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Keeping watch for 31 years

Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre's longtime caretaker shares his fond memories before the centre closes. -ST
Cheryl Faith Wee

Tue, Apr 02, 2013
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Mr Othman Bessir Ahmad, now 60, was a Primary 2 pupil when he first moved into the caretaker's house at the landmark Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre (Tapac).

It was 1960, and the centre was then the Telok Ayer Primary School and his father, Mr Bessir Ahmad, had been appointed its caretaker.

For more than 40 years, Mr Bessir Ahmad lived there with his family - his wife Paina Eamon, Mr Othman and eight other children before most of them got married and moved out - until he died about 20 years ago, aged 73. He breathed his last in the caretaker's house.

Mr Othman, the second of the nine children, took over as caretaker of the grounds in 1982, after the school was shut down. It was converted into the arts centre in 1985.

In his time as caretaker, he has sneaked peeks at more than 100 performances at the centre - from Malay and Chinese drama to dance. Arts groups usually rehearsed in what was once the school canteen.

He recalls: "I liked the dramas best because some of the stories were really interesting."

But by the end of next month, he will say goodbye to the place he has watched over for the past 31 years.

According to the management committee of the centre, today is the last day for the centre's 23 arts group tenants to vacate the building. They include dance group Odyssey Dance Theatre and local literary arts company Word Forward. Some, however, have asked for an extension of a week or so.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority has plans to redevelop the site, but it is not known what will happen to the buildings in the compound.

What will remain - for a little while, at least - will be the six banana trees Madam Paina, now 84, has planted in the compound. In the few decades since, they have grown to more than 3m tall.

A 5m-tall chempedak tree also towers over the small caretaker's house, which is next to the front gate. The house, however, has not changed much. It has a living room with a sofa set, coffee table and an old television set, a kitchen and two bedrooms. It is roughly the equivalent of a one-room HDB flat.

Mr Othman moved out in the 1990s and now lives with his homemaker wife, 48, her parents and her brother's family in a four-room HDB flat in Yishun. The couple have no children.

But his mother, Madam Paina, still lives in the caretaker's house with one son, 52, who is unemployed, and his family. Her daughter-in-law is a housewife in her 40s and there are three grandchildren, aged between six and 12.

The caretaker takes either the bus or the MRT to the centre every day, arriving at around 9am and leaving at around 10pm. His main role is to keep mischief-makers out of the compound and ensure nothing goes wrong within. He also keeps the grounds and buildings clean. After he leaves for the day, his brother who lives there takes over the watchman duties. It is an arrangement they have had for more than 20 years, and the caretaker's brother is not paid for helping out.

In a chat, Mr Othman brings up many memories.

As he had attended the now-defunct Telok Ayer Primary School back then, he could never skip classes. "The teacher would come knocking on our door and I would hide under the bed," he says, laughing.

On Sundays and holidays, he and his siblings would play hide-and-seek in the empty classrooms, canteen and school hall. While the canteen and classrooms - up till recently used as offices and rehearsal space by the arts groups - still stand, the school hall has long been demolished.

When Mr Othman completed his primary school education, he worked other jobs, such as a messenger for High Street offices, before starting work as a caretaker.

He was paid $500 a month at first. Ten to 15 years ago, this was increased to $800.

In the past few weeks, Mr Othman has watched arts practitioners moving out of the centre. He says he will miss them, but that "life is like this".

While he has to look for a new job, he is most worried about whether his mother can adapt to life in an HDB flat. She is likely to move into a rental flat that his younger brother is applying for.

Mr Othman, himself, will be missed.

Ms Zizi Azah, 32, the artistic director of theatre company Teater Ekamatra, which was at the centre for 20 years, says: "He looked out for us in his own way and we would see him walking around when we had rehearsals. He would help us relay messages. Sometimes, he would pop into our office for a chat.

"Tapac is synonymous with him because he has always been there."


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