100 years of S'pore through centenarians' eyes

Looking back after 100

In a fresh retelling of 100 years of Singapore's history, Melody Zaccheus fleshes out the key events in each of the past 10 decades through the lives of 10 centenarians

1920s: Setting sail for Singapore

A plucky 12-year-old Lim Geok Heong left Fujian, China, with just two outfits in her suitcase.

Her week-long journey would end in Singapore, where her widowed mother was waiting, having saved enough to send for her.

Conditions on board the vessel were not as bad as those other migrants had endured travelling steerage on steamships.

"The boat was large. A few passengers shared a room. I slept on the floor but I was not scared," recalled Madam Lim, who is now 102.

Before they could set foot in Singapore, passengers spent a week in quarantine on St John's Island.

In Singapore, she rode in a trishaw to meet her mother. On the busy streets, modified Ford Motor buses wove in and out of traffic, while trishaws, bullock carts and horse carriages went about their business.

The growing opportunities beyond hard labour were drawing settlers. With and romance blossomed on the island.

1930s: Women workforce

Madam Lim Siew Eng hitched her pants above her ankles, bending to scoop cockles from the sand at Bedok beach, where she was on a date. The next year, 1930, they were married. He was a lorry driver in his 30s. She was 15.


To supplement their income as the children began arriving, Madam Lim Siew Eng, helped her Siglap neighbours with chores.

For a few cents, she babysat, washed clothes and walked to a distant well to collect water. She did "anything and everything" to ensure the family's survival.

When new quotas were set on male migration, a significant workforce comprising Cantonese samsui women emerged. In all, 200,000 Chinese women came to Singapore between 1934 and 1938.

Madam Lim Siew Eng (above), 103, worked hard to provide for her family, doing jobs like babysitting and washing clothes. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Madam Lim Siew Eng learnt to make kueh, otah and achar, which her son, Mr Ng Tian Song, would hawk. when war broke out.

1940s: Surviving the invasion

set up Eastern Radio and Sound Service in 1937 with his brother. After Singapore fell on Feb 15, 1942, Japanese soldiers went to his shop at 39, Selegie Road.

He was given a day to work on equipment at the Cathay Building, which was being used as a propaganda broadcast station.

"You had to do as you were told, or they would chop off your head," said Mr Mok, now 106.

Often, luck had a part to play in people's fates. Mr Chen Ko Lie and Ms Liew Shew Fong fell in love and got married after taking cover together from falling bombs. She convinced the officer who had hired her as a cook to house her husband as well.

"My father did not have to go on any death march and that was how she saved his life," said Mr Malcolm Chen, 73, about his late mother.

But suffering was universal. Mr Tongat Haji Ahmad was forced to dig trenches, along which Japanese soldiers would line up their victims and open fire.

Mr Tongat Haji Ahmad, 102, has dementia but had, over the years, told his family about the hard life during the Japanese Occupation. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Mr Tongat is 102 and has dementia, but he had told these stories over the years to his family.

His daughter, Ms Zaiton Tongat, 56, said how even decades after the war, he was still traumatised by the atrocities he had witnessed.

She said: "He saw people tortured and girls and women raped."

The Japanese officially surrendered on Sept 2, 1945.

1950s: Rebuilding and navigating the chaos

Madam Mary Loh, 103, with her children, (from left) Cecilia, John, who died last year, and Bernadette. Madam Cecilia is holding the uniform that Madam Loh wore as an attendant at a hospital. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The colonial authorities struggled to keep law and order in post-war Singapore and the growing population needed more services.

The journey towards internal self-government and, later, independence had begun.

Like many, Madam Mary Loh, a widow with four children, had to rebuild her life after the war.

Conversant in dialect, Mandarin and Malay, she worked as an attendant at the Singapore General Hospital and was well liked, said daughter Bernadette Lek, now 78.

But she could not support the family on her meagre salary, and reluctantly let her eldest, Cecilia, now 82, live with her mother as a servant.

The devout Catholic would attend mass at the Church of St Teresa in Kampong Bahru on her days off.

But if one wanted to unwind, there was no lack of amusement, with Gay World, New World and Great World offering a dizzying array of entertainment such as cabaret, cinema and circus shows.

