dimanche 17 septembre 2006


Life seems to be composed of separate worlds that rarely ever meet. Their only connections to each other are through the single individual of oneself and even so often accessible through memory alone. There are diverse atmospheres and sentiments that can only be experienced in a particular time and place, with each atmosphere and sentiment being integral to one's identity.

Yet, how can one live on both sides of the world at once? Worse, some of these atmospheres and sentiments have been consigned to the past and are no longer physically accessible; when one finally manages to return to that place, nothing is the same.

Oh, how we long to merge our worlds together! To introduce one circle of friends to another, to bring one language to another, to be able to use one face for all aspects of our lives. To finally unify all the disjunct, tortured and composite parts of ourselves into one identity. Yet, when the chance offers itself, we are timid, hesitant and shy; it is awkward reconciling the most intimate aspects of our lives that have been long kept separate from each other.

One of my sentiments and atmospheres can only be found in the time of my upper primary days at the place of Fairfield Methodist Primary School.

Ah, Fairfield! The very name rolls off my tongue, with connotations of verdant fields rolling under fair skies. The yellow shirts and blue shorts and skirts remain ubiquitous; their omnipresence in the neighbourhood where I lived so ever nostalgic of a time when innocence ran so sweet.

I was always destined to go to Fairfield Primary. When I was still in kindergarten my parents moved us to Dover Estate. That school across the road was the primary factor for the decision. My parents spoke highly about Fairfield: it was a school of "good calibre", if not within the top twenty rankings. It was “somewhere in the upper tier” of schools. There was a considerable emphasis on academically ranking institutions, even at the level of primary education. It was a cultural trait and not seen as unnatural, but at the age of five, I would have yet to discover how profoundly deep this emphasis was. Whenever we turned into the apartment estate, the Fairfield complex seemed remarkably cheery, though it also seemed slightly monolithic by virtue of the very talk of how good it was.

I was supposed to be enrolled in the primary one batch, but destiny’s detour said otherwise.

I moved to America at the age of five, coming back to my Dover apartment in Singapore only at the age of ten. I enrolled in Fairfield's primary five batch in 2001, having already missed two thirds of the primary school experience. What happened during my elementary school days needs no immediate exposition; it should seem obvious that one's circle of friends, sentiments and atmospheres would be vastly different in one culture compared to that those previously experienced in another.

There is of course, the internet - the technology that allows us to command the many facets of our life, through instant messaging, blogging and photo-sharing. It is a technology that the third-culture individuals of the past would not have dreamed of, the technology that allows me to have access to this very photo (I have misplaced the physical print), capturing an atmosphere and sentiment now only accessible through memory. Yet, it is technology itself that brought about globalisation. Along with it, came the ability to culturally diffract individual identities.

Ah, Fairfield! There I stood in the center of the top row, with forty other students and a teacher that made up the class 5B/6F. The identity is very much communal as it is individual. Long after primary school graduation, there remains an affinity that still binds us together. This affinity transcends considerable distance, bringing us together for constant reunion, even when some of us had dispersed to other schools during the secondary school selection. The identity is very much visible even into secondary four, the last year of secondary school. The primary school identity is something not alien to most Singaporean secondary school students.

Yet, the sentiment and atmosphere is not the same. The new sentiment and atmosphere felt when we members of 6F are together, now in secondary school, strongly resembles the old. But it is not the same.

Innocence is one of the detectable differences. When I arrived in February 2001 to an existing class of 5B, most of the social framework had already consolidated itself. I was grafted into the class and received enthusiastically, though with a few hitches. I must say that now with further experience and reading the accounts of other individuals, I have some idea of how primary school bonds develop. The social development in primary school I must say still remains a most engaging sociological subject. But as a stranger in my own country, I was very unaware at that time of how things had progressed in the lower primary years and perceived an uphill task of reintegration ahead of me.

I remember vividly a scene with Evangeline Chee, the third girl from the right on the middle row. What I had been actually speaking about I cannot remember at this moment; I do remember it concerned a group project of sorts. I was probably expounding on a proposal when all of a sudden, came her exasperated words in the local style of speech: “Stop speaking in that fake accent, okay!”

For a moment all time stood still, as I looked at her in shock. There was resentment at that moment – surely I could not help speaking in an American accent and it certainly was not an attempt to fake it, as she seemed to accuse. I had stumbled into the cultural hornet’s nest of what I would later discover was the mixed caucaphilia-caucophobia of both admiration and resent: of “attracting foreign talent” and the lavishings of special treatment based on being a Westerner in Southeast Asia, of resentment that arose out of this cultural practice, even in developed nation Singapore. This paradox as I would discover, existed because both sides fed off one of each other.

Sometimes the culture had dislike for people who acted like an ang mo (a white Caucasian) but whose skin colour did not resemble one. I had returned to the same place, but the time was not the same: and that made all the difference.

There was delight due to my apparently accented style of speech as well: on the first day I came I remember Nicholas Ngo – third from left, top row – remarking to me as the class proceeded from assembly into the classroom, “I can speak ang mo too. Want to hear it?” I could only chuckle sheepishly.

