In the heartlands of Singapore - and away from the glamour and glossy pictures we see on promotional brochures, advertisements and postcards - lies a question. A question which will be asked at the end of this essay.
I took a late night stroll around my neighbourhood 2 days ago. I've never done this before - not at 3 am, anyway, when everyone would be asleep, all shops closed, traffic has died down and the air is somehow cooler (and fresher).
So, a little blurry-eyed, I left the confines of my 3 room flat and started my own little 'observation walkabout', if you like, of my neighbourhood somewhere in the east of Singapore.
All was quiet except for a group of young men playing ping-pong at the void deck. (What were they doing so early in the morning?). I left them alone although the thought of speaking with them did cross my mind. Everything else around was dark, silent and the air rather cool, chilling even.
And then I saw this:
He must be in his late 60s, early 70s. Very sound asleep. He must've worked hard today (I've seen him picking up discarded stuff like cardboards and newspapers around the area a few times.) Normally, he would be without his shirt. But tonight, as he lies there, I could see that he was trying to keep warm, with his clasped hands, and a chequered shirt which he uses for blanket.
I know some might find that me taking a picture of him sleeping is not very nice. I did think about it for a while before I snapped the above picture - without using the flash. My only hope and aim in doing so is that it will somehow make us more aware of those around us - those we do not see, or see but never realise. I certainly do not mean any disrespect to this man. Indeed, I admire his resilience - to physical weather, to life's hard knocks, and the struggle to fend for himself.
A few thoughts went through my head as I left him to slumber peacefully. Does he have a wife? What happened to her? What about children? Did they abandon him, like those stories we hear and read about? How does he feel being left alone like that?
Where does he (and the likes of him) fit in, in our globalised, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, "biopolis-tan", Asian-tiger, confucianist society?
How much dignity must a man lose before he is considered 'deserving' of help?
Perhaps the answers to these questions can be found (in some ways) in what I discovered next - still within my neighbourhood - in the behaviour of some Singaporeans. By no means am I saying that the following account is representative of Singaporeans in general (although some would say it is).
A few blocks away, this is what I saw:
I would have dismissed this as just an isolated incident if not for what I saw again...and again...
As i said previously, I do not think this is representative of singaporeans in general - or singapore at large. I would rather think that this is only the behaviour of some singaporeans - although 'some' may mean quite a lot.
Perhaps some might say what is shown above is not that bad. But the next time you walk around Singapore (especially after dark and before the cleaners come out and do their job), you might change your mind.
The pictures I've shown above are not the only ones I've seen in person. (They're just a few photos which I snapped.) At other blocks, there were cigarette butts, lots of them, left on the floor by people who had gathered to play chinese chess earlier. At another block, there were discarded newspapers, empty packet drinks, even a small mattress strewn on the floor. More boxes with their contents thrown out at yet another block.
What upsets me is that the entire area had just had its surroundings upgraded by the town council recently.
And this brings me to the question which I mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
Are we on the right track to being a 'caring society' - a caring society for our homeless singaporeans and a caring society for our environment? These two questions, really, are at the heart of what being singaporean is all about, is it not? At least it should be.
For despite all the glamour and all the talk of being first-world, it is in the hearts of men (and women) that real grace is found. And what is in the hearts of men and women, I would argue, is found in the heartlands.
At the moment, at least from where I am, it is not a very pretty sight.
Nor very grace-ful.