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Book Of The Week: Son of Singapore

Those who were in school in the late 1970s or early 1980s may have been asked by their teachers to read Son of Singapore, the novel by Tan Kok Seng, as part of their literature curriculum in school. 

WHAT’S THE BOOK ABOUT? It's an autobiography that covers the early half of Kok Seng's life and is the first book in a trilogy.

It traces his time growing up in Singapore, having to leave school after Primary 6 to help work on the family farm, getting an "upscale" job as a coolie in Orchard Road (it wasn't always a super-glam shopping district, you know) and finally moving to Malaysia to become a driver for a British diplomat called Austin Coates. 

First published in 1972, Son of Singapore was a hit and received rave reviews. Kok Seng, who was 33 then, was even celebrated as one of the Men of the Year by the New Nation newspaper. These days, Son of Singapore is considered a classic that reflects the pioneering spirit of the times. 

HOW DID A COOLIE BECOME AN AUTHOR? Just before the book was published, Kok Seng was, by this time, working as Coates' assistant in Hong Kong. Each night, he would write down his experiences or anecdotes about his life in a journal. 

Kok Seng did not intend to publish an autobiography – he originally only wanted to write his life for his children. However, Coates saw what he was doing and helped him translate his journal entries into English.

These later became the narrative that would be Son of Singapore, and the sequels Man of Malaysia and Eye on the World.

THE SECTION IN THE BOOK WHERE YOU GO "WAH": "I worked six-and-a-half days a week, and the hours were long, 6am to 10pm or 11pm each day except Sunday, when I finished around 1.30pm... But I felt it was a happy and lucky time for me, to have such a job as this, to train me to be strong and tough. I doubt if many boys of 15 today would think in the same way as I did then. Today, they would think I was being driven like an ox or horse."

Inspiring stuff, indeed!

And don't forget, you can get the book here.

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