My Grandmother Story

This year’s National Day Message strangely – and yet fondly – reminded me of my late grandmother’s life story.

Born and raised in Singapore, my grandmother came from a long line of Peranakan ancestry that hailed from some province in China. She learned how to cook and sew by the time she was ten years old – a mandatory rite of passage every little nyonya has to undergo in the lead up to the ripe age for marriage.

But I clearly remember my grandmother whispering to me years ago how, like me, she too was not quite fond of either cooking or sewing. So sometime along her early teenage years, she found a job as a washing lady for the British households. It was a better adventure, she said. To walk to these concrete quarters, instead of staying home in the kitchen. That was how she picked up the English language, and eventually met my late grandfather, a Malay police officer.

They fell in love, she converted to Islam and started a family of their own. This somehow created a rift between her and her parents, interracial relationships were a sore subject back then. Together they raised five children, my father being the youngest in the family. Sadly, I never got to meet my grandfather – he lost his life while on duty.

Being a single mother was, and will never, be an easy task. To survive, my grandmother took on more washing jobs, moving from one colonial house to another with five little ducklings in tow. On some days, she took up odd sewing jobs, mending pants and fixing buttons. Whatever gave her an extra cent or two. It was only at night, when all five kids were fast asleep in the tiny shed they called home, that she could finally breathe easy. My grandmother learned Arabic from her neighbours, and taught herself how to read the Quran. She believed that to raise good Muslim children, she first had to be familiar with the basics of the faith.

Then came the racial riots of 1964. Together with another Malay family, they hid at the back of a nearby Indian shophouse when news of the impending melee had spread earlier in the day. There were fiery clashes earlier in the week, and word had it that it might reach their kampung. They stacked furniture against the doors and windows. The men stood guard at the entrances, ready to defend. My grandmother armed herself with a sharpened wooden plank and laid awake all night with her four younger children close by. Her eldest son did not find his way back to the shophouse that night, and she never saw him again.

When the British left, my grandmother lost her job as a washing lady. So she focused on improving her sewing skills, and became a seamstress’ assistant. Later on when Texas Instruments opened its first plant, my she found a job as an assembly worker and learned basic electrical skills. With the money saved, she eventually moved into her first flat along Circuit Road with her children, where she would stay until her last breath.

But how is this related to the National Day Message?

Each time I visited my grandmother, she would repeat these three points to me in one form or another:

  1. Never be afraid to learn new things. It will be scary at first, but it always gets easier with time.
  2. Life will always throw curveballs when you least expect it. Take it in your stride, move on, and be better.
  3. You are your own limit. Dream big, work hard, be brave, and stay tough.

Cross-referring this to the National Day Message, PM Lee Hsien Loong said:

  1. On Jewel: “We are very proud of our new gateway to the world. It reminds us what makes this country special. It shows that Singaporeans not only have the creativity and daring to reinvent ourselves, but also the passion and competence to turn dreams into reality. As you might expect, other cities and airports are already planning to emulate Jewel, and perhaps even do it bigger and better. But we dared to attempt the new, and we did it first. 
  2. On Challenges: “This year, our economy has slowed down. Global demand and international trade have weakened (…) But other parts of our economy are still doing well. We have experienced such slowdowns before, and we will take this one in our stride. Should it become necessary to stimulate the economy, we will do so. (…) Throughout our history, when trials and tribulations have beset us, we picked ourselves up, and worked together to overcome them. Each time the world changed, we were able to survive.
  3. On Limits: What limits our possibility is not the physical size of our island, but the ingenuity of our people and the boldness of our spirit. Our island-story has many more bright chapters to unfold. Let us – today’s Singaporeans – be as intrepid as our ancestors who came from distant lands and made this their home; and be as tough as our parents and grandparents who endured war and occupation and rebuilt their lives.

I suppose it is quite strange to say that the National Day Message was a fond reminder of my grandmother’s words; words that she would lovingly whisper to me even as dementia deteriorated her memory. But it did.

I am acutely aware of how the world is shifting towards a more troubled phase. The trade war, countries looking inward, and then there’s climate change. I worry for my parents and my family, because the future is ambiguous.

But it gives me confidence in knowing that Singapore has a good track record of getting her act together and sail through even the darkest of storms. The seas can get rough, but I believe that we are cut from even tougher cloth. That we would pick ourselves up, brush the dust off our knees and move on. That has always been our signature Singapore style.

This long weekend marks our National Day, Hari Raya Haji, as well as my grandmother’s fifteen year death anniversary. To all Singaporeans have a Happy National Day, to my Muslim friends Selamat Hari Raya Haji, and to my grandmother, Al-Fatihah. May you rest in peace.