Violet Neo: Beauty queen and navy volunteer

A radar plotter, a beauty contestant and a trainee amateur pilot at one point, Madam Violet Neo was always a bit of a rebel as a young woman.

In 1963, the self-professed tomboy and youngest of three children saw a newspaper ad and decided on a whim to join the fledgling Singapore Naval Volunteer Force, the predecessor to today's Republic of Singapore Navy.

Once a week after work, the 18-year-old would take a bus to the naval base in Woodlands. With a group of secretaries and bank officers, she learnt to march and fire a Browning T-bolt rifle.

"They brought us down to the rifle range to practise," recalled Madam Neo, now 69 and a housewife. "I remember the rifle recoil was like a mule's kick."

That same year, she was mobilised for full-time duties as a trained radar plotter when Indonesia embarked on Konfrontasi, or "confrontation" against the formation of Malaysia with the merger of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. She was later deployed as a clerk in the Central Manpower Base at the old Kallang Airport.

But the tomboy also blossomed into a stunner.

Against her parents' wishes, she later signed up with a modelling agency, trading her military uniforms for midriff-baring outfits to become a pin-up model in ads for Fraser & Neave and ICI Dulux, commanding an impressive pay of S$300 per hour.

"An officer told me that one of the medics kept a calendar of me on the wall for three years," she said with a laugh.

It was again this adventurous spirit that took Madam Neo to the Miss Singapore Universe contest in 1968, where she placed second.

She represented Singapore at the inaugural Miss Asia Pacific International in Philippines that year, where she won the Miss Friendship award.

"It was unforgettable - I sang the National Anthem on stage and I met Ms Imelda Marcos," she said of the Philippines' former first lady, a fellow pageant queen.

In 1970, she made headlines for being Singapore's first woman to learn flying at Seletar Airport, though the hobby did not take off.

"I stopped after four lessons - I found out I preferred having my feet on the ground," she said.

Madam Neo mellowed only after she married her husband, Mr Martin Tay, in 1970. He was a fellow army clerk she met during her volunteering days.

Leaving the runway behind, she settled down in a four-room flat, where she still lives, raising her three boys, Nicholas, now 34, Noel, 37, and Dominic, 42.

She remembers being one of the first few residents at Yishun Ring Road in 1995. "I much prefer the old Yishun. It was quieter, less crowded then. The MRT ended at Yio Chu Kang and we didn't even have a proper bus stop then and everything we needed, we got from a small wet market."

But while she has made a life and home for herself in Yishun, her happiest days were spent growing up with her two siblings at a terraced house on Still Road.

Playing by the verandah back in the 1950s, they would often see a train of elephants pass by their home, led by a mahout.

Invariably, at least one would find their mother's sugar canes irresistible, make a detour onto the lawn and tug a few out of the ground as a juicy treat.

"We would see the elephants break the sugar cane before tramping off," she said with a chuckle. "My mother got so fed up, she dug them all up and planted flowers instead."

It was also a time of fresh produce: Madam Neo remembers an Indian man who would go door to door with his cow selling milk that was squeezed on demand.

Hawkers slinging big pots of piping hot pig organ soup and wheeling kolo mee carts would call out their wares from the road.

Today, her perspective on life has changed somewhat.

"Now, home to me is family, where my children are. The place doesn't matter so much," said Madam Neo, whose husband died of lung cancer this February.

She now spends her days at home cooking for her children sometimes, and tending to her hibiscus plants and pets: She has two mixed-breed dogs, seven hamsters and four tanks of fish.

While it is a far cry from her younger, crazier days, she said with a smile: "I've seen and done things, I've experienced it all, so it's okay. I have no regrets."

This article was first published on July 12, 2014.
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