This is the story of how Singapore became a modern metropolis even with no natural resources. This book features both ordinary and more well-known Singaporeans from all walks of life. The book is commissioned by NLB and produced by the Straits Times Press. The core focus of the book is on the people of Singapore. A never-give-up and courage is what enables our country to thrive. There are a total of 58 stories. All feature people exhibiting resilience and enduring hardship. Throughout the book, you will see people demonstrating passion in their work and each playing an important role in the building of society. Back during the kampong days, the spirit of ‘gotong royong’ was strong.
<1965 to 1974>
Paul Fernandez was an ex-teacher. He was happy to leave the kampong and move to one of the HDB flats. Back then, life in the kampong was unhygienic because of the nightsoil workers had to come. Later, I stayed in a flat in Queenstown. I have never shifted since.
Liu Thai Ker was Chief Executive of HDB from 1979 to 1989. Back in the early 70s, slums were present and it was filthy. By 1985, 80% of the population lived in flats. Design was the key and HDB spent time working out proportions of windows, facades etc. Eventually, HDB engaged private contractors to come in. To me, quality control was important. I often placed nation above self.
Noor Aishah Md Salim was the wife of the late Yusof Ishak. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew picked Yusof Ishak to be the head of State. I picked up English in the late 1960s. Yusof passed away in 1970 and it was difficult being a widow. Thankfully, I managed to cope after his passing.
Winston Choo was the Chief of Defence from 1974 to 1992. Israel agreed to help provide advise on how to set up an armed forces. In the early 1970s, we bought second-hand tanks from Israel. The people are crucial to the successful running of the Armed Forces. Now, we have our own technology. It was challenging to get the different forces to work together.
Siah Nah Nam trained the army recruits in 1967. It was difficult to control the gangsters back then. Soldiers must learn to be aggressive. My children are my proudest achievements. In total, I spent 26 years in the army. It was important to get the job done. It is crucial to never give up.
When we were doing drills and struggling to carry causalities on a stretch from Lim Chu Kang to SAFTI, four to a stretcher and rotating among sex men, the Israeli trainer scoffed at us. They said that in Israel, it would be just one man carrying a casualty, and in the desert. – Siah Nah Nam
Tan Suan Yong was an ex-engineer who helped pave development in Jurong to form the first industrial estate. There were some leftover bombs on the Jurong hills. Contractors had to cut these hills and flatten them. JTC had to prepare the land for big MNCs to come. In JTC, I learnt a lot about loyalty. We also had to drive some of the farmers who were occupying the hills out.
JY Pillay was the ex-SIA chairman. The SIA staff were experienced and very competent. SIA learned to fend on its own and not rely too much on government support. A lot of the regional airlines were government owned and not very competent. Back then, the advertising and branding was solid. SIA was also daring when it purchased big Boeing 747s in the 1970s. In modern times, SIA has to face stiff competition from budget carriers and Gulf carriers etc.
Ngalirdjo Mungin was a Satay man. I observed from others and gradually picked up the skill. Gradually, I sold Satay on the streets and outside stadiums. It was tough work as I also had a day job at that time. In the 1970s, I had to move off the streets and set up my own store. Later, I handed the stall down to my son, who will continue my legacy.
Teo Kim Swee was an ex-taxi driver. He has been driving for 47 years. Back in the late 1960s, I drove a private taxi and had to be constantly on the lookout for police. Later, I also worked as a hawker. It was common to have 6 passengers in my taxi. In 1971, I got my official taxi license and we moved to metered fares. 75 years is the official retirement age for taxi years. I only had 4 years of primary school education.
Rosie Ang was the first woman’s car salesman. I once sold a car to Benjamin Sheares, our ex-President. I was into cars since young and my dad was working in Borneo Motors. Most of my colleagues were males and they didn’t believe in me. Work was easy as I often had many referrals.
Abdul Rahman Mahbob was a veteran union leader. In 1966, essential services went on strike because of low pay. This prompted me to join the union. We fought to help men keep their jobs and to fight on. Now, times are a lot more peaceful and management and workers can work in tandem.
Kwan Chan Yong has been a domestic worker with the same family for the past 60 years. I was originally from China. After a few families, I finally joined the Yeoh family as a domestic helper. I get to travel with the family for quite a while. My duties include cooking and doing the marketing. My employers now consider me as part of their family!
