Life in Singapore

The house was a comfortable, sprawling bungalow on a low ridge which gave it slightly more breeze.  It had been built in 1941 as part of a development named Queen Astrid Park after the Belgian queen who had just died in a motor accident and was the only member of the Belgian royal family who ever enjoyed that sort of popularity.  It was not an auspicious year to build, the house being requisitioned by the Japanese along with the entire street a few months later.  It was bought by New Zealand at the end of the sixties as a residence for the High Commissioner, a position made necessary when Singapore separated from Malaysia.

Thirty-five years old when we moved there in September 1976, it had a flavour of the Empire about it and the household still ran on colonial lines.  Visitors came through the front door into a long reception room furnished with sofas and Persian rugs and cooled by ceiling fans turning lazily and silently. Five sets of French doors opened on to a large terrace edged with flame trees, one of which was dramatically struck by lightning and split down the middle. At the end of this room was a study which was air-conditioned and was therefore used more by the family as a sitting-room.  The desk there was rarely used by me, except for writing letters to the children when they were at school in New Zealand, but was memorable for a phone call I took there on a Sunday afternoon.

A car with New Zealand registration had been shipped from a panel-beater in Bangkok and was sitting on the docks. This was a known channel for the import of drugs and the Customs dogs had signalled the likely presence of drugs in this car.  My consent was needed for them to break into the car and settle the question.  I stared out the window at the monsoon rain slanting down.   If the owner of the car was bringing in drugs and called to collect his car he would hang. On the other hand, Singapore’s drugs policy was their business not mine and the penalties for contravening it were well known.  I said go ahead and was greatly relieved when it was found that the car had no drugs, though it had contained them, and the owner did not appear to claim it.

Past the study was a guest bedroom and bathroom.  At the other end of the reception room was a wing jutting out into the garden which formed the dining room.  Nearby was the large tiled kitchen fitted out like a small hotel for entertaining.  It was left spotless by Cookie and his helpers every evening but if you stepped in at night it meant crunching over cockroaches which turned the whole floor black with their numbers as they scuttled away from the light.  Past the kitchen was a small courtyard around which were the servants’ quarters. To a Western eye they were rather cheerless but there was usually a singing bird in a cage and some pots of flowers hanging from the roof.

Up a narrow staircase were the bedrooms and a ‘family room’ where the children could take refuge from the dinners and receptions under way downstairs.  Its normal untidiness was enhanced by the hobbies and passing enthusiasms strewn around.  The most memorable was something called ‘green slime’ which some creative child thought to place on the blades of the ceiling fan, firing gobs of green slime to every part of the room.

The garden was not large but had been cleverly planted with tall trees along the frontage to look as if it was. There were lawns to the front and side of the house, a shade house bequeathed by a predecessor and still stocked with dispirited orchids, a tall bauhinia covered in brilliant orange flowers and a small fishpond which provided the cooling noise of a fountain to those arriving at the front door. The grounds were also large enough for someone to keep hens in a secluded spot which the High Commissioner was presumed not to know about.

Mornings began with the sound of Burel, the gardener, sweeping away the leaves which had fallen overnight and watering the plants which lived in the array of pots around the house – a relic of the practice of British India where people took their gardens with them.  Susan the maid came into our bedroom with morning tea and pushed open the folding windows so that Arthur the cat could come in for a saucer of milk and we could look out to the sunlit garden.

The early birdsong was from the yellow orioles, both colourful and with a pleasant song.   Our cat, who had travelled all the way from the Ohariu Valley, sometimes tried to catch them, with his head hidden under a bush and his ginger bottom brilliantly visible against the green of the lawn. He had no success.  Later, as the morning grew hotter, came the brain-fever bird whose shrill call on a rising note was indeed a trial if you were confined to your bed.  Other bird life was not plentiful or perhaps lurked shyly in the deep greenery. Occasionally a yellow cockatoo or other parrot would visit from Johore and once some sort of falcon.  

If you were ill, the brainfever bird tended to dominate your thinking from mid-morning.     The first time I was laid low with asthma the household, anxious to help, sent word that asthma could be cured by eating seven live baby mice. When I declined the kitchen thought again and Julie returned with the alternative suggestion that I eat several roasted cockroaches.     After I had refused even this, I was dismissed as an incurable hypochondriac and mercifully left to recover in my own way. 

The most familiar bird in the garden was never seen. Punctually as soon as darkness fell the duk duk bird – it seemed to have no official name – would commence its regular series of ‘duks’, ranging from five to sometimes fifteen.  There was something compelling about its anonymous voice in the sudden dark and it was irresistible to try to predict the number on a particular night.  Indeed betting on the duk duk bird was a minor form of gambling in Singapore, and even those of our children at school in New Zealand liked to mail an occasional bid.

The lawn between the house and the screen of trees was pressed into service for large receptions such as visits by the Prime Minister or Governor-General.  Such outdoor parties were a risk in the Singapore climate.  To ensure that no rain fell in the evening required the services of a ‘bomoh’.  He was found by the housekeeper and in the late afternoon would perform a ritual involving burying unprepossessing bits of rag around the garden.  It seemed to work; our outdoor hospitality was never disturbed by rain.

This was especially important because the army band would be stationed at one end of the lawn to entertain the guests.  The band were part of the New Zealand battalion still based in Singapore and added a colourful note to these parties but their scarlet jackets and gold-striped trousers were not meant to get wet.  Near them was another traditional presence, the satay man.  He crouched over a small charcoal grill, fanning it with an ancient fan, and deftly produced a continuous supply of chicken, beef and pork satay and the peanut sauce to go with them.  The result was delicious but much of it, like the relays of cold beer being carried out, went to refresh the band.

Otherwise the lawn belonged to the family, for playing with dogs, exercising rabbits and most of all for playing croquet. The taste for a rather rough form of ‘golf’ croquet had been acquired on holidays with grandparents in Akaroa and the Singapore lawn was the ideal size.    The craze started, though, as the Midnight Toad Racing and Croquet Club. Toad racing has never caught on for the persuasive reason that they decline to race. The ‘midnight’ in the name was an over- dramatic acknowledgement that you had to wait until it was dark to find the toads.  Thin strips of timber from some former building project were laid on the lawn to form lanes and each person stood in a lane behind their toad. To get the toads to move required a jump from their sponsor.  The toad would then move three or so feet, requiring another jump and so on.  As races go this was lacking in suspense and long before the end of the lawn was reached the jumpers were more tired than the toads.

