Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Poverty in Kebun Ubi and Visits to Outram

Geylang Serai in the 1950s
(courtesy of
 Poverty in Kebun Ubi and Visits to Outram
“Ada ubi ada batas, ada budi ada balas”

“Geylang si Paku Geylang,
Geylang si Rama-rama,
Pulang Marilah Pulang
Marilah Pulang Bersama-sama”

When the printing press at Hale Street, Ipoh, was seized by the Brits, Bapak moved the family back to Singapore - to take up a sales job with Kodak (Singapore) Pte Ltd and to room in at Ustaz Jalal’s house in Geylang Serai, where he first sighted Mak in 1942.  A decade later, they returned with two children in tow and one due any time, to take up the spare room on the ground floor next to the kitchen.  Jamal, named after the Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, arrived at Wak Aman’s house on Lorong 37 in late January 1952 after Mak had gone through three days of intense labour.  Mak was already weak and had almost given up pushing the baby who was breeched.  It was only after Bapak had jumped several times over her stomach while she was lying on her back on the wooden bench in the cramped kitchen that the baby’s bottom shoved its way through her birth canal.  When she had gained strength a week later, they returned to Kampong Ubi.  Ustaz Jalal’s house, deep in the heart of Geylang Serai, had no supply of tap water so it could not double up as a labour/delivery room.  Abang Hatta had to help carry water from the old well in the backyard or the public tap by the main road that cut through the maze of houses before or after school.      
            Abang Hatta was already eight going on nine years old.  If I remembered correctly, he was enrolled at Telok Kurau English School, which was about one and a half miles from Geylang, if he cut through Joo Chiat Road.  Mak’s brothers – Wak Asan, Wak Aeng, Wak Aman and Pak cik Pom – were all English-educated and white-collar workers at government agencies or private companies.  In a few of the black and white photos in Mak’s collection, they were either dressed in Western office clothes – pressed long pants, white long-sleeve shirts, matching ties and smart jackets – or modern sports wear – white collared-shirt tucked into white culottes – with badminton or tennis racquets with their co-workers after work.  Mak, I was certain, must have wanted her eldest son to follow in her brothers’ foot steps. 
Kak Eka was seven then and was admitted into Primary One at Playfair School on Playfair Road, which was about a mile away from Geylang.  I could only recall a photograph of her with her hair split into two braids and dressed in sports uniform of white short-sleeve shirt and checked green shorts standing in front of a row of timid looking girls in the school field.  But I remembered well the faded photographs of Mak, Abang Hatta, Kak Eka and baby Jamal looking gloomy in grubby clothes in the bleak backyard of Ustaz Jalal’s house.  Mak gave birth to Yat (Noor Hayati – ‘the light of my life’ in Arabic) on November 14 1953.  Bapak must have been able to afford the hospital fees because she was delivered at Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital.  I was not sure if the family had moved out of Ustaz Jalal’s house by then. 
Mak was seven months pregnant with me when Bapak was arrested for smuggling firearms from Indonesia into Singapore and detained at Outram Jail.  Bapak’s arrest and court trial was another disappointment for Siddi, who had just returned from Makkah to accept the appointment as mufti (Head of religious affairs) of Selangor.  Bapak was sentenced to prison for collaborating with the enemy of the colonial state but Mak stood by his belief in the concept of ‘Maphilindo’ (Malaya-Philippines-Indonesia)*, a return to a pre-colonial Nusantara that would to be totally free of Western control. 
The years leading to the declaration of Malayan Independence in 1957 were very volatile.  There were frequent clashes between the different ethnic communities and the British colonial government.  In 1950, the Malays came to blows against the Europeans/Eurasians over the Singapore High Court ruling on the Natrah case.  Natrah was a young 13 year old Dutch girl who was adopted by a Malay family when her biological parents were taken as prisoners of war by Japanese troops who invaded Java in 1942.  A Malay woman, Mak Minah (Aminah binte Mohamed), adopted the five year old Maria Hertogh who was renamed Natrah binte Ma’arof when she embraced Islam the following year.  When her parents were released after the war, they searched and found her and Mak Minah, who refused to return Natrah to them since the girl had expressed her wish to be with adopted mother.  In 1950, the Hertoghs filed for the custody of their daughter.  The court case stretched into a long-winded legal drama, where the Hertoghs alternately won, lost, and won again.  Nadrah, at that time, was already legally married to a young Malay man, Mansor Adabi, since she had reached puberty a year earlier.  