I remember waiting for the telephone call and wondering if I would be up to the task of calming the bereaved at the Singapore General Hospital mortuary.
This memory is triggered by a photograph of the Hotel New World collapse at the We: Defining Stories exhibition at the National Museum. The tie-up with The Straits Times provides snapshots of what made news in Singapore from 1950 to last year.
When that Serangoon Road building collapsed and claimed 33 lives in 1986, I was working in a government ministry and was roped in, along with many other civil servants, to render assistance. I was torn between the fear of confronting death and the duty to help family members of the victims.
In the end, I never got the call to go down but I did do duty on several days at a gathering point near the disaster site to help out with the logistics for rescue efforts that pulled out 17 survivors from the rubble.
That Hotel New World photo is among more than 400 grouped in six categories – Merdeka (Malay for freedom), Home, Challenges, Heroes, So Singaporean and Our Stories.
They provide an illuminating walk down memory lane – and the journey is not always sombre since there are also photos linked to football’s Kallang Roar and quirky local habits like using packets of tissue paper to reserve tables and seats at hawker centres.
While today’s technology has allowed for every moment, big or small, to be immortalised by the mobile phone’s camera and transmitted to just about anyone or posted permanently on social media, it was not like that in the old days.
So the photo exhibition serves as a vital reservoir of cherished, personal memories for older people who lived through those times.
I look at a 1973 picture of the Singapore Grand Prix at the old Thomson Road Circuit and suddenly remember my grandfather, whom I hardly think about on most days as he has been gone several decades.
In my mind’s eye, I am again a young boy – maybe six or seven years old – accompanying him on a train ride from Kuala Lumpur, where we lived, to Johor Baru.
We stay in my uncle’s house in JB and although grandpa does not take me across the Causeway to the race, he comes back full of stories about about the boisterous crowds and the heady mix of trepidation and elation from being so close to those magnificent men speeding by in cars that shake the air and make a tremendous noise.
I stop at another photo of an MRT train car being unloaded at the Singapore port in 1986.
It makes me recall working at Pearl’s Hill Terrace in Chinatown and the sense of wonder I got every time I took the pedestrian bridge across New Bridge Road and saw the fascinating work in progress in the deep void below ground.
And when the MRT system got rolling in 1987, it closed a chapter on taking buses, nodding off inside cramped and hot, non-air-conditioned vehicles, and hitting my the head against the window railing.
So I come away from the exhibition reminded of so much that has happened in my lifetime, yet appreciating how the Singapore story remains very much a work in progress.
What are your own recollections of days gone by? Perhaps you too will find something to jog your memory, and recall a forgotten moment to cherish at the free exhibition that’s on at the museum till end-August.