Sunday, April 01, 2012

iremember my childhood: Being caned by my father

For the Singapore Memory Project. I guess it's really for myself:

(Original Twitter sequence has been edited slightly)
"@ramblinglib: As a kid, being canned by pa almost every day. For slightest thing. Didn't know why but resolved not to show emotions #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: The caning was so bad I had obvious welt marks. One day in Pri Sch a nurse asked how I got it. I kept quiet #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: In pri sch, when pa came home I'd pretend to be asleep. So that he won't have any excuse to cane me #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: After some time, my strategy was to remain still & let pa cane me. I discovered in doing so, he relented faster #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: One time the caning got so bad I imagined myself going to the tallest block in AMK and jumping #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: Obviously I didn't jump. My left brain got the better of my right #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: I remember being scorned by pa as a kid. He said I was fat and lazy. That hurt. #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: As a teen, I refused to speak to my pa unless i had to. I started to defy & rebel in silent ways #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: Strangely my pa mellowed & took in all my teen defiance with stride. He took it in & gave me space #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: After NS I asked my pa if we had money to send me to study overseas. He asked how much. I told him. He said don't have that money #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: Pa asked if there was another way. I told him how much for local external degree. He wrote me the cheque immediately #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: In spite of being canned by pa & hating him then, one thing he never did was abandon his family responsibilities. Thanks pa #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: Decades later, after i got married, my pa said sorry. Said he also didn't know why he took out his anger on me #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: The day I saw my pa lying in the hospital bed, after a stroke, was the day I couldn't hate him anymore #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: My pa He's now 77 #sgMemory”

“@ramblinglib: My pa will probably never get to read these tweets. I'll never have courage to say it to him F2F. This is my catharsis #sgMemory”

Full story:
I suppose it was this tweet that made me remember a particular childhood episode, when I was around 10 years old. Remembering about my father and a period where he seemed to viciously cane me for the slightest reason.

My father used the thin rattan cane (the defacto tool of corporal discipline Asian parents used at that generation). It wasn't just "tough parental love", for the frequency of me being caned was almost daily. My younger brother and sister were spared mostly, I recalled.

I can't remember how long that caning went. I'm not sure when it stopped. I still recall pretending to be asleep when I heard my father come home. So that he won't find an excuse to cane me.

The caning was serious enough to break skin, result in bleeding and noticeable welts. Bad enough that my mum had to apply some ointment to cover up the broken skin. I would go to school with visible cane marks.

When I was 10, my father was in his 40s (he was considered to have married late, for his generation). My father was a strong man. And it didn't help that I was an emotionally sensitive child. At 10 years old, I once even thought of ending my life just to spite him.

My father seemed to have focused his anger on me. I was not naughty as a child at all. I attended school, came straight home, did my homework, never talked back to my elders (kids my generation were spoken of, but not spoken to). OK I cant say I was a perfect child, but I was far from being a bad one.

In truth, my father was not a cruel man. He was generous to his friends, our neighbours, and our relatives. Maybe that was why it hurt me, in more than the physical sense. The 10 year old me never understood why he couldn't be generous and forgiving to his own firstborn.

There were negative consequences, in that I deliberately became a very morose and serious child. I remember "experimenting" with not saying anything to my father for days. Days became weeks. And then it became natural.

In my teenage years, that refusal to talk to my father (other than functional statements) became little rebellious acts. Part of it was the teen angst and the onset of hormonal changes. One time, it occured to me why young lions were chased out of the pride. They would otherwise kill the top male lion, their sire, because there was no room to maneuvour.

My father and I didn't have a destructive relationship but we were never close. I knew he tried to be better towards me, and there was an episode where I was very gateful to him for supporting my contiuning education. But even so, my feelings towards him never quite swung completely towards the good. There was always that shadow of resentment.

It took decades before those childhood scars could truly start healing. One poignant point was when my father said something close to an apology for that childhood caning episode. A self-admission.

I was with my wife and my parents, at a hawker centre eating desserts. My parents were in their 60s by then. I had moved out of my parent's apartment after getting married. It was a home visit with my wife.

We talked about how some things had changed, or remained the same, in the neighbourhood. My father started sharing, with my wife, how I was as a child: that I liked to draw and read. He remembered that I was a good boy, even as a toddler.

