January 29, 2024
SINGAPORE – For years, they played together as young girls in a village in Aljunied. Neighbours then often asked Madam Thangah Koh, 72, and Madam Fatimah Mohidin, 71, if they were sisters.
Madam Fatimah, a retired factory worker, said in Malay: “People said we looked alike and asked if we were sisters. I said I’m Malay, while Thangah is Indian. How could we be sisters?”
The pair were best of friends, and they played together every day.
It was only in her mid-teens that Madam Thangah discovered she was born to a Chinese couple.
She had been adopted by an Indian couple living in the same village, Lorong Sungkai, as her birth parents.
Madam Fatimah had been adopted by a Malay-Muslim family, who were also neighbours.
To their delight, both of them found out that they are biological sisters.
Madam Thangah, a retired office assistant, said: “Our (adoptive) mothers always told us to play together, but they never said why. We also didn’t ask why.”
Their story was featured in a book about interracial adoptions in pre-independent Singapore, which was published in December 2023.
Little Drops: Cherished Children Of Singapore’s Past was written by Dr Theresa Devasahayam, a part-time sociology lecturer.
The sisters were born to a mechanic and his second wife, with whom he had eight children.
Two of his five children from his first marriage lived with him and his second wife.
With so many children to raise, finances were tight.
Madam Thangah is the second child from their father’s second marriage, while Madam Fatimah is the third.
Named Koh Siew Kiang at birth, Madam Thangah often fell ill as a baby. An astrologer advised her birth parents to give her away to an “outsider”, such as a non-Chinese family, or ill fortune might befall her father.
When she was five months old, she was adopted by a childless Indian couple who ran a canteen stall in a school.
A year later, Madam Fatimah, named Koh Siew Lang at birth, was given up for adoption as a two-month-old baby.
The astrologer had said she might bring ill fortune to her mother, as her big toe was unusually smaller than her other toes.
Madam Thangah’s adoptive parents initially adopted Madam Fatimah too, but they later passed her to a neighbour, a childless Malay couple, as they felt they could not manage with two children.
The Malay couple were also canteen stallholders.
Madam Thangah found out she was adopted only when she had to register for an identity card in her mid-teens.
She told an immigration officer that she was Indian when he asked if she was Chinese.
The officer said that was impossible given that the names of her birth parents on her birth certificate were Chinese, she said.
“I took the news calmly,” she said upon learning that she was adopted. “I was very close to my adoptive parents, who loved me very much.”
She decided not to ask her adoptive parents about her origins, as her adoptive father was a stern man and she did not know how to broach the topic.
Years later, when she was 20, she set out to find her birth parents as she wanted to obtain information and documents to register for Singapore citizenship.
She had no formal adoption documents and hence could not register for a pink IC for Singaporeans. Instead, she held a blue IC that stated her citizenship and country of birth as “undetermined”.
After finding her birth parents’ home address from a neighbour, she and her adoptive mother knocked on their door.
Her birth mother initially thought the two women, who were wearing traditional Indian clothing, knocked on the wrong door.
Upon realising who Madam Thangah was, her birth parents and siblings burst into tears.
Her biological father, in particular, was overjoyed to find her. They had once placed an advertisement looking for her in a Chinese newspaper, to no avail.
On that same day, her birth father told her that Madam Fatimah was her biological sister. Both women said they were happy to learn of their real relationship.
Like Madam Thangah, Madam Fatimah said her adoptive parents did not tell her about her origins.
“Last time, people were very different. We just accepted it,” Madam Fatimah said, referring to the truth about her birth.
Her adoptive father died after an accident when she was eight, and her adoptive mother worked multiple jobs, such as washing clothes and selling kueh to raise her.
She said: “My adoptive mother loved me very much.”
After that first meeting, Madam Thangah started to spend Sundays with her birth family.
Her birth mother had earlier assured both their adoptive mothers that she would not take her daughters back from them, though Madam Thangah’s adoptive father was still unhappy that she visited her birth parents so regularly.
She said her birth father regretted giving his two daughters up for adoption, and showered her with gifts each time she visited.
“My biological siblings are all loving and respectful, and our bond got closer as we got older. My brothers call me their Indian sister, and Fatimah their Malay sister,” she said.
Since their reunion, both women celebrate various festivals with their birth family.
They would join the Kohs for reunion dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve, though Madam Fatimah would take her own halal food.
Deepavali is celebrated at Madam Thangah’s, while they would visit Madam Fatimah for Hari Raya.
Both sets of adoptive parents and their birth parents have since died.
Their birth mother died in 2023 at the age of 94 after a long illness. In her last days in hospital, all her children gathered around her.
Madam Fatimah, who was hospitalised after a fall, managed to get discharged for four hours to rush to her birth mother’s deathbed.
Madam Thangah said: “We all felt she was hanging on for Fatimah. She was unresponsive when Fatimah arrived, and she died a few minutes later.”
Both sisters, who are married with adult children, said they identify as the race of their adoptive parents.
Madam Thangah speaks English, Tamil and Malay fluently, and a smattering of Mandarin. Madam Fatimah speaks Malay and the sisters communicate in Malay.
“I never felt angry that I was given away. I take it as God’s will,” Madam Thangah said.
“I also feel very grateful to my adoptive parents for raising me.”