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Memoirs of the Pioneer Generation
Memoirs of the Pioneer Generation
“Our conversation was very interesting, and it stuck in my mind for quite some time. He was telling me about his profession: Seahorse breeding for pharmaceutical purposes. I didn’t know much about any of that, so I simply listened as he told me passionately about how it worked. When he asked where I was from, I replied, 'Germany.' He proceeded to tell me how Germany would benefit from the use of seahorses in medicine. I agreed, because I wasn’t quite sure what to say. He continued by asking me about the state of the country, given the refugee crisis and all. He showed great understanding of the situation, and seemed very interested in hearing about my perspective. What made this conversation stick in my mind, however, was when after we left, I didn’t just see the world differently—now full of seahorses and secret businesses— I saw the quiet faces around me on the MRT and in the hawker centres differently too. They were all full of stories.” – Helena Kotschenreuther, Grade 11, East Campus
Memoirs of the Pioneer Generation is a student-led High School local service initiative on East Campus, designed to capture Singapore’s oral history. The original goal was to find a way to recognise the contributions of the pioneer generation to building Singapore during the SG50 celebrations. At the same time, the service provides residents of retirement homes with mental stimulation and helps them learn about each other.
Students start by building relationships with the elderly residents through weekly visits. While engaging in friendly games and discussions, students jot down the thoughts and experiences of the residents. These notes eventually transform into stories that are published in many different forms (with the permission of the subject)—as posters on the walls of the elderly homes, online and via social media.
Ryan Wimalasena, a founding student in the service says, “Playing Jenga and checkers may be good for the older residents, but I know that it’s helped me, too. I don’t see my grandparents very much because I’m living abroad. I live in a world of students my age. This service changed that for me. I also feel more confident about interviews—both as a subject and as an interviewer.”
Below are a few of the stories that have come from the Memoirs of the Pioneer Generation project.
Mr Rajah: The self-made man
Ms Li: Youth and aging
“I was never married; I’ve always been single. I’ve always kept to myself, just like how I keep to myself in here. The nurses here, they’re all very nice and caring. My sister sometimes visits to bring me blankets, towels, and clothes. She always calls to ask me to move back with her, but I don’t want to be a burden. Can you see my eyes? I can’t really see you. That’s why I can’t play these puzzles. I can’t hear you either; the doctor told me to eat medicine and come to this elderly home to take care of my body. He also gave me two hearing aids, one for each of my ears, but they really hurt my ears sometimes. I wasn’t always like this - but one day I just had a really bad fall. Please promise me that you’ll stay safe. Slipping and falling, especially the way I did… sometimes, it makes such a terrible change to your life. The doctor said that I had hurt my spine and that’s why my eyesight, hearing, and movement are now restricted. Sometimes when the nurses ask me to do my physiotherapy session, I don’t want to get out of bed. I’m glad you’re young. Young people inspire me. I remember when I was young and energetic. I went out to work as an accountant as soon as I could, so I could help take care of my family. But now that I can’t move, see, or hear properly, now that I’m in here, I don’t really feel a purpose. Now my only wish is that I can pass away quietly, painlessly, so that I won’t be a burden to my sister anymore. We’re the only two left, you know. I just don’t want her to worry about me anymore.”
By Won Young Yoon
"I wake up everyday at 4am just to eat a cup of noodles." I met Mr Zhen Ya Li last year, and I have been building a relationship with him ever since. He has lived in St John's home for 16 years now. Every time I visit him, he is always watching singing competitions on TV alongside his friends. Even though he is going blind, he still laughs as I talk to him, and still dances along with the music while seated in his chair. Sometimes I worry that he won’t recognise who I am, but at the beginning of every session as I walk by, he waves and says my name. It brings a smile to my face as we talk; he reminds me of my grandfather.
One afternoon, he talked to me about the Japanese colonisation and how the Japanese soldiers killed his parents and his sisters cruelly. Sharing this, he started crying. He was angry at the British (who had colonised Singapore at that time), for they “ran away” soon after the Japanese soldiers landed. He kept on saying that when the British controlled Singapore, he could at least live a basic life. When the Japanese came, they changed everything. They killed people ruthlessly. He then said with a firm tone that the Japanese soldiers and government should regret their actions toward the comfort women (sex slaves) in China, Korea and Southeast Asia, and apologise to them sincerely. I had never seen him in this light before. Going through such a drastic change of emotions with him made me connect with him at another level, as if we had known each other for years.
After hearing the stories of the pioneer generation, we were reminded of the importance of keeping world peace. War is something we really hope we never experience ourselves. On a more positive note, our eyes were also opened to the great distance Singapore has come in its 50 years of independence. It is a true example of how good leadership can make such a big difference in the lives of so many.