Singapore - a homecoming

We had hundreds of entries in our Singapore Airlines giveaway. Our winner, Colin Liddell, tells his story.
Photo / iStock
Photo / iStock

On February 9, 1973, a few weeks before my 13th birthday, I arrived at Paya Lebar, Singapore's original international airport, to start the best two years of my life and a 40-year love affair with Singapore.

My father was on a two-year transfer with the New Zealand Army and coming from Christchurch in the early 70s to Singapore wasn't so much a shock as a seismic cultural experience.

My life became an adventure of never before seen sights, sounds, smells (durian!) and more than anything else, tastes.

Satay cooked on the back of a bicycle, the Icey Icey man selling ice creams from a motorbike, chicken rice, chillie crab and nasi lemak from the local makan stalls and grape Fanta in a draw-string plastic bag all became my new normal for eating.

I lived in Serangoon Gardens then Seletar, I went to school firstly in Changi, right next door to the infamous prison, then at Woodlands.

Watching Chinese operas on the side of the road or Tamil movies dubbed into Hokkien with Malay subtitles on TV, shopping at the night markets for cheap cassettes at Sembawang Circus and Jalan Kayu and tenpin bowling at Jackies Bowl on Orchard Rd were my new pastimes.

Singapore was the scene of my first kiss; it was sweating at school discos in Nee Soon; playing rugby on The Padang and swimming at Changi Beach on the weekends.

I learned Malay at school. It's still the closest thing I have to a second language.

The Jurong Bird Park had only just opened, it and the new open plan zoo were just two of the attractions of my time there. I learned of its short but moving history, of Raffles, the tragic fall of Singapore in 1942 and its amazing birth as a nation under Lee Kwan Yew, a man I grew to admire as one of the great politicians of the 20th century. I rode the old buses with no windows, through the kampongs and learned Tae Kwon Do at the local sports centre.

I adopted the local phrases - "lah" - as well as many of the local customs, slapping chairs before I sat down to ward off evil spirits for many years after I left.

Leaving Singapore in 1975 remains a painful memory, dragged screaming and kicking on to the plane to return to a New Zealand that seemed like a foreign land.

Singapore had become a place that I knew I would always return to whenever I could and it kickstarted a love of travel and new experiences that has never gone away. The mere mention of it would make my ears prick up.

Over the years I have been back a number of times, mainly for stopovers on my way to other places. I've watched the city change so quickly and radically, and while I miss the Singapore of my teenage years I still always love the way this amazing place has changed.

Four years ago I organised a school reunion in New Zealand with a Facebook group called ANZMBOS (Australian and NZ Military Brats of Singapore). We are the children who attended the schools of the ANZ Defence forces in Singapore through the 70s and 80s and it was amazing to find these people - who all shared the same fabulous memories of their time there and who all say the same thing. "They were the best years of our lives". So thank you for letting me have my little trip down memory lane.

My last visit was five years ago with my wife and one of my sons - a two-day stopover. I wanted to show them the place that meant so much to me, and had driven them crazy with my many stories.

They both fell in love with the new Singapore, the gardens, the shops, the amazing buildings, the zoo and bird park, and yes the food, just as I had all those years before and on my subsequent visits.

Ok lah, so now to the question of where would I most enjoy visiting if I was to come back?

My favourite old haunts for a start, Little India, Arab St and Chinatown. A walk around the fabulous Botanical Gardens, lunch at the Chomp Chomp centre, dinner at Lau Pa Sat and from there a walk down to the waterfront to see the Merlion.

Just to walk across The Padang, where I won a National Schools rugby championship, would be wonderful and then maybe time for a cocktail at Raffles. Bagus!

I would love to take my other son to see the new sights that I have yet to check out, especially The Gardens at Marina Bay, and to go on the Traveller or up to the top of the Marina Sands Hotel and check out that amazing view.

But, as much as I would enjoy the attractions, I would most like to go to find my old house in Serangoon Gardens, and my old school at Woodlands, and most of all to go to Kranji War Memorial - a sacred place to the son of a soldier - and one that means as much to me as Gallipoli does to other Kiwis.

I spent one Anzac Day there as a teenager in 1974, and will never forget the overwhelming emotional quiet in such a busy noisy place.

These, more than any of the tourist sites, are what remain strongest in my memory.

I know when I finally do return it won't be as a visitor or tourist, it will be as a child of Singapore returning home.

Majulah Singapura. Terimah Kaseh.

Colin's $5500 prize includes two Economy Class return flights from Auckland to Singapore on Singapore Airlines, four nights' accommodation at Parkroyal on Kitchener Rd and complimentary entry to many of Singapore's top attractions, plus shopping, dining and sightseeing discounts courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board.

- NZ Herald

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