Lee Khoon Choy was an ex-diplomat. I was an ex-minister. I was LKY’s political secretary from 1963 to 1965 and he sent me to Egypt on a diplomatic mission. I went there to ensure the safety of the embassy after we recognize Israel as a nation and we were afraid that the Arabs were going to cause trouble. Diplomacy always came to me naturally. I was also the ambassador to Indonesia from 1970 to 1974. Diplomatic relations between the two nations was not at an all-time high back then. Whatever I start, I know I must finish it well.
The late-PM Lee Kuan Yew admitted Singapore succeeded because people were determined to do well on their own. Many people believed we could not survive after being kicked out by Malaysia. We knew we didn’t want to be treated as second-class citizens. Confidence was the key to success. The right infrastructure was also important. The grit and determination of the people mattered a lot. It was necessary for us to be extraordinary in order to thrive. The core basics of our success are social cohesion, equal opportunities for all and meritocracy.
<1975 – 1984>
Elizabeth Lim Poh Suan was the highest ranking female bus driver. Back in the day, buses used manual transmission and had no air-conditioning. I started driving since 22. Now, mechanics help us maintain the buses. Long ago, ticket punchers were used. Less bus conductors are being used nowadays. There about 400 female drivers out of 5800. Most bus captains should be familiar with at least 5 routes each. As long as I am healthy, I want to continue working.
Alan Choe was Singapore’s first urban planner. I joined the HDB to plan to build flats. I was in charge of urban renewal. Lower tax was needed to incentivize the private sector to build things here.
Tan Gee Paw is PUB’s chairman since 2001. I was fascinated with the network of drains, canals and rivers. In 1974, the Public Works Department built the first recycling plant at Ulu Pandan. In 1977, I was tasked to clean up the Singapore and Kallang River. Sewers were built to every household. In 1998, the first NEWater plant was built. We could recycle wastewater successfully. Desalting water is currently very expensive.
Abd Rahman Khan Gulap Khan worked for 35 years in the police force and served in the CID. I was shot by the ‘Cop Killer’ in 1974. Some of my memorable incidents are the Greek tanker Spyros explosion in 1978. Another incident was the Hotel New World collapse in 1986.
Wong Yew Kwan served as the Commissioner of Parks from 1976 to 1983. LKY tasked him to help spruce up Singapore’s landscape. After we got his approval, MOF started giving us more funds. Despite urbanization, Mr Lee wanted to plant trees wherever and whenever we could. Mr Lee rarely praised people.
Gopinath Menon was the chief transportation engineer from 1991 to 2001. He was the man behind the introduction of ERP in Singapore. The Area Licensing Scheme went electronic and it was called ERP. The government collects $150 million per year from ERP but it was a necessary measure to cut down congestion in the town areas.
Geraldene Lowe-Ismail has trained tour guides for over 50 years. Back in the 1960s, taxi drivers could not speak proper English. I helped to create the Tourist Guide Training Guide and got tour guides licensed.
Goon Kok Loon was an electrical engineer who worked at PSA and kept the port going despite the strikes that took place. Containerization helped to improve port productivity. We decided to build a container terminal here. We beat HK in containerization. We formed alliances with overseas bodies.
Aziza Ali opened the first fine-dining Malay restaurant ‘Aziza’s’ from 1979 to 1998. By 25, I wanted to start a food business. I helped design the restaurant etc. I felt guilty when I sold wine in my restaurant, which was non-halal. After the recession, I decided to call it a day.
Samuel Lee, 32, was Asia’s first test tube baby. I was popular in the media back then. I was known by my friends as a ‘test-tube’ baby. Life has been ordinary since.
Liew Mun Leong is now the chairman of Changi Airport Group. He used to be the CEO of real estate company CapitaLand. In 1974, we started building Changi airport even as we were designing it. PSA had to reclaim land within 6 years. 66% of the land Changi Airport is sitting on is reclaimed land.
<1985 to 1994>
Lim Suet Kwee was the SG Girl and was a wax figure in the Tussaud’s wax museum. Since then, she has been the face of SIA in the 1980s and 1990s. The commercial ‘Around the World’ was memorable because I had to travel to 7 different locations for over 6 weeks.
Lim Pok Chin is the owner of Scanteak. It is ranked one of Asia’s best businesses. I started off as a painter. My dream was to be the Ikea of Singapore. I went broke twice running the furniture business. We have a 100 stores in Taiwan and about 11 stores in Japan.
