All image credits: The Joy Luck Club
“In hindsight, I should have known something was wrong.”
I am sitting on a grassy knoll outside Riverdale Poly with my best friend, Rubella, and telling her what I just went through at Terminal Junior College.
“When a JC refuses to hold any kind of open house, or answer any questions about anything, they’re clearly hiding something, right?” I ask, almost to myself.
“All they would tell me is the class number: 72A01. Why would I need a class number, if there’s only one class?”
“Oh, Melody. Don’t say words like ‘hindsight’,” Rubella admonishes. “It makes you sound like a grassroots leader.”
She pauses to sip on her ice barley, then continues, “I can’t believe you were in a classroom full of hot guys, and you ran away without taking any photos.”
“They weren’t even our age, Ru,” I sigh. “And every single one of them had that slightly crazed look, from always being on a diet. I had to get out of there!”
Rubella cackles, drains the rest of her ice barley, and flings the bag of half-melted ice cubes in my direction. Then her face turns a little more serious. “So… You really are going to transfer to Riverdale Poly?”
“What else can I do?” I reply. “I don’t want to spend the next two years in the same class with 29 other ‘co-learners’, who are only pretending to be students!”
“And do you think they’ll just let you walk away, Mel?”
“What else can they do? Force me to stay in JC? Come on, Ru. Even the government wouldn’t do that to a 17 year old. And my parents will forgive me for this… eventually. I’ve disappointed them before.”
Rubella’s expression is now inscrutable. After a while, she snorts softly and says, “Sometimes, Mel, I don’t know whether to get mad, or feel sorry for you.”
As I walk up the driveway to my house, I can already see Bertha standing at the front door, her arms crossed, and her face sterner than usual.
Bertha came to us, as part of the Start Them Young campaign.
In the early 2020s, way before I was born, the government was desperately trying to stamp out a virulent form of pidgin English native to Singapore, known as Singalese.
Our leaders felt – and they were probably right about this – that blending Hokkien, Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and broken English into a hodgepodge language reflected badly on our country, and wanted the citizens of Singapore to speak the Queen’s English.
There were many debates about the issue. The pushback against the Speak Good English Movement was massive, with many Singalese speakers arguing passionately that Singalese was an inalienable part of Singaporean culture.
The government then decided to give up on those older citizens, and start indoctrinating the younger ones. Back in the day, a vast majority of Singapore’s domestic help and child caregivers came from Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines.
But after the United Kingdom underwent a heartily acrimonious divorce from the European Union, its economy went into free fall and never quite recovered. The leaders of Singapore, sensing an opportunity to abolish Singalese once and for all, extended an open invitation to women of the now-impoverished UK to come to Singapore and earn monthly salaries, as housekeepers, nannies, and governesses.
Apparently, at the time, it was an incredible novelty to have one’s house kept spic and span (and one’s children looked after) by a white woman.
The Start Them Young campaign became yet another one of our government’s monumental success stories. The campaign has been hailed as an unprecedented victory for grammar, and is so wildly popular that it was never terminated, continuing to this very day.
Almost every Singaporean looking for a good domestic jumped on the British bandwagon. Before Bertha Kitt came to work for us, her mother worked for my mother’s family. Bertha’s sister, Dolores, keeps house for my aunt (and has taught my cousins some truly marvellous things, about table manners).
Overall, the results are as clear as day: I, and most of my peers, speak English that Queen Charlotte herself would be proud of.
Bertha steps delicately to one side, and my heart sinks. Behind her, in all its incriminating glory, is the Louis Vuitton canvas top backpack.
“And what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” she asks, with a raised eyebrow.
“Not much, Bertha. I ran away from school. Do my parents know yet?”
“Yes, Melody. I felt obliged to inform them, as soon as I found out. Haven’t they called you? Or messaged?”
I shrug. “It’s still Friday. You know they’re not supposed to contact me on weekdays, except for emergencies.”
Bertha’s mouth hardens. I know she disapproves of the way my parents take care of me, but she would never say so out loud.
“Well,” she continues, after a brief pause. “I think this counts as an emergency. Get in the car.”
Remember how I mentioned earlier, that this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve disappointed my parents?
The first time, was when I was 12 years old. I did not do as well as my parents hoped I would, on the Primary School Leaving Examinations.
Top scorers of the PSLE are funnelled into what is known as the Integrated Programme, where they are segregated from the rest of the school-going population, and given all the best resources that all high-performing students need to fulfill their utmost academic potential.
Instead of Secondary School, they go to Junior High. Instead of Junior College or Polytechnic, they attend Senior High. Junior High and Senior High are collectively called Integrated (Schools of Independent Study).
My father was from I(SIS). My mother was from I(SIS). They had every expectation I would be I(SIS) material as well, and were quote unquote “devastated” when I just missed the mark.
If you don’t achieve the required PSLE score at the age of 12, there is no other way to get into I(SIS). My parents were, naturally, colossally disappointed.
I did not, however, understand the full extent of their colossal disappointment, until I came home one day from the movies and found that they had moved out.
My mother had read in a glossy magazine about a celebrity parenting trend called Quality Time, which advocates spending only weekends with your children, in order to give them time on their own to self-actualise. I still remember one of the giant quotes from the article she had cut out, and left on my pillow: “Parenting – if you have to do it every day, you’re doing it wrong!”
I’ll admit, it hurt in the beginning. And it was lonely at first in that giant house, with just Bertha, the scullery maids, Cook, Dessert Chef, the gardener, and the in-house cobbler to keep me company.
