Monday, October 1, 2007

All fired up by shared memories

30 Sep 2007, ST

By Mathew Pereira

I HAVE been carrying around in my car a letter I received in May this year. I have pulled it out on several occasions to read it, sometimes just portions of it, at other times the whole letter.

It was written and sent to me in response to a column I had written a few weeks earlier on Kolam Ayer Estate - a small, kampung-like place I grew up in.

The letter writer, who is close to 80, said that she and her brother had enjoyed the piece.

But it was not for the nice things she said that I decided to keep the letter in my car. Rather, it was because of an immediate connection I felt with her after I had read it.

Usually, responses I get from readers would be about how they agreed or disagreed with me, or to give a different take on what I had written - intellectual responses.

But in this two-page handwritten letter, the writer opened her heart to me.

She had lived at MacPherson Junction which was very close to my old estate. She remembered the huge incinerator in Kolam Ayer Estate and even knew the 'big boss of the incinerator', and her siblings had studied in St Andrew's School - all landmarks I had mentioned.

The column sparked in her memories of her younger days and also of her father 'who was a writer in the Press once'.

I could tell from her tone that, like for me, the area she grew up in was special and it brought back fond memories and that we, having lived there, shared a common bond.

In spite of her not leaving a name (she signed off as 'A senior citizen') or address (she wrote 'Somewhere in Singapore') I felt a connection.

It was the same kind of emotions that were evoked in me when I walked through some stretches of the galleries of the Army Museum, which was officially opened last Thursday.

There is a section which showcases the stories of servicemen, along with their friends and families. The photographs of old soldiers, the postcards and letters captured the history of the Singapore Armed Forces in a manner which touched me.

I felt a connection with the SAF which I never would have experienced had the museum been another hardware-focused exhibition.

One of the postcards was written in 1976 by a recruit called Paul Supramani to his parents. His opening sentence '90 per cent of people in my section Chinese-educated - the communication barrier very real' made me laugh, yet it captured for me what the SAF was trying to do.

The SAF was the great leveller regardless or race, language or religion - everyone started off as a bald recruit.

He spoke for many other teens like him who were enlisted and, overnight, had to grapple with the switch from civilian to military.

In the Making Of A Soldier gallery, a mock-up of a recruit's bunk from the SAF of old caught my eye. How quaint, I thought. The barracks had wooden louvre-like panels unlike the almost HDB-like bunks which the SAF now houses its recruits in Tekong camp.

But the old barracks had a certain charm and only when I read the description did I realise why I had this fuzzy-warm feeling. It was a mock-up of an original 1970s Pulau Tekong BMT Bunk. Tekong was where I had done my BMT in 1976 and no wonder everything looked familiar to me.

I moved on and stopped at a blown-up picture of an SAF soldier carrying an old woman during an evacuation of residents during a major flood in Singapore - he was expresionless. Surely, he must have felt proud of himself, I thought. But no nothing - just doing his duty, it appears.

SAF exhibitions have a tendency of focusing on hardware. They parade the latest equipment, like during a recent Open House where the army's latest acquisition, the German-made main battle tank the Leopard, was on display.

Other organisations also have the tendency to capture the heritage and history of their organisations via technology, equipment or profits, to show what a long way they have come.

But sometimes the softer approach works better.

When I read the letters, postcards and experiences of the soldiers at the Army Museum, I got a feel of the blood, sweat and tears of the men who had gone through the ranks and been a part of the SAF as it grew.

Like the senior citizen who had written to me, I felt the SAF had opened its heart to me, too.

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