These activities receded in the 1960s, when the People's Action Party (PAP) came to power.

1960s: Surveying Singapore

Mr Rameswaram Nagalingam, 101, with his son, Mr Kaneyson. Mr Rameswaram was the Republic's first chief surveyor, tasked with recording land features and studying ground conditions in the 1960s. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Many challenges remained after Singapore gained independence in 1965, and one of them was to build modern homes for people.

In 1966, about 300,000 residents lived in squalor and another 250,000 in overcrowded shophouses in the city. A concerted effort was made to ramp up urban redevelopment, which kept Mr Rameswaram Nagalingam, who became the Republic's first chief surveyor , busy.

To prepare land for development, he carried out topographical surveys in swampy Jurong. He also oversaw the first survey of Lim Chu Kang and Choa Chu Kang, studying ground conditions and subdividing burial plots.

But nation-building was not all about work and weekends were for play. Heritage blogger Jerome Lim said Changi Beach was "uninterrupted for miles, running from the spit at the mouth of Changi Creek to the cliffs at Tanah Merah Besar".

Families would arrive in cars and even lorries, to picnic there.

1970s: Boom time

Mr Mok Jin Seng, 106, with his children, Madam Mok Joo Hiang (left) and Mr Mok Joo Hwee. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Mr Mok made a success of his company, Eastern Electrical, securing engineering projects with companies such as Sembawang Shipyard.

In the early 1970s, offshore rig construction put the island on the world map, and oil firms would seek out Mr Mok for his expertise.

He would work under the hot sun for hours, forgetting about meals. Hard work, to these early pioneers, was second nature.

1980s: Sojourns

Travel to hometowns and long-deferred family reunions became a reality as affluence increased.

Mr Rameswaram visited relatives in America and Britain with his wife. Madam Loh travelled to Swatow, China, where the church from her childhood still stood. Mr Tongat went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1983.

And retirement did not mean the end of work. Mr Tongat worked as a gardener at Tanglin Club till he was 80. Mr Rameswaram started his own private surveying consultancy.

Madam Lim Siew Eng would make a few dollars threading strings through plastic drink bags, or cutting loose threads off factory shirts.

1990s: Weakening Faculties but a strong spirit

Madam Cher Ah Chuan, 101, was not one to quit despite the many challenges she faced. Her job as a washerwoman was a big help for her family. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Madam Cher Ah Chuan, in her 80s, was fiesty - a trait she had developed to combat a controlling mother who had expected her to marry and go to work in the family's embroidery business in China. But Madam Cher had had other ideas. She had earned enough for a boat ticket to Singapore and left at 25.

It was a bumpy ride.

She married and moved to Johor, but her husband died, leaving her with two small children to raise.

She married again in Singapore and had a third child in 1955. But her husband drank and gambled, so his earnings as a painter of opera backdrops were never enough.

It was her own hard work as a washerwoman, and careful budgeting that saw them through.

2000s: Outliving their generation

Madam Cheng Wah Joeng outlived everyone from her village in Sembawang and her siblings.

But life was no longer a struggle for the former washerwoman to British officers, now living with her son and his family in Toa Payoh .

She enjoyed making new friends, and played cards in the void deck.

Loneliness might have plagued Madam Meriyam Syed Salim, who had moved from her home in Pasir Panjang to a flat in Bukit Batok with her niece. But Madam Zainab Rahman took pains to show her aunt love until her death last December, aged 104. Said the retired administrative office: "Ultimately, we need to have a heart for our older folks."


  • 10 centenarians share with Melody Zaccheus the habits and beliefs that have kept them going.


    The 102-year-old did odd jobs and was a housekeeper until about 40 years ago.

    Healthy habits: Don't eat out. The best food is made at home. I don't exercise but I worked in a factory and also reared pigs. I had physical work throughout my life.


    The 101-year-old did odd jobs, retiring in her 50s.

    Favourite indulgence: Ice cream and cake of any kind. She especially loves plain chocolate cake.


    The 102-year-old worked as a washerwoman and coffee shop assistant. She retired in the 1960s.

    Healthy habits: Coffee mixed with oats, or bread for breakfast. She has vegetables, meat and rice for lunch and dinner.


    The 103-year-old was a hospital attendant until she retired at the age of 55.

