Pg 1



Turning points in my life most cherished


Chapter 1.  My Humble Beginning

I was born into a humble and modest family in a kampong near Muar on 6th November 1939 (on paper) in the year of the Rabbit. I was the last child of a migrant family.


My parents emigrated from Xin Sheng Village in Fujian Province, China in the early 1920s. They already had a son and a daughter when they left the village and set off on a voyage to “Nan Yang”, the South Sea. I learnt from my cousin when I visited my ancestral home in March 2007 that my parents and other members of the family left China because their farm in the village was too small to sustain a big family. Also my father was good with his hands and was not too keen to be a farmer. He became a village cobbler to supplement the family’s income. When he first landed in Singapore he also started work along five-foot ways as a cobbler. He then moved north into Johor and continued to work as an itinerant cobbler moving from town to town but finally settled down in Muar.


But when I was born, my father was no longer a cobbler and he and his family then lived in the kampong where they worked as rubber tappers and tilled the land as farmers. How did my father and the family manage to acquire small rubber and coconut holdings when, with his meager income as a cobbler and with many mouths to feed, he was just living from hand to mouth? Till today it is a stimulating story.


As a cobbler, my father’s job was to polish and mend leather shoes on five-foot ways along the busy streets in town. A Chettiar often had his shoes polished by my father. One day this Chettiar gave my father a ten-dollar note (a big sum of money then) to pay for a twenty-cent shoe shine. Of course my father did not have enough then to pay him the balance but the Chettiar asked my father to give him the change when he had enough. A few days later when my father had earned enough, he went to the Chettiar’s shop and returned the nine dollars and eighty cents change! The Chettiar was very pleased with my father’s honesty and to get his money back. From then on a bond of trust and friendship developed between the two of them.


In the early 1930s the Chettiar, who came from Tamil Nadu, India settled down in many parts of Malaya. Many of them opened shops in towns and became licensed money lenders. As a security for loans, the borrowers had to hand over the titles of their landed properties including the execution of all the necessary transfer documentation. If a borrower failed to repay the loan with accrued interests within the specified period, the transfer of the landed property would be executed.


Over the years the Chettiar had acquired many of these properties, mainly small plots of land in kampongs and villages. Some of these were planted with rubber trees and some with coconut trees. But the Chettiar were not farmers and they had to look for other people to work to upkeep the land and to generate some income. As my father had become a trusted friend of a Chettiar, he was offered the lease of one piece of land of four acres in Kampong Sabah Awor, about three kilometers from the town and planted with rubber trees. My father had no hesitation in accepting the lease as some of his children were in their teens and they had to find work to earn their keep. They all settled down in the rubber plantation and became rubber tappers. But tapping rubber trees was only carried out early in the morning and by noon all work would be over, including the collecting of latex, coagulating of the latex and pressing the coagulated latex into sheets to dry. Also if there was rain at night, no tapping would be done the morning after. With the spare time available, my father and his family (particularly my mother who was the most hardworking amongst them, as she also came from a farming community in China and looked forward to contribute her share to the family) started to rear chicken, pigs and farmed vegetables and fruits for their own consumption and for sale.


Soon, other Chettiar in town knew about the performance of my father and his family and they leased more land to the family. To get additional hands to work, my father invited other families to settle down on the land he leased from the Chettiar and offered them to work as rubber tappers and coconut harvesters.


In the late 1930s and during the Second World War, many Chettiar returned to India for good. When they wanted to dispose of their properties they had no problem in finding a willing buyer. So with honesty and trust, my father and his family were awarded with the opportunity to acquire some pieces of land in and around the kampong. And I was lucky to be born during that period when there was no lack of shelter and food.


Chapter 2.  My Name


手拍 手,拍   手,球 球,拍 球。

The small kampong where I was born was located about three kilometres from Bandar Maharani, a town located along the left bank of the Muar River, near its estuary on the west cost of the State of Johor. The kampong was called Kg. Sabak Awor and the residents were a mix of Malays and Chinese. Though Bandar Maharani is the official name of the town, it is more commonly called Muar or “ .

Though my birth date as stated in my birth certificate is 6th November 1939, I could have been born a few days earlier because when my birth was reported by my father at the Muar Police Station it might have been a few days later, and my father might have forgotten the actual date. Also Chinese families then only used the Chinese Lunar calendar, which would not be easy to correlate with the commonly used Gregorian calendar.


In my birth certificate, my name is Toh Ki Seng ( ).  The last name of all the male siblings in my family is Seng. But why I have been known since the day I went to school as Toh Ah See?


I was born when my mother was 42 years old and it was her 12th birth. I had six other siblings – three brothers and three sisters. Out of the five births unaccounted for, four did not survive at birth or soon after birth as there was no maternity clinic or nurse in those days to render any assistance during deliveries. One girl who was born two years before me was given for adoption.


A couple of years after my birth, my mother was still barren and did not show any sign that another child had been conceived. It was unusual because since her marriage at the age of eighteen, she would on average conceive a child at a regular interval of not more than two years. So I was perceived as the last child in the family. The Malays in the Kampong called me “anak bongsu” or “bongsu”, the last child. So all members of my family called me “Ah Su” and this has been the nickname that has stuck with me all my life.


At the end of the Japanese occupation of Malaya in 1945, a Chinese primary school (Sin Hua) was established by the Chinese community near our kampong. My father brought me to the school and registered me as a student under the name Ah Su. It was written by the teacher as “ ”, “Ya Xu” in Mandarin, but was translated into “Ah See” in English. So when I started secondary school in at a private English school in 1951, I became known as “Ah See” ever since.


Subsequently, when I had to apply for any official documents, such as my citizenship and IC where I needed to produce my birth certificate, I had to obtain statutory declarations that “Toh Ah See” was also known as “Toh Ki Seng”. Luckily, under the colonial administration, this was a simple procedure. Now in all my official documents, my name is written as Toh Ah See @ Toh Ki Seng. But to simplify my name, A S Toh is now more commonly used. But in Chinese, I now write my name as “ ” (Ya Shi), “Refined Official” in English.


All my brothers also have nicknames but their registered names were used in all their official documents. However, all my sisters are known only by their nicknames.


That’s not all about my name. When I was young I had to wear singlets under my shirt to avoid catching a cold. That was no problem because my mother would do all the laundry for me. But when I came to KL in 1959 for my A-Levels, I had to take care of my laundry myself. To save some expenses from the pittance I received from home, I tried to limit the pieces of clothing I had to send to the laundry each week. So I had to wear my undergarments as many days as possible, particularly my singlets. To do that, what I did was after a couple of days of wearing the newly-washed undergarments; I would reverse them and wear them for another day or two more! And I continued doing that when I was studying at the University of Malaya from 1961 to 1965. All my housemates and roommates in those years knew about my practice and I acquired another nickname, “Toh Peng” or “inside-out” or “upside-down”!



What's in a name?  That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)


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