The club became simply the Queen Astrid Park Croquet Club, sometimes talked of as South East Asia’s oldest because we had never heard of any others. It flourished for nearly four years, particularly in holidays when those children at school in New Zealand were home.     Play was ruthless and the psychological warfare intimidating.  One hoop was near a clump of bamboo where a snake had once been seen. It became customary when playing this hoop to offer visitors a mallet length in if they were at all nervous about the snake.  Whether they took the concession or not this rarely failed to put them off their shot.

Members of the QAP club, mainly from the family, were given a dark blue tee-shirt emblazoned with the club’s name in red and when we went home on leave all our luggage had printed tags saying Queen Astrid Park Croquet Club Tour of New Zealand. The club in fact played several matches in Akaroa but psychological warfare was less successful against uncles and other hardened family members.    

There was an unexpected outcome.  Someone in Canberra noticed the tag on my case and asked about the club.  I said proudly that the clubhouse was in Singapore and was one of the oldest in the region.  Sometime after I got home I received a letter from a croquet association in Western Australia inviting the club to join them in a jubilee tournament in Perth. This was awkward.  I had to get some special QAP club writing paper printed and wrote as President to say that the club had recently completed an arduous tour of New Zealand and unfortunately could not accept any further international engagements this year.

At the end of the drive stood the gatehouse, a little two-storey building which housed Kamari, my driver, and his family.  Kamari was a dignified elderly Malay who was devoted to the profession of driving and who over the years had acquired a remarkable knowledge of the mental processes of those he drove. Julie would leave the car at the main entrance of Robinson’s department store, wander through its intricate layout and emerge from one of the several back street doors to find Kamari invariably waiting there. The sound system of the car had, along with classical music supplied by me, a cassette labelled ‘mem’s music’, brass bands and Frank Sinatra which was solemnly played whenever Julie was alone in the car.    

He was unfailingly polite and silent (precious in a driver) but disliked even the slightest upset. There was no obvious sign but the family learnt from the back of his head and set of his ears when he was discomforted.  We learnt to be tactful in turn. He was devoutly Moslem.    Just after we arrived I took Toddy the corgi we had brought from Wellington to the vet for a check. Kamari then spent most of the morning giving the inside of the car a painstaking clean.  We never took dog or cat in the car again. Mrs Kamari I never met, though there were sometimes two children playing around the gate. There was a delicacy here best left uninvestigated.  Kamari and the gardener could never be put together because Burel had once made advances, possibly successful, to Kamari’s younger wife.   

The official car was a Ford LTD which though capacious was stretched to carry our full family of six. The cry of “two bots forward and two bots back” was helpful in easing the squeeze in the back seat.  Kamari was tolerant of the noise and conflicting instructions on the cassettes to be played on these journeys, though sometimes the ears were set a little more stiffly.  Everyone took pleasure in his meticulous etiquette about the flag. National flags were flown on the front of ambassadorial cars but only when the ambassador was inside. Kamari was tireless in doing the correct thing. If I got out of the car to buy a newspaper the flag was removed, when I returned it was replaced.  When we drove to Johore the flag was removed as soon as we left the Singapore barrier on the causeway, and when it was replaced as soon as we left the Malaysian barrier on our return this was cheered as a little recognition of being home. Coming home became associated with him; when I left the aircraft after a flight from Sri Lanka or New Zealand there was no more welcome sight than Kamari with car and flag waiting at the foot of the steps.

Queen Astrid Park came to an end at our house, diving down into an unpaved and overgrown dell unfrequented by anyone except the six-foot python discovered there shortly after we arrived. It is also provided cover for the burglars who broke into the house through the terrace doors on one occasion.  They may have been Tamil because all that was stolen downstairs was a small selection of old betelnut cases that I had acquired in Sri Lanka. They were certainly remarkably quiet. Someone crept upstairs, managing not to wake the corgi or anybody else, and silently abstracted a $50 note from my wallet which was in the briefcase beside my bed.     

Everyone in the street except us had one or more guard dogs, under-exercised beasts that raged at each gate as you walked by. One house had three particularly noisy Dobermans and one day they got on to the street as Sophie and Gionnita were riding by on their bicycles and attacked Sophie savagely, biting her twice and even biting a chunk out of the bike seat.    Toddy with true Welsh courage went for the attackers, injuring one so severely that it had to be put down.  By doing so he enabled Sophie to get away. The owners of the house, whom we had never seen before, came to us with a bowl of fruit for Sophie and an undertaking to restrain the surviving dogs: they were never seen again.

The burglary was widely attributed to our lack of guard dogs and the Singapore Army gave us two of their German Shepherds imported from Britain. The bumps and bangs of the two of them playing at night were too much and we gave Chrystal, the bitch, to a colleague in the office. The dog, Rusty, was the most beautiful I have owned. He had been intended for some military role but, and this was very Singaporean, had failed his final exams and came to us.  Staff-Sergeant Aloysius from the Dog Unit came periodically to check on his behaviour.  On one occasion Rusty was sitting cooling himself in the fishpond, despite Julie’s entreaties to him to come out, when he heard the Staff’s Landrover turning in at the gate. By the time Aloysius arrived at the front door Rusty, dripping slightly, was sitting rigidly at attention on the tarmac.

Like a retired colonel he never lost his military bearing. In later life under my successor he was made an honorary flight lieutenant by the RNZAF and wore a slide with his rank on his collar at parades and other formal occasions.  He was left out in the evenings to roam the grounds and we had no more trouble with burglars.  After we had left he did return with the seat of someone’s trousers in his mouth, the result of three opportunists who came over the fence from the dell and managed to get back just in time.

Otherwise Rusty became a household pet.  I often took him for a run in the early morning, both of us full of eagerness and Rusty pulling hard at the leash to tow me along. Our return after a mile in the heat was more like a retreat; I walked and Rusty plodded along behind me with his tongue out and his head down.  He and Ah Yong the cook formed an unexpected bond and the late afternoon resounded with cries of “Lusty, dlop” as Ah Yong tirelessly threw a tennis ball for him.