I remember my days of Fairfield especially because it is where I relearnt all the things I had consigned to the back of memory, to have them suddenly roused from my head and pulled into the forefront. There was Singlish – a sort of English-based dialectical creole based on Chinese grammar with Malay and Hokkien vocabulary; it was often used in familiar or intimate situations. Before I left for the United States, I had been remarkably fluent in it, to the extent that I often received scoldings from my father for invoking it too often in place of standard English, and a habit I found hard to drop. Living in the United States for five years at that time however, had reduced Singlish to but a mere memory where I used to end some sentences with the Malay-Hokkien grammatical particle “lah”, forgetting why I used the particle.

My days of Fairfield then, were that of cultural rediscovery. Ang mo was arguably the first Singlish word picked up after returning, and the Singlish vocabulary I had retained from five years old resurrected myself into active use. The intonation required of its unique grammar required no contrivance: I could do it automatically, just like I did before. The difference now was that I could code-switch in and out of Singlish register as needed. Yet, five years of exclusion had put me considerably behind.

“Aiyah, your Singlish so lahn ah! We teach you!”

One of the things about Fairfield I have nostalgia for are the assembly periods. The first assembly itself was a rediscovery of national emblems, anthems and pledges that looked so alien, but they would be later become a tightly-knit portion of my identity.

The morning preparation before assembly was a ritual: this commenced at early dawn before sunrise, and before school. I would exit my seventh story apartment, a 30-year-old complex built by the Housing and Development Board following independence. It had a very communal air, and this was key to the nostalgia. Ah, how I would skip down the stairs, into the market square, into the cool air of dawn! At this point, various other students living in the estate would walk out and meet each other, and we would walk to school ensemble. We would walk, escorted by the bejeweled stars, with the background noise of hawkers washing their plates and the smell of freshly prepared food. It was the atmosphere and sentiment that mattered the most.

Into the school compound we would gather, greeted by several prefects and traffic monitors. They were actually selected students who made sure we did not do anything that violated traffic rules, such as jayrun across the road. Sin Yee (second from left, bottom row) was usually present most days to greet us with her big grin as we passed.

If we were early enough, we had considerable time to do what we wanted. We could buy hot congee in the open-air canteen filled with the cool wind of dawn, or run up to the open staircase to the sixth floor to look out across the town, feeling the cool sentiments of dawn as the stars disappeared one by one, giving way to the sun. After a certain point, the teachers would play a tune – one that haunts me still – over the outdoor loudspeaker, a signal to begin silently reading while we were still within the cool mists of dawn. And so we would gather and sit in the square – us 840 students, neatly arranged in rows by class – until the signal was given to rise.

“Sah sadiyat!” The head prefect would call in Malay.

More than 800 pairs of feet would stomp in attention – collectively and in unison. This was the beginning of the flag-raising ceremony. Several prefects at the front would began carefully tug on the ropes that brought the flags up: the school flag was supposed to follow the national flag, while the assembled would sing the anthem.
Mari kita rakyat Singapura, sama-sama menuju bahagia, Cita-cita kita yang mulia, Berjaya Singapura

Then the pledge would proceed in English.

We the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people Regardless of race, language, or religion, to build a democratic society …

The cool dawn would resonate with our voices.
“Sah sendiri!”

And we would be at ease. The principal would then add whatever words were pertinent to the morning, be it news or announcements. The entire affair was remarkably enchanting, assembled in unity, from lower primary levels to us. If we had chapel we would do this in the assembly hall, where we could experience the cool conditioned air at dawn.

Upper primary school students had a whole host of National Education programmes, which were supposed to instil a sense of identity and historical knowledge and familiarity into students through various excursions. These programmes probably came at the right timing, but also forged our class identity.

I remember the date July 27, 2001 because I recall Miss Sherry Tai – the teacher in the center foreground of the photo - writing it on the whiteboard. Primary five students were required each year to attend the last National Day Parade rehearsal before the National Day show on August 9, the anniversary of independence. The central celebration was implemented in the National Stadium, a large complex seating over 55,000 fellow students of various uniforms. A show of parachute jumps; a feu de joie; a 21-gun salute; march-pasts of various tanks, policemen, National Service cadets as well as fellow students in the parade grounds; songs sung by 55,000 joined ensemble and an assisting children’s choir; fireworks so close it seemed that it was hailing red, blue, green and yellow meteors around myself. I always had a hesitation in taking up national songs because I feared the reaction from the class – wouldn’t it be rather hao lian (smugly arrogant) for an American boy to sing Singapore’s national songs? These were my songs, songs from childhood, songs I had recited from audio casette, in the languages of Malay, Mandarin and Tamil I never spoke in America. Finally, I was here, with the music physically present, and no longer consigned to haunting memory!

I felt all inhibition slip away – the class looked at me with grins. I could finally reidentify myself with a place of whose memories had always haunted me.

