Tracing My Roots: From Java to Singapura

The Migration Story of My Late Grandfather, Omar Bin Shariff

The edges of the sepia-toned photograph are yellowed and torn. Yet, the muted image endures over the years, resilient through different hands and changing weather – reminiscent of the subject within its tired frame. The man’s left arm half-rested on the bonnet; perhaps an afterthought seconds before the click of the shutter. I observe the person in the photograph for a long time and I wonder if he knew that all the sacrifices he had made earlier in his life would make a life-changing impact. That if not for his decision of leaving home to eke out a living in a foreign land, I would not be where I am today.

The young man in the photograph sporting wavy black hair and brown skin is my late grandfather, Omar Bin Shariff, whom I affectionately called Yayi. My grandfather came from Kendal, Semarang, the capital located in the northern part of Central Java in Indonesia.

Along with other migrants, he traveled by boat from Java to Singapura at the age of 17. He spoke fluent Javanese and Malay but not a word of English. He was also illiterate, which meant that whenever he received letters from his friends or family back home in Indonesia, he would ask my father to read the romanized Javanese out loud so that he could understand. He was one of the many Indonesian migrants who travelled to Singapore in the early days, bringing along with them none of their possessions, but sufficiently armed with hopes, fears and dreams for a better future.

Certificate of Registration
My grandfather’s Certificate of Registration for Citizenship of Singapore, issued in 1957

However, he needed to apply for permanent residence in Singapore before he could find a job to make ends meet. He officially became a Singaporean when he received the Certificate of Registration for the Citizenship of Singapore issued to him in 1957.

He started out as a gardener to a Malay-speaking Dutch newlyweds, hence, communication was not a problem. While serving them, he also picked up basic English to communicate. Yayi had to enroll in classes to receive the driving license so that he could officially become their driver. He worked hard for a few years, chauffeuring the couple back and forth until one day, he left his first job to become a van driver for an investment holding company called Lindeteves-Jacoberg. His job was to sell and distribute electric motor forestry equipment like saws and axes to interested buyers in Singapore and Malaysia.

After proving to be reliable and promising in his skills, he was tasked to bring one of the salesmen and his boss to Malaysia to promote a newly released electrical chainsaw to the lumberjacks. It was a taxing job, driving around the country and looking for clients. He toiled day and night, sometimes losing his sleep. However, his dedication to the job still did not suffice. He needed another job to make ends meet.

Yayi and his van
Taking a break from driving his company van to sell equipment like electric saws

Seeing that the driving license was the only qualification he had attained at that point of time, he soon applied to become a taxi driver. He was a van driver by day and a taxi driver by night. Yayi was a strong-willed and extremely hardworking man whose drive and resolve to make a better living for his family remained unflagging. But his ride through his life journey was not smooth  – it was soon to be met with roadblocks along the way.

In 1964, a racial riot broke out. It was deemed to be the worst riot to have ever happened in Singapore’s history. The 1964 racial riots which occurred on two separation occasions involved the Malays and the Chinese. These riots were sparked off at the height of the Konfrontasi (1963-1965) which was when Indonesia waged a war against the existence of Federation of Malaysia (Marsita, 2008). This prominent event was catalyzed by rising political and religious tensions and involved hundreds of casualties which, according to official statistics, caused 22 people to be killed and 454 people injured (Cheng, 2011). The row started on 21st July during a procession carried out by the Muslims to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday when the Chinese attacked the Malays, followed by another incident when a Malay trishaw rider was killed at Geylang Serai (Han, 2014).

Every year, on the 21st of July, thenceforth became a date which would be etched on every Singaporean’s memory as the day Singapore commemorates Racial Harmony Day, reminding ourselves the importance of living in peace and harmony despite our differences.

This period of immense tension reached such a critical stage that the government had to impose a nation-wide curfew for several months. Due to this curfew, nobody dared to leave their house to work. Most of the Malay families’ rice bowl were affected. Yayi had to stop driving for a while. Being the family’s sole breadwinner, he was rendered helpless thinking how he was to feed his wife and children given the risky circumstances.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so Yayi resorted to pawning his wife’s jewelry. It was a tough decision to make but he was left with no choice. As the supporting and understanding person that she was, my grandmother knew what truly mattered and that no material possession owned could ever be as valuable as their lives and happiness. Sacrifices had to be made.

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 1.19.07 PM
The Straits Times article reporting on the Curfew Free Day, in 1964

Yayi would sometimes witness the Chinese attacking and hitting the Malays on the streets. When the curfew was lifted momentarily during the curfew-free hours to allow civilians to go to the markets, the Malay families would scramble to do their grocery shopping. Everyone – especially the mothers – would fight their way through the aisles to get their daily necessities as quickly as possible, for fear that they would be attacked too.

The stallholders were commended for ensuring racial harmony in the markets as they emphasized on prioritizing the Malays in the market when attending to customers and providing them protection in the event that they were confronted by any mischief-makers (Straits Times, 1964).