Then came the drama of the great dogfight. Toddy the corgi  was incensed at the arrival of another dog. We had to keep the two carefully separate during the day and Toddy was even more incensed at having to give up the outdoors to his rival.  One Sunday evening he managed to get out just as Rusty had been loosed, with the brave intention of a duel to the death. Rusty could not believe for a moment that this short-legged creature was serious but then, as the snappings and snarlings grew in volume, picked up Toddy by the neck and swung him back and forth to break his neck. I thought he had and waded in, saying presciently to Julie “I’m going to get bitten”.  I pulled Rusty back by his own neck and he dropped the corgi who lay on the ground as if dead for a moment and then leapt up to resume the attack. He gnawed at Rusty’s exposed stomach and the poor German Shepherd held tightly by me could not defend himself.  His jaws snapped frantically back and forth until they finally closed on my knee, biting right through it. The hectic scene froze and Rusty looked at me in horror.

The battle was over. The dogs were patched up by the vet and I was driven to the Base hospital at Sembawang on the other side of the island where Colonel MacMahon, the senior New Zealand doctor, was enchanted to have a minor casualty. He announced that it would be treated as a battlefield wound which meant triage, binding it up as if under fire and leaving stitches for a quieter time. This slightly eccentric treatment worked, if more slowly than stitches would have, and after hobbling about for a few weeks I was fine.

The New Zealand forces based in Singapore had more diplomatic advantages than the band and quick medical treatment. It was the only place where New Zealand had the standing of a middle power, with a battalion, an air force squadron and helicopters all based there and frequent visits by one of our frigates.  This presence gave me a special standing in the diplomatic corps. The American ambassador, John Holdridge who was a friend from our Washington days, once asked if we could spare a helicopter to take a visiting senator on a sightseeing circuit of the island and I enjoyed offering military assistance to the United States.

The presence of Kiwi soldiers was unexpectedly useful in another way. Singapore intelligence reported a plan for a terrorist attack on the High Commission and/or the High Commissioner. An armed guard was moved into the office and I was told to vary my route home every day – advice that gave little reassurance when there was just the one road to the house. A small detachment of soldiers, presided over by Corporal Christmas, moved into the house. They found living with us more of a strain than we did but the staff were irritated by the endless cups of tea they made in the kitchen. After nearly two weeks the authorities declared the emergency over but we never knew what it was.

For the Singapore government the presence of the New Zealand force was a pledge of our continued commitment to Singapore’s security. Ministers expressed warm appreciation for this but no-one had any illusions about its ability to repel any attack. There was a practical reason for their appreciation: when I asked Lee what it was he said ‘ANZUS’ – while the force was there any hostile moves against Singapore would bring in the Americans. So we were given the comfortable quarters vacated by the British and free use of the country’s limited training space; in return we helped train the newly-established Singapore forces. 

Even so it was a compliment when on Waitangi Day we were invited to hold a parade and review on the Padang, the open space beside the seafront where parades were held on Singapore’s National Day and other state occasions. No foreign forces had ever enjoyed this privilege (if you overlooked, as we all did, that Tojo had reviewed a parade of the occupying forces there in 1943) and we felt the need to make a special effort. The troops trained at length and I persuaded Wellington to send a tauihu or elaborately carved canoe prow as a gift to the reviewing officer who was to be Goh Keng Swee, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence.  The parade went off well and it was moving to stand on the reviewing base beside Goh and see your country’s colours carried past by young men marching in perfect order.

It also proved unexpectedly helpful when the battle of Orchard Street broke out. The general discipline of the soldiers was admirable. They did more than behave well: they helped charities, entertained children, played rugby with the nervous locals and fitted easily into Singapore life. There was only one exception in my time. A group of soldiers drinking in an Orchard Street bar got into a fight in the early hours with some policemen who unwisely drew the guns they should not have been carrying off-duty. This was what the New Zealanders had been trained for and they swiftly disarmed their opponents, sending the pistols skittering into a ditch.     It was an exemplary demonstration of unarmed combat but also an embarrassing breach of the peace by members of a visiting force.

Wellington became alarmed, not only because of the brawl but also because a general election was impending in New Zealand.  In telegrams to me the Ministry agonised over the impropriety of interfering with the Singapore justice system against the fear that a sentence of caning might cause uproar in New Zealand.  After talking with the Force Commander I concluded we had to interfere and, without telling Wellington, sought an appointment with Goh Keng Swee.

In Goh’s small, dimly-lit office he had put on a jacket to welcome me which did not match his trousers.  I launched into a rather nervous introduction, cut short by Goh leaning on his elbow across the desk and saying, “What’s your problem?”  When I told him he simply said that he was glad I had come: “When you train young men to fight they are bound to fight somewhere at the wrong place and the wrong time”.  Shortly after I got back to my office he telephoned to say that he had talked to the Attorney-General and there would be no legal proceedings provided the offenders were returned to New Zealand.

 Immediately across the road from our house in Queen Astrid Park was the eight-acre estate of Runme Shaw, an aged movie magnate.  The two Shaw brothers, Runme and his elder brother Runrun, had started in the twenties bicycling around Malaya entertaining villagers by projecting films on a sheet suspended from the trees and from this had built the largest film studios in Asia. One lived in Singapore and the other in Hong Kong and, in a practice reminiscent of medieval monarchs and probably for the same reasons, the son of each magnate lived with the other.

Such a grand life had inevitably some darker moments.  When the Japanese invaded, Runme had just taken delivery of a new Chrysler. He and the car prudently retired for a time to Chinatown.  When he felt things had settled down he took the car to see what had happened to his house. He found that the street had been cordoned off and the house requisitioned.  Even worse his car was promptly confiscated by the soldiers and he had to return downtown by bus.  In later years his family was for a time a target of kidnappings for ransom. The Singapore Government had long since put a stop to these but even in our time the departure of Runme in his Rolls was an occasion as his bodyguards unlocked the gates while a man with a shotgun looked down from a specially-built tower to check on the road.

We had a comfortable neighbourly relationship with the Shaws. Julie did not have the skill or the inclination to join Lily Shaw’s Mah Jong sessions which took an afternoon and were fiercely contested.  We occasionally had lunch or dinner there, memorable mainly for the room in which we sat, the roof and sides entirely of plate glass down which water continuously streamed.  Runme also liked to show movies in his own theatre, usually from the Shaw Bros label featuring energetic fighting more than anything else. When the lights came on Runme would beam at Julie and say “Frighten you?”