    Favourite indulgence: Van Houten chocolate


    The homemaker, who never married, was 104 when she died in December last year.

    Healthy habits: She was strong-minded and never lost her feisty spirit.


    The 102-year-old worked for the Public Works Department and as a gardener before retiring at 80.

    Healthy habits: Keeping active. He also quit smoking.

    Favourite indulgence: Mee rebus, lontong and oats.


    The 103-year-old was an administrator at Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church when he retired in his 80s.

    Healthy habits: According to his caregiver, he does not smoke and has always focused on his family. He enjoyed reading calligraphy books.

    Favourite indulgence: Egg noodles and laksa.


    The 106-year-old established the Eastern Radio and Sound Service in 1937. He retired in his 70s and handed his business over to his children.

    What's close to his heart: Honesty in business. Mr Mok also did not gamble, but worked hard, and was thrifty. He advocates keeping fit, eating in moderation and not holding grudges.

    Favourite indulgence: Strong English tea from Marks and Spencer.


    The 103-year-old worked odd jobs until her 70s.

    Healthy habits: Always keeps busy.

    On living to this age: Nobody really talks to me. I struggle to tie my hair into a bun and pin it up. The pins sometimes slip through my fingers.


    The 101-year-old was a consultant in his own surveying company until he retired at 80.

    Healthy habits: Mr Rameswaram used to go for walks in East Coast Park in the mornings and evenings. At 95, he was still meeting friends in Serangoon Road for coffee.

    Favourite indulgence: Coffee and rava dosa from Komala Vilas Restaurant.

2010s: A centenarian's joy

In her flat in Tampines, Madam Lim Geok Heong sits by a tower of Chinese New Year goodies she has proudly stacked. She declares this her favourite time of the year.

Her long-ago voyage to Singapore reaped great rewards. She has 10 children and about 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Like her mother, she worked as a housekeeper until she was married. Her husband, a fruit-seller, died 40 years ago. She said: "We had no money in the early years and the children understood, so they never complained about what we ate."

Now, they make sure there is a table of plenty for each New Year.

Eyes crinkling with laughter, she said she looked forward to her grandchildren visiting so she can find out who they are dating. "They take turns to play mahjong with me on weekends. If they win, they refuse to take my money. But if they lose, I'm a lucky woman."

Unlocking secrets to longevity

Centenarians in Singapore used to belong to an exclusive club, the lucky few who struck the genetic lottery for longevity.

In 1990, they numbered 50.

According to the Department of Statistics (DOS), there were 1,200 Singaporeans aged 100 and above as of last June, so the proportion of centenarians among Singaporeans has surged by 18 times between then and now.

Little is known about these 1,200 - who they are, what they did, and who looks after them now.

The DOS does not know who the oldest person in Singapore is.

What is known is that Singaporeans are living longer and healthier lives than people from most other countries. The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranked the Republic third in the world for average life expectancy last year, behind Japan and Switzerland.

Life expectancy was 83.1 years for Singapore, after Japan at 83.7 years, and Switzerland 83.4.

What's also impressive is that Singaporeans not only live longer than most, they also enjoy a greater span of good health. Singapore ranks second for healthy life expectancy, according to the WHO, at 73.9 years, behind Japan's 74.9 years, and ahead of South Korea's 73.2 years.

And that's not all. The rate of growth in average life expectancy is accelerating, the Ministry of Health said in 2016. Between 2003 and 2013, Singapore's total life expectancy rose by 3.3 years for the decade, compared with 2.8 years between 1990 and 2002.

What accounts for Singaporeans' longevity? Research is ongoing in what else plays a role, besides factors such as medical advances in disease treatment, and accessibility to good medical care.

Some of these fields are in:

• Biology. Scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and the National University of Singapore have identified a type of immune cell that does not show signs of ageing. Such signs could be, for instance, the presence of certain genes or the shortening of structures on chromosomes usually associated with ageing.

Researchers hope to identify factors that cause them to resist ageing, which could one day lead to ways to harness that ability.

The study is part of the larger ongoing Singapore Longitudinal Ageing Study 2, which began in 2009 and involves 3,200 men and women aged 55 and above.

