death by paper cut

{August 9, 2011}   Kampung Singapore No More

this post ruminates singapore’s 46th year in nationhood. back-projecting is a common tactic for nation building and to legitimise a claim on legacy and heritage. for singapore, we harken back to kampung days.

kampung days are romanticised to be the ideal standards of neighbourliness, good will and harmonious living. the message is “we used to live like that so we can be like that again.”

such nostalgia is evident from this year’s national day theme song, in a heart beat. it begins with sharon au in a kampung leading the simple life with malay and indian neighbours till the day she had to leave for a hdb flat. the departure seems more bitter than sweet so i’m not sure how this is progressive because she is depicted working as a seamstress from home all alone as a single parent trying to support her son through university. watch the rest of “in a heartbeat” here.

In A Heartbeat - 2011 NDP Theme Song 1

In A Heartbeat - 2011 NDP Theme Song 2

in the meantime, at my hdb lift landing is a notice for a “kampung spirit celebration” organised by the residents’ committee and if you are not aware that it is supposed to mean that it is a call for a show of cultural mingling, the event title is prefixed with “multi-racial harmony.”

RC Kampong Spirit Celebrations

the truth of the matter is the kampung spirit cannot be emulated without kampung experience. also the kampong experience can no longer be used as binding agent because the overwhelming majority of singaporeans and other hbd dwellers have no personal encounter with what that means.

i did not live in a kampung. what i know of kampungs are anecdotal stories told by older family members and documentaries.  but recently i did have the opportunity to visit singapore’s last kampung – kampung lorong buangkok. it was a visit organise by the national library and led by a very dedicated guide. i chanced upon it in the nlb bulletin, goLibrary and registered for the visit free of charge.

the land of kampung lorong buangkok is owned by sng mui hong. although the land is valued to be more than 30 million, so the guide said, sng mui hong is not selling the land to developers. instead, she alone continues to stem the tide of inflation by charging each household between $6.50 to $30 monthly. sng mui hong lives in kampung lorong buangkok among 20 odd other houses.

Kampung Buangkok 6 Kampung Buangkok 7

Kampung Buangkok 5

the kampung dwellers are not in anyway backward, they have access to electricity, postal service, a sewage system, some have cars parked outside their house, and even have a park connector at their backyard!

that is as far as upgrading goes. the houses organically brunch out from the dirt track, there is no street lighting so it is very dark at night, there is no air-conditioning, ventilation is not consistent and insects and small animals co-exist with you. i was bitten twice by ants when i walked over their trail inadvertently.

Kampung Buangkok 66

Kampung Buangkok 41 Kampung Buangkok 89 Kampung Buangkok 101

Kampung Buangkok 42

Kampung Buangkok 97 Kampung Buangkok 75

Kampung Buangkok 63

although not everything is shiny and new, there is no obsession to upgrade in the kampung or for neighbours to out do each other. everything is do-it-yourself. if you want to cement a part of your floor, you do it yourself too.

Kampung Buangkok 71

i think because of that, there is a strong sense of ownership. and since you know whatever you toss out will land on somone else’s home you tend to be more considerate with where your trash lies. no one is going to clean up after you. that being said, i observed that there is also a higher tolerance for each other’s life style at the kampung. while from one home blasts music in malay, the other has dogs barking loudly. but no one is complaining.

the houses are not tightly padlocked nor are there any fences around them. there is trust among the residents and they look out for each other. i think that is easier said than done. such trust can only be built up over time. it is vicious cycle among hdb dwellers to move in and out with each upgrade and downgrade and so become increasingly less cordial and more suspicious of each other.

just yesterday i came across a news article reporting how ludicrous things have become. apparently there are community mediation centres to handle disputes among neighbours. i thought they were called police, but nevermind.

A family, who had just moved here from China, had resorted to mediation because they could not stand the smell of curry that their Singaporean Indian neighbours would often cook. The Indian family, who were mindful of their neighbour’s aversion, had already taken to closing their doors and windows whenever they cooked the dish, but this was not enough.

“They said: ‘Can you please do something? Can you don’t cook curry? Can you don’t eat curry?’,” said Madam Marcellina Giam, a Community Mediation Centre mediator. But the Indian family stood firm. In the end, Mdm Giam got the Indian family to agree to cook curry only when the Chinese family was not home. In return, they wanted their Chinese neighbours to at least give their dish a try.

i know that disputes among born and breed singaporeans is one thing and throwing a newly arrived immigrant from china into the mix is a whole new dimension, but seriously, i for one love indian curry. singaporeans love our curry. food binds us as a nation. this goes to show how deep and cutting the lines of fracture in our society goes. with each complaint lodged, each act of vandalism committed, each pile of litter strewn, this sentiment is reinforced, “i don’t believe you care about this lift landing / corridor / country as much as i do.”

i don’t think that everything was fine and dandy in the kampung. i’m sure they had their disputes and their bad days. however i have the gut feel that because folks in the kampung were willing to see what was right rather than what was wrong with each other, were invited to celebrate each other’s milestones, partake in each other’s food and share a common stake in the welfare for the community, they exhibited a kind of neighbourlines that is forever gone with the destruction of the kampungs of singapore.

even kampung lorong buangkok will go sooner or later for the sake of progress.

new york time’s coverage of kampung buangkok.

other photos of kampung buangkok.


Huiwen says:

We are students from Meridian Junior college and we found this article to be very useful to substantiate our claims.
We hope to get your details such as your name to prove the credibility of this article.

Thank you

Rickee Ng says:

I would love to live in such a village in real life. I have never enjoyed living in HDB flat since our Kampong house was acquired by the Govt way back in 1967. Is there any way to get in touch with Ms Sng, the landlady? I would be very glad to meet up with her………..the same generation as me – I was borned in 1953.
Please assist me the best way possible. Thanking you in advance.

steelwool says:

Hi Rickee, I did not personally meet Ms Sng. Neither do I have her contact details. Perhaps you would like to visit Kampung Buangkok to ask around? The residents might point you in the right direction.

Rickee says:

Thanks, I will do that again. Maybe, I will be lucky the next time. Cheers!

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