Be humble. All that we have today was given to us by our employees, our customers and our suppliers. – Lim Pok Chin, on success
Dr Janwaljit Soin is a champion of national issues and is Singapore’s first female NMP. Back then, she was president at AWARE. It was important to have statistics to back you up in Parliament. I fought for fights for the people and for the government to extend more help to the elderly and the disadvantaged. We can do much more to help the elderly. People should be allowed to work as long as they want to.
Leslie Danker is the longest serving employee at Raffles Hotel. In 1972, I was hired and worked in the maintenance department. In 1989, the hotel was restored but a lot of my previous colleagues were not hired back under the new management. In 2004, I was made the hotel’s first resident historian.
Belinda Charles was hooked on teaching since 18. Teaching taught me to never lose my cool. I served as principal at SAJC. Many students thanked me for the discipline and strict requirements I expected of them. I tried to keep in touch with my students and it has been a very memorable experience.
Dick Lee is a musician and has writing many of the songs that Singaporeans grew to love, such as ‘Home’. I was involved in Michael Chiang’s Army Daze. Mad Chinaman was a hit in Japan. When I was young, I faced a lot of rejection. However, I kept at it and believed in myself. Make the most of what you have and go out and get it. I hope more local musicians step up.
Kenson Kwok started Asian Civilisations Museum and the Peranakan Museum. We had to reach out to international collectors. Back then, the museum scene was very quiet. It was difficult work to build up an artifact. The museum culture has been growing in the past 20 years.
Sister Thomasina Sewell is a nun and together with other nuns, they set up Mount Alvernia Hospital in 1961. She also helped set up the Assisi Hospice. Your presence is comforting to the patients. Now, the practice is to keep patients pain-free by giving them controlled doses of morphine. Our aim is to improve the quality of life for others. Seeing your patients go is tough, but I try my best to cope with it.
Lim Kim Seng is a bird specialist and can identify birds from afar. He joined the Nature Society. I can see as many as 100 species in a day. Now, he acts as a guide. I do not keep birds at home but I love to watch them fly in the wild. I try to learn to recognize bird calls.
Zaibun Siraj is the founding member of Aware. We registered ourselves as a society. The feminist movement was not big in the past.
Kopitiam Investment boss Lim Bee Huat has more than 80 outlets under his belt. In 1970, he worked part time as a coffee stall assistant. I had to do it as my family was poor. I tried to cut labour and I also place a lot of emphasis on selecting good stall locations. Everything is doable if you work hard and slog.
<1995 to 2004>
Shaiful Herman was one of the youngest SCDF officers to head a fire station. I loved CSI since young and I won an SCDF overseas Singapore government scholarship in 2002. It was not easy managing people who are older than you. I let everyone know that I was accessible and approachable. I managed to prevent a suicide attempt when I was working for the Alexandra Fire Station.
Dr Ho Nai Kiong is the head of paediatrics at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. I helped to set up a neonatal department. I had to try to save those premature babies. Now, the mortality rate for such cases are decreasing. Later, with more funding and technology, the infection rate reduced. Some of the premature babies grew up and did great things later on in life.
Peh Sing Woei is the CEO of Shing Lee Publishers and wants to expand his business. We export millions of mathematics textbooks globally. Our education system is very reputable. In Singapore, we teach mathematics using real-life items, pictures and formulas. Now, we rely on consultants and authors to write text-books. Education was a better way to life. I hope more and more countries can adopt the same way of teaching.
Benson Puah helmed the Esplanade Arts Centre. I was approached by the government to start this. I wanted the Esplanade to be a vessel to transform people. Many diverse types of programmes are showcased. Arts is important for our DNA. I was careful not to dilute our culture by copying what London, New York did.
Major Vincent Yeo was part of the advance team that flew in after the 2004 tsunami struck Indonesia. The scale of destruction was incredible. Many people were in a state of shock. The smell of death was overwhelming. You get a lot of exposure from attending to difficult situations. In the defence force, it is important not to take anything for granted.
Dr Tai Hwee Yee took over the management of ICUs in TTSH during the SARS outbreak. It was extremely fearful. It was extremely depressing when you see a colleague contracting SARS and then passing away. We put in preventive measure to reduce the rate of transmission. It was certainly a life altering experience and it was one which I could never forget.
