Photo credit: JULIE EMILIA

It took me eight years to become thankful for my strict mother

Parenting is hard, but it’s even harder in a one room flat.

Khalisa Zulkiflee

Creative writer and comedian on the side.

Published: 7 May 2021, 12:46 PM

Growing up, my relationship with my mother has always been volatile. 

Maybe it is because she played the bad cop in my childhood, wielding the cane for years while my father laboured away, more often on cargo ships than at home. 

Or maybe it is because she was overly-protective of me, always demanding that I come home straight after school, even going as far as putting me on school buses from Primary 1 to Primary 6 when the school was just ten minutes away on foot to ensure I didn’t play truant. 

Either way, I found her strictness as suffocating as the one-room flat I grew up in, and only years later started to feel a sense of utter gratitude for her fierce protection of my innocence. 

Keeping me safe in a less well-to-do neighbourhood 

For a decade, my family and I stayed in a one-room rental flat. My two siblings and I grew up restricted to the four walls of that cramped flat, and although they were too young to recall what it was like, our time spent there left a lasting impact on me.

Most of the things we owned were hand-me-downs from our relatives. PHOTO CREDIT: NADIA KHATOON


To get to our block, you would have to walk up a slope and climb a long flight of stairs. The void deck and dim hallways seemed to be permanently urine-stained, and there were always some old uncles in white undershirts and black shorts sitting at the void deck who I was always warned to steer clear of by my mother. 

There was plenty of police activity during the time we stayed there, either attending to residents’ complaints or on the lookout for something or someone. I never knew what was going on, but I knew that whenever my mother closed the wooden door during the day, it meant we were to stay in and not make noise. 

I vaguely remember our neighbour’s husband being caught for a drug-related offence and her wails cutting through the still night, threatening to jump down. My mother sharply told us to sleep and closed the door before rushing out to calm her down. 

Many years after moving out, this was one of the moments that I remember most clearly that makes me understand why my mother had to be protective of us in this environment. 

Making sure I got an education

Due to our poor financial situation at the time, my parents did not send me to nursery. My mother did, however, appeal to the Government to enroll me in a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten to take me in for free. There, I learnt to speak and understand Mandarin and English, but I could neither read nor write both languages. 

I entered primary school not knowing how to read the alphabets, or count numbers properly while some of my peers were already starting to move away from picture books to reading short stories in children’s books. 

Worried about my future in a society that increasingly uses English, my mother applied for me to be in the KidsRead programme at a nearby library. Every Saturday she would head there pushing my brother in a stroller, holding my sister’s hand and yelling at me to stop running. 

Her efforts were not in vain, as I soon fell in love with reading and started consuming books daily.


I prided myself on finishing a whole series in a week – Harry Potter, Roald Dahl’s collection, Chronicles of Narnia. PHOTO CREDITS: NICK FEWINGS, MADALYN COX VIA UNSPLASH


During the school holidays, to keep me quiet at home, my mother took out my dad’s dusty collection of books from Sydney Sheldon, Dan Brown and Matthew Reilley. 

I do not know if it was my mother’s intention, but reading those books provided me some respite from the realities of our flat and neighbourhood, even though admittedly I did not understand many words in those books. 

With time, my vocabulary grew and so did my love for reading and writing. Fast-forward ten years – I landed myself this editorial internship, and have no one to thank more than my mother.

Finding ways to provide for us

When my dad started to work shifts in security jobs, my mother worked to get my siblings and I financial assistance. 

We spent many hours in a Family Service Centre, with my siblings and I reveling in the air-conditioned waiting space and the soft couches they had while my mother went through various applications to get us meal coupons, free uniforms, stationeries and books. 

It was only years later that I realised how draining it must have been for my mother to repeatedly jump through hoops in the form of means tests to get the $200 state help every semester. 

After securing Popular vouchers, the next issue my mother had to deal with was my constant yearning for pocket money. 


One of my fondest childhood memories was when my mother (middle) and aunt took my siblings, cousin and I (second from the right) to the zoo. PHOTO CREDIT: JULIE EMILIA


Money was a concept I did not understand till my early teens. I can only imagine how my mother must have felt, to not be able to go anywhere without us asking, and at times begging her, to buy us things. Even the dingy grocery store in our neighbourhood had a section for little toys, and she had no respite from our incessant requests. 

Out of all the things she sacrificed to raise us, the lack of a social life may have hit her most. After all, she had little to no break from taking care of us and the household due to the lack of alternative caregivers. 

Realising the difference my mother made in my life

While my friends had money for after-school lunches at the bubble tea store opposite our school, I had none. 

After the school bell rings, some of them would “miss” the bus to lepak and smoke at a nearby void deck, but I never did, fearing the worst for my aching thighs should I come home late. 

At the time, I believed it to be a missed opportunity to hang out with my friends, and did not understand why my mother became so adamant on moving out of the neighbourhood. 

But when I meet my childhood friends these days, I hear more and more stories of an old friend being in jail, got a girl pregnant, is pregnant, has a curfew due to being on probation and the list goes on. 

Coming from a similar background as many of them, there was a point in time I would have given anything to be with my friends and have the same reckless fun they had. The only reason I did not end up on the same path however was my mother’s tenacity in keeping me home. 


I am thankful my brother managed to grow up in a bigger house and under better circumstances. PHOTO CREDIT: NAFFAA NURTHALYIA


Thanks to all my mother’s visits to the Housing Development Board (HDB) and family social services, we eventually managed to get a three-room HDB flat across the island from where we once stayed. 

My needs for personal space were met, I felt less suffocated and understood that my resentment and anger for my parents came from a place of childish ignorance.

The move also made it easier for me to focus on my education and enjoy reading for the sake of learning rather than as a form of escapism. 

I made my way through secondary school in the Express stream, went to one of the local pre-universities before realising that its hectic and lengthy schedules would not permit me time to get a part-time job, and finally ended up in a polytechnic.


This time next year I (in white) will have graduated with a diploma in communications and I have my mother to thank for getting me this far. PHOTO CREDIT: ATIF SAZALI


Being a parent is undeniably hard, but being a low-income parent is especially uncomfortable. 

My mother opted to be a housewife instead of working to generate more income because she believed that having three healthy and safe children was more important than earning money. 

She spent her thirties being just as confined to the four walls of our cramped rental flat as I was, and I’m thankful to her for it every day. 

I am now in a position privileged enough to have dreams of my own and possibly a good future – all that I owe to my mother’s protectiveness and my father’s hard work. I hope to be able to dedicate my future to my parents’ comfort in the years to come.

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