Some vignettes of Singapore and my move to UNESCO Paris



Excerpted from volume ii of the Sarath Amunugama autobiography

Before I conclude my description of a short but enjoyable stay in Singapore I would like to describe some features of antiquarian interest which have now disappeared in that concrete jungle. They all exemplify various aspects of Chinese culture which immigrants from the mainland brought along with them in their arduous journey to the British colonial outpost of that time.

Many of the migrants arrived with only the bare clothing on their bodies. They mostly came from Guandong [Canton] in south China in overcrowded ‘Sampans’ and swam to shore to build a new life for themselves and their families. They were tough seafarers and good swimmers. Fortunately for them both the Colonial British administration and European Christian Missionaries received them with open arms despite of the alarm of the Malays whose ‘homelands’ were being invaded.

It was more than a demographic transition. The new comers were more hard working and entrepreneurial than the traditionally lazy Malays, who being blessed by nature with an abundance of food and babies, were loath to compete with the Chinese. This was clearly seen in the preponderance of Chinese merchants in the cities of the Malay states and Indonesia.

The ‘Bhumiputras’ were concentrated as small farmers and artisans in their villages and as social anthropologists like Cliffied Geertz have brilliantly demonstrated led a highly stratified existence in the ‘Kampongs’ where symbolic values prevailed within a culture of great social complexity. The hostility of the Malay peasants to the Chinese merchants remained as an undercurrent which broke out as race riots in Malaysia in 1969 and the mass slaughter of Communists and Chinese [often they were the same] in Indonesia in 1965 during the American inspired military coup.

It was in this background that Lee Kuan Yew and his PPP defused the embers of racial violence and established the multi-ethnic state of Singapore. That was no easy task. But happily many of the features of mainland Chinese culture were recreated by the immigrants in their new Singapore home, albeit in a diminished form.

The migrants coming on shore were helped by Christian missionaries who set up soup kitchens, elementary schools that taught English and Christianity, especially extracts from the Bible, and found employment for them in the emerging ‘sweated trades’ in the Straits Settlements and the lower rungs of the colonial administration. Since canny Chinese migrants quickly adapted themselves to benefit from the goodwill of the missionaries, who were busy making a head count of their converts to impress their sponsors in Europe, they were called ‘Rice Christians’.

But this characterization may be unfair because many of these converts stuck to their new religion and as forward looking Christians contributed to the modernization of Singapore. They added to the ethnic mosaic in the demography of a region which was dominated by traditional religions like Islam which were ‘other worldly’ and not as partial to economic and social growth. A good example was the migrant entrepreneurial family of C.K. Tang which dominates retail business on Orchard Road. As orthodox Christians the Tangs do not trade on the Sabbath and their large departmental store remains closed on that day much to the discomfort of holiday shoppers.

Cheek by jowl of the huge skyscrapers we still see the dimunitive historical church buildings in which Christian priests provided hot soup and sermons to the weary migrants who had come to escape the famines and grinding poverty which then marked the mainland. Migrants created “China Towns” which even in the 1980s were crowded living and trading quarters “which never sleeps”. Anything from ancient esoteric Chinese medicines to pet snakes could be purchased in China Towns which offered different provincial cuisine from Cantonese to Sichuanese and Teochew to northern wheat based delicacies.

One could also savour Indonesian, Thai, and Tamil cuisine in the hole in the corner restaurants in the vicinity where the proprietor dressed in a singlet and Khaki shorts would shout out the orders to the cooks who plied their trade on pavements in the open air. All the makeshift tables had zinc tops and trestle like legs which could be dismantled in a short while and upended at the end of the day’s business.

Nearby were the ‘Death Houses’ where old men and women were often forcibly lodged by their relatives. These shriveled oldsters would look out of the windows of the upstairs in their virtual prison and shout out to the pedestrians below. They were all awaiting death as permitted by ancient Chinese custom. Another unforgettable experience in China Town was the Chinese haircut and head massage given in small `saloons’ which dotted its alleyways. The barber would pull out long thin metal rods to which cotton wool earbuds were attached.

They would be gently eased into the ears which were then manipulated to clean the insides of the unfortunate clients’ ear canal. This caused an excruciating but very pleasant sensation which cannot however be safely recommended except to the intrepid ‘out of the world’ experience seeker. I doubt whether it is practiced nowadays in cosmopolitan Singapore.

