Thank you ACS

I wasn’t in ACS when I was in primary school, and so when I qualified via PSLE to get attend secondary school there, I was thrilled because my Sunday School friends were all ACS boys. And I was terrified, because I hadn’t been an ACS boy.

A smaller turnout for the Class of '85. But we were still the rowdiest.
A smaller turnout for the Class of ’85. But we were still the rowdiest.

I wasn’t in ACS when I was in primary school, and so when I qualified via PSLE to get attend secondary school there, I was thrilled because my Sunday School friends were all ACS boys. And I was terrified, because I hadn’t been an ACS boy.

It took a couple of months in Sec One before I acclimatised, and began talking the talk thanks to teachers whose names I still remember – Mrs Evelyn Wee – English and Form Teacher; Mr Navaratnam, Science Teacher, whose first comments at lab period was to joke that the ACS lab was so old, the equipment was donated by Sir Stamford Raffles; and Mr Jagmohan Singh, History Teacher, who, apart from teaching us how to pronounce “King Nebuchadnezzar”, also famously described anthropological development thus: “the more civilised we are, the donkeyer we become”.

I am forever grateful for the liberal education I received in my seven years at ACS/ACJC, and even more thankful for the fast friends I made, and with whom I still work and play. It was a special place, this place of learning – and we were the lucky few in the 1980s who were assigned ‘native speaker’ teachers from all over the UK who brought with them their knowledge, culture and quirks and opened our eyes to the world.

We were the lucky few who were taught the difference between passing exams and learning, and more specifically, I remember a teacher preparing us for the AO Level General Paper exams which were to be marked by teachers in the UK. He said to ‘give them something to keep them warm, because they’re marking your papers in the cold of winter. Write about your hawker centres, your spicy foods, your sunshine and your tropical storms. I guarantee you you’ll score an A’.

So, thank you very much, Anglo-Chinese School for teaching us to tell our own stories. And congratulations on getting to a hundred and thirty. #TBIYTB

Surprising Sembawang

What was more interesting when we shot the video, was how the bunch of sixty-something year old uncles and aunties were enjoying the spring, soaking their feet in plastic wash basins and buckets filled with hot spring water.

Sembawang Onsen

A video posted by Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee (@miyagisan) on

I visited Sembawang Hot Spring for the first time last Friday because I had written it into a video script.

It’s the only natural hot spring in Singapore, and you can read about its properties on Wikipedia. What was more interesting when we shot the video, was how a bunch of sixty-something year old uncles and aunties were enjoying the spring, soaking their feet in plastic wash basins and buckets filled with hot spring water. The aunties were fully clothed, but the uncles went around bare-chested. Later on, the uncles took turns to soak their whole selves in used chemical drums filled with the water.

One of the uncles appeared to have been a practitioner of a sort of therapy. He would massage the limbs of the aunties who were there, asking them to relax, stretch and flex their joints for about fifteen minutes per aunty-patient. There was one aunty who appeared to be more afflicted with something than the others, because not only did Therapy Uncle have to massage her limbs, most of her torso had to be handled by his hot hands as well. It must have hurt a bit, because there was quite a bit of shrieking.

Now that Sembawang Hot Spring is done from my bucket list of local things to do, I’m looking forward to eating some famous Sembawang White Bee Hoon. That’s right, I’ve never had it. I always thought all bee hoon was white.

The Public Service Paperweight Award

Some time in the early 90’s my father was given a public service award for his contributions to education. It came as a surprise to all of us, since he never mentioned anything about it, and the only times we saw him getting close to education was when he signed our school report cards.

He explained that over the years, he had been donating money to a Chinese school affiliated with one of the Hainanese clans in Singapore. He also said it wasn’t a big deal, but I’m sure it was – because no ordinary donor would have been shortlisted for a public service award.

When he received the invitation to the ceremony, he showed it to me and asked me if he should attend. I said, “Why not? You deserve it”.

He went, came home, and I asked him how it was. He said, “Nothing lah. So long the whole thing”.

I asked him to show me the award or certificate he must have received, and he said, “Don’t have lah. They only give me this block of wood”.

He showed me the “block of wood”, and said, “Useless. Can put on your desk”, probably thinking it was a paperweight.

I took the block of wood, removed the ribbon around it, and opened it to show him a medal. We spent the next hour laughing at his silliness.

My Father The King Of Kuachee

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

IMG_7088My father vacillated between a stable career and adventures in enterprise. He had the former in establishing his own chartered accounting practice – which he later sold, and which still bears his name  – and the latter in a series of remarkable and unconventional business deals which made our family pretty well off.

His wish for me when I was in my twenties was for me to “get a professional qualification”, like accountancy, and then “do whatever you want and don’t work for other people”.

He tried coaxing me to become a “businessman” in the true, vague definition of it, trading in whatever opportunities fell into our laps. In his capacity as the Honorary Consul-General for the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, he gave me a box of raw PNG Highlands Arabica beans, and asked me to see if I could find any buyers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t motivated enough to make that work.

Then he gave me a box of Agar wood, and sent me researching on the subject, and urging me to see if there were any interested buyers. Again, this didn’t stick, and I’m sure he was disappointed in my lack of interest.

There were other exotic mystery boxes –  sea cucumbers, logging concessions, selling second hand computers to New Guinea – they never stuck.

Instead I did something my friends thought even more unconventional – I started a business teaching gymnastics to primary school children. It tanked after five years – and that’s a long, drawn-out business failure. It didn’t frazzle my father a bit. He just said, “do something else lah” – which I understood to be “keep doing what you want to do, and what you’re good at”.

My father never seemed to be discouraged by setbacks. There seemed always to be silver linings in the darkest clouds. Or rather, he painted those linings himself. If a business deal failed, he would pick up the pieces and make something out of them.

