The best Home of all

By Sondra Foo, Corporate Communications

“It was the best Home of all. I would hide whenever my father visited me because I did not want to go back with him,” shared Mr Joseph Chia Teck Seng (Joe) with a chuckle. 

Following World War II, there was a poliomyelitis epidemic in Singapore - more than 15,000 children contracted poliomyelitis. The Red Cross Home for Crippled Children was opened at Nicoll Drive (former Tanah Merah Road) along the coastline of Changi beach in 1952 to care for these children. Joe was one of them. He entered the Home when he was five in 1958 and stayed till he turned 12 in 1965. 

Joe recalled that they would have oats and raw eggs for breakfast and treats for tea breaks, courtesy of the British Army. At his parents’ home, his family could only eat  whatever they could afford.

Michael Ng stayed at the Home when he was five in 1954 and left when he was 14 in 1963. He recalled, “The English Royal Air Force brought in the best apples air-flown from England, they were so nice and juicy! After our meal, we were forced to consume the cod liver oil that built up our immune system, which enabled us to stay very healthy till today.”

Their teacher, Mr Nelson Koh also treated them to local delights. 

“Mr Nelson Koh would bring us nasi lemak, char kway teow, youtiao (fried dough fritters), wanton mee from Tanjong Katong and lotus leaf horfan from Changi,” beamed Joe.

Beyond the good food, the infrastructure at the Home was more appealing than their own homes. 

He added, “The Home had tap water and proper toilets. Our kampong did not have these luxuries.”

Memorable Moments

The best Home of all 4

With the promise of stuffed turkey and festive pudding, Christmas was a most magical occasion at the Home. The children also had presents to look forward to.

“Our Christmas presents were hung on a mosquito net above our beds. We would wait excitedly for the day when we could open the presents. They were usually Hong Kong-made toys with batteries,” shared Joe. 

The children would also sing carols and perform in plays. Joe played a King in one of such. 

The children also attended handicrafts, sewing and knitting workshops. Using a projector, they watched black and white movies, such as ‘Tarzan and Jane’, once every month. Students from United World College visited them monthly, while Red Cross Youth set up campfires at the Home. The wives of British Army officers would sew and fix their torn clothing every Wednesday. 

Engaging in Sports

The best Home of all 6

They were encouraged to keep active. Every morning, the children had hydrotherapy to improve blood circulation. Exercise was compulsory; they had to balance themselves and climb the stairs. Beyond the daily exercise, they also had the annual sports day where they had races on wheelchairs, crutches, and wheelbarrows. 

With a beach in front of the Home, swimming was a natural pastime. Joseph James who suffers from cerebral palsy, stayed at the Home when he was two in 1969 and left when he was 15 in 1984. He began swimming competitively. 

“I loved swimming and went for swimming lessons four times a week. Mr Koh paid for my swimming lessons, as he was a member of the Changi Swimming Club. I won three competitions in the 50 metres, 100 metres and 200 metres. Unfortunately, I was underaged and was not able to enter a competition in Hong Kong,” he recounted wistfully. 

Beyond what they were made to do, they also engaged in activities on the sly. 

“We played hockey in the exercise room and built our own goal post. Someone would alert us whenever the Matron was coming. We would quickly pack everything up and pretend nothing happened,” shared Joseph, with a grin. He saw through the period where the Home was relocated to Changi Creek.

Strict Teacher

The students were divided into two classes; one for upper primary students and another for lower primary students. Mr Koh taught the lower primary students while Mr Seah Peng Kui taught the senior class. 

They remember Mr Koh, who taught them English, Malay, Maths, Science, and Geography, to be a very strict teacher. 

“He would check if our fingernails were cut. If not, he would hit our knuckles with the one-metre long wooden ruler,” shared Joe and Joseph. The former recalled sitting on the ‘Naughty Chair’. 

Living in the dormitory

Boys and girls slept at different wards. There were 20 beds at each ward at Tanah Merah while they had 10 beds in each ward at Changi Creek. 

Staying in the dormitory meant that their schedules were generally fixed. They would wake at 7am in the morning to attend school at 8am. After lunch, they would take a nap. They would have their dinner from 5pm to 6pm. After 6pm, they would have their bath and recreation time.  

