Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jean Marshall: At home in Singapore

10 April 2016

Jean Mary Gray came to Singapore in 1953 to take up a post with the Red Cross, and went on to become a medical social worker. She became Mrs David Marshall in 1961, when she married the man who was Singapore's first chief minister. Sixty-three years later, Singapore remains her home.

In 1953, bound for Malaya, 27-year-old Jean Mary Gray boarded a plane to Singapore from Heathrow Airport, England. Her father used to say: "If you want to see the world and can't afford to, get a job and see it at someone else's expense."

Jean had got a one-year job as a British Red Cross field officer in rural Malaya.

On April 13, Jean turns 90. She lives in central Singapore in a comfortable apartment that she and her husband David Saul Marshall bought in 1993.

Books in every room attest to Jean's love of reading. As a young girl, she was indignant that her local library in England allowed children just one book that they could exchange only the following day. Finishing her book before day's end, Jean waited impatiently for a new book.

Skimpy library loans are now a distant memory. Distinguished Reader status, given by the National Library Board to select Singaporeans for their contribution to national development and their love of reading, gives Jean special access to the library's collections.

Her personal book collection on Singaporean and Malayan history is full of treasures, and her knowledge of this history, extensive. Rare, out-of-print books sit alongside contemporary publications on her bookshelves.

From 1994 until the store closed in 2014, Jean wrote commentaries on new books for the newsletter of Select Books, Singapore's specialist South-east Asia bookstore.

Photographs in her home - of her parents, late husband, children and their families - bespeak strong family connections. Jean's four children were born in Singapore and schooled here until 1978, when David became Singapore's ambassador to France.

Now, their three daughters live in Europe and their son in Singapore.

Besides photographs, select objects in the apartment evoke family history - a painting that David gave Jean when they got married, by a Singapore artist of whose work David was an early admirer; a Kashmiri papier mache lamp that Jean and David bought on holiday in 1966; a blue ceramic jar from a great-uncle who travelled in Persia; a blue Minton china set that was a wedding present to Jean's parents in 1923.

Born in 1926 in Orpington, Kent, in England, Jean took Singapore citizenship on Nov 28, 1960. This was before she knew she would marry a Singaporean. 


In 1953, while working at the Brompton Chest Hospital in London, Jean responded to a Red Cross advertisement for field officers in rural Malaya. She had studied economics and sociology at the London School of Economics and then trained as an almoner (medical social worker).

She says of medical social work: "I liked the purposeful activity, the sense that one was contributing to human well-being and doing something worthwhile."

She got the job in Malaya and was soon on her way, via Singapore, to Kuala Lumpur where she would find out where her posting was to be.

Jean underplays the magnitude of her move at a time when communication was by post and phone calls only for emergencies: "A one-year contract would be manageable, even if I were unhappy."

She learned to drive and, in her white Land Rover, would traverse miles of mountainous jungle terrain during a turbulent time in Malaya. The Emergency, imposed by the colonial government in 1948 to suppress communist insurrection, was still on.

In Jean's weekly letters home, rich descriptions of landscape, people, architecture, cuisine, social life, history and Red Cross work are set in a context of curfews, roadblocks and security restrictions.

In Kuala Lumpur, Jean recalls: "I ate my first papaya... slept under my first mosquito net, and sweated my first quart of sweat."

Momentarily, the newness of her situation registered and she was "very hot and very bleak".

Sights such as traffic driving on the left of the road and billboards advertising familiar products such as Lux and Bovril, comforted her.

But there wasn't much time for homesickness. Unexpectedly, in Raub and Kuala Lipis in West Pahang, where Jean was posted, she found that her job entailed fund-raising as much as social work. In a circular letter to friends in England she wrote, half-jokingly: "I sped hither and thither with concerts, flag days, funfairs and whatnot springing up in my wake... counting out thousands of one-cent pieces, addressing school children... producing concerts and making collecting boxes out of cocoa tins... (The) dollars rolled in, which leaves us free (for) more constructive ordinary work."

Looking back, Jean says: "Besides providing immediate medico-social services, our job was to leave behind a functioning Red Cross."

Knowing that colonialism was ending, Jean "was surprised that in Raub, colonial attitudes weren't just fiction - indeed, they were alive and active". She remembers, for instance, being told off for taking the children of her local schoolteacher friend to the swimming pool at the Raub gold mine, because "Asians" weren't allowed there. Growing up, Jean had been aware of empire, but Walthamstow Hall, her school in Kent, "fostered an ethos of service rather than imperialism".