Sophie was our principal bond to the Shaw household. Her classmate at school was Gionnita, Runme’s granddaughter and in the afternoons both girls would end up in one or other house and became close friends. The Shaws were a Cantonese family with that dialect spoken by everyone in the house.  Life in the kitchen was cosy with the amah bustling about to feed the girls before they retired to Gionnita’s room to play with her toys. After three or so years of this Sophie knew more about the Shaws and their life than almost anyone else. Years later, when walking down Des Voeux Street in Hong Kong she was surprised to hear someone asking if she would like a cup of tea. When she looked around it was to see a nearby stallholder asking his wife – in Cantonese.

Our household staff numbered six and they were still selected on the traditional colonial practice of having different workers for different tasks. The outdoor staff, consisting of Kamari and Burel, were ethnically Malay and the four in the house were Chinese. This was not just tradition; not surprisingly people worked best with their own linguistic group. The Singapore Government was sternly colour-blind but its efforts had so far ensured that the ethnic groups kept lane discipline rather than mixing. In public attitudes were exemplary; in private each would take sly digs at the shortcomings of the other.

In the house the staff consisted of Cookie, Ah Heng the brisk and efficient housekeeper, and two maids:  Ah Ng a ‘black and white amah’, so called because of her mandatory dress of baggy black trousers and a white top, and the much younger Ah Lung. The front of the house was the business of Ah Lung who would greet any arriving member of the family with “You want flesh li’ or ping ju?”  This was a welcome improvement on Susan her predecessor who would accost guests with a stern “You want strong drink?”

Cookie had previously cooked for the British Political Adviser and it showed.  His meals were those of a decent cafe in Portsmouth and when, after we had pressed him hard, he produced a Chinese meal it too was what would have come from a cafe in Portsmouth.     Despite such resolutely English culinary skills Cookie spoke no English. When Sarah came down for a quick breakfast before school he could manage ‘Hallo Salah’ but that was about all.  Menus for meals were arranged through the housekeeper. Once when I telephoned the house Cookie found himself having to answer.  He tackled the problem boldly saying “High Commissioner not in” before I could even say who I was.  When I did he shrieked “Not in” several times on a rising note of panic and then hung up.

He had a pet cockatoo in a cage which he looked after carefully, moving the cage round the little courtyard with the sun. When a wild cockatoo from Johore took up residence in our trees, as they sometimes did, Cookie set out to catch it, putting out his own bird and saucers of nuts.  He was successful and his cage was too small for two of them.  Clutching his crowded cage he went off on his bike to Holland village to find a larger one. He returned with neither cage nor birds.  He had received such a good offer for the two that he had parted with the pet he had looked after for years.

Cookie retired and his replacement was Ah Yong, a Hainanese who had learnt both his English and his cooking as a merchant seaman.  He was good at both. His Chinese meals were relished, though his Hainanese chicken rice was not esteemed as much as the version available in the Mandarin Hotel downtown. After a year with us he went to hospital for a checkup and telephoned Julie to say “Mem, you need new cook”.  When she protested he said bluntly, “I die soon”.  He did a few days later, his wife not with him but searching his room for any money he might have concealed there.

Gerald and I hurried back from Malaysia where I had taken him for a holiday trip down the east coast. In dark suits we walked in the procession that carried his heavy Chinese coffin to a Buddhist service in a marquee beside the apartment building where he lived. It was a bleak occasion.  When the coffin was carried down the aisle I respectfully turned to face it until hands behind me firmly turned me back.  In Chinese society, to face the coffin implied that you rejoiced at his death.

Afterwards we had a little gathering at the house for his family and friends and there met his children for the first time. The son was a police superintendent and the daughter a receptionist at a large international bank – a vivid demonstration of the enormous change Singapore had achieved in a single generation.

Our household revolved around and was ruled by the housekeeper, Ah Heng, who had a sharp intelligence and an imperious manner, especially with the children who covertly feuded with her behind their parents’ back.  Both parties learnt much from our relationship. When Julie placed two bowls of white flowers on the lunch table they were whisked away by Ah Heng with a hiss of disapproval – a sign of mourning, white flowers were an inauspicious welcome for guests.  In turn, as we prepared to have the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Rowling, to lunch, she found it hard to believe that New Zealand had someone whose job was to make trouble for the government and was simply incredulous to learn that we paid him to do it.

The screen of language gave successive High Commissioners a rather loose control of what went on in the house and Ah Heng the confidence from years of making it and the cycle of regular entertainment go smoothly.  What else might be going on, like the hens in the garden, only surfaced by chance.  Sophie and Gionnita discovered that Ah Heng was running a laundry business from the house, using my supplies. Their silence was bought by a business like deal: Sophie received a weekly case of Fanta ordered by Ah Heng and added to my grocery bill. It was years before I knew of it.

Ah Ng, the ancient maid, belonged to that strange clan, the black and whites, who like nuns devoted their lives to the care of other peoples’ children and like nuns were a declining institution.  She was elderly and tiny and much exercised by our careless attitude to evil spirits. This led to a surreptitious contest over the front door.  It was left open by us for the flow of air through the reception room but Ah Ng was troubled by the absence of a screen just inside the door to discourage the entry of evil spirits and closed the door whenever she could. Coming down to breakfast in the morning I would spend some time straightening all the pictures which had assumed a mysterious tilt overnight even though there had been no earthquake. The tilt, I was told, was the work of Ah Ng to ensure that the same spirits would slide off their perch on the top of the pictures. After that the pictures were straightened only before the arrival of guests.

Ah Lung, the youngest maid, was also the public face of the house. She poured drinks and passed food at receptions and looked after the children’s needs. Her life too had that almost monastic ethic that is a feature of Chinese societies. She had a boyfriend. She may have seen him on other days off but once a month he would pick her up in a battered van furnished with flowered curtains and a mattress inside. They would go off, spend the afternoon in the van and she would then return to her small room and household duties for another month.

A house full of servants was in theory the height of comfort. Meals were cooked, dishes were done, clothes washed and pressed and my shoes freshly polished would appear every morning beside my bed. All the same, sharing a house with four people was a mixed blessing even if, like the IRD, they were there to help. There were internal wars and mysterious feuds to be managed, periodic crises to be overcome and Julie learnt to dread Ah Heng’s approach saying “I not happy”.   

