The morning smells of rain, like the aftertaste of what was torrential earlier. Walking home from the train station (a practice that has replaced the rushed bus rides since the intentions-based year began), the patches of soil bare from grass are moist and they line the familiar pavement that leads me to home. I grew up in the Clementi neighbourhood – learned how to walk and talk, attended kindergarten then primary school, made the closest friends, had the most childish fights; all in this vicinity. I recognize the faces, the buildings. The new Build-to-Order flats replacing what used to be big patches of green grass do not erase the memories once shared in the greenery. Easily, this is where I would relate to most closely as ‘home’.
From experience in Sunlove Home, conversations with the older generation never escape ideas of “what it used to be like” – with respect to neighbourhoods and ‘home’, then, it would be about the kampong spirit, the gotong-royong heart for one another. When we first embarked on Strong Mind Fit Body, hoping to ride on Housing Development Board’s Good Neighbours Project funding and foster neighbourliness, I was excited to actively uncover the kampong spirit that I believed to remain regardless of evolving infrastructure, of changing times. The excitement remains with every functional fitness session as we share stories and have conversations. I am reaffirmed that we still care for one another and that the gotong-royong spirit persists.
Days ago, I enjoyed an incredibly moving production by the local W!LD RICE Company titled “Geylang”. As part of the Singapore Theatre Festival celebrating the Singaporean flavor in more ways than one, this one was about the preservation of heritage and the comfort of the neighbourhoods that we call ‘home’. The key plot was centred around a modern-day ‘redevelopment project’ by an architecture firm hoping to uplift the entire old Geylang Serai and replace it with new infrastructure. A ministry, named “MYID” in the play, was supporting the project that was still in its planning stages and the architecture firm was struggling, trying to convince old tenants to move out from their stores. Especially heartening was the scene where the residents of Geylang, spoke up for their memories in Geylang Serai in front of the MYID Permanent Secretary. They had stood in unity in spite of differing racial backgrounds, dialect groups, livelihoods and demographic altogether. With tears in their eyes and an indescribable passion in their pleas, they had found the basis for their sense of camaraderie in the common spaces they had shared within Geylang Serai and the gotong-royong spirit that they had lived out in the neighbourhood for decades.
At times, I find the distracting pace of our lives and the endless pursuit for financial security masks the still existing kampong spirit that we envy the older generation for. I believe where the situation calls for, we will stand together and fight for a place we consider ‘home’, alongside neighbours we consider family. It is the safety and comfort, the familiarity and the memories of these common spaces that create attachment. Yet, our attachment is silenced and we coax ourselves to be less attached so we can let go, giving way to ‘development’.
My latest read is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, a story of war-torn Afghanistan and the slow progress in women empowerment slowed down further by the domestic crisis. History lessons about how superpower intervention prolong existing conflicts and the numerous push-pull factors for religious ideologies to fuel armed conflict made the read ever engaging, a page-turner round every chapter. The tale ends with Laila’s visit back home to Kabul – she reminisces “what it used to be like” and the memories that made her ‘home’ have a special place in her heart. There is unspoken sadness at the changes made to her ‘home’ in the years that she has been gone, how the places she once knew like the back of her hand were no longer existent and how the memories seemingly faded along with the landmarks. The reality reflected that “war, hunger, anarchy and oppression (can) force millions of people to abandon their homes and flee” (in the words of Hosseini himself). They turn into refugees and remain helpless to their homes destroyed and to the changing landscapes of where they consider ‘home’.
Juxtaposing their harsh reality with ours, it dawned upon me that we were changing these landscapes by choice. In the play “Geylang”, the MYID (representing the government body responding to what society appeared to need) was pushing for the ‘redevelopment project’ to be realized. Eventually, the play ended with the residents’ collective pleas and the Permanent Secretary whispering his response to the architecture firm head. My take is that the play was left intentionally open-ended to provoke reflection from the audience about what our answer would be. To what extent would we allow our heritage and landscapes to be wiped clean in the name of ‘development’? And would we consider the possibility of having the ‘old’ and ‘new’ coexist? The choice is our privilege and the least we could do is to exercise it with care.