Psst … guess who dropped in today?

28 01 2010

When I was growing up in Toa Payoh, my family had the privilege of receiving some rather important visitors to our humble 3-room flat. We were living on the top floor of a block of flats that the Housing and Development Board (HDB) built intentionally with a viewing gallery on the roof to provide visiting dignitaries with a vantage point from which the latest public housing project, Toa Payoh New Town, the pride of the HDB’s resoundingly successful public housing programme, could be better appreciated. This, together with the advantage that both my parents had, that given the general view that being teachers, they would have a better command of English than our neighbours on the same floor would have, and living in the flat that closest to the lift landing, had its benefits: the HDB would usually have our flat in mind when there was a need to provide the dignitaries with a view of how the typical dwelling looked like.

So it was with that, that we received out first VIP visitors not long after moving in, in June 1968 – John Gorton, the then Prime Minister of Australia and his family. I guess I was too young to really understand what the fuss was all about and all I can really remember is that towering hulk of a man from Australia who had come by and had given me with a gold-coloured tie-pin which had a figure of a kangaroo on it. I also remember that following the visit, I had somehow developed the fascination that I had with kangaroos as a child.

Photograph and newspaper cutting of John Gorton's Visit, June 1968

The most notable visitor we had was none other than HM Queen Elizabeth II, who dropped in on the afternoon of 18 February 1972. It was an occasion that deserved quite a fair bit of preparation, and there were several interviews and briefings before on areas such as security and protocol. It was for us an occasion that called for a makeover to be given to the flat. My parents had the flat renovated and terrazzo tiles tinged with green, white and black replaced our original black and white mosaic flooring. Outside, the area below the block of flats had been spruced up by the HDB for the occasion – pots of flowering plants lined the area where the Queen’s car would be driven up to, as well as the corridor leading up to the lift and the lift landing on the top floor. The block of flats had also had in the meantime, been given a fresh coat of paint. The lift cabin was done up very nicely as well, which was a welcome change from the rather tired and dirty looking interior it wore after five years of service.

It was an occasion that I had kept from my classmates in school – not that I would be missed. The schoolboys in the afternoon session, which I was in, were to be distracted, having been tasked to line the sides of Thomson Road to wave flags, where the motorcade that was to carry the Queen was to pass that afternoon. I was certainly happy for the opportunity to skip school, but maybe a little disappointed that I would not get my hands on the miniature Union Jacks my classmate were to be given – a favourite flag of mine back then.

When the Queen finally arrived at our flat that afternoon, I was caught somewhat unawares. I had decided to sit down before she arrived and while daydreaming – which I was fond of doing, Her Majesty had appeared at the doorway, and I was seen on the evening’s news scrambling to my feet!

Scrambling to my feet at the arrival of the Queen.

Shaking hands with the Queen.

HRH Princess Anne during the visit.

The Queen at the Viewing Gallery on the roof of Block 53 Toa Payoh

One thing I avoided doing immediately after the visit was to wash my hands. A neighbour had told me that I shouldn’t wash my hands that day, as I would wash my luck away, having shaken hands with the Queen. The Queen also made her way to the block of flats behind, where she had visited the flat of another family. A neighbour from the 17th floor, Ranu, related how there were crowds of people who gathered in the car park separating the two blocks of flats, hoping for a glance at the Queen, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Princess Anne. Ranu also related how she had shouted “Long Live the Queen” at the top of her voice, along with the crowds.

Prince Phillip and Princess Anne among the crowds

Going to school the following day, the driver of the minibus I took to school, was quick to shake my hand having witnessed the events on TV the previous evening – he had wanted to shake the hand of someone who had shaken hands with the Queen. I remember him saying to me: “no wonder you ponteng school lah”, ponteng being a colloquial word used to describe playing truant, from the Malay word meaning the same.

Somehow, from the evidence of the photographs I have, the kitchen seemed to be the focal point of the visitors, perhaps because it was probably the most spacious part of the flat – unlike the kitchens of HDB flats that were built later, or perhaps it was because of the excellent view we had looking south towards the Kallang area, being on what was the tallest block of flats around.

The kitchen during the Queen's visit.

The kitchen during Sir William Goode's visit - the man on the extreme left is the late Teh Cheang Wan, the then Chairman of the HDB, who later served as the Minister of National Development.

Over the few years until 1973, when a new and taller “VIP block” was built in Toa Payoh Central, part of housing built to initially house athletes participating in the 7th South-East Asian Peninsula (SEAP) Games (which Singapore hosted for the first time that year) before being sold to the public, we saw a few other notable visitors. The visitors included President Benjamin Henry Sheares, Singapore’s second President, as well as Sir Willaim Goode, a former Governor General of the colony of Singapore who served as the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore when Singapore was granted self-government in 1959.

President Sheares saying hello to my sister, June 1971