By 1972, Singapore had identified aerospace maintenance as a growth industry. In my company, almost all the licensed engineers were foreigners – British, Australian, New Zealand, American, Canadian, Indians and Malaysians. We also had Taiwanese, Filipinos and Thai who were Vietnam veterans – mostly ex Air America, the covert CIA outfit.

In fact, there was only one, yes one Singaporean engineer in my company. The rest of the Singaporeans were technicians and labourers – all ex Royal Air Force.

It was government policy to ‘localise’ the industry and I was among the first batch of six apprentices. A neighbouring government linked company (GLC) took in about 20 apprentices.

On the first day, the Singaporean engineer gave us a tour of the facilities. The hangers, workshops and offices were impressive.

We attracted quite unfriendly stares from the foreigners who saw their days numbered. Though they were not overtly hostile, their behaviour was somewhat disconcerting. The company did not have a structured training regime. They turned us loose and expected us to learn on the job. Obviously, someone in human resource lived in dreamland.

It was worse with the local Singaporean technicians.

One guy actually pointed to me and said loudly that I was there to “add colour among the banana plantation” – the other five apprentices were all ethnic Chinese. I was the only non-Chinese.

I was born in the British Naval Base and subsequently grew up in Chinese and Malay villages. I had MICE for neighbours and friends – Malays, Indians, Chinese and Europeans. Race never figured in the first 16 years of my life. I was determined that it never will…and at 56 years old, that still holds true.

Nevertheless, it was a sobering first day on the job.

********** Copyright @ Eric Alagan **********


  1. You do provide a balance Eric. I focused on the part about how race never factored into your life growing up. A dose of reality is not a bad thing and although uncomfortable, not necessarily negative. Human resources not doing their job seemed to be the biggest problem in your story. And this story made me think of the first time I experienced racism.

    My family moved from North Carolina to Hawaii before my junior year in high school. After growing up in such a literally black and white environment, I was thrilled to be cast in the midst of so many cultures. I felt like I was in a foreign country with so many different cultures and cuisines. My first boyfriend was a handsome Japanese surfer and his mother refused to speak to me because I was not Japanese. I understood later why the old folks wanted their young to marry within the culture. Still, it was very strange at my boyfriend’s graduation when his mother would not look at me or speak to me because I wasn’t the right ethnicity.

    There were many messages in your story and I didn’t miss a one. Always enjoy what you choose to write about.

    1. Thank you so very much Hattie for taking the time to read my posts.

      It is interesting that many non-white people are quick to complain about racism by ‘whites’ – My experience has been, all peoples practise it. It has little to do with any particular race but everything to do with their reference points/nurturing/environment – take your pick and add more, as you wish.

      I understand exactly how you felt about your boyfriend’s mother’s behaviour. My wife is ethnic Chinese and some of my family still do not readily accept her – after 32 years of marriage! It’s a pity because she is a lovely lady and it is their loss. Only on her death-bed did my mother admit that ‘Lisa is the best daughter-in-law she had’. By that time, I didn’t really care what my mother thought.

      All good wishes, Eric

      P/s Left a comment in your post – The Mysterious Lives of Mannequins. If it did not come through, here it is

      “I agree the photos are amazing – I thought Nora was a real person too. Did you restore her – whoever did it, is a master-craftsperson. In any event, she is stunning. Thank you for this eye-candy, Eric”

  2. This is a comment to several of your posts. You write very beautifully (which is such an unusual gift!); however, I’m sorry that I cannot read most of your posts because of the content. I wish you would write about more uplifting topics. After all, the angelic is just as real as the demonic. Perhaps not in this world, but ultimately.

    1. Thank you for your compliments Sharon.

      I appreciate that you prefer to read about ‘uplifting topics’. I think I provide a balance. Is the cup half empty or half full > depends on one’s perception. If half empty, that is not uplifting. If we see it as half full, that is uplifting, as it could be worse > it could be empty.

      Our path is strewn with flowers and flint…

      I’m also sorry that you don’t find all my posts to your liking.

  3. Hey Eric thanks for showing your interest in the post ‘Old is Gold, Is it?’ on but it is now shifted to do check it out and thanks once again.

