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Veteran S’porean poet Kirpal Singh poured drinks for LKY, snubbed RI & almost couldn’t enter uni

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | January 5, 03:01 pm

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2018 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 53 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the complexity of the future roads we must take, as individuals, and as a nation.

“Reflections of six decades” is an essay contributed by Kirpal Singh.

Kirpal is a poet and writer who has been in the literary scene for decades, who also held associate professorships in literature at NTU and SMU. Now, he is the Chief Academic Officer at Training Vision Institute, a government-approved provider of private education.

Kirpal’s essay is reproduced in full here:

By Kirpal Singh

For me, real choices of what to do began when I turned 12 and was choosing secondary schools to enrol in after my PSLE (then known as the “Entrance Exam” as it affected entry to secondary school).

Other choices — clothes to wear, food/s to eat, people to meet — were decided chiefly by my elders: my grandmother (on my father’s side) and my uncle, my father’s older brother who took it upon himself to be responsible for my upbringing and education.

My father had abandoned these when he decided to take on a second wife, who hated the fact that he had had an earlier wife who had borne this brat called Kirpal!

I mention this only because it takes time for mellowness to set in, allowing us to embrace our specific circumstances and then have the temerity to disclose them.

Going to a now-defunct primary school

1962 found me taking the PSLE in a school that is now no more — Jalan Daud School.

This school (and four others) had been built with a view to provide a different kind of education which was aimed (as I now understand it) to fuse the best of the classic British education with a unique Singaporean outlook.

My six years at Jalan Daud are among my most memorable — with all the heartaches and headaches and struggles, my memories are awash with delectable scenes of schoolboy fights, silly rebellious acts of defiance (and the ensuing punishments), assuming authority as a prefect and thus set apart, winning prizes through academic distinction … and forging lifelong bonds with steadfast friends who, in my case, did a lot to ensure that I entered and completed my university degree(s) by lending me money whenever I was broke(!).

Chose Tanjong Katong Secondary over Raffles Institution

I recall, with great bemusement, that when my uncle and I discussed the choice of a secondary school, he insisted on putting TKSTS (Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School — as it was known those days; today it is still TK for short) as first choice; Raffles Institution as second and Gan Eng Seng as third.

Years later, when I applied for Pre-University studies (having done reasonably well in my Cambridge School Certificate Examination — what today is termed the O levels), I chose RI.

When I finally got there, I was overwhelmed to find that the Principal (the late Philip Liau) took me aside one day and said, “It’s good that you are here now, having rejected us when you did your PSLE”.

I was stunned — how did he know? And remember? Did they keep a strict watch over us all…?

LKY & early political leadership would hang out at his house

I should add that in the early days my uncle Bill who brought me up was involved in Singapore’s “nationalistic political ground-work” and got to know Lee Kuan Yew and especially Rajaratnam quite well.

I recall meetings at our Jalan Eunos home — it was my job to pour drinks into glasses as political figures discussed how best to win the 1959 elections. Among those gathered, I recall especially Rajaratnam and Devan Nair.

Years later, I was struck when Mr Lee Kuan Yew said to me, “Your uncle was a good man — he left us to look after you”.

Such is life’s many twists and turns.

Literature prof volunteers to pay for his university fees

My life after RI was once more determined by a strange twist of events.

I had done well in the HSC (Higher School Certificate Exam — today’s A levels) and had applied to the Public Service Commission (PSC) for a scholarship.

Entering the University of Singapore in my day required us to get through the ubiquitous ‘Suitability Certificate’ — a hangover from our colonial past.

That was okay but I had no money to pursue a degree without help, so I thought that with my good results I could get a scholarship.

Alas, my hopes were dashed. For some reason, my scholarship application was declined, leaving me bereft — I had no financial resources and my uncle was in poor health.

As fate would have it, Prof Maurice Baker, the Head of the English department drew me aside, gave me a small chiding for not having handled my scholarship interview well and then said, “Go to the Finance Dept and tell them that I will pay your fees”.

I immediately wept.

Prof Baker put his fatherly arm around me and comforted me, saying, “This will make you stronger”.

