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My mum’s life story Part 3 – Teachers’ Band, primary school teaching & retiring

Singapore Teachers' Band 1967

Susie Lemos née Lim Khay-Siew: born 1935 |

This third part of Mum’s life story covers the period she joined the Singapore Teachers’ Band and became a band instructor, going back to teaching in a primary school and then retiring.

Becoming a band instructor with Dad

1965 – The Singapore Government’s Ministry of Education set up the Extra-Curricular Activities Centre (ECAC) at Farrer Park. The music department at ECAC was tasked with the high-priority School Bands project which involved training a band of teachers to start marching and concert bands in schools. Allowing students to participate in bands as a volunteer extra-curricular activity was seen as a way for them to build esprit de corps. It was also a way to forge a new national identity for the young independent country which was forced into separation from the Malaysian Federation that year.

Dad was teaching at Owen School. With his own love for music, and band music in particular, he spoke to Tan Kim Swee (a visiting music teacher from ECAC) who encouraged him to join the Teachers’ Band. He decided to give it a shot and signed up for the band and convinced Mum to join him too.

However, Dad’s tenure with the STMB was short-lived. Being untrained as a musician, unlike Mum, he struggled reading music notation. The department had engaged instructors from one of the Singapore-based British Military Forces bands to train the teachers and after an unpleasant altercation with one of these foreign instructors he decided it wasn’t for him. Bring unused to the foul language used on him, he went straight to one of the music department’s directors, Benjamin Khoo, and asked to be returned to regular teaching in a school. 

Marching in National Day Parade

1966 – Mum continued in the Teachers’ Band. She marched in the first National Day Parade held at the Padang in the Teachers’ Military Band contingent. As a family, we watched her from the roof terrace of the Singapore Recreational Club, which my father belonged to as a tennis player. That was when Mum found out she had a major foot problem, being unable to cope with enclosed shoes. After developing severe blisters, she dropped out during the long route march and had to somehow find her way back to the end point.

Thankfully, once the various school bands had been established, the Teachers’ Band didn’t have to march and their respective bands would participate instead. Mum tells the anecdote of visiting the doctor at the government clinic to treat her sore feet after the parade. The doctor wanted to know why as a teacher she wasn’t just confined to a classroom and had to march on the streets. Good thing the doctor was suitably distracted by the decorative buttons on her blouse, which had been given to her by her cousin May from Burma.

1969 – Mum was assigned to assist Wu Si-Si to train the Chung Hwa Girls’ School band at Bartley Road. This was in preparation for a performance to be graced by HRH Princess Alexandra for the official opening of the Seletar Reservoir. Mum related how she couldn’t speak Mandarin, having come from an English-speaking educational background, and therefore had an awkward time communicating with the principal of the Chinese medium high school. To overcome this linguistic hurdle they would speak to each other in the Hokkien dialect.

A physically demanding job

1966-1985 – Mum kept going as a band instructor, assigned to Parry Secondary School, Serangoon Garden Secondary School and much later St Hilda’s School. As a member of the STMB she had to rehearse with them 9 hours a week, then spend up to 15 hours a week teaching her two school bands. Initially, a group of bandmasters and senior bandsmen from the Singapore British Navy Band and the Singapore British Air Force Band led by Lieutenant AD Haigh and George Ritchie were employed to provide training.

It was a very physically demanding and peripatetic job, having to play the role of conductor, teacher of all instruments, footdrill and formation plus all the administrative work associated with running a band. Being a non-driver, Mum would find her way around on public transport, zipping between the ECA Centre, her two concurrent schools and the various performance and rehearsal venues. Thankfully, she only had her relatively small clarinet to lug around with her. At one point, Mum would even cycle from home to Parry School on Saturday mornings and then quickly cycle over to Serangoon Secondary School to conduct the next afternoon round of band rehearsals there.

There was barely enough time to practice her own instrument but during her stint with the Teachers’ Band Mum also sat for ABRSM clarinet grade exams and her cousin Swee-Kiok accompanied her on the piano for those exams. 

Collegues and friends

Mum fondly remembers the various conductors and specialist inspectors of the STMB; namely Goh Say Meng, David Lim Kim-San, Charles Lazaroo, Benjamin Khoo, John de Souza and Arnold Tan. Among her many colleagues whom we got to know through attending Mum’s work events and performances were Irene Joseph, Wu Si-Si, Wu Oon-San, Merle Oates, Kathleen Anthony, Grace Tan and Mrs Wong. Amongst her male colleagues were Ali Cassim, Clive Scharenguivel, Ho Hwee-Leong, Benjamin Samson, George Sobrielo, Chan Tong-Ser, Lim Guan-Kin, Harold de Rosario, Teo Khye-Beng, Lee Seck-Chiang, Nassir Ibrahim and Joseph Png.

She recalls some of their affectionate (and rude) nicknames, which shall remain unmentioned and unpublished here. Some of these colleagues we become even closer friends with due to family connections, such as Ali Cassim through his son Christopher whom I became a fellow chorister with in the Singapore Youth Choir, Singapore Symphony Chorus and The Philharmonic Chamber Choir. And Joe and Rose Png, whose daughter Daphne was my kindergarten and later junior college classmate and their other daughter Deborah, who also became a dear friend whom I sang with in the Singapore Youth Choir and vocal group Invasion of Privacy when we became university hostel mates.

