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Growing Up in Rented Rooms

Archiving what I wrote for Publichouse http://publichouse.sg/ here


I read Dr Wong Wee Nam’s article about President hopeful Tan Kin Lian and was reminded of my own childhood.

I too grew up in rented rooms. Mum was, for all intents and purposes, the breadwinner of the family. Dad sent so much of his money away to China, or gave to friends in need that I doubt if he contributed much. So from the start, my parents lived in rented rooms.

Rented rooms in the old days were very different from those today. I grew up in Penang and the rooms we rented were spacious. To give you an idea, mum would have a double bed, a sewing machine, two armchairs and a coffee table, a study table, a dressing table, an old fashioned blackwood long bench, a wardrobe and enough space on the floor for a double mattress. The landlord will give us a small space in the back for our little cupboard for groceries and dried goods, and a little dining table.


Living in rented rooms was not always pleasant. Some landladies were nice. However, we usually have no ensuite, and some of the houses were so old that they did not have modern toilets. The houses that used buckets for toilets still bring shivers down my spine and probably accounted for poor bowel movement for the better part of my life.

There are quite a few stories I can tell about this experience. One of the more memorable ones was how I caught my neighbor having an affair with one of the employees of my landlord. The room we stayed in belonged to a small Chinese company who used the ground floor as an office. I had to walk past my neighbour’s room to go to the toilet. One day, I heard lots of giggles. I glanced through the open window and saw the lady with the odd job worker from downstairs. I was a little young then, and was wondering what the man was doing tugging at her sarong. Later the lady told me the guy had come to help out with her baby. The little one was born with encephalitis – a huge swollen looking head. Some days later, the man’s wife, who was a good friend to the lady and who incidentally had helped her with getting the room, had a mighty row with her. This lady was a real so-and-so, and eventually she made trouble for us with the landlord, just so she could get our room. We had the biggest room that overlooked the streets – which was really cool, especially during the Chingay procession. We had a perfect view of the entire proceedings.

The purpose of my writing this however is not just about reminiscing. I want young people to know that not owning your own home, though a bummer, is not the end of the world. We do not need to wait for all the stars to align before we get married and have children.

I lived in Rwanda for nearly two years. In my first year, I taught English to some hospitality staff. One day I asked my students how many were parents. Nearly all put up their hands. Then I asked how many were married. Less than a quarter put up their hands. Of course I asked them why. For the Rwandese, the wedding ceremony is a must. That ceremony costs a pretty penny. It includes a feast on top of giving cows to the bride. So unless the groom has saved enough, a wedding is out of the question. To me this is quite ridiculous. I told my students that surely a simple wedding will suffice. From the look on their faces, I was really off the mark.

For Singaporeans, we have moved on from our kampong ways. No longer do we have the sizes of the family homes of old where married children continued to stay in the family homes for decades and generations. In most western countries, not only married children have their own homes. Children when they reach college years begin to move out to rooms or apartments of their own. So it is little wonder that ideally we want to have our own home before we settle down.

This, however, has become somewhat of an impossible dream. It takes time to get to know someone well enough to know whether we want to settle down in marriage. Only then does the couple start looking at buying a property. Given the current situation, couples are usually successful only after 3 or 4 tries. Then they have to wait for 3 -4 years for the apartment to be ready. The other option is to buy resale or private property. Well, if you are able to afford to do so, it is certainly an option. If it is not within your means, you still have a choice.

Growing up in rental rooms has not impeded Tan Kin Lin’s success. I was not emotionally scarred nor did I feel disadvantaged in any way. My mum finally bought a house when I was thirteen. She had just retired and you cannot imagine how anxious I was about her finances. She was more prudent than I imagined or could ever hope to be and we more than survived.

All through my childhood, I never had a television. Mum did not even install a telephone. We did not own a fridge. I still did well in school. Sure I was envious of my classmates at times. Coming from a prestigious school, and being in the top class, you can imagine most of my classmates were well-to-do. But because I could hold my own in class and on stage and in various competitions, no one looked down on me. It helped that I had supportive extended family members, who challenged and motivated me to do better.

For those of you out there contemplating getting married, it is inconvenient not having your own home. But do not allow this roadblock to defeat you. Look for other options – rent a room, stay on with your parents, stay with married siblings – while waiting for your own apartment. The key to your children’s success is not wealth or possessions – but your love and encouragement. When privacy is needed, go for a holiday with your spouse. If you play it right, each holiday can be a honeymoon, especially given the restrictions of not owning your home

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