“At night, we were made to watch the news even though we did not understand that. We drank milk before turning in,” shared Goh Mui Hoon, who stayed at the Home when she was three in 1961 and left when she was six in 1964.

“Matron Makintosh’s husband would tell us ghost stories before we went to bed. We were so scared that we quickly closed our eyes,” said Joe.

“It was too creepy to go to the toilet at night! As I was a scaredy-cat, I peed on the bed! ” Joseph confessed, with a laugh. 

Hard Bidding the Home Goodbye

Much as they were reluctant to, they had to leave the Home when they became teenagers. 

“All of us refused to go home. The Matron told me they were bringing me on a holiday. We took a boat ride, and subsequently a van. Before I realised, I was home at my parents’ place at Pulau Tekong for good. I was so sad,” said Joe. 

Years on, they look back with nostalgia at what they deem to be the most enjoyable and memorable times of their lives.

“At that time, there were no other facilities that cared for disabled children. Had it not been for the Home, we wouldn’t know where else to go,” shared Joe. 

Sharing Joe’s sentiment, Goh Mui Hoon said, “I was properly cared for at the Home. It relieved my mother of the burden of carrying me around.”

Subsequently, they were contacted by the Singapore Red Cross in the 1970s to live in its hostel.

Changing Perceptions of the Disabled

In the early days, persons with disability faced discrimination and had limited career opportunities. They were looked down upon not only by outsiders but their families as well.  

In the 1970s, Mr Koh led a team to Australia for sporting competitions. Mr Koh told the team to prove the detractors wrong. The team eventually returned with nine golds, nine silvers and nine bronzes. The naysayers were silenced. 

One of Mr Koh’s students went on a hunger strike for three days as his parents urged him to hide during a visit by his relatives during Chinese New Year. Despite his disability, the student was talented in singing and he emerged the Champion at a talentime contest. 

“I told his parents that they should not look down on their child. We should encourage persons with disabilities and give them a chance to live,” shared Mr Koh. 

Mr Koh also told his students, “Don’t beg. Don’t let them look down on you. Prove to people you are independent and useful in society.”

One of Mr Koh’s students passed the Primary School Leaving Examination. Armless, he did everything with his foot; sewing and writing. Subsequently, he went to Raffles Institution, Nanyang University and he became a Chief Executive Officer of a company. 

“I am very happy to see that the armless boy has come far in life. It attested that the disabled can also attain success. They have proven themselves, that despite their disability, they can do well,” shared Mr Koh.  

Mr Koh, now 92, has been championing for social inclusion of persons with disabilities throughout his life - he could be said to be the forerunner and a trendsetter. He worked hard to change mindsets of persons with disabilities, their parents, and the community at large. He is heartened that perceptions of the disabled have transformed for the better over the years. 

“It’s good to see that our society embraces social inclusion of persons with disabilities,” he said with a smile.

Reconnected after five decades

The best Home of all 5

Though Joseph, Joe, Michael Ng and Goh Mui Hoon had left the Home for over five decades, they found one another a few years ago. Joseph James, 52, a food delivery man, and Joe, 66, a retiree who used to work at the production line, would meet each other for lawn bowling. They would reminisce about the good old times, and yearn to meet their teacher, Mr Koh. 

By coincidence, Joseph was at The Star Vista in October 2019 when he stumbled upon the Singapore Red Cross (SRC) 70th Anniversary exhibition. Intrigued, he asked if the Red Crosser on duty knew Mr Koh. To Joseph’ astonishment, he did. The next day, Joseph, Joe, Goh Mui Hoon and Michael Ng were interviewed by the Singapore Red Cross staff writer, who connected them to Mr Koh. Later, Joseph and Joe visited Mr Koh at his home while Mui Hoon, 61, a homemaker and Michael, 70, a private tutor, visited Mr Koh at the hospital. Their visits touched Mr Koh.

“I am proud that my students turned out well five decades on. They have been earning a living for themselves and have families of their own. I feel at peace in the knowledge that I have made a difference in their lives. As a teacher, my job is complete,” affirmed Mr Koh.