On the way to Hedwig Anuar’s house, the cabbie got lost. I told him where I wanted to go and even showed him the address, but he couldn’t read, nor could he understand English. After some discussion – he in Hokkien, me in English – he dropped me at the nearest bus stop and took off one dollar from my taxi fare.
I was more sorry than he was. Perhaps if we had made it to Hedwig’s house, she could have convinced him to take an English literacy course. As former director of the National Library for 23 years and now chairman of the National Book Development Council of Singapore and member of the Society for Reading and Literacy, she has devoted her life to spreading the reading habit.
She also runs the society’s Women Learning English (Wish) Project which teaches adult women to read and write English—so they can make a phone call, fill up forms or read addresses. Once a week, Hedwig personally conducts one-and-a-half hour classes at the Ang Mo Kio Community centre for 10 housewives who want to learn English.
Hedwig lives in a comfortable bungalow in Upper Bukit Timah. It has a small garden, a driveway, but no doorbell. She has a burglar alarm system.
“The house was broken into twice,” she says. Perhaps this is because she lives alone, she is 65, and she’s a woman.
The day I came, her living room was littered with various art objects, a Miro print reproduction and pictures of her family: Her four sisters, her brother, her daughter Shirin with a friend, Shirin with her husband Revi, Shirin with her brother Azmi.
The last is a rare picture, because Shirin, 31, and Azmi, 36, have only seen each other a total of 10 times in their lifetime. Hedwig married in 1957 and divorced five years later, and has lived separately from her son since.
Could I borrow the picture of her son and daughter for publication in Her World?
Just that. She offered no explanation. She wasn’t hostile, nor did she raise her voice.
“It was a very painful time for me. I don’t want to talk about it,” she says quietly.
Hedwig married Anuar Zainal Abidin, who was four years younger than she was. They were both students in London. He was a Malaysian taking law; she was studying librarianship. Her father was initially shocked, but gave her his full support in the difficult years which followed.
She was pregnant when she finished her studies. She had to come back because she was on a scholarship from the University of Malaya Library in Singapore. Azmi was born two months after her return. She set up her own home with him and hired a maid to look after him, living first in Singapore and later in Kuala Lumpur, when she worked at the University of Malaya Library from 1959.
Nearly four years after her return from London, she and Azmi joined her husband there and they returned to Malaysia. But the separation had been too long. “We couldn’t get along anymore.” She returned to Singapore, pregnant this time with Shirin, who was born in 1962. She divorced soon after.
Azmi’s father was awarded custody of Azmi while she had custody of Shirin. Azmi grew up in Taiping, Perak, with his grandparents, and later in Kuala Lumpur with his father, who has remarried.
She recalls, “I was allowed to see Azmi three times a year during the school holidays. It was difficult. I didn’t know about his school, his friends. But I prefer not to dwell on the past. I would rather concentrate on what I have now than regret what I never had.”
The first time her son spent more than a day with her was when he turned 18. “It was wonderful. We had a lot of catching up to do.” Since then, he has made regular visits at Christmas or during an arts festival or film festival. She also sees him when she goes to Kuala Lumpur for meetings. Azmi works there as a researcher in a law firm.
“I call him up and we have lunch in a restaurant or we meet somewhere. We discovered we have a lot of interests in common, such as world music, films and books, especially Third World literature. It’s nice to know some things rubbed off somewhere even though our years together when he was growing up were very limited.”
When Hedwig Anuar learned she had been named Woman of the Year, the first person she called was her daughter. Shirin had married and moved to Toronto, Canada, four years ago.
On the day of the gala dinner, Hedwig received a call from Shirin’s mother-in-law. There was a package for her from Canada. Would she be in her house that morning when she came to deliver it?
“It must be a gift from my daughter,” Hedwig mused.
“When she came, Shirin was with her,” she recalls happily.
During the award dinner, mother and daughter wore the same colour of dress – blue – and posed gamely for photographers.
What was it like to bring up a daughter on her own?
“It was easier then. Help was cheaper. Hours of work were shorter. I lived at the back of Orchard Road, near the National Library. I would go home for lunch, check on Shirin, then go back to the library. After work, I went straight home. In the evenings, I took her out for walks in the Botanic Gardens. I kept my weekends free. If I had to go to work in the library, I would bring Shirin with me. If I could help it, we were always together.