    1. Hello Kate, thank you for your visit and comment. Very true, prejudice and intolerance seems a given in human society…

      Left a comment in your post: Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. If you can’t find it (probably in your spam folder) here it is: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder – we just need to define ‘beholder’. I am the most beautiful person in the world – ask me, ask my mother…” 🙂

      1. Thanks for the comment Eric. So true, the ones we love are beautiful to us, if not to everyone else. But many people suffer from the slights and cruel words of those who believe that personal looks are everything. It’s another instance of the shallowness of many. They see only what is on the surface and never bother to look any deeper. I guess it’s always been that way, but now with the widespread global communicaton it is so much more obvious.

      2. Thank you Kate.

        It is a pity my comment did not come through – it rightfully belongs in your post.

        If you have not already, you might want to Go To your blog’s > Dashboard > Setting > Discussion. There you will find various options to allow comments.

      3. Thanks for that Eric, it was helpful. I found it and unspammed it. I’m fairly new to this social networking stuff and seem to be learning new things all the time. I’ll know to watch out for that in the future. Cheers!

  4. This is profound and hilarious at the same time. MICE! Brilliant! Can you come up with one for RATS! Lol! Have a good day. I am enjoying your book!

    1. Thank you for your compliments. If I think of RATS – will let you know 🙂

      Happy to know that you’re enjoying Beck & Call. Thank you for the support.

      All good wishes, Eric 🙂

  5. Yes it would be a sobering introduction to your chosen occupation. Draw courage from the fact that should those foreigners go to any country but their own they would have reverse discrimination to the one you allude to here. I have been in that situation over the years. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not the colour of your skin or the difference in your language that causes this discrimination. It’s the fear of losing your job to someone who could potentially fit in better in terms of their work experience or capacity to communicate within a culture that causes concern to those already extablished. You could probably identify areas of discrimination within a common culture a person belongs to too. Using the US migrations as an example, those born in the country found hard working migrants a threat to their own survival in the workiplace, and migrants refused to allow their children to marry into the established society thinking the countries they migrated from had higher moral and social standing than the country they migrated to. It’s still happening today too in every country.

    1. Very well encapsulated Ian. Cannot agree with you more.

      Having travelled, lived and worked all over Asia – you probably have a far better grasp of discrimination (both overt and subtle) at work, than perhaps most of your generation. The same applies to me. It is much less pronounced among the younger generation here and people in my generation should be careful when airing these subjects in public. I try to be balanced and factual to show how far we had come.

      My wife and I used to speak of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore and for many years our daughter refused to step into a Japanese restaurant. We knew this was wrong and we as parents were to blame. We worked hard and exposed her to all the good things and great people from Japan. Cut a long story short > Japanese cuisine has been one of our family favourites (especially my children’s) for the last two decades.

  6. Eric, having grown up in Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, I too refused to allow race to be an issue in making any decisions, large or small, in my life. At age 65, I am still going strong in this mode! Hooray! Thank you so very much for openly sharing about the MICE surrounding you and your attitudes in growing up and in starting your professional life.

    1. Good on you Granbee! That is the only way to live.

      Though race relations are still not ideal, they were worse a hundred years ago, I reckon. Mankind is winning…progress is there…perhaps I am a dreamer but hey, we all have our dreams.

      Luv and hugz, Eric

      P/s Granbee > my comments on your blog don’t come through. Believe they are resting in your blog spam folder. I’ll try again later today.

  7. I find it interesting that when coming to work at a job in your own country the foreigners are pointing fingers and making disparaging remarks. Why must any remarks be made at all? MICE is perfect to show we are all humans with hopes and dreams and the desire to do good work. Many are visitors…that’s fine…we need to respect the home where we are visiting and choose to live.

    1. In the early days, aerospace maintenance in Singapore relied almost totally on foreign talent. It is normal when one starts a new industry.

      Singapore, like many countries, welcomes foreigners, we still do. But we also lack programs with adequate dept and scope to assimilate newcomers into our society. This deficiency leads to inevitable enclaves – both in the physical and especially in the minds and hearts of people.

      My wife and I recently attended a party hosted by a friend (someone we met a few months ago). He had lived here for 6 years. There were about 50 people > we were the only Singaporeans. The rest were all nationals from his country – many have lived here for 10 years or more!

      My wife and I try to reach out but not many locals and foreigners bother.

  8. MICE wow what a wonderful acronym and how it sings out loud the racial conflicts in it …how important is ones caste and racial identity that nothing else matters ..
    “add colour among the banana plantation”..this line gave me goose bumps thinking about all those who have to go through it…

    1. Caste was never an issue in Singapore and those Singaporean Indians who flounted caste in the 1970s were soundly and rightly castigated. It has all but disappeared except maybe for a handful of fringe die-hards.

