I kid you not when I say my first trip to Singapore was by boat. With that, however, I didn't mean a million-dollar big boy toy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It was an old tongkang (junk) with a faded tarpaulin cover - a true junk in more ways than one. It was rickety and flimsy, but outfitted with a motor.
With a vessel as such, my entry was decidedly inconspicuous. To my credit (and eternal regret!), however, I didn't enter Singapore furtively under the cover of night.
Definitely no rendezvous with shifty-eyed tekongs (boatmen) in the middle of Johore Straits, a la contraband smugglers. If only life was that adventurous!
Instead, I had one of those boring 24-hour immigration passes distributed quite freely then, giving me the freedom to sightsee, shop and litter the streets of Singapore with equanimity (this was well before Lion City became a 'fine' destination).
I was then 17 and a boarder in Sekolah Tun Fatimah, Johore Baru. It was the school holidays (can't recall which term), one of the few that I spent with my mother, stepfather and their children.
Because I was raised by grandparents, my relationship with Mak and her brood was, at best, distant. So, schooling in JB was the perfect way (at least to Grandma) for me to get to know my step-siblings better.
My late stepfather, a miner all his life, was then working in a bauxite mine located in Teluk Ramunia in the district of Pengerang, Johore.
The family relocated to Pengerang in the late 1960s when the iron mine in Bukit Besi, Terengganu, Bapak's last place of work, ceased operations.
The easiest way to get to Pengerang from Johor Baru at that time was also by boat, skimming the shores all the way from Tanjung Puteri, our point of embarkation, to Kampung Sungei Rengit, where Mak and family lived.
If my memory served me correctly, it was a two-hour boat ride from Tanjung Puteri to Kg Sungei Rengit. There were quite a few roads going Pengerang way but the overland route was deemed unsafe for a young woman travelling alone.
Not only were the roads twisting and turning across some remote corners of south-east Johore, the journey was also twice as long compared to sea travel.
For someone prone to travel sickness, puking away into Johore Straits in a two-hour boat ride was a far better alternative than continuously emptying one's guts into a plastic bag in a five-hour bus trip.
It took only 45 minutes by boat from Sungei Rengit to the south-eastern shores of Singapore. I remember the shopping centre we headed for immediately after getting off the boat. It was called Rochor Centre.
For a teenage kampung girl whose shopping till then was pitifully limited to Kedai Payang marketplace in Kuala Terengganu, Rochor Centre was heaven on earth. There were far too many things to contemplate and too little money to spend.
Nonetheless, I was happy as a lark to step foot on Singapore soil, even if my mode of arrival varied very little from that of an Indo-Chinese refugee. I had made it to Singapore!
To my simple mind, being in Singapore meant I had successfully scaled the heights of sophistication. Finally, I had that something extra to crow about to my bucolic peers back home in Terengganu. I had been to Singapore; I had 'arrived'.
Thoughts of those long-ago days crossed my mind when I was in Singapore recently. From the comfort of my 4th floor hotel room with its five-star amenities, superb view and first-class service, my mind couldn't help but wander to 1971.
I could almost feel the young girl's excitement, hand clutching her purse tightly, safe in the knowledge that in the worn purse were some Singapore dollars courtesy of her mother.
My emotion was like a roller-coaster as I recalled how the girl deliberated, long and hard, on how to stretch those dollars to make her Singapore trip worth her while.
Just as the girl has turned into a middle-aged mak cik (aunt), Singapore too has changed. Its vibrancy seemed somewhat muted, its people less harried.
Today's Singapore is also sanitizingly clean and one couldn't quite shake off the "Big Brother Is Watching You!" feeling.
Be that as it may, I enjoyed myself revisiting Singapore, in the way that an old couple enjoy the quiet company of each other..