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Singapore in the 60s: Reflections and Connections

By Pamela McKenzie (NZCMS Mission Partner to Singapore 1966 - 1969)

Late January 1966 my parents and siblings gathered on the Lyttelton wharf for final farewells before we sailed on the overnight ferry to Wellington. There, on the wharf, we had our first meeting with my Japanese pen friend – a war bride. After a picnic breakfast they took us to the station to board the train to Auckland. That was Alan’s 38th birthday, spent on the train, then the night was spent with Alan’s brother and his family. At that time the ages of our four children were John (11), Kathryn (9), Alastair (almost 7) and Stuart (2). The next day, with Stuart asleep in my arms, we were taken to board the “Castel Felice,” an Italian ship. Again “Now is the hour” played out on the wharf! (It was many years before I could hear that played without a lump in my throat & tears in my eyes. Even the words of “Search me O God” to that same tune had the same effect on me!)

Apart from a few hours berthed up the Brisbane River we were at sea for two weeks. There had been many adjustments –nausea for some, unfamiliar food, keeping track of our children, so much to see and several days of adjusting to the tropical heat (as the air conditioning had failed) as we sailed through Indonesian waters. What a joy it was to find a new church family on the wharf to welcome us to Singapore. This church was to be the nucleus of all our involvement, sharing and outreach for the next three years.

It so happened that our mid-February arrival coincided with the Chinese New Year celebrations. In those days streams of fire crackers which hung in door-ways, etc. would be lit from the bottom. Sparklers too jumped in all directions. The more noise the better!  Before we had even arrived at where we were to live a hole had been burned in Alan’s trouser leg! My parents had been anxious that their first child and oldest grand children were going into the midst of the Vietnam war. For a while I was thinking that maybe they were right…

Alan was the Chaplain of St Andrew’s Anglican Mission School with approximately 1000 pupils at kindergarten, junior, senior and pre-university levels. Two sessions were held each day (morning 7.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and afternoon 1.00 p.m. to 6.00 p.m.) each with its own staff. But there was only one chaplain! Alan took Religious Instruction classes for Cambridge School Certificate and was involved in clubs and a lot of social and pastoral activities. A boarding house was attached to the school. It had boys from many parts of S.E. Asia including Christmas Island.

The Church of the Ascension was also the school chapel. The chaplain was its vicar. The congregation had originally grown from the school. Chinese were in the majority. The previous chaplain/vicar had been Indian and sadly there had been a lot of racial tension. A New Zealander was able to heal those divisions. The Rev. Ross Allen followed Alan as chaplain for two terms. Since then there have been both Chinese and Indian clergy who have been well accepted.  As a priest in the Diocese of Singapore and Malaya, Alan was often called on to take an afternoon English speaking service in a church whose main congregation worshipped in a Chinese or Indian language.   

As a trained teacher I was able to develop the Sunday school. It grew from less than ten to over one hundred children. That involved teaching and training the teachers, the preparation of material for each age group, Christmas productions and also the pastoral side of that ministry with both the children and teachers and their families. I restarted and lead the DWF (Diocesan Women’s Fellowship) at parish level and was also on the diocesan committee. On Saturday mornings I helped with the Junior School Christian group as well as with the Sunday evening service for the school boarders.

We lived in the school compound at St Peter’s House which had been the Anglican Theological College until Trinity College became a new ecumenical training centre. Then the old St Peter’s College was divided into four for missionary accommodation. The chapel’s sanctuary became our bedroom - with very little ventilation! Living there on the spot, and with little privacy, it was common for young people to be at our door early in the mornings with their questions. Parents who chose St Andrew’s School usually did so for the standard of its education, not for its Christian influence. But teenagers, receiving a scientific education, would often begin to question the traditional religions of their families. It was not until a commitment had been made that they would consider themselves to be Christian. Until then they would be known as 'Free Thinkers.' Baptisms and confirmations were part of the Easter celebration. Many whom we knew as teenagers are now involved in mission trips to countries which are now Deaneries of the Diocese of Singapore.

The school warden and principal, with their families, also lived within the compound. Nearby were many poor families. Some had employment positions around the church, school grounds and tuck shop. They were mainly Malay (Muslim) also Chinese and Indian. We had friendships there too. Two teenage Malay girls each helped me part-time with cooking and washing. That was after I realised I couldn’t do it all myself and that it was giving employment where needed.

Our boys attended St Andrew’s School with Stuart in the kindergarten. Apart from two school terms, they were the only white children. Kathryn, with another European girl, was at St Margaret’s Primary School which had the honour of being the oldest girls’ school in S.E. Asia. Students at both mission schools were taught in English. At that time their education involved rote learning. Students were discouraged from giving their own interpretation in any exam questions. This was very different from the project type research which children were used to in New Zealand. (For our children that proved to be a good preparation to learning for exams in secondary and tertiary education back here.) Other schools provided a different language choice. Children in all schools learned the National language, Malay, as a compulsory extra. At the end of their primary schooling students had to pass the Malay exam in order to go on to Senior School. As John had one year in the Senior School that had applied to him as well. Alastair, as a seven year old, had started in Primary One, meaning he had to learn Mandarin as well. To help the children catch up with their level I learned as much written Malay as I could. Kathryn became adept at speaking Bahasa Malay in the market and at road side stalls so that was a big help to us, especially when on holiday in Malaya.

