Simple holidays, rich memories
Sun, sand and sea in Changi made for great school breaks during childhood
It is December now, and the rain is pouring like water gushing from a fire hydrant as I write this. For some strange reason, I like this kind of weather - perhaps because the time of the north-east monsoon coincided with the long holiday when I was in school.
Today, I tried to fix an appointment for a patient to see another specialist. Two out of the three specialists I tried to contact were holidaying overseas. This brought back memories of my own school holidays more than 40 years ago.
My childhood holidays were much humbler than what the children of my colleagues enjoy today. Most of my holidays were spent with my paternal grandmother. Before August 1965, my family would also spend a portion of the holidays on Fraser's Hill or Cameron Highlands in Peninsula Malaysia.
Indeed, we were on Cameron Highlands in the days before Separation. I remember my mother, my brothers and I driving back to Singapore in a hurry on Aug 8, 1965. My siblings and I discovered the reason only the next day.
After 1965, we would spend part of our school holidays at Changi Cottage or the chalets next door, bungalows by the sea that government officials - civil servants as well as elected officials - could use.
We did the usual things that children did on seaside holidays. I would rise early to watch the sun rise and meander along the beach. After breakfast, my brothers and I would build sandcastles, dig for clams and search for starfish and hermit crabs. When the tide was in, we tried our luck at fishing with hook and bait or swam in the sea. If it was raining, as it often did in December, we would read or play games indoors.
I remember playing a memory game using cards with the young Lee Chuen Neng, who was staying then with his father K.C. Lee and his family in a neighbouring chalet. More than 40 years later, we are still good friends; he is a cardiothoracic surgeon and head of the department of surgery at the National University Hospital, and I'm a neurologist and director of the National Neuroscience Institute.
These holidays were the rare occasions when my brothers and I had our father's company for the entire day. He would sometimes join us on the beach and swim with us. My mother would watch over us children whenever we went swimming. Without saying so, she was our lifeguard.
Every evening, my father would play golf at the nearby Changi golf course. We would walk with him, sometimes pulling his golf trolley. Sometimes, I would walk ahead to the next hole and roam in the thick vegetation nearby. Those trees and undergrowth were probably left there to increase the chances of a golfer losing his golf ball.
Among the bushes and trees, I would pretend that I was a soldier on a topographic march. I had a good sense of direction and never got lost, although I was often scratched or poked by sharp twigs and thorns. But that merely made the game more realistic, so I didn't mind.
Often, at least once a year while we were in Changi, my father would take us to Pulau Ubin. We would visit the Outward Bound School there. It was then rather under-developed by today's standards, but knowing no better, we enjoyed it, as we tried out the obstacle course.
I still have black-and-white photographs of my elder brother Hsien Loong climbing a net-like structure with parallel rows of horizontal ropes attached to parallel rows of vertical ropes. In the photograph, Loong had made it to the top, while I was trying very hard to catch up with him, as indicated by the determined expression on my face. My younger brother Hsien Yang was then too young to try the obstacle.
All three of us enjoyed our holidays in Changi and the quality time we had with our parents. I doubt we would have enjoyed ourselves more if our parents had flown us off to more exotic and expensive destinations overseas.
In the late 1970s, I remember one doctor friend deflating the ego of another doctor when the latter was boasting about his skiing holiday. My friend feigned ignorance and asked: 'Where did you go skiing? Off Coney Island (also known now as Pulau Serangoon)?' I chortled, for I shared my friend's attitude towards downhill skiing.
It is a chance for the rich to show off their ski costumes and stylish sunglasses. Equipment and ski lift passes are expensive, and skiing accidents are common. In the late 1970s, if you could afford to travel overseas to ski, you had to be very wealthy.
Now my younger doctors, with children in primary school, routinely fly their entire families to Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Europe, the United States or China during the year-end school holidays. A few with larger families may opt to drive up to Malaysia. But on the whole, the children of the upper- middle-class are growing up with expectations that expensive holidays overseas are the norm.
My readers can probably guess what I think of this trend. It is a waste of money to travel vast distances for a holiday when there are many interesting places near Singapore one could visit for both fun and education. It doesn't make sense for well-off Singaporean children to be more familiar with Vail or Aspen than with Borobudur or Angkor Wat.
But the festive season will be soon upon us and I don't want to sound like Scrooge. So I will end this trip down memory lane by wishing all my readers a happy year ahead - and by reminding them that misfortune can occur at any time and it is best not to get used to luxuries.
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.
I agree wholeheartedly. Kids, and sometimes even adults, boast on where they are traveling to, as a means to show how rich they are. Rich in cash. But richness in life is an even larger treasure than money can't buy. Rich in cash but poor in the heart is not uncommon nowadays. But people tend to work toward cash rich rather than rich in the heart and soul.