This article is dedicated to my wife, Lay Yong, for her love and companionship for the past 55 years in our journey of life.
My family and I moved into the first house that we could proudly call our own home in 1968, after having waited for almost three years for its completion. Prior to that, we were living in a comfortable university house, within a short distance from the University of Singapore campus where my wife was a lecturer. Our new house is in a western suburb of Singapore, about 30 minutes’ drive from my office in the city centre and 15 minutes from the University. It was part of a medium-size housing estate built by one of the leading property developers of good repute. We went to its sales office to see the layout plan and the detailed specifications of this development, which comprised different categories of bungalows of varying prices and a small number of semi-detached and linked-terraced houses at lower price ranges. We were particularly impressed by the superb architectural design of the Californian ranch house style bungalows, with added Scandinavian features to enhance its aesthetics.
We had then been working for about four years, my wife was lecturing at the University and I was a legal officer in Government service. While our combined monthly salaries were quite high by the yardstick then, our accumulated savings were not sufficient to meet the high initial down payment laid down by the developer before we could take up an approved housing loan to cover the balance of the purchase price.
My maximum housing loan from the Government at 6% annual interest would only commence after the initial down payment required by the developer had been met and our monthly repayment would take up a fair part of our combined pay. Fortunately, luck was on our side. The University came to our aid as it had recently enhanced its housing loan scheme by increasing the amount, reducing the interest charged to only 3% and extending the loan repayment period to 20 years. In view of this significant advantage over the government loan, we decided to take up the University loan instead in order to own this dream house and to effect economies in other areas of our monthly expenses.
To overcome the initial down payment obstacle, we succeeded in persuading the developer to accept a lower initial down payment in view of our monthly pay level and this paved the way for us to firm up our decision to select a suitable plot of the above category of bungalow as our future home.
Our dream house is a split three-level bungalow built on solid high ground on a square plot of land of almost 8000 square feet, with a good size garden for those who love gardening. It has three spacious bedrooms, a large study and a commodious living room and separate dinning room, both of which have a good view of the garden. The house would be built with good building materials. It also has extensive brick-facing works both within and outside the house together with hard wood weather boardings to add to its already attractive design. The house plan was imaginatively created by a local Norwegian firm of architects of unquestionable credentials.
1960s and earlier was an era when the workmen were generally experienced craftsmen who would devote their whole careers to perfecting their skills in Singapore’s construction industry. They were either Singaporeans or hailed from the neighbouring states of Malaya (now Peninsula Malaysia). That was a time when a mason recruited by an established developer would be a master craftsman, so were the painters, the brick and stone layers, the plumbers, the electricians, the roof-tile layers and so forth. With changing circumstances, nowadays most construction workers are recruited from the Indian sub-continent as Singaporeans would shun this low-paying and low-status construction industry work at all cost. They were generally unskilled workers. Fortunately, the more skilled construction works are carried out by more experienced workmen from China, Malaysia and the neighbouring countries. Without their combined efforts, Singapore’s construction industry would come to a standstill. Singaporeans must acknowledge their much needed contributions and treat them with due respect always.
What are the attractive features of our garden which have gradually evolved after we moved into this property close to five decades ago? My beloved wife was and still is a gardening enthusiast despite the passing of years. I had also assisted her in the earlier years of our garden development. So have others later on too. At the outset, we decided to plant the so-called “carpet grass” throughout the front and upper portion of our garden. Fronting the house now is a concrete cement wall complimented by well designed symmetrical window openings throughout its 25 meter length. The wall is topped by century-old roof tiles and supported by a fine quality granite stone base. The slanting gate posts too were built with handpicked granite stones. These high quality granite pieces are a rarity now. In the early days, my wife and I could often be seen weeding the fine grass, sitting on gardening stools, after work and during weekends in order to prevent the fast growing weeds from encroaching. It was a back-breaking job, but we were both still young and had the energy to do so. She also took an active and keen interest in the choice of suitable trees, plants and shrubs to improve the general appearance of our garden.
One fine weekend morning after we had moved in, something most unexpected and unforgettable happened while we were tending to the grass. A cultured gentleman stood outside our then still unfenced frontage and smilingly congratulated us on our fine grass, which he said reminded him of the turf in golf courses. When I looked up from my low stool, I couldn’t believe my eyes that it was the gentle voice of none other than the first President of Singapore, Encik Yusoff Ishak, with his driver standing at the road side looking in. I immediately stood up in my singlet and short and apologised for my attire. He was very friendly and said modestly that he and his wife liked the quiet and tranquility of this housing estate and he was contemplating buying a smaller single-storey bungalow in this estate as their permanent abode after his retirement. The president’s palpable humility and friendliness would long remain cherished in my memory in the years to come.
Apart from my beloved wife, a number of other people have also contributed to the gradual maturing of our garden. First and foremost, our youngest son, Chih Ming, an IT professional, played a significant role in contributing to the growing attractiveness and tranquility of our garden. He single-handedly constructed a good size granite stone koi fish pond at the upper portion of our two-level garden, complimented by appropriate landscaping surrounding it planned by my wife to add ambiance to it. The pond resembles the shape of my son’s foot. It took him months of sustained hard work over three continuous summer university vacations in the US to complete this task more than three decades ago. In the middle of this pond is a water sprouting fountain and at the end of it a 24-hour flowing stream of soothing water cascading down from the plants-filled pump house immediately above it. He did all this by himself, including water proofing its cement bottom, except for the electrical works which had to be done by a licensed electrician. This pond has been well maintained and even improved upon subsequently by an excellent Koi fish pond construction expert, Goh Keong Chee and his team of workers. It is giving my wife and I endless hours of enjoyment and has made us feel at peace with the whole world when breakfasting by the pond side every morning and leisurely reading the newspapers. Listening to the gently flowing water coming down the granite stone paths from the pump house above it and watching the carefree colourful koi fish frolicking in the pond have a healthy calming effect on us. This pond is our son’s most enduring and invaluable gift to his parents.