Out of the blue, he said how at one point he would come home and cane me for any reason. He was not sure why he was that angry. A part of him knew he had been too harsh. And yet he could not stop himself and he continued to take his anger out on me. He recalled not caning me only when he saw me asleep (when I heard that, I had goosebumps -- and I also secretly congratulated myself for displaying some smarts as a 10 year old).

With his relevation, or confession even, there came an awkward pause.

There was my father, sounding apologetic. All my life, I've not seen that side of him. I looked at my wife. I looked anywhere except at my father. I said nothing then, or after.

I guess this is my way of saying it now.

P.S. Perhaps to you reading this, I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. Strange that I cannot speak of this with my father now. All I can say is that the resentment has been real for much of my life.

It's not so traumatic that I can't talk about it. I just can't talk to my father of it. Or won't. In truth, there is cowardice and irrational fear at work. I fear that I would cry, and he would cry. Or maybe it all doesn't matter now, and I'm merely post this to share a (good) story.

Whatever it is, it's been enough that I know my father knows. And vice versa. That's as good as I wish for things to be.

iremember my childhood #sgmemory

iremember my childhood #sgMemory


  1. wow. thanks for sharing :)

  2. I am so sorry you had to go through this. It is so brave of you to share this story and I had to talk about it on my blog and I hope more people get to read it. You captured how a child feels at that moment so well, it even brings back all the self doubt and angst I felt as a child. I am so glad I was a girl, as I think boys got it a whole lot worse...especially in the old days.

  3. Your experience is similar to mine! Even today at this moment he is 75 yrs and my mum is 70 yrs we hardly talk to him - only functional stmts! U see he got the habit to 'ambush' our conversation when we talk to him. He will attack us by belittling or demeaning our weak points. So when talking to him we got to be guarded and careful making sure there is no area or weakness for him to attack. Just like those politicians in parliament having debates looking for each other's weak points. Is that the way to treat your loved ones? But he is extrembly courteous and over generous to outsiders! He can be mean and very selfish with no feelings for his own family. In my next life I dont want this sort of character to be my father. I will nvr treat my son like that!
    You are not alone. At least your old man realized his folly. Mine still the same. He will go to the grave still the same! So when I heard old folks complaining abt their children not filial it may be more to it. I'm one of those accused by him to be!

  4. Hello everyone! Thanks for reading and commenting. As I commented in bookjunkie's post, while I felt hurt, I never thought my life was in any danger as a child. By today's standard, the punishment I received from my father was harsh but I know some kids of my generation faced worse. I do not think my father was abusive. Quick to anger for a time, certainly. But abusive to me, not really. My father was perhaps like many men of this time: unable to express their feelings and the only time the show it was in times of anger. My father must also have faced a period of uncertainty and anxiety in his life.

  5. I think it was the times. There was so much done in the 70's that is shocking today. My parents saw no harm in making me drink coffee since 5 to keep awake ;-) and yeah we had no seatbelts too.

    Sometimes I wonder if the parent is harshest on the child they care about the most? Or the one in whom they see themselves.

    I see your dad's attempt at the apology as very moving.

    This post bring back memories of my classmate who scored 91 for his math paper in primary school and started sobbing. When we asked him why he said he was afraid to go home because he would be caned for not getting full marks. He was thinking of running away from home.

    Just wanted to say you have the coolest job ever. I always wanted to be a writer and a librarian. Is it true that you are surrounded by books everyday?

    1. Hmm, who knows why he was harsh on me? I suspect my dad could have wanted me to be more, and when he saw that I didn't that might have frustrated him. Or he saw himself in me and hated it? LOL, so many possible reasons. My father would know (if he remembers) but he can't communicate that well now. Stroke and all that. It might be painful for him to recall this.

      Haha, I have the coolest job? Thanks. No, I am not surrounded by books everyday. If I were, it meant the office is right smack in the middle of the reading room. Actually I'm more of an administrator in my current capacity.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I find it admirable that your father would later say good things about you and come close to an apology, and that you can be magnanimous towards him.

