My mum ran a bomb shelter tuition centre to raise 4 kids by herself. Here's what she taught me.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership| May 11, 11:22 AM

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2017 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 52 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.

"Lessons learnt from personal sacrifice" is an essay contributed by Moses Soh, a MAS Undergraduate Scholar and President's Scholar currently working as an economist in the Economic Policy Group’s Macroprudential Surveillance Department.

Soh's essay is reproduced in full here:


By Moses Soh

On my 10th birthday, my mother bought me a small chocolate tart. It was just large enough to fit one candle.

She told me she was sorry I would have to make do with that. Times are hard after your father left, she explained, and we couldn’t afford the luxury of a cake this year.

Channelling all the maturity my 10-year old spirit contained, I put on my best toothy smile and said, “No problem Ma, it’s really nice.”

She stuck a candle in the tart, and after we sang the birthday song, I tried to cut it into a few pieces for everyone to share. It was too small, and crumbled when I drove the knife through it.

My mother must have seen me tear up at the sight of my “birthday cake” in pieces; she asked me if I was okay. I bit my lip, said, “Yes Ma, of course.”

Then, excusing myself to get “something I forgot” from my room, I buried my head in my Mickey Mouse bolster and started to cry. My tears were still streaming when my mum tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around to see my mum holding a blackforest cake from Swensen’s, shaking with laughter.

That’s my mother for you. The divorce meant she was now the sole breadwinner of the family.

My mother started a tuition centre from scratch

To surmount the challenge of taking care of four young kids while finding a way to provide for and feed our family, she had started a small tuition centre.

With no money to spare, she found a bomb-shelter in the basement of a Bishan HDB block with cheap rent, as she worked hard to make this less-than-ideal location work.

Despite going through what must have been one of the most challenging periods of her life, she kept her wonderful sense of humour. She never let herself use her circumstances as an excuse—she still wanted us to have the best childhood we could get.

And so, I would go to sleep, waking up to hear her coming back late at night from work, and find her up early in the morning, driving us to school just so that we could get an extra hour of sleep and could spend some quality time together during the commute.

Years later, whenever I ran into any particularly painful problem, I would remember these early memories of my mother, and be animated into action by her embodiment of Samuel Beckett’s immortal words: I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Our early struggles with money also gave us a thorough introduction to the value of hard work.

Helping my mother out by distributing flyers, and learning about the value of hard work

As she worked to create a business that could clothe and feed her children, she quickly figured out that giving people flyers right at their doorsteps was the most effective way to get the word out.

The problem was that the people she hired to do this often cheated and dumped the flyers into the bin, while pocketing precious money from the nascent business. We didn’t have this kind of money to waste.

And so, my memories of school holidays include racing with my brother Isaac up and down HDB blocks, going door-to-door to distribute enormous stacks of flyers.

Before long, we could cover an entire 15-story block in 20 minutes, and for our day’s efforts we would sometimes get a S$1 raspberry ripple ice cream from the closest ice cream kiosk.

From those holidays, we learned to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, and the quiet joy of doing something for Ma for a change.

It is a testament to her fortitude and determination to put on a strong front that we, her children, never really realised how dire our situation was until much later in life.

She told me that at one point, we were almost without a roof over our heads, and that for years, she would stand during the nights at her bedroom window, uttering a quiet prayer for help.

My mother felt guilty for spending too little time with us

Thankfully, after a few months, things became better as the business took off.

Today, Ma runs Mind Stretcher the same way she ran the little tuition centre in the bomb shelter—with courage, dedication and a strong commitment to the importance of education in children’s lives.

When I speak to my mother about those days, she often talks about them with a tinge of regret. It speaks volumes about her that despite what she’s given us, she feels guilty for spending too little time with us, about not being able to spend the early years of my younger siblings’ lives reading to them.

But she doesn’t realise that every decision she made, every sacrifice and every action she took, taught us more than any speech or book could have.

Whenever times get difficult, I think about what my mother has sacrificed for us, what she has gone through so we would have a good life, and I see no reason why I should ever give up.

To all the people who refuse to stay down

Today, it seems that we live in times of incredible change.

Artificial Intelligence, the Internet, globalisation and the proliferation of mobile and home computing devices, all seem to announce a new era of progress and change even more rapid than what we have previously witnessed. People globally are grappling with what these changes mean for their lives, careers and countries.

But to me at least, there will always be an edge accorded to those who remain rooted in the classic ethics of hard work and effort, who are willing to put in the sweat and the time, to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

There will always be a premium, no matter the industry or line, on people who refuse to stay down. And there will always be the quiet satisfaction and ferocious inner strength reserved for those wise and fortunate enough to live for something bigger than themselves.

I was fortunate enough to have a mother whose life is a testament to the truth of these lessons. These are the constants amidst the change, the unmoving rock amidst the churn.

And these are the lessons I believe people would do well never to forget.

Have an interesting perspective to share or a commentary to contribute? Write to us at [email protected]

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can view the Workbook issue for this essay here, and sign up for The Birthday Workbook newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.

Top photo via Kristie Lim Mind Stretcher/FB