“I also had a supportive family. I would leave Shirin with my sisters, so she could play with her cousins. Or with my father (her mother had died a few years after the war) and he would play with her together with the other grandchildren,” she said.
Shirin describes her relationship with her mother as special. “We are affectionate to each other. I could talk to her. I was the envy of my friends. They couldn’t talk freely with their parents. Some of them wanted to talk to my mum, or would ask me to ask her questions for them. We were, still are, very close.”
Close enough to talk about sex?
Hedwig says: “All over the world, people worry about sex education for the young, in case they would experiment. My view is—knowledge means being forewarned. If they know what is involved in sexual relations, they would be more cautious, especially with the threat of AIDS.
“In Shirin’s case, when she started to ask questions, I realised I didn’t really know how to answer her, so I followed my father’s example—I brought her books from the library to read.
“I believe that knowing the facts doesn’t make you irresponsible. It makes you more responsible. Young people experiment because they’re ignorant of the consequences. Half of the time, they don’t know how and when they could get pregnant, and when they find out they are pregnant, it’s such a shock, they go and have an abortion.
“I would rather a daughter know about the Pill, than have an unwanted pregnancy which could ruin her life if she married too young.”
When Shirin turned 18 and asked her mother if she could study in America, Hedwig never worried that her daughter might make a big mistake in the land of easy drugs and teenage sex.
“I trust her. She is more practical than I am. I was more worried about finances because I didn’t have educational insurance. Emotionally, I coped by keeping busier than usual.”
To keep in touch, they telephoned each other and spent the holidays together. Either Shirin would come home or Hedwig would go to the US. Her daughter came back a few years, only to get married and make her home in Toronto.
Shirin says: “People ask me how I could leave my mother, and in turn, they ask her how she could let me go. We have a special relationship. She is very independent. So am I. We live our own lives yet we maintain a close relationship.”
Elder sister Marie Bong describes Hedwig as self-sufficient and self-reliant. She says: “When I got married early and moved out, Hedwig almost became the head of the house. My mother was very ill, so Hedwig had to carry on the family duties. She practically brought up our younger sister Lydia.”
And when Hedwig married, she supported herself and her son while her husband finished law in London. She raised Shirin without being financially dependent on anyone. Other women in her situation would have remarried. She didn’t.
“I haven’t been lucky enough to find the right person. I’m quite happy enough to be by myself.”
What does she think of the generation of men now? “They are more sharing, more sensitive. I saw a man in a restaurant, bottle-feeding a baby. His wife was making a phone call. He was a Chinese Singaporean, an executive type in jacket and tie. He had the baby on his lap, with a nappy underneath, and he was feeding and talking to the baby, doing everything a mother would do and he wasn’t self-conscious about it. People around accepted this. Waitresses came up and patted the baby. They didn’t ask, ‘Why are you feeding the baby?’ ‘Where is the mother?’
“At the same time, women should take pride in being able to earn their own money, to have financial independence, to contribute to the family. They can help send a younger brother or sister to school. It makes me feel good to see all these changes. It strengthens the family. It reduces the burden on the male member of the household.”
However, she doesn’t believe in taking a confrontational approach in promoting women’s causes.
“There are inequalities, we point them out, and we stand firm. There are certain disadvantages for women because of society’s attitudes.
“I do not believe that men should be equal partners in the women’s movement. Certainly, we would need their help and support, but women should be in charge.”
Although retired, Hedwig shows no sign of slowing down. She drives around Singapore in her grey Toyota Starlet, works for women’s causes, teaches English to housewives, attends seminars, and travels regularly. She has taken computer courses and keeps in touch with relatives and friends all over the world with a fax machine.
She has a stereo system and listens to Baroque music, mainstream jazz and world music. Occasionally, she and two or three of her single older women friends would go to theatre or the cinema.
She loves movies and looks forward to good films like The Age Of Innocence, In The Name Of The Father, Last Of The Mohicans, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (she likes Daniel Day Lewis). “I still haven’t figured out how to record a TV show with my VCR, but I’ve learned to use the computer for word processing. It takes a bit longer for the older generation to learn these things. But we are willing to learn.”