    Just wondering - it's ok if you don't answer: Would you say you have 看开 (don't know the English equivalent!) your relationship with your father? I ask because I'm recently grappling with difficult sentiments towards my parents, one of whom I have not seen in years.

    1. Hello mf, sure I'd be happy to answer. The answer is most certainly yes. I have learned to let go over the years. It took time but age and growing older does help, LOL. I remember the first instance towards letting go of the knot in my heart was when my father readily supported my taking up a degree. I think we tend to take parental support for granted, but at that time I was quite prepared that maybe we didn't have that sort of money. I'm pretty sure it was a big chunk of his savings (we weren't poor but not rich either) and that was when I realised it was time to move on. And when my dad suffered a stroke, it finally struck me that the knot in my heart is there only if I choose for it to be so. :)

  7. Ollie2:30 pm

    Ivan, this post has got to be your most poignant ever. It certainly touched me and I thank you for having the courage to share this part of your life with us. And isn't it wonderful how when someone does "break the ice," others feel emboldened to come forward and share their experiences - and then a marvelous thing happens: we feel, at least for awhile, a little less alone in the world. When I was a kid, mum was quick to use her hands and it seemed that not a week passed without her slapping or yelling at me for something. I'm the older brother and bore the bulk of her abuse; younger brother was seldom struck. After I'd gone to care for her during the last two years of her life, mum apologized. "I think I may have abused you when you were little," she said, tears in her eyes. "And I want you to know that I regret that and that I'm sorry." What do you say to a parent in this situation? "Well, mom," I said laughingly, "I seemed to have turned out okay and here we are together sharing your last days, so it couldn't have hurt me too much." She was noticeably relieved - and died peacefully in my arms six months later. But what I didn't tell her was that long after the physical hurt had disappeared, the emotional hurt remained - and remains to this day. I mention this, Ivan, because maybe your father needs you to forgive him but doesn't know how to ask for your forgiveness. And so what if you both cry? Wouldn't crying be an indicator of release for both of you? (BTW, if you've ever wondered why I'm such a big fan of QQ and always will be, it's because she happened to write to me while I was caring for my mother to say that she hadn't seen me at the library lately - you'll recall that I worked there almost every day - and to let me know that she'd be glad to help me with library services should I need them. I'd just endured a very ugly "divorce Singapore style," the death of my father, the death of my best friend (age 55, small-cell lung cancer), and was trying to cope with my mother's imminent passing - and here was someone writing from Singapore, a country I still love, to say that she'd noticed my absence and for me to let her know if she could help with my research! (Of course, I have to admit that I adored her even before this act of kindness, but that, I think, is beside the point . . .) Thanks again, Ivan.

    1. That's quite a story too. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks for sharing this. I had a similar relationship with my dad... But one day as I sought to understand the world and in the process of healing from my 2 year long sickness, I realized that my father loved me but he probably didn't know how best to. I wonder if I vent on my kids sometimes when I scold them. Mindfulness and understanding is the key... Very touching post dude.

    1. Thanks man :) It surprises me that many people have shared emotional experiences. I was glad to have decided to share my inner most thoughts of me and my father. Like you, I agree my father did what he did, because it was what he knew or maybe what his generation didn't know. Hmm, good point about successful parenting being about mindfulness :)

  9. The Naked Librarian7:23 pm

    Man, you sure know how to open it, RL. Letting go is cool. That's you finding that inner peace. Like Ollie said - perhaps peace need to be given as well.

  10. Moved. Full of love, compassion and honesty. But best of all, healing.

    I always knew you were emotionally sensitive!

    Btw, pls get on to your bicycling tips. Will follow and learn. Ride safely.

  11. Being a father of a 2 year old, and another one on-the-way, it's really scary to learn what sort of father I'll be.

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. thank you for your tale. it seems there is similarly to this story that many of us bear. The daily abuse, whether the screaming of the physical punishment that really served not much purpose other than to let a parent discharge anger at life that they did not know how to manage. And the senselessness of these acts to our child self. I used to hide in the laundry basket of my aunts house hoping to not be found so that I would not have to go home to be beaten and shamed verbally. Your tale brought tears to my eyes- in the comaradeship with you and others that have had this experience and a sense of deep sadness that these are not isolated incidents, a generation of us had such experiences.


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