My parents told me many stories of their lives from the Japanese Occupation days. My mother was 6 years old when the British surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. She had just been enrolled in Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School for a month, because her father, although a traditional Chinese man, believed that all his children should get an education, even the girls. When the Japanese Occupation started in February 1942, she had to stop school. After that, for the three years of the Japanese Occupation, she attended a Japanese school, had to learn Japanese, but could not remember after that what she had learnt. She attributes it to not wanting to remember anything associated with the Japanese. So in 1945, at the end of the war, my mother was over-aged. In 1946, she could not be enrolled in an English school, as they did not take in the over-aged girls. Her father had died towards the end of the Japanese Occupation, and my grandmother, being illiterate, could not help much to get her two daughters an education. So my mother started school in Primary 1 all over again, in Chong Hock Girls’ School, a Chinese school, at 10 years old. She was active in the dance troupe and played basketball too! And after school, she had to go home to help my grandmother sell cigarettes just outside their home. She recalled once she returned from school and my grandmother was nowhere to be found. Their neighbours told her she had been arrested by the police for illegal hawking. So imagine, my mother, a primary school kid, went to the police station and had to get my grandmother out of jail. It was a trip that cost $50, a princely sum in 1950s’ Singapore.
After primary school, my mother got a place to study in Methodist Girls’ School. According to my mother, all the over-aged girls were placed in the afternoon session. For the first time in her life, she had to learn English, and it was a struggle. She must have been about 16 by the time she started secondary school. She had to learn the English alphabet, and could not even read simple words like ‘Apple’. So compared to the girls in the morning session, the disparity in standards was very great. And because the family was poor, she even sewed her own uniform! Can you imagine sewing an MGS uniform?! She went on to study until the equivalent of what we know today as about Secondary 3, and the over-aged girls were not given a chance to continue their education. I think she completed her secondary education when she was about 19 or 20. But to my mother’s credit, having a high school certificate in 1950s Singapore was a big deal. She went on to secure a job in a European firm, as she could speak English.