Meet “Puan”, 89, who is the grand matriarch of my wife’s family.
The mother of 12, (my late mother-in-law was number 2), she has seen our country go through life as a British colony, endure hard times during the Japanese occupation, find some stability as an independent agricultural nation and now as an industrialized country.
The family photo was taken …circa 1950. Two of the boys passed away when they were young, so they are not in the picture. (My late mother in law is 2nd from right).
She was born in a village in Malacca, the historical state which saw the arrival of the original Dutch and Portuguese settlers and colonials and also the arrival of the Chinese Admiral, Cheng Ho. (My history is a little rusty now.)
Not so rusty is Puan’s memory. She can vividly remember her younger days.
She got married at 18, to “Atuk” (our late grandpa. Atuk is the Malay word for grandpa), who was then only 17. She did not go to school. She says that, then, the village wisdom was that if a girl went to school, they would be “spoiled” by the boys.
Atuk worked as a plantation worker, but his father, had had the foresight to send him to an English school. They lived in a simple wooden kampong (village) house. There was no electricity or piped water.
Atuk applied for jobs and finally got selected as a customs “officer”, based in Singapore. (It was then part of Malaysia). Puan attributes this to his “English” education.
There they lived in the Customs quarters. She always returned back to the village when the time came for the delivery of the children. None of the 12 were born in hospitals, rather all were delivered by the village midwife.
Atuk would give his entire pay packet to Puan, whose job was to make sure everything was paid for. Food, Atuk’s motorbike’s running expenses, clothes, savings, etc…..was left to the agile financial management of this “unschooled” lady.
And she did a great job.
She credits careful comparison of prices, budgeting, (I am not sure when she heard this term for the first time in her life), savings and working hard at growing her own vegetables, raising chickens for eggs and meat etc as the secrets to her success.
Her budget system was simple. The amount was fixed. There were no credit cards, or loans to fall back on. Either we live within this or we don’t eat or wear new clothes. That was the mantra. My wife’s uncles, quite hunky fellows, would have eaten her out of house and home, if given the opportunity.
She says, one thing that helped a lot, was that Atuk never complained about what ever was put on the table to eat. He would eat anything that she served, so it was pure budgetary constraints that decided on the type of food they ate.
All her children, except two, grew up in Singapore. For financial reasons, the eldest two were brought up by her sister in Malacca.
Overtime, Atuk got promoted and his salary increased. Puan just saved more. No cars, no bigger house.
Her first investment was in a piece of land. Back then, in the village, it was universally accepted that land was the best investment. She bought it because of a dare, she says. Her neighbour, had made a remark about Puan’s poor state, that she did not “even have a piece of land” to call her own.
This land purchase took off well. She worked the land. All my uncles have stories to tell their children, nephews and nieces about how hard and tiring it was to tap rubber. Puan made sure no one got off. The aunts have stories about how they brought food to their brothers as they worked on the land.
Income from rubber further added to the family coffers. Then it was buying more land, including a piece of padi land on which padi was grown to eat and to sell.
When Atuk retired, he returned to the village. The only luxury he gave himself with his retirement gratuity was expanding the wooden house. It was in this house that my wife’s “meminang” (my family asking for my wife’s hand on my behalf) ceremony was held. Atuk presided at the ceremony.
Puan is also the family’s “advisor of last resort”. If you ask her about family issues and not about trigonometry, you can be sure that Puan will have a logical and suitable answer to your questions.
Our first two children were born in hospitals. But the post natal care was in the “house” under the eagle eyes of Puan. My wife was treated to the finest folk remedies, age old wisdom could offer.
How to treat or bring up children? No problem!
The child has jaundice, no problem, just sun her. My eldest girl, Along, was sunned no end.
How do we punish a child? No problem, you make sure that this is done when the “convicted child” is beside the dining table. Then you cane him. Ten loud and hard whacks on the chair legs and one slight tap on his legs. The intensity of the whole incident should be punishment enough.
Now almost all her children are grandparents themselves.
She is a sterling example of what careful budgeting and spending within your means can do. She is also a reservoir of folk remedies, which are used even today by her grandchildren.
Puan’s story may not be in our school history books. But my wife’s family’s history is made greatly richer by her.
Thank you, Puan.