I owe a great debt to a milk crate full of old magazines.
My family, four of us, my dad, mum, a younger brother and two younger sisters lived in a rented one-room flat in Toa Payoh town from the 1960s to the 1970s. Note that I did not say one bedroom. It was literally just one room. The whole flat, living room, bedroom, kitchen, everything except for the toilet was in one room. Six people lived in this 200 square feet shoe box.
I was in Primary (Grade) One. In those days, there weren’t as much homework as today. In our spare time, and there was plenty, we would roam the streets, known as lorongs, around the housing project, poking our noses, fingers and feet in every nook and corner.
I spent hours roaming the corridors of the flats. I was fascinated by the religious artifacts placed over and around the entrances of the flats. These religious artifacts such as niches, crucifixes, portraits, mirrors, altars, offering bins, and banners showed whether this was a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Roman Catholic, Buddhist or Taoist home. I realised that people of many religions lived beside each other in these flats. People were living harmoniously with neighbours of all religions and faiths. Racial and religious diversity and mutual respect became second nature to me.
When roaming along the corridors, the curious child that I was, liked to peer into people's homes. In those days, people would leave the doors to their homes open unless no one was at home. In one of the homes which I passed regularly, there was an Army officer's sword hanging proudly on a wall in the living room. I dreamed of being an officer and having such a sword one day. Now there are two such swords in my home as I later signed up for the Air Force and my son is an Army officer during his conscript service.
During one of our wanderings, my brother and I roamed into the compound of the Church of the Risen Christ, not far from our home. By the way, the Church is still there in Toa Payoh town centre today. I cannot remember what attracted us. Perhaps we invited ourselves because the gates were wide open. We walked towards the fellowship hall. The Church had just had its jumble sale and people were busy clearing the hall.
A middle aged man beckoned us to approach. I cannot recall how he looked or what he said. He offered us a milk crate. I believe it was a wooden Dutch Lady condensed milk crate. In it was a stash of old magazines. Our eyes brightened, hoping they were Batman, Spiderman or Superman comics. But no, they were forty or fifty old issues of Reader’s Digest, and a few National Geographic and LIFE magazines. Our spirits dampened. Of what use were these grown up magazines for two small boys?
The magazines for grown ups were obviously well beyond our ability to comprehend. You see, I was only recently exposed to the English language. I’ve just started to learn the alphabet by reciting “A for Ali” to a picture of a Malay boy in a Songkok (a Malay hat). Maybe, my adventurous or reckless trait, depending on how you look at it, was already showing – take it first and figure out what to do with it later.
Together, my brother and I, huffed and puffed, and brought the crate of old magazines home.
We were poor and had few, if any toys. There was also no money for books, except for textbooks which were absolutely required by the school. The crate of old magazines substituted for our box of toys. It became my magic carpet to faraway places, fascinating people and tumultuous events. I would spend many, many hours by the window poring over these old magazines. Since I couldn't read too well then, I was particularly captivated by the photographs.
It was the 1960s, and the Vietnam War was at its height. Many of the pictures in the LIFE magazines were sad and gruesome. There were pictures of children who were like me. Though we were poor, I always felt they were far less fortunate. In one picture, they were tearing away their clothes, screaming in pain as they ran away in terror from a fireball of napalm. I learnt gratitude - to count my blessings and be thankful even when we didn’t have much.
I saw that people can be extremely cruel to each other.
But I also learnt that we don't have to be.
The sixties was also the decade the Americans put a man on the moon. I learnt that when we set a goal and when we want it passionately enough, everything is possible. It is OK to set big, audacious goals. If it is possible to send a man to the moon and bring him back in the sixties, what is not possible today and tomorrow?
Initially, I understood little of what were written in the magazines. I would guess the meaning of the words. Gradually as my grasp of English improved and vocabulary expanded, I began to understand the articles. These magazines were my friends for many years and they have a great influence on me, even now.
Sitting by the window, reading and rereading that stash of Reader's Digest, LIFE and National Geographic created a feeling of wonderment and awe about the world out there beyond the housing project.
|Toa Payoh Library|
In the Reader’s Digest, there were inspiring true life stories of good people who triumphed over incredible odds. From these stories, I learnt that nothing can permanently stand in the way of the resilience and goodness of the human spirit. It triggered my passion for personal development and maximising human potential. I also enjoyed the humour pages.
The National Geographic magazines inspired my respect for nature, care for our planet and love for travel, adventure and photography.
The LIFE magazine woke my political consciousness and stoked my passion to understand how the world of geopolitics work.
Altogether, the crate of old magazines shaped many aspects of my life and influenced many of my life decisions. For example, my love for travel and adventure played a big part in my decision to join the Air Force where I stayed for twenty five years. It brought me to many fascinating places where I met many interesting people.
|Ice berg, Newfoundland, Canada|
|Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada|
|Australian National University, Canberra, Australia|
Since retiring from the Air Force my passion for personal development has taken center stage. Over the last 3 years, I have intensified my research into strategies of peak potential and have also been certified as a Master Neuro-Linguistics Programmme practitioner. My main motivation initially was to help my son and daughter as they leave for studies in the US. Now I am ready to extend the same support to other young people. I have developed my own programmes to help youths and young professionals become wiser sooner through Whole of Life Thinking™ and Asking Life's Big Questions Now™.
I sometimes wondered if the kind gentleman who gave two little boys a crate full of old Reader’s Digest, National Geographic and LIFE magazines forty years ago knew what impact he had on my life. To him, I would like to say a big thank you and that I owe him a great debt of gratitude.