Splurging on a hamburger

As a child, fast food was a rare treat, but living through a time when Singapore was less developed helps me see things in perspective

One of the strangest things a Malaysian ever asked me was whether I had seen a live chicken before.

"Not in Malaysia. In Singapore," he stressed.

Your country, my friend jested, surely won't have them, alluding to the fact that all chickens in First-World, kampung-less Singapore must come de-feathered, in cling-wrap, on supermarket shelves.

"That's ridiculous," I replied. "They come with steamed rice and chilli."

When his forced laughter stopped, I told him there were actually plenty of live chickens and ducks in the wet markets of Redhill where I grew up in the early 1980s.

I remembered all the clucking and fowl smells that would greet my grandmother and I when we went there for our daily marketing in the morning. It was a bustling centre and I was sometimes intimidated by the animals.

To be fair, his assumption wasn't entirely misguided.

He didn't visit Singapore in those years and, if he did, I doubt he would have gone to the wet markets anyway. I haven't seen live chickens or ducks myself in markets here for decades.

So perhaps he has a point. If I was born another five or seven years later, my Malaysian friend might well be right.

Conversations like this, coupled with Singapore's Golden Jubilee this year, remind me how much our country has changed in one generation.

Although it's not something my family or Singaporean friends would discuss or marvel about over dinner much, I've had to revisit Singapore's "Third World To First" narrative quite frequently because of my interaction with foreigners for work and studies. I often find myself relating my experience of how I watched my home country grow.

For that reason, I'm glad I remember Singapore as a less developed nation.

It allows me to remind my foreign friends that the gleaming-skyscraper- and-casino backdrop that is beamed live to the world during the Formula One race here every year was really created only in the last decade.

At the age of 36, I don't consider myself too old and I certainly didn't see "fishing village" Singapore.

Yet I would tell my friends that it didn't seem that long ago that my parents would take me to a neighbourhood zi char stall for dinner only on special occasions because it was considered splurging.

And while you can't throw a Louis Vuitton bag without hitting a shopping centre here these days, there weren't many malls when I was growing up in the 1980s.

As such, a trip to the old Plaza Singapura and its Yaohan department store was an outing worth dressing up for. I could go to McDonald's if it was my birthday. Swensen's, however, was beyond our budget.

I also remember when air-conditioned buses were a novelty, not a given. On schooldays when I was waiting for buses, I would always be crossing my fingers, hoping that my ride would be blessed with the gift of soothing temperature, especially if it was a long journey.

And the MRT, my god, the MRT. Who knew escalators could go at warp speeds? When I was 10 years old, one of my uncles, who had worked on the project, specially took me to a station just to show me how fast the escalator moved.

I was freaked out, staring at the maniacal conveyor for minutes, refusing to step on it.

Even for simple things like bathing, my family used a scoop and water trough until I was in my 20s, because we never fitted a working shower in our old home.

I was by no means born to a poor family. This was just normal life in a less developed Singapore, when the country was not yet a global city and the per capita income was about 10 times less than what it is today.

In fact, far from feeling sad about it - partly I think because there was no Internet to tell me how children were living it up in developed countries - I was constantly reminded by older folks of how lucky I was.

The fact that I could go to school and "just study" was considered a luxury because my uncles had to drop out (although, after doing my 10th assessment book, I prayed to drop out as well).

My father fared a bit better. He worked in a shop selling preserved food during the day, eventually putting himself through night school.

As for my rare McDonald's meal, if I ever made noise about being allowed only to buy a hamburger - the cheapest item on the menu - my mother would swiftly remind me that her family could eat chicken only five times a year when she was a child. Fruits were a twice-a-month delicacy, eaten only after the family had used them for Taoist prayers.

These anecdotes don't just help flesh out Singapore's development - it is also important for perspective. Perspective about how far our nation has come and perspective about how ordinary people are living in poorer countries.

I always felt, for instance, that some of my young Middle Eastern friends who were born after their states became flush with oil money sometimes struggle to understand the lives of people in developing nations.

Well taken care of by their government, they can insist that they're middle-class, even when they're living in big bungalow houses and own several cars. Needless to say, this results in a lot of eye-rolling among our group of international friends.

I'd like to think Singaporeans aren't quite so out of touch, yet I can't help feeling that some experience growing up in a developing country might give one less angst about certain things not working, or more empathy, say, for foreign workers.

And while our material life might not have been so rich in those years, we had the privilege of watching Singapore advance and grow, along with the aspirations of its people.

Now that growth spurt is over. The country is well developed and the excitement - the kind one gets when seeing a child grow up - has faded.

So I'm grateful for going through that phase, with Singapore nestled somewhere between Third World and First, finding my feet in the country just as it is finding its place in the world.

It was an enriching experience, chicken feathers and all.

chengwee@sph.com.sg