That however, was only part of a struggle that for me still continues.

When the photo was taken, we were primary six students, in what parents seemed to constantly emphasise was a critical year. Primary six was the last year of primary school: we were the eldest generation of the school at the time, thinking ourselves at the apex, not realising how young we were, and how old we would become. In primary four there was the streaming examination that segregated students into EM1, EM2 and EM3 based on subject proficiency. EM1 differed by EM2 by virtue of taking Higher Mother Tongue rather than the standard Mother Tongue course; the EM3 used a Foundation English syllabus, and was highly stigmatised.

Consistently and constantly, our teachers, including Miss Tai, would remind us that we were primary six students. Soon, we would be taking the Primary School Leaving Examination, which determined which secondary school we were to go to. The entire national culture was obsessed with doing well for the PSLE – it was a standardised examination that apparently would decide our future, because of its role in choosing our secondary school. This emphasis continued despite the fact that most primary school students would proceed to the affiliated Fairfield Methodist Secondary, who gave an advantage for entry to the primary school students.

Years on, the hype over the PSLE seems an amusing curiosity now, but I still remember the immediacy they tried to place upon us and send us into a panic that would make us drill our workbooks non-stop for months. I only have to think of the attitude they attempted to pass on to us in order to bring me all those years back to the present.

I never really studied however, because I had been doing well in my current examinations within the school, which were based on the PSLE model. We did mock-examinations, completed entire assessment books for homework and drilled our oral examination section several dozen times.

“In the right foreground in the stall to the left of the chicken rice stall, the hawker is callously reducing the sugarcane to juice.”

Primary six was not all about the PSLE however. What remains most memorable are the things that built our identity as a class.

I remember playing soccer constantly despite the adults’ PSLE pressures. We played in the morning before dawn as the stars gave way to sunlight. We played at recess following a quick wolfdown of food, be it flat rice noodles in creamy beef gravy or peppered congee filled with sausage. We would ignore the teachers’ scoldings for playing at the height of day.

We played from dismissal at 12:50 into 5:00 in the afternoon, where we tolerated the scorching sun’s heat and the sweat beneath our uniforms. It was all worth it for euphoria of playing soccer as a clique of our own in the school that was our second home, without adult organisation, with the freedom of transport that came with a fully-linked public transport system.

I remember the class walking together in excursions around the city of Singapore. I remember us eating naam and curry, all us forty-one students and one teacher, in the hawker centre that was somewhere in the middle of the central business district, navigating our brightly-uniformed selves amongst the swollen traffic.
The primary six year was not all about the PSLE, but I attribute part of 6F’s unity to it. The primary school faculty organised a whole host of remedial lessons that we thought we did not need – because of the stigma of the word “remedial” – but were actually taught in ways not usually covered by the syllabus. They would interrupt afterschool soccer – sometimes I think it was intentional.

I remember doing a project covering Labrador Park’s former role as gunnery fortification, and whispering “Rachel Khoo!” (last from right on the second row) when asked intimately by my all-male project group if I had a crush on anyone in the class. I remember their concurrence on the soccer-playing tomboy who caused Shaun Ranen (first from left, top row) to become distracted such that a goal was scored.

Throughout the year they would shower on us primary six students various unorthodox activities, for we were primary six, they kept reminding us. They brought in an Australian scientist to do liquid nitrogen experiments and throw frozen flowers in our faces that broke up into a myriad of sandlike particles; a deportment class conducted by an ang-mo for public settings; special untraditional that no other levels had.

It is rather curious now, looking back, because in primary school we were always looking forward. I still remember a mindset, four to five years of age, which absorbed the present and wondered when it would be over and we could succeed to the freedom that was secondary school. It is rather ironic now, looking back, because in secondary school we realise that our primary school lifestyle is the most carefree, the most ideal. It is rather interesting now, looking back, because we yearned to grow up not knowing four to five years back we saw the clock race by too fast, wanting to turn it back.

Oh, how overjoyed we were when we finally completed the last paper of the PSLE, when we could throw our pens back on the desk, raise our arms and cheer! It was educational tradition, that from the final examination to the end of the year, there would be very little traditional lessons in themselves, where rote turned into creative activity. Oh how we jumped up and down when we received our scores! When I went back to my apartment that afternoon, I intentionally tried make sure the other occupants in the lift saw my paper: PRIMARY SCHOOL LEAVING EXAMINATION

It is interesting now to think how old I have become. Had I remained in the Singaporean system, I would be 
currently secondary four.

It is rather curious, to see our complexions and personalities consolidated just at that point, our faces forever immortalised to each other in the photo. It is rather piquing to reflect, for when we were primary six students we saw each other’s faces, almost taking for granted the way they looked then, thinking they would always look that way. It is rather uncanny, how we have grown, physically and in character, so different yet so the same. I remember looking as a young primary six student, or even secondary one, into the faces of the upper secondary students of secondary three and four, thinking their builds and complexions so elderly and so old. Now we are one of them.
Ah, Fairfield!

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