By Teo Soh Lung
Today (24 March) is the third anniversary of my mother’s death. Born in Kuching, Sarawak, she did not receive any formal education. She spoke pure Hokkien and a little Malay but not a word of English or Mandarin.
For practical reasons, my father sent all his eight children to English language schools. It must have been strange for my mother that most of us decided to communicate in English at home. But we would communicate with my mother in Hokkien because she understood no other languages.
I recall that as a child, the Rediffusion was on 12 hours a day. The familiar marching tune would come on at 6 am and throughout the day, dialect programmes would be on air. All of us enjoyed story-telling and the detective series in Hokkien. For my mother, it was her sole source of entertainment.But that source of entertainment was cruelly cut off in the late 1970s or early 1980s when the government introduced the “Speak Mandarin” campaign. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew thought that it was best that everyone learn Mandarin and stop using dialects.
Suddenly, all dialect programmes including daily news were removed from the little box for which we paid $5 a month. My mother cursed and swore at the prime minister. I have never seen her so angry.
I didn’t understand the extent of deprivation then even though I too or rather, the entire family were deprived of our favourite Hokkien stories told by Ong Toh every night and Lei Tai Sor, the Cantonese story teller. There was also the Teochew story teller, who I cannot recall his name now. She must have suffered enormously because that was her only source of news and entertainment.
Discouraging the speaking of dialects at home and anywhere in Singapore had another disastrous effect. Suddenly, my nieces and nephew were not able to communicate with my mother. They lost their Hokkien vocabulary. I recall my nephew’s sole conversation with my mother was “Ah Mah, li ho bo?”
The second time I experienced the anguish felt by my mother was when I was in prison from 1987 to 1990. Every week, she would trudge up the steep slope to the blue gate of Whitley Road Centre. Rain or shine, she would make the journey. Even when she had a fall and had a black eye, she visited me. She would complain that the government was unreasonable in jailing me.
When my detention order was extended in 1988, no officer in the visitors’ hut could stop her from speaking loudly in Hokkien about the injustices she and I suffered. She asked if the prime minister and the government knew the hardship of raising and educating children. She questioned about detention without trial and asked what would satisfy the government. Did they care or bother about the sufferings of families of detainees who were deprived of the comfort and support their children were supposed to give them?
I am told that because of those unhappy experiences, my mother would stand up and walk away from the television whenever Lee Kuan Yew appeared on the screen.
It was three years ago at about this time that my mother passed away at home. Goodbye my dear mother. Rest in peace. You can meet the man who caused you so much sorrows and ask him why he did that to you.