So Sundays when everyone was off and the house was deserted became an oasis of peace. It led me to resume my cooking, traditional in Wellington, of spaghetti and tomato sauce on Sunday evenings. This was a step too far. First the necessary ingredients were left on the bench for me, then the onions and tomatoes were chopped up in readiness and when a saucepan carefully filled with water and a packet of dried spaghetti appeared I gave up.  It was a question of dignity or ‘face’: Cookie would not dream of working in my office and I should not be doing so in his.

As they got older the number of children living with us began to fluctuate. Gerald had started at Christ’s College in Christchurch the year before we arrived in Singapore and stayed there for the whole of his high-school education, looked after on Sundays by two sets of grandparents.  Julie asked Lee Kuan Yew a little teasingly whether he could go to the Raffles Institution, the best school in the region, and Lee beamed and said, certainly – provided he passed the entry exam.  Sophie did the opposite, spending all her elementary years in Singpore at Weyhill School, a school surviving from the colonial days where the girls wore blue-checked gingham dresses and followed a British curriculum. It suited Sophie who after all was born a Londoner.

Caroline and Sarah moved between Singapore and home. After four years at Woodford Caroline spent her last year at the United World College which had just been established in Singapore. It was an offshoot of the original UWC housed as Atlantic College in a grey rain-lashed castle in Wales and its curriculum, offering a range of international qualifications, suited the large expatriate population in Singapore. For Caroline it was a mind-expanding year after the rural certainties of Hawkes Bay. With a friend she spent several weeks in a kampong in Jogjakarta learning to design and dye batiks. Like much education this skill disappeared without a trace but left her with an inside knowledge of the Javanese.

Sarah did it the other way round, going to the junior end of UWC (previously known as St John’s International School) until she was ready to go to Woodford.  It too was international rather than Singaporean but she enjoyed it and the school trips were better than most. With her class she travelled in the steamer Rajah Brooke to Sarawak, the only member of the family to have done so.  She came home one day to say that someone called Lord Mountbatten had visited her class.  He had come as patron of the UWC movement.  I met him at a reception that evening and mentioned that my daughter had seen him earlier. He looked at me for a minute and I could see the royal roladex flicking over in his mind. Then he said, “Sarah.   From Christchurch,” revealing a memory for people which would be the envy of most politicians.

The mixture of schools meant that we had two or three children coming back on the plane every term holidays. The New Zealand Government paid for two flights a year but there were three term holidays. Leaving anyone away from home during the holidays was not to be contemplated. The difficulty was overcome and the third holiday paid for by the sale of the great Chinese bed. On a visit to Malacca Julie and I saw an ancient Chinese marriage bed being restored in a tumbledown shop. These beds brought from China by emigrants in the middle of the nineteenth century were rare because of the custom of burning them when the occupying couple died. This was a splendid specimen, all red lacquer and gold with panels showing love and harmony around the sides and gold dragons sporting on the roof.  We had to get the permission of the museum in Kuala Lumpur to export it and then hired an evil-smelling old truck to bring it to Singapore.

The heavy beams were carried up the stairs and the bed assembled in our bedroom while the household hovered disapprovingly. It was like sleeping in a magnificent room but Julie and I both had intensely vivid dreams.  When these continued every night for a week, not nightmares but brilliantly coloured visions, the bed was passed on to Caroline and in succession to the others.  All had the same dreams until the bed finally stood alone in an empty room.  A Chinese visitor caught sight of it through the open door and said, “I hope no-one sleeps in that bed. They will have exhausting dreams”.  So the bed was sold to a Texas businessman and funded the holiday gap for the rest of our stay.

Government and parents paid for economy flights but Air New Zealand generously promoted the children to first-class on many of these journeys and that, together with the first-class travel previously available for families with young children, could enable Sophie to claim that she was eighteen before she even knew there was a back half to the plane. On these occasions Caroline as the eldest was charged with ordering the drinks (one of the many things parents learn about years later) and at Woodford Sarah was able to impress her friends with the number of miniature gin and whisky bottles she had acquired.

In the course of these years all but Sophie had become teenagers and their return home for the term holidays raised the question of entertaining them. The mainstay was our membership of the Island Club which had an enormous pool in which everyone could swim at length, chased out only when there was a thunderstorm. There were also squash courts where Gerald and I often played. I could play for forty-five minutes in the lunch hour and retire, exercised to the point of exhaustion, for a cold beer and curry beside the pool. In weekends the club offered the dream of tropical living: lazy days spent doing very little and doing it very comfortably.

Something more was occasionally needed. A friendship grew up with the family of Brigadier Lin Smith, commander of the New Zealand forces in Singapore, and with them we made an excursion to Fraser’s Hill, an old hill station in Malaysia which provided jungle walks, cooler air and that pleasure of all expatriates, the promise of a fire. We made another joint expedition, to Rawa Island reached by a boat trip from the east coast of Malaysia. It was a coral island with palm trees and dazzling white beaches but my main memory of it is everyone on the verandah of one of the chalets lost in the excitement of the board game ‘Escape from Colditz’.  Years later Sophie brought the game with her to another holiday.     Hunched over the dinner table in a house beside the sea in Syracuse, this time with Jono the eldest grandson, we tried for a nostalgic recreation of the excitement only to find that the complexities of the game had got beyond us.

Because Gerald was the only member of the family who had never lived in Singapore his holidays required a special effort. He and I made a trip to Lake Toba in Sumatra and on the journey learnt something of Indonesian ways.  The immigration officials in Medan kept returning us to the end of the queue. I noticed that the oil workers ahead of us passed over their passports with a 10,000 rupiah note tucked inside. When I did the same (it was not a large sum) we were through.

We took a bus up the hills to Lake Toba accompanied by several elderly Dutch making a nostalgic return visit. Like them we ate the never-forgotten pickled buffalo knees that featured in the rijstafel, help-yourself lunches. The lake was an expanse of blue fresh water, high enough in the hills to be cool, which had encouraged its development as a resort in the Dutch times. The beachfront and its equipment were all a little faded but we had fun racing in leaky pedalos, one with the baffling name of Ovium War. We took a boat to the lake’s only island and paid our respects to the “last queen” of those who lived there, a tiny toothless lady sitting on a stump, ending her days as a showpiece for tourists.

