What Did Singaporean Kids Do Back Then With No Screens?

This month, the Game Boy Advance turns 23 years old—not old enough to buy its own house, but old enough to get hitched and apply for BTO.

When it arrived on the scene in 2001, it changed things as much as the PlayStation 2 did. It was sleeker, cooler, and provided better-looking graphics. When you were a kid in the early 2000s, everyone seemed to have had one. When it came to meeting your friends outside of school, more often than not, one of them would have the latest Pokemon cartridge.

Arguably, it was the Game Boy that started how kids would turn to screens to occupy their time (and imaginations). Now, it’s common for them to have smartphones or iPads. So common that what’s more coveted now amongst them now are limited-edition energy drinks. Back then, however, a Game Boy was a status symbol. And, somehow, a lot of kids had them.

But how about the ones among us who grew up without them? Or even just had a childhood that did not involve any kind of screen? We ask readers who, in the 2000s, were analogue kids in an increasingly digital world.

“We stayed in an HDB flat, so there were multiple playgrounds in our area or across the street. We played badminton, went cycling around the neighbourhood, and played soccer with our neighbours. If not, we would set playdates with friends and go to their houses to hang out or play.

If not, I would be occupied with tuition classes and curriculum activities. It was a pretty typical childhood, but it might have been a better one than kids nowadays, maybe?”

— Shannie, 36

“1998. I grew up hanging upside down from monkey bars, attempting my own forms of parkour, fixing jigsaw puzzles, drawing and reading so many books.

I was a bookworm, and my parents would borrow the maximum number of books allowed from the library but I would finish them within a day. Then, it would be agony to wait for next weekend when I could borrow more.

I also doodled a lot. I got a drawing tutorial book as a present and I learnt how to draw bees really well in super detail. I mainly doodled animals. We used to go to the zoo every Saturday and I spent a lot of time learning how to imitate their call sounds. I used to be able to make dog, cat, elephant, horse, cricket, crow sounds, etc.

I was super active as a kid too. I was always climbing something. I taught myself how to cartwheel by doing it on the sofas and bed in the house, eventually moving to the floor. I also learnt how to do handstands by doing them against the walls in the house.

I would always go downstairs and play with my kick scooter or cycle around the estate. I knew the cycling paths like the back of my hand. My favourite was a route that chained five slopes together. Mind you, some of them were pretty steep and had sharp turns in between the slopes. I was a daredevil as a kid, and it was exhilarating.”

— Kiwi, age unknown

kids, childhood, parents
Image: Lim Mei Hui / RICE file photo.

“My siblings and I had scheduled hide-and-seek games around the house. The number of child-proofed surfaces and corners increased every week. We also put on regular performances like Hannah Montana for our parents and grandparents.”

— Janine, 25

“I was born in 2003 but had my first phone much later when I turned 15.

We had no TV at home!! I redid jigsaw puzzles and read the whole Horrible History series, especially when I got into an accident and was physically restricted. I borrowed my brother’s Game Boy whenever he let me.

My only TV access was at my grandparents’ house, but even that had a one-hour limit (I always missed the Hi-5 ending because of it)

I did a lot of music as a kid. I was in school choirs and played semi-professional piano. So listening to music mattered a lot. In secondary school, I didn’t have a phone until Secondary 3, so I ‘stole’ an MP3 player that had been sitting near the library computers for a week. I used my dad’s SD card, which had some Tamil music. My mum found out, but I managed to worm my way out of getting scolded by my dad.”

— Tania, 20

“Books were my world back then because my parents couldn’t afford a Game Boy for me. Everywhere I went, I needed to have a book with me—family trips to Johor, dinners with relatives, outings to East Coast Park, you name it. It got so bad that my parents would take away my books and force me to play outside with other kids in the neighbourhood.

If they thought that was bad, it got worse when I discovered comic books. I devoured every single one I could find from second-hand bookstores—it didn’t matter if it was from Marvel or DC. Then the public libraries started stocking graphic novels on shelves, and that was it.

The moment classes ended, I’d head straight to Ang Mo Kio Public Library to catch up on classics like The Dark Knight Returns or The Sandman. This was way before the current craze with superhero movies, mind you. Now, I’m a walking encyclopaedia of comic book lore—a trick I often use at parties.”

— Bryan, 33

Image: Stephanie Lee / RICE file photo

“Maybe it was for the best that my parents couldn’t afford to buy me a Game Boy—I don’t think I would be able to pay attention at home or complete my homework (which was already in a dire state as it had been).

I read books, but I was a late bloomer when it came to reading and comprehension so the visuals in picture books were what drew me in. Otherwise, my genuine form of entertainment was either reading the cinema listings at the back of Life! newspaper every morning, or playing StarCraft with cheat codes. Whenever I went to my cousin’s house, I’d head straight for the computer to play Doom II.

I loved watching movies. Aside from the few genuine VCDs we had in the house—I wore out our copy of The Matrix watching it over and over again—one of the most exciting things to happen back then was whenever my brother would bring back pirated VCDs of newer films home.

One day, he brought a copy of the first Lord of the Rings film that they wouldn’t let me watch because they said it would scare me. Fair play, I got scared enough whenever I saw the black-and-white poster of Amelie in the newspaper. That mischievous grin was a lot more frightening to eight-year-old me than the movie would ever be (it’s actually lovely, I watched it in secondary school).

The access we have now is great. But when you had little access at the time, having that sense of mystery about things that, really, weren’t that mysterious was fun to experience.”

— Daniel, 31

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