. I burrowed myself studying hard, hoping to get into the Express stream. Fortunately, my diligence paid off. I was triggered by my desire to taste hamburger and broached this to my cousin, “If I manage to get into Express stream, you buy me hamburger?” He said, “Ok, I challenge you. Do it!” I scored 78.5% coming in fifth in class and was promoted to the Express stream. On hind side, had to put in a lot more time at work and study harder. Well, basically, the pity party was still carrying on.

I wasn’t really accepted by my peers in school. My results were of average standard after being promoted to the Express stream. It was a constant struggle. I remember failing Math during the mid-year exam of Sec 2, my teacher Ms Joyce Ng said, “How come you fail by so narrow a margin? Do you think you can make it anywhere in life?” The inferiority complex just sank in deeper and I delved into a world of my own, although I seemed to be physically present around others. Ms Kim, my English teacher gave me an assignment to present about latch key children. After the presentation, she said, “You did very well despite the lack of resources”. I was motivated for a while.

During Secondary three, AISS shifted to the current venue in Yishun. It switched from the afternoon session to the morning session. My father would pick me at my uncle’s home every morning to send me to school. After one semester, I thought, “This is ridiculous. Why all this back and fro?” One Sunday, my father took me to my uncle’s home to find me at home the following day after school. From then on, I went everywhere from home, which was a victory for me. I wanted to make a statement that I was no different from other youth, the desire to attain independence for my own good. My father would send me to school directly and I’ll make the homeward journey by myself. I remember one occasion, as I was about to change bus from the Ang Mo Kio bus interchange and was trailing along the sidewalk when, suddenly, a lady tripped on my cane. When she got up, said, “You blind devil, stay at home”. I was stunned and did not reply. My friend said loudly, “Scold her, she is pregnant. Curse her baby”. I told my friend to let it go for the baby was innocent. Forgive and move on. In case you are wondering why I had to trail along sidewalks etc, this is to help blind people walk in a straight line and to locate the way to the next destination. Ms Deborah Ng was the resource teacher. She not only gave us extra lessons to enable us to cope with our work, she also helped strengthen my typing skills on a conventional typewriter, an asset till this day. My results were horrible for my O-Levels exam and I couldn’t get into any institution to continue my education. I took two subjects as a private candidate. It was during this time that my friend Claudia said, “They are holding an audition for XinYao. Shall we try?” I agreed and we made it through the audition. Barely a week later, I found myself singing to thousands of people, standing on the stage at Bras Basah Complex. The bigger surprise came when the very next day, our photograph was splash on every mainstream newspaper. Did I just become famous?

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