Centenarian's big day: 'I've had a good life'

Over 120 friends and loved ones gather to celebrate ex-principal's colourful, storied life

The Ambiavagars in a photo taken shortly after their marriage in 1933. -- PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, COURTESY OF MRS AMBIAVAGAR
The Ambiavagars in a photo taken shortly after their marriage in 1933. -- PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG, COURTESY OF MRS AMBIAVAGAR
Left: Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar (centre), the former principal of Raffles Girls' Primary School, standing before her 100th-birthday cake at the Singapore Swimming Club yesterday. With her are (from left) great-granddaughters Grace Nathan, 20, and Tamra Paul, 15, daughter Leela Ambiavagar, 70, son-in-law A. Pathmanathan, 85, granddaughter Shirani Hickman, 39, great-granddaughter Annie Grace Hickman, two, granddaughter Rohini Paul, 50, and great-granddaughter Patty Jo Hickman, seven.
Above: The Ambiavagars in a photo taken shortly after their marriage in 1933.

Mrs Mangalesvary Ambiavagar scrunched her 100-year-old face into a grimace and pronounced that she does not get involved in things like Facebook and Twitter.

"They will lead to trouble," the centenarian intoned before letting out a girlish giggle.

She does, however, log onto her computer every afternoon to play a game or two of FreeCell or Solitaire.

"I always lose at Solitaire so I don't like it so much. I can't seem to master the art of playing it right," she articulated in the crisp English which comes so effortlessly to many educated during Singapore's colonial era.

Of sound mind, a steady gait and a full set of teeth to boot, Mrs Ambiavagar is a remarkably fetching poster girl for ageing.

Her memory is impressive and her hearing as sharp as her wit.

Asked if she watched television and was a fan of local sitcoms, she said she much prefers watching the news, thank you very much.

The feisty woman - who reads the newspapers from cover to cover each day - has always been quite the individual.

Born in Jaffna when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon, she was the third of six children of an auditor and his wife and came to Malaya as a baby as World War I was breaking out.

She defied the social conventions of her Ceylon Tamil community to train as a teacher in Kuala Lumpur in the 1920s. She settled in Singapore after she married an educator in 1933, and went on to become headmistress of several schools including Raffles Girls' Primary, Bedok Girls' and Balestier Boys'.

After she retired in 1969, she took up golf, learnt how to use a computer at 80 and, at 83, wrote her autobiography, Three Scores And 20.

She gave birth to six children. Two died: her third daughter during infancy in 1947 and her eldest son, a doctor, in 1977, aged 42, after choking during a meal. Of the remaining four, two are doctors, one a teacher, and one a lawyer.

They gave her six grandchildren who in turn blessed her with six great-grandchildren.

Yesterday, more than 120 of her loved ones and friends flew in from all corners of the globe - the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Malaysia - and gathered at the Singapore Swimming Club to belatedly celebrate the colourful life of Mrs Ambiavagar who turned 100 on Feb 7.

They tucked into gado gado, mee siam and crispy chicken as her eldest daughter, Dr Indra Pathmanathan, 77, presented a slide show chronicling the key events of her voluminous life.

Her second son Rajen, 72, flew in from Louisiana to deliver a funny speech about how his mother had the good humour to correct and teach in the most effective way.

The surgeon told of the time he staggered home drunk as a 15-year-old one day after his friend taught him how to celebrate Chinese New Year with more than just mandarin oranges.

"Instead of yelling and screaming, she just laughed and said, 'Sleep it off, and you will be fine.' To this day, I've not touched another drop of alcohol."

Asked how it feels to turn 100, Mrs Ambiavagar told The Sunday Times: "I've had a good life, more than I deserve. I've had few worries; I had a good husband."

The late Mr V. Ambiavagar, the first Asian headmaster of Raffles Institution, died in 2002.

Theirs was an arranged marriage.

"But he stipulated that we had to get to know each other one year before we could talk of marriage. So we corresponded and wrote letters to each other once a week. I still have all of them in boxes," she said.

When the year was up, they were in love.

"He more than I," she added cheekily.

If her husband had a sterling career - he retired as acting director of education in the early 1960s - Mrs Ambiavagar's own professional achievements are no less impressive.

Lawyer and youngest daughter Gnanam, 65, said of her mother: "She allowed no child to be labelled 'slow', 'unteachable' or 'difficult'."

At Balestier Boys' School where she was principal for five years in the 1960s, Mrs Ambiavagar was famous for picking out students who could not read and write.

She would take them in batches of six to her classroom and personally tutor them.

"I could teach them to read in about three weeks. I kept doing this to prove to my teachers these students were not stubborn or stupid. They just had to be taught right," she said.

One of the guests at yesterday's bash was Mrs Sushila Cherian, 77, who flew in from Florida.

"My parents were great friends with Mrs Ambiavagar and her husband. Even as a little girl, I knew she was a trailblazer. None of the women I knew worked, including my mother, but she did. She had that commanding presence that many teachers and principals have."

Retired supreme court judge T.S. Sinnathuray, one of Singapore's longest-serving judges, agrees. His parents were also friends of the Ambiavagars.

The 84-year-old said: "As a boy growing up, I was a bit fearful of her. She came across as a really strong-willed person. But when I grew up and became her neighbour, I saw another side of her. She was very maternal to my son and daughter."

The woman of the hour was in high spirits yesterday, surrounded by so many loved ones.

Her advice for ageing happily and gracefully is simple.

"Be at peace with yourself and the world. If you feel peaceful, the rest will come by itself. Don't think bad things. If anything bad comes into your mind, throw it away."


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