Lasting legacy of the Teachers' Band

The Singapore Bands Project went on to see many ups and downs, with the School Bands Competitions, which formed part of the annual Singapore Youth Festival, seeing standards of marching and indoor performances raised to rather exceptional standards. The leading school bands would import current trends from the US Marching Bands movement and I particularly enjoyed attending those band competition finals held at the National Stadium at Kallang. 

Unfortunately, the extreme competitiveness of the event was recognised to be an unhealthy distraction from a student’s educational focus. So the top three placings were replaced by gold, silver and bronze category ratings, in an attempt to play down the element of competitiveness and to avoid gut-wrenching emotional scenes of young school kids breaking down and sobbing away after each  band competition finals.

By the time the band movement celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1990, it was estimated that some 20 thousand students would have joined and benefited from being in a school band. I, for one, did, having played the tuba in my one year at Serangoon Gardens Secondary School and then again when I was at Catholic Junior College.

The Singapore Teachers’ Military Band produced a full LP vinyl album in 1976 which included the Teacher’s March composed by George Ritchie and a selection of local folk song arrangements. The album notes highlight how the band movement in schools has “created a terrific impact on the way life of the country is borne out by the fact that no celebration whether in school, community or national level is complete without a school band in attendance”.

The historic recording can be heard via this YouTube clip, which Mum heard recently and remarked how terrible they sounded!

Back to teaching in a primary school

1985 – Following a problematic ear infection which affected her hearing, Mum decided it was time for a change in her career. So she left the band and returned to teaching as a primary school teacher. She was assigned to Lee Kuo Chuan Primary School located off Thomson Road. The school subsequently moved to new premises nearby at Ah Hood Road over in Balestier.

Although the change was good, her transition back to classroom teaching wasn’t entirely good time for Mum. She struggled setting exam papers and coping with other administrative challenges, all this occurring during a time of menopausal change. The last straw for her was having to appear in a hurriedly called teachers’ staff meeting to publicly apologise to a colleague she was accused of insulting.

1988 – After an extended period of medical leave and a series of board medical reviews, Mum was eventually medically ‘boarded’ out of the teaching service and so began her early retirement at the age of 53.

Early retirement

In order to keep herself occupied in her retirement, Mum did some volunteer admin work once a week at her local Trinity Methodist Church. This involved “collating” of the weekly church bulletin booklets. And she played the piano for the early 8am Sunday service (which was aimed at an older congregation). She also did some ad hoc piano playing for graduation ceremonies at the church kindergarten.

The rest of her free time in retirement was spent baking and doing handicraft. How many more cross-stitched toilet roll holders or tissue packet cases could anyone possibly have?

Although not a particularly good cook, Mum enjoyed making cakes and cookies which she would give away to relatives and friends in recycled jam jars. Her favourite things to bake with her trusty Kenwood Chef cake mixer and Baby Belling oven were pandan chiffon cake (using the special cake moulds she got from Medan), apple walnut cake and her almond and cornflake cookies. My suggestion of marketing the latter as “Cookie Mak”, a play on the rude colloquial profanity “puki mak” (and I’ll let you Google the translation yourself), didn’t go down too well.

Mum also made her own chilli sauce and on one of my sister Sandy’s annual trips to Singapore, she got my Mum to teach her how to make the chilli sauce. Sandy subsequently took two bottles of the chilli sauce with her back to the Gold Coast and then related to us how those bottles caused such a commotion on arrival at the airport. While collecting her bags at the arrival baggage carousel, a sniffer dog came by and sniffed her luggage. The poor beagle proceeded to retch. So my sister was taken away to a search room to have the contents of her bag examined for some offensive or illicit content. They all had a laugh when Sandy embarrassingly produce the bottles of her Mum’s homemade chilli sauce to convince them it was all very harmless!

Family milestones

2003 – I migrated to Sydney with my partner Leong Ban-Foo in May. Dad, who had stopped his tennis coaching since 1999, and was being treated for COPD or emphysema, was subsequently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in December. 

2004 – Dad, who had been married to Mum for 47 years, dies on 5 October, after spending almost a month at the Assisi Hospice at the Mount Alvernia Hospital. We then spent the first Christmas for Mum without Dad together with her at my sister Sandy’s home in the Gold Coast. The next few years saw Mum making regular trips to the Gold Coast or Sydney to visit her two children.

2013 – My sister Sandy marries John Newenhyzen (JN) in the Gold Coast. As with Sandy’s first wedding to RJS in Perth, Mum was not present at the wedding ceremony, citing poor health and not being well enough to travel.

2016 – After just four years of blissful marriage to JN, making up for many years in an unhappy marriage followed by divorce, Sandy was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer. They put off a trip to Europe they were planning to meet John’s relatives and place of birth in the Netherlands and she started immediate chemo treatment, assuring us how bowel cancer was the most treatable type of cancer.

2017 – By March JN informed us that they had to cancel the deferred trip as the cancer had spread and the on-going treatment hadn’t been successful in arresting the cancer. Sandy died on 23 May, just 4 days after her 57th birthday. Mum was not able to travel and was absent at the funeral held in the Gold Coast. However, she did attend a separate memorial event held in Singapore which Sandy’s primary and secondary schoolmates organised in her honour.