Losing Jean Marshall: The Last Meeting
Portrait of Jean Marshall. Photo credit: https://jean.marshall.com.sg/
To many younger Singaporeans, the death of British-born Jean Marshall last month (March) at the age of 94 may not have meant much. If anything, it probably marked yet another door closing on an era not long after World War II when Singapore transitioned from colonial rule to independence.
They were murky years of communist insurgency, unrest, opportunism, a relationship breakup with then-Malaya, and eventually Lee Kuan Yew crying on TV.
Jean, as a caucasian with a distinguished British accent (although her origins were comparatively humble, being from the commuter town of Orpington in Kent), may have symbolised to some a past that Asia understandably wants to put behind it.
Yet that would be to overlook a warm-hearted individual with a strong social conscience, a mother-of-four who was, for those more conservative times, her own woman even as she stood in the shadow of her late husband, David Marshall, who was Chief Minister of Singapore’s first elected government between 1955 and 1956. Born into a Shephardic Jew family, the politician, lawyer and diplomat who died in 1995 was one of those at the forefront of the struggle for political independence. But what might be most striking to the younger generation today was that in 1957, he helped found the Workers’ Party, which in recent general elections long after Marshall’s death, has found a new lease of life, throwing down the gauntlet to the ruling People’s Action Party.
Jean herself was no mere decorative politician’s wife, having been an independent young woman before meeting Marshall, coming over from the UK in 1953 to work in Malaya for the humanitarian organisation, the Red Cross.
After Marshall died, Jean stayed on in Singapore. In 2014 I struck up an unlikely friendship with her after losing my teenage daughter, Victoria McLeod, that year to suicide. I was newly bereaved, weepy and confused. I first met Jean after attending a church service, being introduced to her at a cafe afterwards. Jean, a widow of 18 years by then, advised me to try the hot chocolate. This both endeared me to her, and rattled me, as hot chocolate had been Victoria’s favourite drink at this very same cafe, Pauls in Tanglin Mall.
I was several decades younger than Jean, and hailed from New Zealand. Yet we found common ground: bereavement, and adjusting to the loss. I visited her several times at her apartment at Balmoral. We talked of her life with Marshall, and I think Jean enjoyed walking down memory lane, speaking to someone genuinely interested in their life in the early decolonising years of Singapore and Malaysia. For my part, I valued her compassion towards my situation, an empathy reflecting her years as a social work pioneer. And what’s more, Jean, with her knowledge of Singapore, and also as someone well-read, was a useful sounding board for what was to become my memoir about Victoria, Loss Adjustment. She asked piercing questions about Victoria, and had astute observations on the education system, and students with mental health issues, for example.
My last visit to Jean was on Oct 6 last year (2020). She looked more frail than usual, and launched into a wide-ranging conversation during which she urged me to take out my notepad and record some of it. Jean, at her great no-nonsense age, seemed to value my need for authenticity and frankness and wanted me to bear witness to her, just as I had done for my daughter in my book. This is what I recall of that final meeting:
I enter the living room of the lower-floor flat, and Jean is gazing out the window, lost in thought. She looked suddenly much older and vulnerable. As usual, she has one booted foot up resting on a support. Jean had injured her ankle in a fall when her husband was Singapore’s ambassador to France from 1978 to 1993, and it had never properly healed.
I tell Jean that I have been accepted into an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and while there I hope to find a UK publisher for Loss Adjustment. Jean tells me that she admires the ‘honesty’ of Loss Adjustment, it’s ‘truth’. Commenting on how people prefer fiction or sanitised narrative nonfiction, Jean—herself the author of a nonfiction book, Jean Marshall’s Pahang Letters, 1953-54: Sidelights on Malaya during The Emergency (Ethos Books)—comments: ‘People loathe mentions of tragedy, they clothe them in disbelief. You don’t do that, you put the facts as they are’.
We talk of a mutual friend, Mandakini Arora, who edited her book, and who is obtaining the oral histories of British women of Jean’s era who moved to Singapore and married locals. We laugh as Jean recalls a pompously named organisation called the Society for the Settlement of Overseas British Women, intended for educated women to find a husband. I ask about these women who married Singapore men—how did those matches work out? Jean recalls—even as I, a believer in female emancipation, cringe at her old-fashioned sentiment—that it only usually worked out if both partners were well-educated and if the male (usually of Chinese descent) had been educated in Britain or gone to one of the top schools in Singapore such as Raffles Institution. But with an educated British woman marrying a local man who had not had good education, and who perhaps knew little English, then it was very difficult and often ended in divorce. The problem was the mother-in-law, Jean explained. I should point out that she meant this not in a disparaging way, but admiringly in terms of the unity and values of Asian society, saying: ‘You are entering a very large and cohesive family that is organised to endure, and you must adapt to it. It is not like an English family, comprising the bibs and bobs of individuals who often go their own separate way.’