In spite of her consent to her marriage and her open display of attachment to Mak Minah and her husband, the High Court ruled that she be returned to her biological parents.  With the support of the Malay community and the Malay press, Mak Minah appealed against the ruling of the High Court but, on 11 December 1950, the colonial court threw out their appeal after less than five minutes’ deliberations.  This angered the crowd who thronged outside the court house.  To them, it was a blatant display of bias by the colonial government towards their fellow Europeans. “It was an unfair treatment of the locals by the colonial government” screamed the headline in the front page of the Utusan Melayu.* Anti-colonial sentiments ran high and the Muslims could not contain their anger when they attacked the gloating Europeans and Eurasians.  Eighteen people died and almost 200 were injured at the end of the three day riots, when the police finally clamped down on the protestors on 13 December 1950.  A few days later, Natrah was taken to the Netherlands by her parents.
Meanwhile, the struggle for self-governance was split between the leftist and the moderates.  The left-wing political parties such as Malayan Democratic Union believed in self-governance by overthrowing the capitalist/colonial powers but the moderates such as Singapore Progressive Party and Singapore Labour Party believed in talks and co-operation with the Brits.  The Labour Front led by David Marshall won the Municipal Elections in 1955, where they were granted limited self-government with the Brits maintaining control in areas such as internal security.  David Marshall became the first Chief Minister of Singapore but resigned the following year when he failed to negotiate for full self-government.  Lim Yew Hock, who took over from Marshall, cracked down on the Communists and their leftist affiliates to impress on the Brits of the local leaders’ ability to weed out “subversive elements”.  The Communists’ support base was mostly among the poor and the Chinese-educated, who were protective of Chinese education and culture.  The Brits had declared a state of Emergency in 1948, where they warned the people about the Communist threat and rewarded those who helped fight the Communist insurgents.  Left-leaning parties such as PKMM, API and AWAS were banned and their leaders detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).  Although the Communist armed struggle had fizzled out by the mid 1950s, their influence was still present in trade unions and the Chinese school system which led to student protests, strikes, riots and clashes between them and the police in May 1954, May 1955 and October 1956.*                      
The People’s Action Party (PAP) was founded in November 1954.  After the Malayan Independence on August 31 1957, a municipal election was held in December of the same year, where the PAP won 13 seats making it the majority representation on the city council.  The party’s treasurer, Ong Eng Guan, was made the first mayor of Singapore.  People crowded outside City Hall to listen to his fiery speeches against colonialism.  And in the first General Elections in 1959, the PAP once again emerged as the victor when it won 43 out of 51 seats.  Singapore was granted internal self-government and Lee Kuan Yew became the first Prime Minister.  Yusoff Ishak became the first Malayan-born to be the Yang Di Pertuan Negara on December 3 1959.  The state flag and crest were created to evoke a sense of belonging to the new nation.  The national anthem, Majulah Singapura, was written by composer Zubir Said and aneka ragam ra’ayat (open air cultural concerts) which featured entertainment by all the major ethnic groups were staged to bring the masses together.        
Soon after I was born at Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital on December 2 1956, Siddi sent Ami Sahak down in his big maroon Mercedes to fetch Mak and all the five children to Klang.  Sitti consoled Mak by taking her to social functions and outstation trips.  Mak never tired of talking about her visit to the Governor Tun Uda’s residence in Penang when I was a few months old.  However, one of her sisters-in-law, who was at that time in between marriages and living under the same roof, was envious of her parents’ affection for her brother’s wife.  She would deliberately leave big loads of soiled clothes in the bathroom for Mak to wash, without her parents’ knowledge.  Mak decided to cut short her stay and took Yat and I back to Singapore, leaving Abang Hatta, Kak Eka and Jamal in Klang.  The reason she gave to her parents-in-law was to visit Bapak in prison.  During her visits to Outram, she would bring his favourite food and Players cigarettes in a can.  There was a photo of me when I was less than a year old in a short-sleeve ribbed singlet and cotton short pants, seated on the table in the prison’s visiting area between Mak and Bapak.  Mak would delight in relating the story of how she used to ask me,
“Where’s Bapak?”