At first our children had to learn to cope with unkind comments, even from some teachers. That was racism in reverse but it wasn’t long before our children were bringing friends home and so barriers were broken down. They were an important part of our ministry. Some of the younger children who lived in the school compound came to me for help with English and maths.

Singapore: then and now

Singapore in the 60s was very different from the Singapore of today. Guns faced out to Indonesia. American soldiers from Vietnam came on furlough. Communist cells were scattered throughout the island. There was high unemployment and frequent racial riots. Housing estates were being developed. The Singapore and Kallang rivers flooded in monsoons. There was rubbish in abundance and the smells most unsavoury. Mosquitos, ants, snakes, toads and quick-darting lizards (chit-chats) were prevalent. Any bites or broken skin quickly became infected.

With fans and mosquito nets but no air conditioning, we would, when possible, all go to the city to cool down at Cold Storage. It was a refrigerated market shop selling mainly imported foods. That was also the time when we could visit the library. After a visit from the Rev. Harry Thompson, NZCMS General Secretary, we had a hot water source provided in the house and a subscription to a swimming club. That was wonderful - somewhere to go as a family to relax. (We hadn’t realised that in the tropics bare feet & sitting on the grass are a no-no and even in the heat hot water for washing is more cleansing and refreshing.) The only contact with New Zealand relatives during those years was through letters and spoken tapes and postage was slow.

We were the first NZCMS short-term missionaries. We had hoped to return after furlough for another two years but that didn’t fit in with NZCMS structures at the time. A family of six, with older children, became too expensive. Transport by sea was no longer an option after the Suez Canal closed, as shipping then went by another route which didn’t include Singapore. Another full term didn’t fit in with New Zealand’s university requirements for John either. At that time a student had to be living in the country for the preceding two years in order to qualify for ‘free’ tertiary education.

In the 60s only 1% of Singapore’s population but approximately 10% of St Andrew’s School pupils were Christian.  The 2010 census now records over 18% of the population as Christian.

We returned to New Zealand January 1969.  Alan was inducted into the parish of Geraldine by the beginning of February. Without time to process our experiences, the re-entry was much harder than we had expected. The children had left behind those they had come to know as aunties and uncles. We were all homesick for Singapore for a very long time.

Contacts continued. Friends visited and students coming to Canterbury University to study would be referred to us direct or through the diocese. We would be involved in finding boarding situations and providing a home away from home during holidays. Many of those students, now with children and even grandchildren of their own, still maintain contact.

Alan and I were able to return to Singapore on four occasions:

In 1983 for the last three weeks of Alan’s study leave. We stayed with a lecturer at Trinity College and his family. He had been Alan’s curate at the Ascension.

1992 and 2002 –invitations were sent to attend the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Church of the Ascension. For the former we were sent the tickets to ensure that we went. That time we also spent five weeks at Tawau, Sabah in the Diocese of East Malaysia whilst Alan did a locum to enable the Vicar to take study leave. We stayed at the Vicarage with his family.

2006 – Members of the school Old Boys’ Association sent tickets. This time it was to attend a school rugby final between St Andrew’s School and Raffles Institute. Alan had initiated the Kiwi Cup which had been given through Mr Weir, the New Zealand High Commissioner at the time. After lapsing for several years the competition had been reinstated and the Old Boys wanted Alan there to present the cup. Raffles won!

On these occasions our accommodation was arranged with people known to us and hospitality was given by different groups. It was always moving to hear them talking about their school days, even repeating verbatim memories they had from Alan’s teaching and speaking openly of their Faith with an obvious and natural love of God.

I am godmother (kaima) to two and NZ Mum to two others who all keep in regular communication. In addition there are many others with whom I have contact as do family members when the opportunity arises.

Even in December 2015 three generations of a family who were visiting the South Island asked for advice regarding their touring. Twenty of us in Christchurch with Singapore connections shared a meal together. They had home hospitality and shared worship as well. The grandparents, teenagers in the 60s, were James (Lap Kuan), a boarding house boy from Christmas Island and Christianne (Hoo Bee) one whom I trained as a Sunday school teacher and she still is.

We had learned so much from living amongst those of other ethnicities, languages and religions where we were very much in the minority. These people had suffered so much during the war years from torture, cruelty, hunger, grief and deprivation yet, amongst Christians, we were aware of so much forgiveness.

Our three years in Singapore had made a big impact on us all as a family.

 

Within the NZCMS family is a wealth of experience and a wealth of stories. It’s our hope that we'll be able to share some stories from returned Mission Partners, reminding us all of the tireless efforts that paved the way for NZCMS today. If you have a story to share, please contact office@nzcms.org.nz

2 thoughts on “Singapore in the 60s: Reflections and Connections

  1. Thank you, Elizabeth.
    Yes, very good friends.
    You are often in my prayerful thoughts.

  2. Lovely to hear this story; though my parents were friends of Alan and Pam for many years, I did not know their story. Greetings and thanks, Pam, Elisabeth Tovey

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