The Lives They Live

The lives they live: Singapore's oldest, longest-serving public officer

Puteh Mahamood, 84, has been working at the Elections Department for a staggering 70 years. He may just be an office attendant, but he has had a first-hand look at every election that modern Singapore has held.
Above: Mr Puteh Mahamood, 84, started work at the Elections Department on May 15, 1947 as a teenager. Left: Mr Puteh with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Nov 8, when he received his 70 years long-service meda
Above: Mr Puteh with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Nov 8, when he received his 70 years long-service medal at the Istana.PHOTOS: SAMUEL RUBY, FACEBOOK/ TEO CHEE HEAN
Above: Mr Puteh Mahamood, 84, started work at the Elections Department on May 15, 1947 as a teenager. Left: Mr Puteh with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Nov 8, when he received his 70 years long-service meda
Above: Mr Puteh Mahamood, 84, started work at the Elections Department on May 15, 1947 as a teenager. PHOTOS: SAMUEL RUBY, FACEBOOK/ TEO CHEE HEAN

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about one such person in the series, The Lives They Live.

When Mr Puteh Mahamood joined the public service 70 years ago, Singapore was still under British rule and the bus fare from his house to his workplace was just five cents.

Over the decades, he married, had children and became a grandfather, as the country underwent tremendous changes after independence. But through it all, he has remained with the public service, even up to today.

This makes Mr Puteh, at 84, not only Singapore's oldest serving public officer, but also its longest-serving public officer.

He was only 14 when he joined the Office of the Supervisor of Elections - the predecessor of the current Elections Department (ELD) - on May 15, 1947, when the British were still in charge.

The teenager was introduced to the job of a peon, or low-ranking worker, by an uncle then working as a lift attendant at the Fullerton Building where the Office of the Supervisor of Elections was located.

Mr Puteh recalls being interviewed by a British official and being hired on the spot. "I was very excited," he said. "The salary was $25 a month. It was a big sum then."

It cost just five cents then to take the STC (Singapore Traction Company) bus from his house in Telok Kurau to Fullerton Building.

ATTRACTIVE PAY

I was very excited. The salary was $25 a month. It was a big sum then.

MR PUTEH MAHAMOOD, who joined the Office of the Supervisor of Elections when he was 14.

Mr Puteh was thankful to get the job as he did not even complete primary school.

He was born on Jan 2, 1933, in a shophouse in Telok Kurau. His father was a gardener and his mother, a housewife. He has three sisters.

"We were poor," said Mr Puteh, who went door to door to help his father sell fried tahu goreng.

He attended the now-defunct Tanjong Katong Malay School, but his education was cut short by the Japanese invasion in 1942.

During the Japanese Occupation, he was a labourer at a Japanese army warehouse. "The Japanese paid us very little, I cannot remember how much, but they provided lunch," he said. "I did not go hungry."

After the war ended in 1945, he did not go back to primary school and did odd jobs.

The hardest work he did was clearing the drains in the Geylang area. "I used a shovel and basket to remove the mud from the drains so that they would not choke," he said.

He preferred working as a peon to manual labour. His job was to collect and deliver letters to other government offices. "They were all nearby, I went around by foot and I wore shorts and canvas shoes," he said.

As the number of letters that he had to deliver fell, Mr Puteh took on other tasks, such as preparing the stationery and equipment used during elections.

Over his years of service, Mr Puteh's job scope gradually expanded. He became an office boy, a messenger, and retired from ELD as an office attendant in 1993 at 60. He was rehired on contract and promoted to be an operations support officer in 2015. His current duties include providing administration support and supervising contractors.

His salary has also risen over the years to about $1,600 now.

His years in ELD have given him a ringside seat to the Republic's key elections and their main players.

One election that left a deep impression on Mr Puteh was the Hong Lim by-election on April 29, 1961, when Mr Ong Eng Guan defeated Mr Jek Yeun Thong of the People's Action Party (PAP). Mr Ong was sacked from the PAP a year earlier over disputes with the party.

Mr Puteh recalled that after Mr Ong was declared the winner, exuberant supporters refused to disperse though the police had asked them to do so. Mr Ong later used a loudspeaker to ask the supporters to leave. "They listened to him and left. They were very disciplined."

Another opposition politician who left an impression on Mr Puteh was the late Dr Lee Siew Choh, a former PAP member who was part of a group that left the party to form the Barisan Sosialis in 1961.

Dr Lee, who lost narrowly as a Workers' Party candidate in Eunos in the 1988 General Election, went on to be Singapore's first Non-Constituency MP between 1988 and 1991. He died from lung cancer in 2002 at 84.

Dr Lee had a clinic at Parklane near ELD in Prinsep Street.

Said Mr Puteh: "I would see him from time to time and he recognised me as an ELD staff. He would smile and wave at me."

But Mr Puteh's favourite politician is Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He had not met Mr Lee in his years of working in the ELD, but said that Mr Lee was a very powerful orator.

"Without him, Singapore could have remained poor," he added.

Mr Puteh said his job with the ELD has allowed him to break out of poverty and raise a family of four children as the sole breadwinner. He has eight grandchildren in total.

His wife died several years ago and he now lives with his youngest daughter, a single mother, and two grandchildren in a Housing Board flat in Upper Boon Keng Road.

Mr Koh Siong Ling, head of the ELD, says that Mr Puteh is an invaluable member of the staff.

Before an election, he will proactively help his colleagues, staying back for long hours to work on tasks such as updating the layout plans of polling stations and setting up the operations centre, said Mr Koh.

"He is a responsible and diligent officer and a role model," he added.

Mr Puteh downplays his 70 years of service and his title as Singapore's longest-serving public officer.

"I have been working at the ELD for so long that it does not feel like a job," he said. "It feels like family."

He added: "I will keep working for as long as I am healthy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore's oldest, longest-serving public officer'. Print Edition | Subscribe