And I would point to the sole of my foot, which is ‘tapak’ in Malay.  When Kak Eka packed her bags and return to Singapore from Klang, Mak was already taking other people’s clothes to wash at the public tap by the road side.  We were staying in one of those units that were part of an extension of the main house, which belonged to the landlord.  My childish antics and tantrums were their main source of entertainment to lighten the burden of their daily drudgery.  They would recount over and over about how I was such a control freak before I could even walk properly.  After Mak had done washing other people’s laundry late at night, she would take the short cut home by jumping over the ditch.  Every time she or Kak Eka jumped, I thought I would fall off from one of their waists, so I insisted that they take the long way and cross the small bridge over to our rented unit.  (Yat was about four years old, so she could jump over the ditch with a little hep from them).  They must be too drained after their late night chores to entertain my dictates that they put me outside and closed the door.  I was determined to show that I was not afraid until I saw a rat passed by.  I got up, hollered ‘Bintoyot’ (cincorot) and pounded on the door.  Those were hard times but Mak and Kak Eka managed to laugh over my antics and the idiosyncrasies of some of our visitors and neighbours.  There was one fellow named Najib who would push aside the wall calendar in his next door unit to peer through the hole that he had bored in the thin wall.  When queried, the student from Kelantan would respond: “Ini lube buak nginta-nginta” (This is a peep-hole that I made to see what the next door neighbours are up to).  Not long after, Mak got news of Abang Hatta’s fall from one of the big trees in the yard of the government quarters in Klang. She asked him to come home to our crammed unit, furnished with only kapok mattresses and mosquito nets, and he did. 
When I was about four or five years old, we moved to a one-bedroom unit in the middle of those rows of wooden houses in Lorong K, a few yards from the shop lots which ran parallel to the Central cinema and a mere walking distance from Wak Asan’s house in Jalan Taugeh.  It was at the junction between Lorong K and Jalan Taugeh that I first encountered the Lok Tang (a Taoist monk) dancing in a trance and smoothing her cheeks with charcoal-heated iron.  On some nights, we could hear the high-pitch voices of the actors performing on stage in the Wayang Pek Ji (Chinese opera), with regular clanging of the cymbals, in the vacant lot next to the Central cinema.  The Lok Tang, the characters in the Wayang Pek Ji, the Benggali man who went around with a sickle and a sack supposedly to harvest children’s heads to appease the spirits of the bridges and the Benggali snake charmer who performed ‘magic’ tricks with the help of his son under the angsana tree on East Coast Road were ‘villains’ that Mak used to scare us from venturing away from home.                
Bapak must have been released from Outram by then since I remembered him humming to the tune of P. Ramlee’s ‘Tiada Kata Secantik Bahasa’ (No words as sweet as speech), which was a popular request by radio listeners at that time.  He seemed to be in a good mood most of the time, bringing home a miniature plastic snake curled in a plastic basket and a wooden bedroom and kitchen set for me to play with.  But as the need to provide for his family grew, he spent more time away from home, either in Klang to persuade Sitti (who always had a soft spot for her first born son) to sell his share of the family estate (the bulk of it was 114 acres of land in Perak and Selangor which belonged to her and Siddi) for him to start a business venture or at one of his project at that time, such as the paddy field in Kahang which he started in the early ‘60s.   
·         Kampong Ubi started as a tiny settlement in the nineteenth century when the Malays who lived in stilt houses at Kampong Busong along the Singapore River mouth had to make way for the Brits’ trading activities.  The Brits’ use of the sea lanes and immigrant Chinese and Indian labour pushed the coastal Malays inland, where they settled on the banks of the Geylang River.  There they formed the core of Kampong Melayu in Geylang, which in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was known as Geylang Kelapa (coconut).  The settlement was called Geylang Serai when lemon grass (citronella) was cultivated in place of coconuts and processed in a factory named the Citronella Press near the river bank.  The word "Geylang" was believed to be a distortion of the word kilang (factory).* Other than planting farm produce for their own sustenance, the Malays of Geylang also reared poultry for their meat supply.  In the early 1960s, you could find cockerels perched on branches, mother hens pecking for worms on the muddy ground followed by their tiny yellow broods, irate geese and ganders chasing strangers and crabby turkeys roaming around.  As the population grew, the area for farm land shrank.  