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More Singaporean stories please

Chua Mui Hoong

Sun, Aug 12, 2007
The Straits Times

I HAVE always loved listening to old folks tell stories, especially if the stories have something to do with my own life.

I used to love it when my immigrant parents told me tales of hardship and deprivation and tales of simple joys.

I was privileged in the last week to have had occasion to listen to two elderly raconteurs' tales about Singapore.

The first was Mr Rudy Mosbergen, 78, who was my principal at Raffles Junior College over 20 years ago.

This was in 1986. Although he was already principal, he personally coached a group of us who were taking the History S level.

We were told we were the first students from Singapore ever to attempt that paper. Mr Mosbergen, a veteran history teacher, stepped in and supplemented our teachers' lessons with additional coaching.

In those tutorials, he did not focus on content or facts. Instead, he told us stories about war and introduced us to ideas about history. One book he recommended, What Is History by E.H. Carr, blew my 18-year-old mind.

During the examination, I spent three enjoyable hours writing a long essay on the mutability of history and did well.

I always thought those tutorials with Mr Mosbergen played a part in cementing a lifelong love of history.

So I was delighted when I had occasion to listen to his stories again. He has published a book, In The Grip Of A Crisis, that tells of a teenager's experiences through the Japanese occupation in Singapore.

I brought him to Queen Street, where he used to live, and asked him to describe the street as it was in the 1940s.

Across the road, he said, was a boarding house with Japanese fishermen. Beside it was a house where the hylam (Hainanese) cooks lived.

Next to his house, where the Oxford Hotel now stands, was the site of the former headquarters of the Malayan Communist Party.

'I used to see Chin Peng walking along this street. He was a lively man, full of laughter, talking loudly, giving an impression that he was in complete control,' Mr Mosbergen told me, referring to the communist leader.

Later, in the car, he told me about playing hockey for Singapore in the 1956 Olympics, and of being organist at St Ignatius and other churches for many years.

Vivid stories bring the past to life. As humans, story-telling and myth-making are embedded in our brains.

Joseph Campbell, the scholar of myth, wrote: 'Mythology is apparently coeval with mankind...Signs have been found which indicate that mythological aims and concerns were already shaping the arts and world of Homo sapiens.'

In a fascinating book, Why God Won't Go Away, a study of brain science and the biology of belief, scientists Andrew Newberg and Eugene D'aquili argue that the way the brain works to make sense of the world helps explain the prevalence and deep-seated appeal of myth and stories.

They point to two 'cognitive operators': the binary one in which things are understood in opposition to each other; and the causal operator, in which things are understood to have cause and effect.

With brains predisposed to thinking in binary and causal terms, stories that explicate twin dualities (good and evil) or causality (evildoers get punished) have strong resonance for the human mind.

The book's insight helps explain why humans place such great store by stories and myths.

Singapore too has its store of myths. Many of them hark back to the founding years: the struggle against the communists and the communalists for example.

The values of hard work, sacrifice and competence form the moral fibre of today's Singapore and are the stuff of which national education is made.

But it takes more than dry preaching of values to inculcate a sense of who we are as a people. Often, it takes good story-tellers to distil the essence of an era in one or two choice anecdotes.

Sitting in the old Parliament House chamber on Monday, I was among those who listened as Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, 83, reflected on the past during a seminar organised by the EDB Society and The Straits Times.

Skilfully prompted by seminar moderator Patrick Daniel, Mr Lee cast his mind back to Singapore on the cusp of Independence, and in a few minutes sketched for the audience the sheer desperation of the situation.

Singapore even sent a trade mission to East Africa, so keen was it to suss out any opening, he recalled.

Mr Daniel, who is editor-in-chief (English and Malay Newspapers) at Singapore Press Holdings, asked how Mr Lee and his colleagues came up with the strategy of leapfrogging the region to create a First World oasis in a Third World region.

Mr Lee replied by telling a story of how he spent a semester in Harvard and other American institutions to understand America.

Meetings with business and academic folks helped Mr Lee crystallise his realisation that businessmen would invest in a country with a low-cost, well-educated workforce. The issue then was how Singapore could make itself attractive to these investors.

'That's how the concept arose. It wasn't pen and paper, blank sheet of paper and a group of people came out with ideas, no.

'It was interaction with the world, with what was going on, with people who knew what was happening, then we came back, assessed our make ourselves relevant...That is how it happened.'

Mr Lee also described how postal workers' unions enlisted his help as a lawyer - a well-known fact. What came through in the retelling, though, was how that shared experience forged a bond with the unions.

'So when we became independent and we had to fight the chaos that the communists had created - strikes, go-slows, shut-outs, lock-outs and so on - we never considered the option of putting down the unions because that would go against all the things that we've been fighting for.'

Instead, Mr Lee said, the option was to 'bring the unions round' with the promise of better jobs and pay.

Thus was laid the foundation of Singapore's consensual industrial relations.

Listening to Mr Lee in the historic chamber, there were moments when little light-bulbs of 'uh-huh!' went off in my mind and pieces of local history fell into place. Video clips of the event can be found at

Singapore is fortunate that pioneering citizens like Mr Lee and Mr Mosbergen are around to share their tales. For it is through such story-telling that younger citizens develop a sense of what it means to be Singaporean.

Chua Mui Hoong alternates with guest writers in this weekly column.

Copyright ©2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.
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