We were, and still are, most grateful to our three loyal and efficient gardeners who have contributed much in enhancing our garden over the years.Two of them are still working for us. A truly outstanding gardener is Sukumaran, an Indian national who worked as a daily-rated worker in Singapore’s Public Works Department. His daily work there began in early morning and finished by lunch time. Through my relative’s gardener, he came to work for us after work not long after we moved in so as to earn more money to send home to his family and parents.
Sukumaran would be in our garden at around 4.30 pm and finishing work by 6.30 pm four times a week. He cycled to our house from his government housing quarter in 30 minutes each way. He took care of our garden admirably and kept it spick and span always. His work included sweeping the garden, cutting and trimming hedges at the wire netting fences, mowing the lawn with our manual mowing machine, watering the grass, plants and trees and washing our cars once weekly. He was a most conscientious worker and there was no need for us to supervise his work. He would often work beyond the agreed times on his own volition. He never absented himself as many gardeners did on some pretexts. In short, we had nothing but the highest praise and gratitude for his work and greatly valued his services. He seemed very happy working for us and told me that he had a large family and parents to support in South India and that motivated him to earn as much as he could so that they would have an easier life back home. He had worked in Singapore more than 10 years before coming to us.
After having worked for us for about three years, I noticed something unusual in his behaviour. He began to confide in me how much he missed his family members and his home town. When I gave him his last monthly pay, he unexpectedly shook both my hands firmly and told me in an emotional tone that I had been a very good employer and he wished he had worked for me much earlier as some of his other employers had not been kind to him. I encouraged him to stay long with us and his excellent work would continue to be rewarded with yearly increases. He thanked me again warmly and waved to me and my wife a couple of times as he rode home on his old bicycle.
That was the last time we saw him as he failed to turn up for work the next two days. We believed he must have been sick and thought nothing more of it. A day later, the Indian man who recommended him to us came and broke the news that Sukumaran had already left Singapore the day before for good as, with his considerable savings from his Singapore earnings, he could afford to buy a coconut plantation in India which would enable his family to live more comfortably. I told the messenger that I was most disappointed that Sukumaran did not even tell me in advance that he was going home so that I could thank him adequately and to wish him well in India. He then disclosed that Sukumaran dared not tell me in advance as he knew full well that I would try my utmost to persuade him to stay on and it would sadden him to say his farewell with a heavier heart. However, he asked his friend to tell me again that he had truly enjoyed working for me and was compelled to leave without saying farewell in advance in the circumstances. He even found a replacement for us who could start work anytime.
To mitigate the loss of Sukumaran’s service, we were very fortunate to have our current Singaporean gardener, Hock Lian, working for us for more than 35 years now, after we have had a number of preceding unsatisfactory replacements in our employ. He first worked as a team of three four days a week. As his team disbanded some years later he continued to work for us alone. He looked after our garden satisfactorily and diligently and we rewarded him accordingly. Many years later, he started to employ foreign Indian workers as more people were engaging him to look after their gardens. He began to raise his charges to cover higher costs of his operation in common with other gardeners. This was raised further in keeping with Singapore’s economic expansion and much higher prevailing cost of living and workers’ wages. He and his team of three now work for us only once a week for about an hour covering the normal routine work. Hock Lian came to us as a young man and is now approaching 60 years old and recently became a grandfather.
Finally, my wife and I would like to pay a warm tribute to our current Filipina domestic helper, Fely, who has been in our employ for more than 27 years in two separate periods because of her family reasons. She has always rendered us efficient and loyal service, much to the envy of those of our friends who have difficulties in retaining their domestic helpers for various reasons. She has acquired a skill in cooking Chinese and Singaporean food to suit us. We are fortunate that she truly loves gardening and has played an important voluntary role in helping to maintain our garden in a healthy and presentable state for a long time now, as our three sons have long been living separately from us and consequently her household work has been reduced. We hope and look forward to Fely continuing to work for us for a few more years ahead if her aged parents’ health permits.
Old age has not diminished my beloved wife’s keen interest in a well cared for garden and she continues to enjoy walking in our garden every morning and to offer useful advice on gardening to Fely. She would regularly cut some flowers and leaves for her own creative flower arrangements to adorn our house. They work well as a team. My wife can’t bear to move to a condominium as she loves her pond and garden too much to do without them. I, too, can’t bear to deprive her of her life’s pleasure even though condo living will be more convenient for us in old age as we love travelling at regular intervals.
As the time-tested Chinese saying goes, “A mere look is more impactful than a thousand words can convey”, we therefore invite our viewers to have an online glimpse of our pond and the varied flowering plants and trees in our garden, after you have digested this rather rambling piece. My wife and I hope that you would enjoy touring our garden, which is giving us endless joy and delight.
Lam Pin Foo