After WWI, the settlement grew eastwards away from the river and, by late 1920s, more Malays from other parts of the island moved in and settled there.  In the early 1940s, Geylang fell to the Japanese forces which entered through the east coast via Tekong and Changi.  Food shortage and famine during the Japanese Occupation forced the people to grow ubi kayu (tapioca), instead of coconut and rubber, as a substitute for rice.  That part of Geylang where tapioca was grown was known as Kebun Ubi or Kampong Ubi.  Among the bushes on the tapioca farms, you could trip over tomb stones of fallen Japanese soldiers.  The post-War population explosion led to overcrowding and depressing living conditions.  The crammed ramshackle houses, the meandering dirt roads, the lack of water supply, proper drainage and sanitation - the overall sense of deprivation - manifested itself into rising social problems. Strained family relationships ended in domestic violence and divorces among married couples; gangsters and runaways among young men and women.  The social landscape beyond Geylang Serai was also changing rapidly.  The 1950s were the heydays for Malay political, economic and cultural consciousness in Singapore.  Angkatan Sasterawan 50 (ASAS 50) or Singapore Writers Movement, with its motto of “Seni untuk masyarakat” (Art for Society), was churning poems, short stories, essays and plays.  Masuri SN, Samad Ismail and Usman Awang were among the better known proponents of ASAS 50.  Since the early 1900s, journalists and literary writers had been active in social and political movements to improve the lot of the Malays in Singapore.  Among the pioneer journalists who championed Malay rights was Mohd Eunos Abdullah, a member of the Johor royal family who managed the first Utusan Melayu (1912–1914), a translated version of the Singapore Free Press.  He was the first Malay to serve in the Legislative Assembly and was conferred the prestigious Justice of Peace (JP) award.  In 1926, he founded the Kesatuan Melayu Singapura (Malay Union Singapore), which was the first quasi-political body in the Malay world.  Mohd Eunos also played a pivotal role in lobbying for the opening and expansion of settlements for the Malays.  Jalan Eunos which I passed by almost everyday to school, to Central or Gelang, was named after him.
·         Ahmad Ibrahim was another ‘big name’ that Mak loved to mention.  He was a lawyer and a member of the Municipal Commission, who played a crucial role in the appeal for Mak Minah’s custody of Natrah in 1950.  Ahmad Ibrahim studied law at St. John’s College, Cambridge, under the Queen's Scholarship in 1935.  He graduated 1st Class in Economics and Law in 1939.  A decade later, he contested as an independent in the Municipal Commission Election and won.  He was the Republic of Singapore's first Attorney General and later the Republic's ambassador to Egypt.  He was appointed as Professor of Legal Studies at the Faculty of Economics and Administration, University of Malaya (1969–1972), Dean of Faculty of Law, University of Malaya (1972–1983), Professor Emeritus, University of Malaya (1984) and the Shaikh and the Dean of the Kulliyyah of Laws, International Islamic University of Malaysia (1983–1999).  The Kulliyyah of Laws was later renamed Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws (AIKOL).  His writings on civil law and Islamic jurisprudence are regarded as international references.  After his passing, AIKOL established the Ahmad Ibrahim Memorial Lecture.  IKIM later instituted an academic project on his works.
·         It was not all poverty and squalor, racial tensions and discontent, gloom and doom for the Malays in Singapore in the ‘50s.  There were educational, literary and cultural programs organised by Malay Youth Literary Association (4PM) and a cultural body known as Sriwana.  Sriwana was founded in 1955 by Nongchik Ghani, a writer and cultural activist who was also involved in the Anglo-Malay Evening School and 4PM.  He served as Sriwana’s secretary for 40 years, during which time he wrote several stage dramas and choreographed musicals such as Singapura Dilanggar Todak (Garfish Attack on Singapore).  Wak Nyok’s children – Abang Imat, Kak Imah, Kak Pet, Kak Lina and Tena were active as musicians, vocalists and dancers in Sriwana in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.


shasel said...

Salam Sis Rabiah

Thanks for sharing this story.
Can you please contact me via
FB if you get this message?

I have a friend (Mazni) who wanted
to get in touch with you cos she
was your neighbour at Kaki Bukit.

She tried to send you a note here
but in vain. Alternatively, please
send me a personal message via

Thank you. My FB nick is Sha Sel

BaitiBadarudin said...

Dear Shasel,
Thank you for visiting and letting me know of a long-lost neighbour. My apologies for not noticing and publishing comments from readers due to the new dashboard format. I've already sent a PM via your FB.
Please convey my salam to Mazni!