I remember most about the time he invested heavily in a factory that produced roasted melon seeds and pumpkin seeds – the type you eat at Chinese New Year and at funerals – and for some reason or another, the other partners in the factory made off with the money and the factory closed. Creditors claimed the factory’s equipment, and my father was left with an inventory of perhaps several hundred kilograms of melon and pumpkin seeds in tins, bags, and jars.

What did he do with them? He had them brought home of course. And to my mother’s lasting dismay, every nook and cranny of our house – including the shoe cabinet – was stacked with tins, bags, and jars of melon and pumpkin seeds. I think we only threw them out when we sold and moved out of the house ten years ago.

In the years between the kuachee factory fiasco and when we moved out, my father could be seen spending his days on his sofa, cracking open melon seeds and eating them. He’d laugh and say, “Not bad, what – Chinese New Year no need to buy kuachee ever again”.

Preparing For The Departed

You will need to be detached in order to do the things that need to be done when a loved one dies. It’ll be easier when you’re prepared with a checklist before they leave. Here are some of the things my siblings and I had to prepare when our parents passed away in 2011 and this year:

Originally published on Medium.com

You will need to be detached in order to do the things that need to be done when a loved one dies. It’ll be easier when you’re prepared with a checklist before they leave. Here are some of the things my siblings and I had to prepare when our parents passed away in 2011 and this year:

Reporting The Departure 
You have 24 hours to register the departed’s death at either the ICA or at any police station. What you need is your IC, the departed’s IC and a certificate of cause of death — usually given by a hospital or a doctor.

Photograph
You want visitors to the wake/funeral and people who make it a point to read the obituaries to see a photograph they want to remember your loved one by. You may think this is simple — you just open your laptop and scroll through pics — but when your loved one is an elderly person who’s spent a large part of their last decade bedridden and not looking particularly photogenic, you may want to start looking through old photo albums and collections of passport photos. Pick a nice, happy picture.

You might find some of the photos blur or pixelated when blown up, so be prepared to spend some time on this if you need to have consensus between family members. There is also this convention that the departed needs to be depicted in a photograph wearing a suit. I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why there was a dress code, and let the funeral home’s resident Photoshop expert blend the sharpest-looking suit my father never wore. Seriously, they do it quite well.

On hindsight, I would’ve left the photograph as it was — my father smiling in a batik/hawaiian shirt, probably stained with gravy from some pork dish — and I’m quite sure his friends would have remembered him this way too.

Funeral Director / Undertaker
Do some research, confer with family, and have a number handy. The company we used was a subsidiary of a church, and the staff involved in both my parents’ funerals handled everything, and us, with immense respect and sensitivity. You will need to confer with family regarding religion and ritual — I’ve seen many families squabble over what beliefs their departing loved ones held, and I can tell you, it will add to your anguish. My maternal grandfather’s funeral wake was a compromise made by his fourteen children — there were Christian hymns and prayers in the morning, and Taoist rituals in the afternoon. I think nights were reserved for the secular activities of eating and mahjong.

The funeral director will handle everything, including the layout and publication of an obituary. Note that it’s not compulsory to have an obituary, but it does serve a purpose — the departed’s old friends and acquaintances may only know of their demise through the papers.

The Wake
Some churches and funeral homes have rooms, and void-decks are also an option. The only thing about void deck wakes is that you will want to have someone guarding the casket and other things through the night. Whereas if you held the wake in a funeral home or a church, you would be able to set a cut-off time for visitors.
The funeral director will also ask you what you require. You may want to order the ubiquitous wake buffet or just packet drinks and snacks. You can return any unopened peanut and drink cartons. You won’t need to get anything else — the director will provide you with condolence books, red thread, and other necessities like playing cards and so on.

You may want to assign the collection of condolence cash gifts to a trusted friend or relative, and ask givers to put down their names so you can thank them later.

Friends and workmates will want to give wreaths and floral arrangements — but you have to be mindful of having to dispose of these later. No, they can’t be cremated or buried with the departed. A reasonable option is to state in the obituary that you prefer not to have floral arrangements and wreaths, and that the money that would have been spent on these be donated to charity instead.

“Paying respects” to the departed describes how visitors attend a wake, some saying a prayer before going to the head of the coffin where the glass panel is, and sometimes making a comment on how the departed looks. Be prepared for awkward comments.

The NEA gives you seven days from the day of death to when the remains are dispatched. If you intend to extend the wake past seven days, you can apply to the NEA for permission.

The Funeral and Beyond
You will need to choose between a cremation or a burial — which may be a given because of your religious practice, but all burials in Singapore a limited to 15 years. The only active burial ground in Singapore is at Choa Chu Kang, and is actually a complex of concrete crypts which will contain the departed’s coffin. After 15 years, the NEA may exhume remains and families are given the option of cremating the remains or re-interring (if there is an available burial ground by then). That’s right, burial is not freehold.
The crematorium at Mandai is a modern complex complete with service halls and an automated furnace with a viewing gallery.

The collection of the departed’s ashes can be traumatic. It’s as if you’ve had to say goodbye again, by putting the skeletal remains of the departed into whatever receptacle your funeral director may have recommended. It doesn’t help your emotions that the NEA gives you a Toyogo box to collect the ash and bone from another receptacle. It is a dusty affair, and some bone fragments may end up on the table or floor. If you’re not up for it, tell the funeral director, and they’ll do everything for you.

You will have the option of keeping the ashes of the departed at home or in a niche at churches, temples and also government-run columbariums. Scattering of ashes at sea is also permitted with an application, but limited to an area near Pulau Semakau. Think of it as a smokers’ corner for the dead.

After all that is done, you will have some more time to grieve, if you need to. And if you need to, you must.

Resource: NEA Care For The Dead Services