What is it like to live alone?
“A lot of people think it’s hard, that it would be depressing. It’s not. I have many women friends who live alone. They are unmarried. They don’t have daughters and sons to take care of them. We have nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters who come to visit or call us.
“I have a part-time maid who comes three times a week for a couple of hours. She does the washing, ironing and cleaning around the house. I cook for myself. I drive. That makes me very mobile. Some of my friends go by bus.”
What are her fears about being 65 and living alone?
“Waking up one day with a disabling illness like cancer or suffering from a stroke. One my close friends is blind in one eye and it’s very hard on her.
“I’m not worried about dying. It’s how you die. Like everyone else, I would like a quick and easy death. Preferably in my sleep. That’s the best way to go, isn’t it? I wouldn’t like a long period of suffering and pain or a crippling kind of disease. I wouldn’t want to be a burden on anybody.
“I don’t believe in being hooked up to a machine like a vegetable. I don’t call that living at all. I would rather be dead. When I die, I would die happy in the sense that I have achieved so much and I have produced two wonderful children.”
It had begun to rain. Hedwig moved to close a window. When she returned, she was quiet and abstract.
“I don’t have a religion and I’m not sure if there is an afterlife. I’ve always believed that immortality lies in your deeds and in the children who live after you.”
1951: Graduated from the University of Malaya (in Singapore) with First Class Honours in English Literature
1955-1957: Studied librarianship at the North-Western Polytechnic, London, on an Inter-University Council Fellowship
1952-1959: Assistant Librarian, University of Malaya Library, Singapore
1959-1962: Assistant Librarian, University of Malaya Library, Kuala Lumpur
1962-1964: Assistant Director, National Library of Singapore
1965-1988: Director, National Library of Singapore
1969: Received the public administration gold medal for developing the National Library
1985: Helped found the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware)
1989-1991: President, Aware
1993: Chairman of the National Book Development Council of Singapore; member of the Society for Reading and Literacy; coordinator of its Women Learning English (Wish) Project
I WISH I COULD READ THIS …
Housewife learning English asks teacher Hedwig Anuar: “You, ah—woman of the world?”
Hedwig to housewife: “No, just Singapore.”
Another student follows up with, “It says here,” holding a cutting on Hedwig which appeared in a Chinese newspaper, “You retire, you write book on father. You write book, translate in Chinese, ha.”
Laughter. This is followed by a lesson on conjunctions—words which connect other words, phrases or sentences. And learning. There is a lot of this going on in Room 212 of the Ang Mo Kio Community Centre. It is a typical classroom. Whiteboard in front, tables and chairs occupied by students—housewives in their 30s and 40s who listen, discuss and read storybooks (the day we came to observe, they were reading Liang And His Magic Paintbrush) in English. This is where Hedwig teaches a course in Basic English to housewives on Mondays 9.30 to 11am. This is part of her work as coordinator for the Women Learning English (Wish) Project of the Society for Reading and Literacy, of which she is a member.
Why does she do it?
Hedwig explains: “There are women who don’t go anywhere except home and market. They cannot read street signs, bus and MRT stops because they are in English. They cannot make simple phone calls or fill up forms. If they can read and write in English, they can be more independent, they can move around on their own. Some of my students were even able to get part-time jobs, not only because their English has improved, but also because they have become more confident.”
Why do these busy housewives devote Monday mornings to teaching English? “Because is more convenient,” says one. “To help my children in homework,” explains another. “I like Mrs Anuar,” says another. Everyone nods in agreement and speaks excitedly in Chinese.
They like Hedwig so much, they stayed on after they had done the three-month course.
Hedwig says: “This class has been with me for more than a year now. They’re very advanced, yet they want to keep on learning.” She plans to get another tutor to teach the class advanced English while she puts up announcements for new students, as well as for women volunteers who would like to teach English. Volunteers must be able to teach for three months, one hour per week. If they have no experience in training, they will be given free training.
“It’s hard work,” says Hedwig, “for students and teacher.” And the rewards come only after three months, when teacher and students share jokes and their life stories—in English.