• Gender. Though women tend on the whole to live longer than men, a study has found that Singaporean men appear to be healthier in old age than Singaporean women.

Could this be due to differences in education and family support or are there biological reasons?

Preliminary results of an ongoing study on longevity found Singaporean men were less likely to have impaired cognition (30 per cent, compared with 39 per cent in women) and more likely to be independent in their daily activities (47 per cent compared with 34 per cent in women).

More men had a positive outlook on their health, and were less depressed than women. The SG90 Longevity Study is a 10-year study by A*Star and the National University Health System (NUHS) involving about 1,500 Singaporeans aged 90 and above.

• Education and ethnicity. A study by the Centre for Ageing Research and Education and published in 2016 found that Singaporeans with secondary education or above had higher total life expectancy and active life expectancy at the age of 60 than those with primary education or below.

Data from a longitudinal survey of 4,990 Singaporeans aged 60 and above was used. The findings suggest policies that increase education levels are a promising approach to increasing active life expectancy.

The impact on a country when its people live longer

When blessed with a population that enjoys a longer lifespan, a country has two key issues to consider.

First, will the greying of this population be accompanied by a longer period of good health, a sustained level of quality of life and extended periods of social engagement and productivity, or by more illness, disability and dependency?

Second, how will longer lifespans impact healthcare and social costs?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at last year's National Day Rally: "On average, we live to 82 years and out of these 82 years in old age, we experience eight years of ill health."

Indeed, ageing expert Brian Kennedy, director of the Centre for Healthy Ageing at NUHS, notes that Singaporeans' "healthy life expectancy" has not increased in step with life expectancy.

He cited a 2012 global study which showed that, from 1990 to 2010, Singaporeans' lifespans grew by 5.4 for women and and six years for men, but healthspans grew by 3.4 and 4.1 years, respectively.

Professor Kennedy said the fact that healthy life expectancy is rising is a good sign. Still, the gap between healthspan and lifespan has to be stemmed or even decreased.

He suggests more research be done to delay ageing, which would delay the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's, extend healthy life expectancy, and curb rising healthcare costs.

Prof Kennedy said the Centre for Healthy Ageing will look into whether ageing can be delayed through lifestyle modifications such as exercise and fasting, and through drugs. Studies will begin in the next six to 12 months.

Associate Professor of health policy and management at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Phua Kai Hong argues that healthy life expectancy would increase naturally as demographics change.

"I would expect the average years spent in ill health to increase in the short term due to the low health literacy of the current cohort of elderly population," he said. This is due to "a lifetime of accumulated risk factors of unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise, leading to chronic diseases".

"However, younger generations with higher health literacy are expected to have healthier life expectancies when they become old in the longer term," he added.

As for the second point, on the economic toll exacted, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said last December that Government expenditure on healthcare is expected to rise sharply because of the ageing population. "As medical technology improves, as our population ages, the demands will grow, and the need to provide for that will also grow," he said.

An Institute of Policy Studies study released last month said the ageing population would exert a drag on the growth of Singapore's gross domestic product per capita of 1.5 percentage points annually until 2060, assuming a stagnant fertility rate and stable immigration.

Professional services firm Marsh & McLennan Companies projects health expenditure on the elderly in Singapore to rise tenfold over the next 15 years to more than US$49 billion (S$65 billion) annually.

This means an average of US$37,427 will be spent on each elderly person by 2030, a rise from US$8,196 in 2015. This is the highest in the Asia-Pacific region.

"It's a conservative estimate as the numbers do not take into account indirect costs, such as transport, and opportunity costs from caregivers' time. It also assumes that we have the same ready access to cheap foreign labour, which may not be the case in the future," said Dr Jeremy Lim, a partner at Oliver Wyman global health practice.

Experts say policies and decisions on healthcare infrastructure spending need to be reviewed and individuals need to plan for their retirement healthcare needs.

Associate Professor Angelique Chan, executive director of the Centre for Ageing Research and Education, said the fastest-growing segment of the older population is those aged 80 and above.

"It is timely to start looking at the centenarians. Has disease onset been pushed to later in their lives? What are the frail and healthy predictors?" she asked, adding that research is lacking. "We are still a youth-centric country."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 16, 2018, with the headline 'Looking back after 100'. Subscribe