Lessons from Ye Ye’s National Day

blog_oral history

Your family oral history is important.
Ye Ye went on a whirlwind tour of 15 preschools and kindergartens during the past weeks for a National Day programme and spoke to about 420 students. For many of these young students, it was their first time hearing about the early immigrants who made Singapore their new home, World War 2 and the tok tok mee man.
Many of these immigrants were my grandparents’ generation. I remember the frequent occasions during my childhood when my grandmother would talk to me about her life in China and how she travelled to Singapore and settled here. Even after I got married, I saw my mother-in-law packing gifts for relatives in China and my father-in-law bringing these gifts on trips back to his mother’s hometown.
I thought this was a normal Singaporean way of life. I thought this tradition of passing down oral history from generation to generation would prevail and future generations would know Singapore’s history—not from Social Studies books or Infopedia—but real-life accounts passed down from their parents and grandparents. I was wrong.
Part of my National Day programme involves interviewing a Singaporean after reading Playtime with Ye Ye aloud. I did not expect four to six-year-old children to know about early Singapore or World War 2, but what surprised me was that even adults aged between 20 and 45 years old knew so little about their families’ legacies.
One interviewee told me, “If you’d prepped me earlier, I could have read up Singapore history on the internet.”
This statement clarified my purpose for me. I am not looking for third-party objective information we can download from any website. I feel that oral history about how one’s family fared during the colonial days, during World War 2, and in Singapore’s separation from Malaysia—this is completely different and much more powerful than anything we can read from a blog or a book.
Therefore, I fervently appealed to my school audience to go back and talk with their families. I tell the students (as well as the teachers), “Ask the right questions. Ask your parents and grandparents about their childhood and about their parents’ childhood.”
For many of our seniors, they are simply waiting for us to ask them those questions. I reflected and realised that we are so often on our mobile devices at home that we seldom talk with our seniors, and almost never listen to their reminiscences. We are doing ourselves a disservice by doing so. We will become a people with ‘shallow roots’, because we will forget how our ancestors (the self-sacrificial Pioneer Generation!) laboured in order to pass down this legacy that is our nation today. Who knows how many heroes and heroines we have in our own families? If we lose our knowledge of them, we lose identity and pride in our lineage.
Therefore, don’t just ‘like’ the Facebook page ‘On a little street in Singapore’, and don’t simply copy and paste facts from Singapore Infopedia, but turn to your richest and most dynamic source of history and say, “Grandpa, tell me more about our family.”

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