Almost ended up in public service, but was again ‘saved’ by prof

My other roads were mostly an open book. I did well in my undergraduate studies and came to learn how I was very, very blessed.

Once the final year results were out (in those days it took four years to obtain an Honours degree), I was actually offered a possible role in our Administrative Service (and told that if all went well I was to be groomed for our Foreign Service).

But memory has it that my beloved Prof Baker told PSC: “Please leave my boy alone — he is needed here”.

For this, and much, much more, I shall forever remain indebted to this wonderful human being who took our follies in his stride and always went out of his way to make sure that we were okay despite any setback/s.

I have often reflected on the events of that critical year — 1973 — when my Honours results came out. I scored an Upper Two (Upper Second Class Honours, in today’s lingo).

Missed out on First Class Honours, but repped S’pore in Mexico conference

To put things in context, the year before had begun with the compulsory study of Chaucer, the first month chiefly spent learning how to fathom Chaucer’s English.

I missed most of this as I had been chosen to represent Singapore at the 1972 World YMCA Youth Meeting in Mexico. Prof Baker had cautioned me about missing so much Chaucer, but sensed that I was eager to go and had finally approved.

When the results were released, and I missed out on First Class Honours, he gently reminded me of my trade-off!

Do I have any regrets? I have to say a clear NO — though I acknowledge that I did let a possible First go in exchange for being one of the earlier Singaporeans to land in Mexico.

That meeting was significant as it opened my eyes to a huge world of injustices, inequalities and political dominations — lessons I carry in my head and heart to this day.

Edwin Thumboo helped with deposit for first home

I was awarded a Research Scholarship to do a Master’s degree under the supervision of Prof Edwin Thumboo (whose sister Daisy had been my very first teacher at Jalan Daud in 1957), a man known for not suffering fools (at least not gladly).

Prof Thumboo was not easy to read and I recall vividly that when he took our first class in the first term of our first year, teaching us Macbeth, he spent a lot of time explaining the pregnant meaning of the lines “There’s no art/to tell the mind’s construction in the face”.

To and till this day I believe Prof Thumboo has led his life on the truth of this maxim.

Like Prof Baker, Prof Thumboo, too, came to my aid when I was buying my first house and I did not have enough to put down the deposit!

Thus, to both these remarkably different personalities, I owe an immeasurable debt.

Teaching in NUS, NTU, & setting up SMU

I had been privileged to lecture and tutor in the University’s English Department in 1973, immediately upon getting my Honours degree, and I returned there after obtaining my 8.

It has since been a journey of intellectual adventures, taking me to more than 40 countries in terms of giving papers at conferences, seminars and conducting workshops.

I ought to mention here my move from NTU (where I had been seconded to set up the Literature and Drama Division in 1991) to Singapore Management University in 1999, when it was being set up.

This was an exciting new opportunity to be part of a small team putting together a new university which would follow the American (rather than the traditional British) way of running a university.

The early years of SMU remain as heady days with plenty of vigorous discussions about the whys and wherefores of a good university, in all of which I was privileged to play an integral role.

I also founded the very first Centre in SMU — the Wee Kim Wee Centre — originally set up for Cross-Cultural Studies and the only Centre to have been established by vote!

This was astounding and for those of us who came from the two older universities (NUS and NTU), what a splendid change was here in the form of SMU.

All about place and circumstances

To draw all of the above to a conclusion, I must say that more often than not, the roads we take are determined by place and circumstance.

In my own case, this is amply registered and illustrated by a journey that many see as smooth but one that, for me at least, was rough, turbulent and even at times risky.

I should add that like Frost’s road not taken and its accompanying sighs, my roads, too, have had more than their fair share of challenges.

However, on the whole, my roads have been blessed. I have my elders to thank for instilling in me strong values that have seen me through the years.

While there are invariably numerous roads that one takes (and also correspondingly does not take), some roads will always stand out for their valuable signposts and significant landmarks.

For me, some of these are what I have narrated above.

Top photo via SMU & Wikimedia commons.

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