'People's history' brings out the Singapore story

'People's history' brings out the Singapore story
(From left) Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and President Tony Tan sharing a light moment with former satay stall owner Ngalirdjo Munjin, 94, and his grandson Khalil Ramlan, 29, at the launch of the book yesterday.

When Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew promised in the 1960s that 50,000 flats would be built in five years, the unenviable task fell to Mr Alan Choe, the country's first town planner.

"Back then in Asia, nobody had attempted so much high-rise building at such a scale and in so quick a time," said Mr Choe, now 84, and whose story, along with those of 57 others, is chronicled in a book titled Living The Singapore Story: Celebrating Our 50 Years 1965-2015. "We had no examples to learn from."

So the Housing Board architect planner and his team improvised. Instead of bricks, they used cement blocks three times the size of the bricks.

"They were of good quality and kept houses well-insulated."

Initially, the team also built smaller one-room and two-room flats to make up the numbers. By 1965, they went beyond expectations and delivered more than 54,000 flats, some in Singapore's first housing estates - Queenstown, Toa Payoh, MacPherson.

"The most challenging part was surveying the land we wanted to build on," Mr Choe said. "Gangsters ruled their own turf. My friends told me, 'If you go in, you may not come out', so I always went with security officers."

The book, commissioned by the National Library Board and produced by The Straits Times Press, was launched by President Tony Tan Keng Yam at the National Library in Bugis yesterday.

Professor Tommy Koh, who chaired the book's advisory committee, called it a "people's history" - a patchwork of personal anecdotes which, together, form the Singapore story. It features people from all walks of life, from the late Mr Lee to 13-year-old indoor skydiver Kyra Poh.

There is also former satay seller Ngalirdjo Munjin, 94, who taught himself how to make satay and went on to own a successful stall at Sims Place Food Centre; and former domestic helper Kwan Chan Yong, 85, who stayed with the same family for 60 years. Former Singapore Airlines chairman J.Y. Pillay, 81, also gives a frank account of SIA's beginnings.

Most of the 58 Singaporeans featured attended yesterday's launch. Said Prof Koh: "It is the stories of these Singaporeans and their virtues of hard work, discipline, courage, self-sacrifice, willingness to embrace change and can-do spirit that we wish to celebrate."

Putting the book together was not easy, said Straits Times editor at large Han Fook Kwang, who led the project. "It would have been much easier if we had done it, for example, by featuring national leaders or describing historical milestones. We feared though if told this way, it would make for an overly familiar story well-known to many."

The book, co-authored by Straits Times journalists Angelina Choy, Cheong Suk-Wai, Jennani Durai and former journalist Cassandra Chew, is priced at $19.65 and available at all major bookstores and on amazon.com

It is also available for loan at the National Library.

"I'm honoured to be part of this book - it's a once in a lifetime chance," said Raffles Hotel employee Leslie Danker, 76, whose journey from maintenance man to a resident historian at the establishment, is told in the book.

"I'm just passionate about what I do. And by doing what we do best, we are each part of the Singapore story."


This article was first published on May 16, 2015.
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