On another occasion we took the train from Singapore to Bangkok. There was no air-conditioning which mattered less because all the windows were open but the lavatory at the end of the carriage quickly became blocked and the smell became omnipresent. By the time we reached Bangkok the lavatory – labelled Tandas in Malay – became known as the tandas that shook the world. As the train went north the stations like Alor Star became a roll-call of the progress of the Japanese invasion forty years before.     

There were further snapshots of South East Asian life. There was the man who lay for much of the journey under the ceiling in the luggage rack, not noticed by the guards or perhaps bribed not to notice him. When the train stopped at the border station, aptly named Pasir Besar, there was a furious traffic in cigarettes and other goods to be smuggled, with boxes stacked on the aisles and seats of our carriage that the railway police did not seem to see.     The train paused just before it reached Bangkok station and the whole process reversed itself.    Windows went up and boxes were thrust into the hands of people who materialised to take them, women waddled off in dresses stretched into improbable shapes and cars roared away with their cargo.

Beside this commercial spirit there were only slight reminders of other troubles. The Communist guerrillas operating on both sides of the borders had given up in discouragement years before.  The separatists in southern Thailand still showed occasional signs of life. The station at Haadyai was a large crater after the separatists had blown it up.  Once as we passed through open country past that station the train suddenly stopped and armed police ran past us. Two men were said to be on the roof of a carriage but if so we heard no more of them.

On the way home we travelled by bus down the beaches of the East Coast of Malaysia. Just below the Thai border the first of these beaches of white sand fringed with palms had, at least in English translation, the rather steamy name of the Beach of Passionate Love. In practice this and all the later beaches, at least in the early morning, seemed to be used by relays of the locals emptying their bowels.

A sadder sight on these beaches along the coast was the abandoned Vietnamese fishing boats lying beached across the sand. It was the height of the great influx of refugees from the recently-unified Vietnam. These abandoned craft looked barely seaworthy but they were the half of the fleeing boats that actually managed a landfall, the rest either disappearing at sea or falling victim to pirates.  One morning we found a small anchor half-buried in the sand. It was small enough to carry away and young Gerald badly wanted to bring it with us back to Singapore.  It would have been awkward to carry and I thought it ghoulish. We walked on down the beach, with Gerald gazing regretfully back at the receding anchor.

Julie did not join in these travels. The RNZAF flew her once to Bangkok and once to Hong Kong but otherwise she devoted herself to Singapore. Her charm and social skills were a critical part of the work of the High Commission, critical because entertaining and building friendships were the framework of New Zealand’s relationship with South East Asia. Louis XIV used to complain when asked for a favour for someone, “But I never see him” and this was the key to diplomatic entertaining: people who had sat round your table were more likely to trust you and share confidences than those called on occasionally in their office.

The house was superbly furnished and organised for this and we gave three or more dinners and lunches a week, always one for the New Zealanders who arrived or left on the then weekly flight.  Julie, I felt, had the best of these. We stubbornly followed the Western practice of seating men and women alternately instead of the Asian preference for men and women in separate groups. I would look down the long table to see Julie seated between the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Labour and all three talking and roaring with laughter. At my end I got more often than not elderly wives of limited English.  One had trouble with her oesophagus and one could only eat a small amount of fish.  Otherwise I laboured with enquiries about children, Chinese birth years and jewellery which experience had taught me might crank the conversation into a spluttering life.  At least I grasped that the dinner was even more of an ordeal for the wives than it was for me.

The diplomatic corps tended to entertain each other – once they had reported that Singapore was prosperous and stable there was not much left to do but golf and dinners. I did not play golf and did not go to many of their dinners but could not resist when the Korean ambassador gave a select one to celebrate the arrival of durian. Durian was a fruit of distinctly mixed attraction.  It had such a repulsive smell that passenger aircraft would not carry it but this was brushed aside by those addicted to it.  Its flesh was roughly the consistency and colour of a ripe avocado and its coming into season was a matter of eager anticipation. We had a durian tree on the edge of our grounds and though you could hear the thud of a ripe fruit falling in the night it was never there in the morning.

It had the reputation, more talked-of than evident, of being a powerful aphrodisiac. It shared this with a wide range of other foods and when some special Chinese dish was being presented at a dinner my host would often nudge me and whisper, “Makes you strong”.  I tried to make use of this obsession when a frigate brought us the first kiwifruit, sending boxes to notabilities with a discreet commendation of its health-giving powers, hoping that as Chinese males they would read between the lines.     

The excitement over the Korean ambassador’s dinner was that the durian would be accompanied by a specially rare kind of Korean ginseng, also widely respected in Asia as an aphrodisiac, dissolved in an old brandy. This made a triple threat of fearful strength and much of the dinner was spent in speculating about the possible effects. I ate the durian, drank the ginseng and went home but felt I should wake up Julie to warn her of the impending storm.   She listened, blinked and went straight back to sleep. So did I.                                       

Julie broke easily through the diplomatic shell into Singapore domestic life.  She took lessons from Mrs Lee Chin Koon in peranakan or nonya cooking, the distinctive fusion of Malay and Chinese dishes that had grown up over two or more centuries of Chinese emigration.  Mumma Lee, as she was universally known, was the Prime Minister’s mother and in the course of the lessons in her kitchen gave Julie some fascinating glimpses of life in her son’s house, especially the queue of children waiting for a turn in the bathroom in the morning, each carefully studying a book while they waited. She told Julie that as a girl she had prayed to marry a European so that she wouldn’t have to put up with a Chinese mother-in-law but an occasional comment from her daughter-in-law, Lily Lee, suggested she had not entirely escaped the charge herself.  She has left us with some favourite family dishes, like fish mouli, and a favourite phrase of hers when tasting a dish, “very delicious”.

Mumma Lee helped introduce us to the complexities of celebrating Chinese New Year.    Despite growing competition from Christmas this was the biggest festival of the year for those of Chinese descent. It marked the lunar new year and fell anywhere between January and mid-February.  People settled the year’s debts and at least in theory the year’s enmities.      The traditional firing of crackers had been banned but in the depths of Queen Astrid Park a furtive burst could still be heard from time to time. Gifts of cash were also called for and we gave ‘ang pows’ in the proper red envelopes to all the household and to deserving children as well. A wayang, a cart with a small stage, would appear in Holland Village and stage plays at night, lit by kerosene lamps. They were scenes from the Ramayana and among the fluctuating audience would be a large group sitting on the ground following the drama with rapt attention.