      But race was a major issue and one of the main reasons (Chinese majority) Singapore was ejected in 1965 from (Malay-Muslim majority) Malaysia. We are mature enough to speak about this openly. Right through to the 1990s such public mention was frowned upon by governments on both sides of the causeway (the land bridge that connects Singapore and Malaysia). And rightly so. People now know that our destiny in intertwined.

      Our fathers’ quarrels are not ours.

  9. I think it’s the same just about everywhere. Old timers resent newcomers fearing that they will lose what they have when in reality they have forgotten that they too are a valuable source of knowledge and could teach the new hires so much. But some tend to hoard knowledge, thinking it makes them more valuable. It doesn’t. Good story, it made me remember my first days on the job.

  10. I was fortunate that by the time I started working, MICE had assimilated fairly well. The discrimination is probably less prominent. In my growing up years, race had never figured too. But your experience does come as an unexpected revelation to me. Disappointed that people don’t look at the individual for what he/she is worth but categorise them to race group. No matter, you have prevailed and proven yourself.

    1. Racial bias is still alive even now but much less pronounced than in the 1960s and 1970s. Singapore is winning in this regards but we have some ways to go. Let us hope that Singapore continues to prosper. If the economy collapses, the resiliency of our social fabric will be put to the test.

  11. Interesting to see how people there responded to a perceived “threat” everywhere else I suspect…of course we would have to use different acronyms…but the general pattern would be the same.

    1. I think the company management did not accord proper thought and planning – especially when they publicly announced that these ‘future’ engineers would be playing prominent roles in the company. Many of these local ‘managers’ were actually ex-RAF clerical officers. Back in the early 1970s human talent was a rare commodity…

  12. Interesting information Eric! MICE acronym is funny 🙂
    In this global economy, the cross migration beyond boundaries of the countries brings much unsettlement amongst the natives as well as the immigrants especially when the economy is down.

    1. I coined MICE for a reason > some people do view foreigners as vermin which is quite sad. In Singapore, all of us were ‘foreigners’ at one time > depends on the timeline we adopt.

      Yes, cross border movement of peoples is here to stay for some time to come, and it takes much effort on host and guest to cope with change. Unfortunately, most of such ‘re-settlements’ are driven by governments > probably the worst thing we can do is to leave it in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats, I reckon.

  13. Good on you Eric. I was there in 1972 living officially at HMS Terror but unofficially in a small flat above the Country Inn at Chong Pang.
    I agree with you that race should not enter in to anything but here in Australia the race card is being used to divide people by emphasizing racial difference and having different rules for different races and cultures.
    They say they want to get rid of racism – well then stop what they call their affirmative action based on race. Racism is racism is racism. All that does is sow the seeds of hatred in my opinion.

    1. Hello Dennis – yes, I know HMS Terror quite well. There was/is a swimming pool thereabouts – spent many afternoons gulping chlorinated water when learning to swim. Ah, the Country Inn rings a bell > was it near the Cola Restaurant?

      I’m a firm believer that if people want to migrate and settle in another country, they must ‘fit in’ with the culture and mores of that society and not expect ‘special treatment’ – especially at the expense of the local people.

      1. Yes we used to had a policy of integration here and it worked well.
        With regard to the Country Inn, it was a long time ago but basically as you came out of the gates at Terror (at the Sembawang strip of bars) you would turn left and from memory it was the first main road on the right which led down eventually to the sea – can’t remember the name of it. Anyway the Country Inn was just down that road a little way on the right and was run by a Chinese middle aged couple. Restaurant on the bottom and two flats upstairs. We knew the landlady as “Aunty”. Unfortunately being young etc I never took any photos. No doubt all gone long ago. And yes I’ve swum in that pool if it is the old one.

      2. Ah Dennis, I think I know the exact spot you refer to. It was the Sembawang Gate. The strip of bars are still there – but frequented mostly by locals now for the seafood, unlike the old days when it was a haunt for Caucasian seamen. The shop houses you refer to are all gone – grassland now, awaiting more apartment blocks.

        Aunty is about right – people in Singapore refer to every woman on the wrong side of 40 as ‘aunty’. Many older Singaporeans feel that it is a mark of respect – but some women now find that label insulting. In Singapore, people are proud of their age…now that is changing as more and more women cling to ‘youth’.

I like to hear your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

error: Content is protected !!