A brief work stint with the Customs and Excise Department gave writer Joseph Pereira an opportunity to see how toddy was sold in the 1970s, as he carried out inspections of Singapore’s four government-administered toddy shops before they were all later shut down.
In April 1975, I had joined the Customs and Excise Department. I had just turned 21. I was attached to its Docks Division and our headquarters was an ancient two-storey, white building in Keppel Road. Our duties centred around revenue administration and monitoring evasion of taxation revenues.
My working hours were office hours, from 8.30am to 5pm. We had special duties during weekday afternoons and this added some excitement to our routine work. One of my duties was to follow a special squad that went on islandwide patrols. We were in plain clothes. It was a thrill for me because it added a little cloak-and-dagger feel to an otherwise aboveboard law and order assignment.
We went to visit toddy shops in the course of our duties. It was then I learnt there were four legal toddy shops in Singapore that were government-administered. They were located at St George’s Road, Ord Road, Kampong Java Road and somewhere in Joo Chiat. It could have been Joo Chiat Lane or Joo Chiat Terrace. These four toddy shops were housed in a walled compound. The franchise was awarded to local vendors. I learnt that all four vendors in the four designated toddy shops were Indians. That did not surprise me because the majority of the toddy drinkers then were Indians.
For those who don’t know, toddy is an alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of a coconut palm tree. Milky white in appearance, it is also known as palm wine.
I remember going to the toddy shop in Joo Chiat during one of these inspection duties. We were there in the afternoon. I could see Indians squatting on the grounds drinking toddy out of big silver cups which were provided by the vendor. The cost of each drink was 50 cents which in 1975 was still considered a hefty sum.
Most of the Indians who patronised the Joo Chiat toddy shop came from the nearby PWD quarters nearby which housed their daily-rated staff workers. I was asked if I wanted to try a cup of toddy. I declined. I was then only 21 and fairly innocent. I had drunk beer occasionally during my two years in National Service in 1973 and 1974, but more or less did not drink alcohol.
The regulation in force for toddy administration stated that toddy could only be sold and consumed within the confines of these four areas. No women and children below the age of 18 could come in to these four designated toddy selling areas to purchase and consume toddy. I remember being a little surprised that the cut-off age was age 18. I had thought that 21 would have been more ideal because it signified adulthood.
Boys of 18 went into the army to serve National Service and came out at age 20 and had a more matured view of life. Still, I thought that it was good thing to have the limitations for women and children below 18 because I could see toddy drinking was very much a male and macho-oriented activity.
We spoke to the staff of the toddy drinking shop in Joo Chiat. They admitted that business was good every day. We asked if there were incidents within the compound of the toddy drinking area. They replied no because they enforced behavior strictly. They could not vouch for their customers’ behaviour once they left the toddy drinking premises. We asked about the potency of toddy. They admitted it was higher than beer and veered somewhere near spirits. Much of this information sailed over my head because I was very naive then.
I learnt that the location of the four toddy shops was governed by locality considerations. All the four locations had nearby concentrations of quarters for daily rated workers in establishments back in the day like PUB, PWD and probably Harbour Board.
Another toddy compound that I had visited in the course of my duties was in the Kampong Java area. It had a similar environment to the one I visited in Joo Chiat. A small walled compound. A garden inside. A covered area where the men lined up to purchase their toddy in the big cups and then squatted in the gardens to drink their toddy.
It was common knowledge that toddy drinkers would invariably go home drunk and then get into altercations with their wife and children. There was a problem with drunkenness and the accompanying social problems generated by that.
As the government grew more enlightened, they decided that the government-managed four toddy shops were not justified due to the social problems generated by them. I left Customs and Excise at the end of 1976. I read later that the four government-approved toddy shops were closed and the sale of approved toddy died out in Singapore. Today, it is a dim memory to Singaporeans although there is toddy drinking going on elsewhere in Malaysia and other parts of the world.
Words and photograph by Joseph Pereira