In 1959, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited Singapore for the first time.
Our national anthem then was God Save The Queen, so the occasion was a real biggie.
Here was her majesty’s hubby, docking by Collyer Quay in their royal yacht Britannia, met by Governor Sir William Goode, received by Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock, banqueted in Victoria Memorial Hall (yes, you could dine in there once) and feted in Government House (since upgraded to The Istana).
I was a primary schooler in St Margaret’s, a C of E mission school (Church of England) up the hill on Sophia Road. Across the quiet shady road from our school, was a small gate into the grounds of Government House. The British sense of fair play meant there was no tight-bummed security minding the short-cut through to Orchard Road. No story here, just a nugget of trivia.
St Margaret’s would be sending two schoolgirls to join the welcoming committee; flanks of flag-waving schoolchildren.
What can I tell’ya. For better or worse luck, I was one of the chosen two.
Came the morning of my meet-and-cheer duty, it took me all of 59 seconds to decide that my body would benefit more from a further lie-in, rather than bake under the sun holding up some tiny banner.
I gave myself a “bank holiday” as the Brits call it, and rolled over in sleep.
(Hullo, we did not have a telephone back then, so the school could not have called.)
The very next morning at our desks, the class teacher motioned me to stand up.
Miss Horne, a gentlewoman from England, did not take a deep breath. I know, because her upper lip did not move. Her lower lip however, quivered. From whither she fired a slew of arrows, each one cutting me to the quick.
Recollections may vary (ahem) but I cannot recall a single word, much less a phrase, that she hurled at me in caustic fury. I know only that her choice words were even, measured, designed to turn my fat cheeks a deep scarlet.
On hindsight, hers was heightened sarcasm of the order of the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Downton Abbey). Example: “Does it ever get cold in your moral high ground?”
Suffice to note, I looked like an owl after having behaved like an ass.
The twin good that came out of the above?
My love for the English language which subsequently begat my love for Singlish. Upon which half my reputation and half my career are stood.
Miss Horne may likely have used “cavalier attitude” while I would have pleaded “bo chap”.
Nothing says “could care less”, “don’t give a rat’s rear”, “do not disturb”, “it’ll be a cold day in hell first”, “jog on”, better than the Singlish “bo chap”.
Pointedly succinct, there is no finer line to convey the degree to which you care.
Seven years after, and a change in national anthems: Majulah Singapura rang out loud and clear across the Padang. Singapore had gained its independence in 1965 and celebrated its first National Day with a Parade, in 1966.
My father worked in the Department of Social Welfare, and then People’s Association. They built the early Community Centres, in Serangoon, Siglap and Tiong Bahru.
He had a ticket for Singapore’s first National Day Parade and gave it to my brother.
(Me? Graduated with an MBA in bo chap-ness.)
Number One Son came home earlyish, sheepishly told our father security would not let him in on the Padang because he was in slippers. What you guys call flip-flops we knew as Japanese slippers.
Father was the mildest kindest funniest man in Penang and Singapore (Batam was not a thing yet).
He was apoplectic with rage, he could neither believe not accept that his son went to the parade in slippers! Something you wore at home! Brother got the shellacking of his life, for having disgraced us all, not respecting the nation, and so on.
I had passed the bo chap baton.
At this juncture I must tell you my mother, a staff nurse with Singapore General Hospital, did have audience with Prince Philip, as a contingent of SGH’s starched uniforms and caps were invited to Government House to greet the Duke.
My story does not end there. In the 1990s I was a fixture at the annual Cannes Film Festival in the south of France. Some go for film screenings, others to score party invites, and me, I collected celebrity autographs.
An Asian movie maker I’d met there caught me, “Hey, you wanna race to the Croisette Hotel, go to room 260, there’s a new actor and he’s waiting to be interviewed, so far nobody, so go now.”
I squinted at the Mediterranean sun, calculated what a scorcher of a walk from where we were in the media centre to the hotel — and not even a top one at that — and bo chap kicked in.
Don’t want lah, so hot, can’t be a big deal.
He did become a very big deal the following years in Cannes, larger than life-size cut-outs of Jean Claude Van Damme fronted the leading hotel of the festival.
I was not invited onto the Muscles of Brussels’ yacht.