We talked about the changing aspect of the British towards their former colonies, and those countries’ anti-foreigner sentiment today. Jean says: ‘A lot has changed about the ‘cut-offness’ of the British colonial person. For their own convenience, the colonialists in Singapore wanted an educated middle class of locals. This was not altruistic, but had an economic/business motivation. The local middle classes could be the middle-level managers of English firms and save them money in wages. The big British firms paid their middle-level less as they were locals. They did not have to out pensions like they would to the English.’
She notes: ‘The Dutch had a different policy in Indonesia and did not encourage a middle class locally.’
On the topic of departures, I speak about not being missed when I leave Singapore (my employment pass had not been renewed after a rule change disallowed foreigners from having sole proprietorships). Yet I had lived there over 27 years, and my daughter was born and died there.
Jean provides somewhat brutal advice: ‘Today, in modern society, there is this huge turnover of people, and it is normal for them to think that way. We are not living in a stable agricultural society anymore where people know your grandfather.’
I say that this coming and going of people can leave one disconnected. ‘What do you do to feel you have a place?’, I ask Jean. She replies: ‘I don’t know where I would have gotten, if I had not had a base in scripture. I’m a religious person, in some senses, and if I hadn’t that, I would be quite a different person.
‘Scripture is a repository of divine and human wisdom. In it you read of the reality of human nastiness. There, you can find today’s society in Abraham and his sons, and in some of the horrid stories in the Old Testament, and good Peter jumping into the water to get there first… human nature as it is.
‘Yes, you can be one of those for whom everything is shallow, skating along on the surface of the ice, being one of these people who never get beyond superficialities—and we all know some friends who stay at that level.’
After that heavy-natured discussion, Jean’s sense of humour surfaces and she says, in her wittily understated way: ‘It’s not surprising, really, that human nature’s not for some.’
A delivery man arrives with red and yellow orchids from a friend of Jean’s. She gets me to place the orchids within sight, gazing at the flowers for quite a while, silently, before saying: ‘There’s something about an orchid—it’s not an English flower running wild, but is a beautiful, statuesque thing.’
I comment on her age of 94, and she states drily: ‘One’s close personal friends have thinned out. All my college friends have gone.’
On living in Singapore, I comment that I have tried not to love the place, and yet, I had, despite myself. Jean declares that Singapore has her heart, declaring, ‘I became a Singapore citizen before I became engaged to David’, adding that she married him after (her stress) he became Chief Minister. She notes that before this, she had formed a life here, studied, had good, useful work, liked it.
She notes: ‘After I married, I was marrying someone whom many people outside Singapore regarded as personifying Singapore.’ And she goes on to point out that she and he represented Singapore when David was ambassador to France. I ask if she didn’t encounter people who were puzzled by this, who saw her as the white face of the coloniser? She said some in France did say they had expected the ambassador and his wife to be Chinese. Jean says the French had a very “Indochine” idea about the whole of Southeast Asia, but she would explain to them that Singapore was a multicultural state.
I say that some Malays here today would not regard Singapore as that multicultural. She nods and says: ‘The difficulty with Malay schooling is that the Malay language post-secondary level has tended to be left out, stopping at the end of primary school. If they go on to university, they write in English.”
I talk again of how I am going to Britain, and a fellow university student has written that I should be aware I am entering a nation in the final stages of disintegration, the public health service in disarray, infrastructure not replaced. Jean thinks on that for a moment, and says that she agrees. (Later, I ponder if this is one of the unspoken reasons she stayed on Singapore—sheer practicality).
An elderly, frail Chinese woman arrives. Jean introduces us and I take my cue to leave. I tell Jean that I won’t hug her goodbye—I hate goodbyes—and she nods in understanding, then says: ‘I think of you often.’ I must have looked surprised, for she adds: ‘I want you to know that I pray for you three times a week.’
I am humbled at the thought of this elderly woman doing this for me, so it does not seem the right time to say I don’t have much time for western religion these days. She must sense this, as she adds: ‘It can’t do any harm to have someone supplicating on your behalf to the Almighty, can it?’
At the lift to the ground floor, a well-dressed mature Asian woman gets in, too. She observes me jotting down info in my notebook, and asks with an American accent, ‘Visiting Mrs Marshall?’ I say, yes. She bursts into a sunny smile as we step out into the foyer, and says, ‘You know, those British Red Cross girls are all Superman.’
I think that although Jean was a woman of her time, and Asia has long since charted its own course, many people would agree.
Mandakini Arora edited Jean Marshall’s Pahang Letters, 1953-54: Sidelights on Malaya during The Emergency (2017), a collection of Jean's personal letters to her kith and kin while in Malaya as a field officer with the Red Cross.