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 1.36.07 PM
Malay customers were given priority

Gradually, the situation in Singapore improved. The breadwinners of the Malay families found it safe to leave their homes and carry on with their jobs once again. Unfortunately, Yayi lost his job as a van driver. So he continued as a full-time taxi driver. Over the years, he accumulated enough wealth to acquire another 2 yellow-top taxis to rent out to other drivers. The amount of money he had left behind after he passed on was a testimony to his hard work and perseverance during these tough times.

With the introduction of the diesel tax in the 1970s, the taxi meter surged by a 100%. This diesel tax was implemented as one of the measures the government undertook to eradicate pirate taxis in the country (Singapore’s Public Transport Structure, n.d.). Yayi had to use all the physical cash he had saved under his bed (for he did not keep them in a bank), to pay up the taxes in small denominations. Even when he was hospitalized back then for his stroke, he used whatever amount of physical cash he had stashed under his bed to pay up for the hospital bills. He preferred the traditional and unconventional way of saving, and he was also an extremely thrifty person. It was no wonder then, that even through the most trying times, he did not ask anyone for financial help. He was adamant in resolving the challenges he faced all by himself.

A laissez-fair attitude was certainly not in Yayi’s books. The hardship he had faced was unparalleled to that faced by most of his grandchildren today. Through it all, he never once allowed his life to take a back seat, ensuring that he is constantly in control of the steering wheel, overcoming the road bumps and maneuvering his way around the road blocks he encountered along the way.

My Great Grandfather, The Tempeh Seller

The Migration Story of My Late Great Grandfather, Omar Bin Khaiman

œMy great grandfather, the father of Yayi’s wife, named Omar Bin Khaiman, on the other hand, was also from Semarang, Kaliwungu. He too was an early migrant who came to Singapore with a hope for a better life.

As there was already a community of Javanese people residing here in Singapore, he took the opportunity to set up a shop at the former Tekka Market selling tempeh and tapai. Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food snack which is made by deep-frying fermented soy beans, and is well-loved by many. Tapai, also originating from Indonesia, is a traditional fermented food made from either cassava, white rice or glutinous rice.

Back then, the tempeh and tapai was sold at only 5 cents per packet. He used his tricycle and an umbrella to set up his stall. Well-known restaurants which are still present today, like Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant at Arab Street, used to order his tempeh to be used in cooking their own dishes. Everything about the tempeh was homemade – from the production to the wrapping. The leaves that were used to wrap the tempeh were plucked from local gardens. The string used to tie the tempeh packaging was originally weeds which have been plucked from the garden. The older generation truly had such innovative methods to sell their authentic produce. Their creative and ingenious ideas when it comes to food never fails to leave me in awe. My great grandmother and my father’s aunts would all chip in to help, igniting the ‘gotong-royong’ spirit prevalent back in the kampong days.

Soon, however, he was forced to relocate his stall to the new Tekka Market, now known as The Verge. The old Tekka Market was demolished to make way for roads and construction. Today, my great grandfather’s stall is no longer the makeshift tricycle-and-umbrella stall it once was – it is now a stall in a hawker centre, taken over by one of my great grandfather’s daughters, selling noodles and chicken rice. Unfortunately, the tempeh business that my great grandfather established during his early years in Singapore was discontinued.

Not much was remembered of my great grandfather, other than the fact that he had made a living out of selling one of the most delectable food Indonesia has to offer. The art of making tempeh may be lost along the line of generations, but the love for this fermented soybean goodness within the family remains.

Appreciating My Ancestors’ Contribution

How Their History Shaped Me

Learning more about the history of my Javanese ancestry and the national affairs which occurred simultaneously, making an impact on their stories, has made me more cognizant of history continuously being shaped. It made me realize how all of history is about cause and consequences. The present will not be the way it is if not for events that happened in the past.

Values such as diligence, resilience, perseverance, determination, patience, graciousness, creativity and steadfastness as evident in my ancestors’ character and decisions they have made in their lifetime, have made me grateful and proud to be who I am, and what our country stands for today.

I have only just noticed in detail, after intently observing my grandfather’s and great grandfather’s photographs, the creases on their faces that have aged like weathered leather and a look of uncertainty in their eyes which shows as they pose in front of a building or at home, seemingly unsure of the future. But one thing is for sure – the resilience and diligence displayed in their life stories, as recounted by my father and my aunt, is a legacy they both unknowingly left behind for the generations to come.


PS: Thought I’d post this 2K-word history assignment we had to conjure in the midst of other deadlines last week over here. Not satisfied with it but it’s the least I could manage. Didn’t intend it to turn out like a memoir but I couldn’t write a family history without a personal voice (?) All of history is a matter of perspective anyway. Nevertheless, fascinating piece of assignment where I had the chance to sit down with my dad and my aunt, unearth old artefacts, followed a trip down memory lane and learnt more about my history, my family, my identity.

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