Back in England after completing her one-year contract, Jean knew she wanted to return to Malaya. She applied to the Colonial Office and was posted to Kuala Lumpur in 1955 as a medical social worker.

In the course of Malayanisation - the replacement of expatriate government servants with local recruits - her post was "abolished" in 1957.

But Jean was immediately appointed to teach a new course in medical social work in the Department of Social Work at the University of Malaya in Singapore. Ann Wee, the distinguished Singapore social worker, says in Daughters Of Singapore (Part 2), a 2015 Media- corp documentary about Jean, that with excellent training and hospital experience in Britain, and experience in Malaya, Jean was by far the best qualified for the position. 


One afternoon in 1958, at a university convocation, Jean was introduced to David Marshall, a prominent lawyer and former chief minister of Singapore. Jean soon became a regular guest at David's famous Sunday lunches at Tumasek, his house in Changi.

In early 1961, when Jean was considering moving to Chicago, United States, to pursue a higher degree in social work, David proposed. She accepted and stayed in Singapore. They got married in April.

Marking exam papers left little time to fuss over a wedding dress. She had one tailored by Elsie Mary, a couturier on Battery Road - "plain, light ecru figured silk with a kind of drape, close-fitting hat, ecru shoes", Jean wrote to her parents.

Jean is Christian; David was a leading figure in the Singapore Jewish community. Bishop Amstutz, David's long-time friend from when they were Japanese prisoners of war, performed a simple ceremony of blessing for the couple. A registry wedding followed.

After marriage, Jean stopped doing full-time, paid work. But she started volunteer work at a Singapore Children's Society convalescent home near her new home in Changi. She was soon pregnant, so the flexible hours and location suited her. "The convalescent home work fitted right in," she says. She worked there for almost 20 years.

Jean and David had four children: Ruth, Sarah, Joanna and Jonathan, born between 1961 and 1969.

In 1972, David was suspended from legal practice for six months for alleged professional misconduct. Jean remembers that year as "murderous... the most difficult time of my life, without a doubt. The whole family's future and stability were at stake".

Finances and children's education apart, Jean worried for David who was "desolate beyond measure". The family moved temporarily to Jean's holiday home in Kent. Jean's children remember how their mother soldiered on, holding things together during that dark time.

Soon after their return to Singapore, the Marshalls had to leave their Changi home in 1976 to make way for the new airport.

Then in 1978, to his surprise, David was appointed Singapore's first ambassador to France. In France, Jean worked hard as an ambassador's wife. Her son, Jonathan, comments in Daughters Of Singapore: "I got the sense that being an ambassador's wife was... a full-time job that was not paid."

Jean says she took seriously the work of "representing Singapore to France, and France to Singapore". Before leaving Singapore, besides shopping for accoutrements for the ambassador's residence, Jean met the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for advice about her new role.

Looking back now, she laughs over such incidents as using a hairdryer on lilies, willing them to open in time for one of the many official, "studiously correct" dinners she and David hosted in France.

After 15 years in France, Jean and David came home. David was 85 and ailing. Jean was 67. They moved into her present apartment. Looking out at the flower-filled ledge fronting her living room, Jean remembers David, in his last months, sitting where he could see sunbirds feed from a glass tube of honey water suspended from an orchid plant - appropriate for a man referred to in Paris as "the orchid ambassador" for the distinctive orchid he always wore in his lapel.

Asked why she stayed on in Singapore after David died and her children were grown, Jean is bemused: "I just assumed I'd stay; it never occurred to me to relocate to England. Of course, my ethnicity is permanent. But after 60 years, I identify with Singapore. It is possible, though, to think of more than one place as home."

If any other physical place is close to her heart, it's the "wild, windswept countryside" of Romney Marsh on the south-east English coast. In 1972, Jean bought Romney Cottage, near her parents' home on the Marsh, so her children might visit their ageing grandparents.

Jean recognises her English roots, albeit no longer physical since she sold the cottage. "But my basic roots are here," she says of Singapore.

In Daughters Of Singapore, she says: "I'm glad I've spent the greater part of my life in Singapore... that I've been part of the development, in a small way, of the last 50 or 60 years; never thought it would happen that way, but it has."

Dr Mandakini Arora is an independent historian with a doctorate in history from Duke University. She is writing a book about Englishwomen who moved to Singapore in the 1950s to 1960s.

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