Where is my Space? Where can I stake claim?
In Singapore, one can own many things – property, more property and cars and boats and expensive things – but one can never really own your own land. For such a small country, (re)development and (re)building is a constant. This means even if you supposedly buy a freehold property, chances are the state will be able to successfully bid for it if it was necessary in their plans for (re)development/building. Basically, nothing stands in the way of the nation’s most constant agenda.
Recently, the Bukit Brown Cemetery has been marked for exhumation so as to clear the land for a new road. The authorities estimate 5000 graves will be cleared, of which many belong to the fathers of early Singapore. There was public outcry of the loss of another heritage site, much like when the old National Library was torn down so as to build the entrance to an expressway. Deconstruction like these is common, and over the years, we have indeed lost many significant sites. Just today, The Straits Times reported that the entire Rochor Centre will be torn down for yet another expressway and at least 500 personal homes are going to be affected. That doesn’t include other properties such as an old folk’s home and schools located on the marked route.
I’m not an expert on these matters. It is a delicate matter, negotiating preservation in this tiny island. But in all honesty, I have never heard of the Bukit Brown Cemetery till the recent hoo-ha. Nor have I ever visited the old National Library before it got torn down in 2004. So maybe my family’s not that sentimental or cultural to have appreciated these gravely important sites. By the time I was utilizing the public library, it was an era where we had extensive libraries in most of our neighbourhoods. As Catholics, and having grandparents who have been cremated, I understood cemeteries to be the impractical things in land-scarce Singapore. When I learnt of the public’s reactions, I was genuinely puzzled.
I travelled freely, even as a young child. Very often, I used to meet my mom in town when she finished work. I knew the north-south train line by heart and I could, at 9 years old, navigate my way from Orchard to City Hall on my own. But I really spent most of my time in Yishun. All my schools were in Yishun, right up to Junior College. Church was in Yishun. My first love lived in Yishun. My grandmother lives in Yishun. Today, we still live in Yishun.
But Yishun is Yishun. It’s not quite the same as say, Ang Mo Kio or Bukit Panjang, or newer estates like Punggol. Locals who live in these different areas can definitely tell you the difference. Even our behaviours can sometimes be distinct enough between an Eastsider and a Yishun kid like me. And yet, they are nonetheless, very much the typical Singapore housing estates. Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, the bus interchange and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations, the local mall, the heartland courtyard and the hawker centres, the Cold Storage and the NTUC Fairprice… – every estate has their own configuration of the same few things.
Despite their homogeneity across the island, do we stake claim on these places? Since the fact is we spend a lot of our time having grown up in these local areas. The local 24 hour coffee shop is a saviour for late night munchies. The void decks around our schools were where we spent our afternoons over canned drinks bought from the mama store. The playgrounds – they have changed shape from the sandbox days, and yet that was where my girlfriends used to play games like “colour catching” after our examinations. I used to walk with a particular friend home from school, or Northpoint (the local mall), and when we got to her apartment block, we would stop there and finish our conversation. Of course, the conversations never stopped and we’d end up sitting on stairs that lead to the pavements by the main road in our stinky school uniforms and talk till sunset when we would be due home. Most days, my mother would walk past on her way home and be surprised at how long we’ve been there.
Perhaps it is precisely because of its homogeneity, that these are the places we tend to forget. Or maybe what I mean by “forgetting” is more like we don’t place significance on these places. There are not the historical sites that need to be preserved. That brick stairs leading up to her apartment block is no different from any other brick stairs in the estate or in Choa Chu Kang and Potong Pasir and the East Coast.
Or perhaps we tend to forget these places because they are in fact non-spaces.