The new year also saw another turn in the cycle of animal years, named after the twelve animals that answered the Lord Buddha’s summons to meet him. The Rat was first and Caroline was born in the year of the Rat, receiving from the kitchen a birthday cake in the form of a rat with a long marzipan tail.  Julie and I were an Ox and a Pig whose main distinction was that they got on well together.  Sarah was a Snake which despite Western prejudices was the best sign for a girl and Sophie was a Goat, famed for its filial devotion.    Gerald was a Tiger, auspicious for boys, but what sort of tiger also mattered. He was born in New York and Mrs Lee engaged in complex calculations to establish what time it was in China and therefore whether he was a sleeping tiger (not much use) or a hunting tiger (which he fortunately proved to be).

Julie was invited to join a sewing group of well-connected Singapore ladies which included Monica Tan, the Prime Minister’s sister, Pamelia Lee his sister-in law and others as outspoken as they were knowledgeable. She was the only foreigner to be included.  It seemed to be more of a lunch than a sewing group. Julie, no needlewoman, embarked on a small tapestry of Arthur the cat which took all of our three and a half years in the post to be finished, but Julie never came home from these lunches without worthwhile stories and insights into Singapore life.

One was the story of Monica’s father-in-law.  Mr Tan had made himself a large fortune in tin mining in Malaysia and did so, in a popular story, because he kept his word.  As a young man seeking his first tin concession from the British District Officer in Ipoh he felt he needed to present well and asked a friend to lend his new boots. The friend demurred saying that he would wear out the precious boots if he wore them all the way there and back.  Tan promised that he would put the boots on only when within sight of the officer’s bungalow.  He set off with the boots tied round his neck, pulled them on outside the bungalow, creaked across to get his concession, took them off when outside again and walked all the way home with the boots around his neck. Such probity became a legend among Chinese businessmen.

Success brought Mr Tan twelve wives, the number perhaps a mark of the Chinese love of symmetry since number eleven was his favourite.  The number also allowed the wives to make three tables for mah jong.  The office paid for their losses while they kept any winnings.  He was in all ways a master of polygamous marriage (by our time outlawed in Singapore): when his favourite had chosen a jade bracelet from the glittering shop on High Street he would order eleven more. He had no bedroom of his own but who he spent the night with was never known until the next day.

Through these connections we saw something of everyday Singapore life in a way not easy for transient diplomats. Through barbecues and parties with members of the sewing group senior officials came to trust us and speak less guardedly. Singaporeans, ruled by a powerful personality, turned out to have the same little covert jokes about the boss as Samoa had about its High Commissioner and indeed as schools have about their headmaster. The story was still repeated of Lee’s urgent phone call from Kuala Lumpur to Eddie Barker, the Attorney-General, at the height of the separation crisis: “Eddie, it’s Harry”.   “Harry who?” said the Attorney cautiously.  As Lee prepared to step down for Goh Chok Tong in a move generally assumed to pave the way for the young Lee Hsien Long, two departmental heads told me with a giggle that they would form a trinity, father, son and holy Goh.

In the second year of our stay Julie went into Gleneagles hospital for a hysterectomy. The country’s prosperity meant that the medical care was at least as good as New Zealand’s and she made a good recovery.  While still in bed she said that what she missed most was Arthur.     Hospitals are notoriously averse to admitting cats and this required a little planning. Three of us zipped Arthur into a little bag of a sort then provided by Air New Zealand and smuggled him into the hospital. There was a trying moment going up in the lift when Arthur’s head peered out from the bag and had to be surreptitiously pushed back in. The visit was excellent for Julie’s morale but as we left a loud mew resounded in the crowded lift.  It was highly likely that Arthur would do it again. I said hastily to Gerald, “That was pretty good.   Can you do it again?”  His imitation was naturally less successful but it was enough to get us out and safely home.

Because we had been quick to help when Singapore was divorced from Malaysia and because we had contributed forces to its defence for thirty years, New Zealand was held in high regard and any representative started with that advantage. The advantage could also be a problem. A day or two after I arrived, before my credentials had even been presented, I went to the opening of the Government Tourist Office in Tanglin. I joined a group round the Prime Minister who said, “I was just saying that the difference between Australians and New Zealanders is that New Zealand was settled by the younger sons of gentlemen. Isn’t that so, High Commissioner?”  With the sinking feeling that life in Singapore was going to be more challenging than I had expected, I thought hard and managed to say that there might be some New Zealanders who held that view.

When I was fully in operation it was slightly disconcerting to be told that the Prime Minister did not welcome an introductory call, which he saw as a waste of time, but would be available anytime I wished to see him on business.  He meant it and anytime I telephoned I got an appointment the next day. He liked New Zealand and enjoyed holiday visits there even after he retired. He liked us partly because we were not Australian and partly because he and his colleagues thought (until the nuclear ships affair) that we were rock steady.

We once had a revealing conversation about his view of himself. He said that he always thought of himself as like a British District Commissioner entrusted with looking after all the needs of a district. That and a cultural Chinese belief that Government business was private shaped his politics.  He found the more outspoken and free-wheeling behaviour of New Zealand politicians like David Lange or Sir Robert Muldoon rather baffling. When Sir Robert criticised President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, referring to him as a peanut farmer, Lee was fascinated, saying to me that Muldoon was right but no-one would have thought of saying so out loud.  On another occasion, at dinner in the Istana garden, the two happily swapped stories of their legal actions until Lee was startled to discover that all of Muldoon’s were about people suing him.

Going to see him always required a little concentration. For a start I had to put on a thick suit because he kept his office so cold.  He blamed this on his Hakka, northern Chinese, ancestry: “In the warm I feel loose”.  Walking into the room could also be unexpected. I once came in to find the Prime Minister with his head in his hands emitting theatrical groans. I asked if anything was the matter. He lifted his head wearily to say that he was tired of American officials who were confident that problems which had defeated “the rest of us” for forty years could be solved in their short time in office. The previous caller had been Richard Holbrooke.