Another favourite of tourists to Singapore was Bugis street where every evening transvestites would gather in their hundreds and parade along the narrow streets which were full of bars and small restaurants which were packed with sightseers. Nearby also were the brothels with their small rooms open to the street. Clients would freely walk in and out of these hovels which were full of Indonesian and Malaysian girls who were probably forced into prostitution due to poverty.

The Singapore government which is highly puritanical nevertheless turned a blind eye to these tourist attractions. The Gaylang district was full of brothels which advertised their custom by displaying a large red lantern at the entrance to the premises.

A Change in Occupation

While I was introducing changes in AMIC which were welcomed by FES and our membership I received a message from the Director General of UNESCO to visit Paris for an interview for the post of Director of the newly formed International Programme for the Development of Communication [IPDC]. The formation of the IPDC had been endorsed by the General Assembly of UNESCO but the DG had taken some time over it because he was not sure what form it would take vis-a-vis his administrative powers.

But he had settled finally on the idea of a special programme which had more independence and power than the departments of UNESCO which he controlled directly. In the case of the IPDC it was to have its own President, Director, Secretariat and Governing Council. In the light of the political contestation between the superpowers on the subject of media and communication, M’Bow the DG thought it wise to tread warily on this issue. He wanted a Director who was acceptable to all power groups.

For the office of President of IPDC, which was an honorary post, he managed to get approval for Gunnar Garbo, the delegate of Norway and national hero who had participated in the Norwegian resistance to the Nazis. Garbo had also been the Norwegian Ambassador to Tanzania. He was a towering figure and was acceptable to all sides. I was interviewed for the post of Director who was to be the functional head of IPDC, as the boss of the Secretariat answerable to the DG of UNESCO. I informed FES of the offer and with their reluctant approval left for an interview in Paris.

My friend Manu Ginige had booked me into a comfortable hotel close to our embassy in Rue D’Astorg. On the Monday morning I caught a taxi to the UNESCO building in Rue Miollis where ADG Gerard Bollas office was located. Since I came every year since 1977 to Paris for UNESCO meetings this was familiar territory which fact added to my confidence.

At this cordial meeting with Bolla he recounted his visits to Sri Lanka as head of the cultural Division of UNESCO. In fact it was Bolla who had recruited Luciano Maranzi to restore the damaged Sigiriya frescos in 1968.1 got the sense that I would be selected because he inquired whether I could be in Paris by September for the General Conference. He asked me to also follow classes in the French language at the Alliance in Singapore.

I also found out that I was the only candidate endorsed by diverse political groupings within member states. There were several other candidates from India, Bangladesh and some African countries but I left Paris rather confident that I will be selected. True enough in about a week’s time I received a letter from M’Bow stating that I had been selected as the Director of IPDC and should assume duties as early as possible.

No doubt this was a plum post in the UN system but I faced a problem in that I had been at AMIC for less than six months and it would be embarrassing to face FES which had placed such confidence in me. One consideration which weighed in my mind was that the UN paid for the education of the children of its staff and my daughters would benefit immensely by studying in France. It also meant that we could live together as a family in the dream city of Paris, which would be a great boon because my daughters were at an age when they could enjoy life there.

I consulted the Board members of AMIC who were unhappy to see me go but appreciated the fact that it was a rare opportunity. Sir Charles Moses, doyen of Australian Broadcasting wrote a kind letter to me which conveyed the sentiments of the AMIC Board; “I need hardly say that I will miss you at AMIC meetings. Apart from my personal regard for you, I feel that AMIC has suffered a real loss with your departure. It is a tragedy that you could not have stayed a couple of years longer. But that’s looking at the situation from AMICs point of view.

“On my part I am delighted for your sake that you have received the UNESCO appointment and I know that UNESCO is lucky to have got you. I expect you to go a long way in that, fine organization-I hope to the top. If by any chance your travels, bring you close to Australia please find some reason to spend a, day or so in Sydney and it would give me great pleasure to have you lunch or dine with me at my Club – the best in Australia.”

So with less than a year in Singapore I was now ready to go west to Paris and undertake a job which had been the focus of the hopes of many who looked forward to a more equitable and balanced new Information Order in the world. I was extremely lucky that it was a dream assignment in a territory that I was specially equipped to traverse. It was a rare opportunity to make a dream come true and I made ready to relocate in the ‘City of Light’.




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