As Singaporean homes downsized in the 1970s to HDB flats, so did dogs. Bobby, a handsome mixed mongrel, was the king of Joo Avenue — perhaps the last of a generation of pet dogs who had the freedom to roam.
In 1978, the Housing Development Board (HDB) issued a firm edict to pet-owners in flats: cats and big dogs had to go. The number of stray cats in HDB estates shot up as homeowners turned the lock behind their feline companions. Large dogs found themselves packed off into the street or into the enclosed area of the Singapore Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Many residents were adjusting to living in close quarters with each other — among airy corridors and bamboo poles prodding into the sky — and they were changing their perspectives on family pets and stray animals.Roy Wee and Bobby were best friends to each other.
Bobby was blissfully unaware of these developments. In 1977, he was a tiny puppy squirming in a box which had just been dropped off at the doorstep at 10A Joo Avenue. Roy Wee, then 14 years of age, peeled back the box lid and made a decision that moment: Bobby was so cute that they had not much of a choice but to keep him.
As many Singaporeans packed up and moved out of their kampong villages into HDB flats, the nation set itself busily to the task of rapid modernisation. It took a decade of spring-cleaning, sweeping itinerant hawkers, poultry, and litter off the streets. In 1971, just a few years before Bobby’s arrival, the biggest problem with stray animals were pigs and cows belonging to inattentive farmers. Wandering along Henderson Road disrupting traffic, these unfortunate creatures were caught, promptly slaughtered, and distributed to charitable institutions.
By 1984, the street clean-up had been so triumphantly thorough that misplaced stock were no longer a concern: authorities were more concerned with trapping stray dogs in the Botanic Gardens because joggers were perturbed by their wild presence.
Alongside the loss of open space and the tightening restrictions on dog ownership, stray dogs were increasingly seen as a nuisance — an unsightly eyesore against the backdrop of a freshly-minted Singapore. They had to be leashed and licensed, or risk being impounded and destroyed by the Primary Production Department.
But handsome Bobby was unperturbed. In the quiet neighbourhood of Joo Avenue, he was undisputed king of the castle. He never felt the gasp of a leash around his neck, and he most certainly did not consider himself an eyesore. He grew up running wild, spending his time wisely by scrapping with other dogs, chasing cats, sunbathing, or taking long trotting jaunts to wherever his nose led him.
Back in the 1970s, a dog-care instruction manual to a young Chinese family living in a rented shophouse was unheard of. Sensitivity, attention, and love led the way forward. Roy asked around enough to learn how to toilet-train the new puppy, and then let Bobby come and go as he pleased.
Roy and his siblings — older sister Pauline and younger brother Steven — grew up running Bobby ragged, playing tug-of-war and racing each other down narrow back-alleys and roads, dodging bicycles and pedestrians alike. Worried about the crackdown on stray dogs, they collared and licensed Bobby, but allowed him to resume his adventures wherever and whenever he wanted.
Bobby often sauntered out of the house to undertake long sojourns around the neighbourhood. His pleading eyes, neat ears, and surprised downturned mouth won over hearts, and he was well known as the Wee family’s prized pet. If he disappeared overnight, the children would find him the next morning curled up outside the gate, chin resting demurely on folded paws, waiting to be let in.
Sometimes he would turn up with cuts and scrapes — badges of victory earned from scuffles with other dogs — and the boys would dab antiseptic on his wounds before letting him loose again.
A loyal companion
If he wasn’t out on his own, he was busy ensuring that members of the Wee family were doing fine; and he was determined to do so with or without their permission.
When Roy’s mother headed to the beauty salon for work, he trailed anxiously at her heels and jumped on board the bus behind her. “Bobby, go home!” she would say. The bus driver, accustomed to this daily drama, would wait patiently as a sulky Bobby got off the bus.
Undeterred, he would race the trundling bus to the salon and nose his way past the front doors, startling customers in curlers and towels. Roy’s mother would then say again exasperatedly: “Bobby, go home!”, and he would obligingly retreat to the private office within the salon.Bobby was fond of paying Roy’s mother a visit or two at the beauty salon where she worked.
Bobby was always winding in and out of his family’s lives, certain and friendly as afternoon shadows cast by sunlight streaming through trees. There was no place that they went that he did not try to go to as well. When the family headed to New World Amusement Park for a visit, Bobby would chaperone them to the entrance and wait adamantly until they emerged.
Once he followed a family friend’s motorbike all the way from Joo Avenue to Toa Payoh and Kim Keat — long distances even for an energetic dog. Sometimes, when Roy was older and began driving, Bobby would chase after the car, forcing Roy to accelerate until he dwindled in the rearview mirror. No matter where Roy went, Bobby never seemed to get lost.
Of a different breed
Dogs nowadays seem to be sleepy custodians of the living room couch, perking up for morning and evening walks. It was unimaginable to confine Bobby indoors that way.
Purchasing dry dog food engineered specifically for dogs seemed like a foolish idea to Roy. Bobby feasted well on whatever the family was eating: chicken rice, cooked liver, odds and ends of bones, char kway teow, and the occasional bowl of wanton mee.Bobby spent most of his life outdoors on mysterious quests of his own.
The grooming parlour Bobby frequented most was the family toilet, where he was unceremoniously hosed down whenever he got too dirty. He learned to hoist his body up and put his paws against the bathroom wall so that Roy’s mother could get at the hard-to-reach parts.
Instead of ‘sit’ and ‘good doggie!’, Bobby was more accustomed to hearing platitudes, commands and questions in Teochew: ‘guai’ (obedient), ‘jiak peng’ (eat your meal), and ‘le ke di gor?’ (‘where did you go?).
His worst habit was ripping into the day’s Straits Times newspapers and leaving the paper scattered all over the house. When the family returned home he would keep his gaze and cower in a corner, ashamed. ‘Le toi bo zua ah?’ (Are you reading the papers?) became an exasperated household refrain.
In 1984, a letter writer to the Straits Times observed that islanders leaving Pulau Tekong for mainland Singapore were leaving their pets behind: on a trip to the island, he described the heartwrenching scene of a ‘faithful dog guarding the deserted house’ as his owners drifted further and further away from the shore.
Bobby died when he was about 11 or 12 years old. Roy could not bear to accompany Bobby on his final trip to the SPCA to be euthanised. It was Bobby who was on the boat, rocking along ocean waves, leaving the island and his family behind. Shortly after, the Wee family moved to a HDB flat in Yishun.
In the 1980s, it was a common sight at hawker centres to see toy poodles cradled in their owners’ arms and being fed treats from the dinner table with the flick of a chopstick. In 1987, pets were banned from these shared spaces. Today, dogs are not welcome in most public areas. They are private creatures that indisputably belong to a single family. Each companion is attached to a single household instead of a wider community. Local regulations indicate that they must be leashed (and accompanied) at all times when outdoors.
Dogs certainly lead longer, healthier, and likely more humane lives today. The eradication of stray dogs is likely to have contributed to higher standards of public hygiene, but it also means that community dogs like Bobby — who nosed his way freely through Singapore’s geography and food menu — no longer exist.
To his family, Bobby was a faultless companion, both wild and tame, and magnificently, independently free. He had only one shortcoming. “How nice it would be,” Roy’s mother remarked often, “if Bobby could talk.”