My calls on him never ran in predictable lines. On the way downtown I would go over my agenda and resolve not to be deflected by his charm but this was invariably swept away by the vigour of his mind.  On my first visit we talked about the conservatism of Chinese societies (“it will be a long time before China becomes a democracy”) and the power of the incisive four-character slogan to mobilise feelings.  On my last I prepared a little list to tidy up my term but it blew away when I entered his office and his first words were, “Would you buy Sri Lanka Airlines?”, knowing that I often used that state-run airline on my visits to Colombo. I thought briefly and said ‘No’, remembering the difficulties at check-in attracting the attention of the beautiful and well-brought-up girls who liked to gossip and had only a limited interest in the passengers.  He nodded and we moved on to something else.

In the course of these calls he would offer glimpses of his own past. He was from an English-speaking family on his father’s side, his grandfather having been captain of a local steamship, and he had no other language.  As he became increasingly involved in politics he taught himself, first Malay and then, more difficult, Mandarin.  He told me of leaning over the front gate of his father’s house on the day after Singapore’s surrender, watching the defeated troops marching into captivity. The Indian and Australian troops were demoralised, shambling along with their puttees trailing in the dust. Then, he said and his eyes shone, round the corner came the first of the British troops. They had not eaten or slept much for days and they were filthy and unshaven but they marched in step swinging their arms proudly and “I said to myself, now there’s a people”.

The scholarship to an English university he had just won was now beyond reach. In time his English secured him a job working for the Japanese translating BBC broadcasts. The administration was housed in the Cathay building, then and almost to my time the only high building in Singapore.  Every morning the staff assembled on the roof to sing the Kimigayo and pledge allegiance to the emperor. His work enabled Lee to follow the progress of the war in a way not open to other Singaporeans and as the tide turned it looked as if the Allies might be preparing to retake Malaya.  If so Singapore might once again be fought over and perhaps heavily bombed. He suggested to his parents that they might wish to move to Ipoh. A morning or two later when he was going up in the lift at work a colleague waited until there were no Japanese in the lift and whispered to him that the Kempeitai, the secret police, had asked for his file. Lee, whose huge courage was moral rather than physical, sweated over this and then suggested to his parents that it might be best to stay in Singapore after all. Shortly after, to his great relief, a whisper in the lift told him that his file had been returned.

In the disorganised months after the war’s end he had no job. While waiting to learn if his scholarship could be revived he started his own business, which he always referred to as ‘the mucilage’.  He noticed that gum was one of the myriad shortages and in its absence envelopes and parcels could not be closed. In his mother’s kitchen and no doubt with her help he made and sold a substitute to fill the gap, pedalling on his bicycle to deliver the bottles of it all over the city.

His introduction to Britain when his scholarship came through was discouraging. He told me that he looked at the rows of little terrace houses, their slate roofs gleaming in the rain, in the rain and had difficulty believing that this was the heart of the great empire he had grown up in. Worse, he was enrolled at the University of London and Lily, the love of his life was already installed at Cambridge. He immediately took the train there to seek a transfer. The admissions don must have looked a little askance at this gawky and intense young man in an ill-fitting suit but his courtesy was never forgotten. He told Lee that it was difficult at this late stage but “Mr Lee, I will do my best.”  He did and Fitzwilliam College acquired perhaps its most famous undergraduate.  

Harry and Lily studied law together at Cambridge, Lily getting the better marks, but Lee reminisced about his student life mainly in terms of sightseeing with her.  It was unthinkable in those years to live together but marrying in England without their families was also unthinkable, especially for Lily. As Kwa Geok Choo she came from a more traditional Chinese background and was a little older than he. From occasional hints I suspect they might have married secretly in London and had the “proper” wedding when they returned to Singapore. They were an advertisement for the risky business of marrying for love and never wavered in their close partnership. She was the source of frank criticism and advice he could get nowhere else until Lily, affectionately called Choo by him, died when she was almost ninety.

It was a devastating blow for him.  He sent me pictures of her funeral.  In one, his albino grandson, the cause of a family tragedy, walked with him, a loving arm around the old man’s waist. Lily had taken over and virtually raised the child after his mother died, writing to Julie for suggestions of further books to read to him after they had done The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. The last time I saw Lee, in a ward at the Singapore General Hospital, he asked me, “How have you managed in these last months?”, meaning since Julie had died.   When I found myself saying, “Not very well” he reached out his hand from under the bedclothes and squeezed mine, saying “I know.”

Once at a dinner in a Wellington hotel we took to exchanging ghost stories.  I told of the flight of Leva’s red dress in Samoa and Lee described the night his grandmother died.  At the end Julie said conventionally enough that she still did not believe in ghosts.  Lee fixed her with an earnest look and said, “Juliet, do not discount the supernatural”.  It was a surprising glimpse of his inner life which, though never otherwise spoken of, seems to have developed as he aged.

Lily as his trusted wife could offer blunter comment than anyone else. At another dinner he started on a theme that briefly preoccupied him – the distressing tendency of clever young men to marry, not girls with glasses and doctorates in neuroscience, but those with good legs and pretty faces.  This theme irritated many women, including Julie who at the time said to me, “I’m just mild about Harry.”  At the dinner he was just warming to this subject when Lily leant across the table and said, “Harry, you’re talking nonsense.” He said “Am I?” in an injured tone but fell silent and never raised the subject again.

Lily arranged not just his thinking but also his official entertaining and made it simpler and less formal. They were resolute entertainers of the substantial flow of visitors through Singapore. When Sir Robert Muldoon visited, which he liked to do as Norman Kirk had earlier, we dined in the garden of the Istana, sitting in the velvety darkness while Bach and Mozart played quietly from speakers Lily had concealed in the shrubbery. On other occasions, usually indoors in one of the Istana’s big rooms, their dinners were in a more formal Chinese style. We sat in a semicircle of chairs with the Lees in the middle and made rather laborious conversation until dinner was announced. The food was always French; Lee once said to me that he did not eat Chinese food – “you never know what’s in it”.

The lawns which rolled down from the Istana in the traditional British fashion were of a tropical variety of grass which he thought was unsatisfactory.  Thinking of New Zealand’s experience with pasture he found an expert from there to help.  His confidence was fortunately not misplaced.  A better grass was found and the New Zealander went on to advise on the choice and planting of trees to provide welcome shade on Singapore’s streets.  It was that willpower and omnivorous attention to detail which marked Lee and enabled him to transform Singapore in a generation.

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