But I got used to it. It did free up a lot of time for me to study on my own, independently. And if I hadn’t been turned down by I(SIS), I would never have met Rubella. All in all, I think everything worked out quite well.
Bertha and I sit in silence in the driverless car, and when we get to my parents’ house, just as she is about to ring the doorbell, she hesitates and turns to me.
“Melody? You know you should be proud of yourself, no matter what. Right?”
I look at her, slightly perplexed. “Yes, Bertha.”
She nods to herself, and presses the doorbell.
To my surprise, my mother opens the door.
“Melody! Come in, come in! We’re all so excited!”
She leads the both of us into the gracious drawing room, where my father is sitting and smoking a giant e-pipe. There is a motley group of men I do not recognise in the room with him, who appear to be some kind of camera crew.
“Ah, gentlemen!” my father’s voice booms. “Here she is, the only person to qualify for JC this year!”
The motley crew turn to me, oohing and ahhing. One of them snaps a photo of me. Another pushes a recording device in front of my mouth, and brusquely pronounces, “Melody! I’m Grimson, from The Sumico Times. Do you have anything to say about your singular achievement?”
The Sumico Times is our local newspaper. It is run by a media conglomerate called Sumico Co., which is always headed by a woman, known as The Sumico. When the time comes to retire, The Sumico chooses another Sumico to succeed her, but there are rumours that each Sumico is actually the same woman.
“No comment,” I mumble into the recording device.
Bertha picks up on my reticence, and barks at the gaggle of local reporters, “You heard her, no comment. You got what you needed from the parents. Show’s over, time to go!”
She herds the group of grumbling men out of the room a little too quickly for my liking, and before I know it, I’m alone with my parents.
“This has been the most eventful day, Melody!” my mother cries out, before I can even gather my thoughts. “The Sumico herself came down to interview both of us, because of you getting into JC. I had to drag your father out of his home office on the third floor, to come down and answer some of The Sumico’s questions!”
“It was worth it,” my father says, with a twinkle in his eye. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of you.”
“Stop, please,” my voice sounds jagged, even to my ears. “I’m sure you both already know I ran away from school today.”
“Well, yes, darling, but that’s understandable given the circumstances,” my mother laughs. “I assume Bertha told you?”
“Told me what?”
“I told her nothing, ma’am,” Bertha announces, out of nowhere. She has slipped herself back into the drawing room, without anyone noticing, in the expert way only English housekeepers manage to do. “I thought it would be best, coming from you.”
“Oh, in that case…” My father comes up to me, and cups my face in his hands. “Melody… we’re pregnant.”
I cannot believe my ears. “Who’s ‘we’?”
My mothers peals with laughter. “All three of us, you silly! You’re going to be a big sister! We’re going to have a baby! And, it’s a boy!”
I think this must be what it feels like to have my life flashing before my eyes.
“This is… a little…” I make my way to the fainting couch. I wish I could faint on it, but my consciousness presses stubbornly into the sides of my head, reminding me that this is all too real, that this is all happening right now.
“Melody? Dear?” My mother sounds concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I think she just needs a little time. She might be in shock,” I hear my dad intone.
“Melody? Sweetie? It’s okay,” I can feel my mother clasping my right hand in hers. “Mummy and Daddy still love you. You know that, right?”
I gaze blearily back at her. “Is that why you thought I ditched school?”
“Well, yes, darling. I thought you came rushing home to celebrate,” she replies, with a nervous chuckle. “It’s so exciting, isn’t it? Won’t all your little JC friends be so happy for you?”
I try to look her straight in the eye, but I can’t. “I’m not going back, Mum.”
“What do you mean, you’re not going back?!” My father’s voice sounds like a bellow, when he gets excited.
“Melville, please, let me handle this,” my mother shoots at him. She turns to me, and starts stroking my hair.
“Melody, listen to me. A lot of things are happening at once, and I’m sure this must be very confusing to you right now, but I have every confidence you will make the right decision in the end. You have the whole weekend to decide to go back to JC. I mean, JC is two years. Poly is three years. Do you know exactly what you’re giving up, if you transfer? You would have to…”
She chokes up a little at the thought, before continuing. “You would have to give up having a gap year. A gap year, darling! You can travel the world. See so many things. All my friends’ children had gap years, and it enriched them so much. And now that you’re going to be a big sister, you need to set a good example for your baby brother. You’re going to want to be the best big sister you can be. I mean, even if you don’t care what Mummy and Daddy think… Don’t you want the baby to be proud of you?
“So, you’re going to go home, and take as long as you need to think about going back to JC. We’ll meet again tomorrow, for our scheduled Quality Time. I’m sure that when Monday comes around, so will you.”
She motions to Bertha, who gently leads me out the gracious drawing room, down the driveway, and back into the driverless car. I didn’t think it would be possible, but the drive back home is even more silent than the ride to my parents’ house.
And the day is still not over.
As we approach home, I see a luxury sedan in the driveway, and four figures standing on the porch. Three are instantly familiar, but the fourth is only vaguely identifiable to me, like one of those people you’ve met a few times but whose name you keep forgetting.
“What is it now?” Bertha mutters, when she catches sight of them.
“That’s Caleb, Shivram, and Karma. They’re from school,” I respond, in a dull voice. “I don’t know who the woman is.”
Bertha hisses, in sudden recognition.
“I do. That’s The Sumico.”