Olivia Lum founded the water treatment company, Hyflux. Life was very difficult when I was young. My neighbourhood was poor. I was almost kicked out of Singapore because none of the schools wanted me as I grew up in Ipoh. Finally, Tiong Bahru Secondary accepted me. Later, I graduated from NUS and worked at Glaxo Pharmaceuticals. I sacrificed a lot to start the business. Now, Hyflux managed to win a lot of PUB’s projects.
Tommy Lim Chee Kiang is a crane operator at PSA. In a day, I can move about 200 containers. I am incentivized to work fast. It is important to communicate with the people on the ground and to ensure safety. The view from the crane is great and controlling the crane is like playing a computer game. I joined PSA 18 year ago. I am now a quay crane operator and also receive a special skills allowance. Although my mum passed away in 2009, I am sure she is proud of my achievements.
Angel Ng has been in and out of jail for drug related offences. However, with the Yellow Ribbon Project, she has turned her life around and now runs 3 call centres. I was rebellious and often engaged in self-destruction. After release from prison, I worked at the Connect Centre’s headquarters. I’m glad that many of the ex-convicts that we hire are doing well in life.
Wong Chen Liong supplies baking and dessert ingredients. He runs Phoon Huat. Dessert fads come and go. Now, more people are willing to spend on desserts. We import different ingredients from various countries. We have done well.
Kelvin Phua’s son, Glenn, is dubbed to be Singapore’s Stephen Wiltshire. His son is autistic but has incredible art talent. He uses pen down for his drawings. The drawings are very detailed and it usually takes him up to 20 hours to complete a piece. He draws from a photograph. He has managed to make money from the drawings and we see hope for him in the arts field in future.
<2005 to 2014>
Dipna Lim Prasad is a national athlete. I refused to give up even when I was too slow back then. In 2013, I broke the women’s 200m national record. Attempting hurdles was good because it would aid my rhythm and strides. I graduated from NTU with a degree in sports science and management. If you suck at something, spend time on it and you will eventually get better.
Carolyn Lim was struck by lightning and is now wheelchair bound. After being struck, I awoke from a 6 week coma. I was depressed because I had lost all motor skills and couldn’t speak. Since my illness, I obtained my masters from NIE and also launched a book. People are gradually more used to being around disabled people. Singaporeans need to be more understandable towards disabled people.
Koh Seng Choon is a social entrepreneur who founded Dignity Kitchen. It was a company to help train people to cook hawker foo. Kindness has no religion. I failed to obtain government grants. I asked professional cooks to help me teach the students. My whole dream is about giving back to society.
But don’t measure me by my profit – measure me by my social impact. – Koh Seng Choon
Kyra Poh is an expert at indoor skydiving. I have 4 Guinness world records attributed to my name. My dream is to continue competing and be better.
Ramesh Meyyappan was born deaf, but is now an internationally recognized theatre practitioner. My wife gave me the courage to pursue my dreams. Performing at NDP was one of the highlights for me.
Louis is an executive director of an animal rights group. Back then, I championed against animal abuse. I started the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society with 9 other Singaporeans. We have lobbied for harsh penalties for illegal wildlife traffickers. Taking care of animals is our moral responsibility.
Isa Kamari is the Deputy Director of commuter infrastructure at LTA. I published my first poem in 1979. It took 2 years for me to write ‘Satu Bumi’. In 2007, I won the Cultural Medallion. Satu Bumi has also been translated into English.
Leonard Tan is the CEO of PurpleClick, a search engine marketing firm. I learnt that that one must fail in order to succeed. It’s easy to start a business, but scaling it is difficult. We have nearly 40 employees now.
Too many young Singaporeans of my generation want a safety net before they are willing to take a risk, but I find that if an entrepreneur is not forced into a corner, the chances of him succeeding are low because he has nothing to lose. In Silicon Valley, it’s the opposite. – Leonard Tan
Juliana Chan’s research on nanoparticles allowed her to score scientific breakthroughs. Science is not for the faint-hearted and others might publish something similar to you before you can. I won awards with my research at MIT.
Adam Maniam is a Tamil-Eurasian-Malay-Pakistani lawyer and is married to a Chinese. We celebrated the various holidays in Singapore, like Deepavali and Chinese New Year. To me, religion should be a free choice. To me, doing good is more important and my wife and I have shared values. Our country is becoming more multiracial.
Jane Lee co-founded and let an expedition to scale Mount Everest in 2009. It was not an ordinary adventure. We trained for 5 years before climbing. I only made it to the summit because of supplementary oxygen. I am glad that I managed to inspire others to pursue mountain climbing as well.