By Eddie Choo
So here I am, at Seletar, to witness the transformation taking place here in this relatively not-developed part of Singapore.
The reason I use the term ‘not-developed’ is because it is not that Seletar is undeveloped, it is that there are already plans in place; and as I look opposite this large field of open space, HDB flats have already sprung up, with many more on the way.
The actual reason that I’ve come to Seletar is because of a temple that was supposedly headed by some relative of mine. The temple has been here for something like thirty years, and soon, it will relocate to a plot of land just across the road. But more than that, I think that this little spot of Seletar tells a story of the continual process of change that is happening in Singapore.
Neil Humphrey was right that Singapore never stays still. Somewhere on this island, there will be someplace that is undergoing some upgrade or refurbishment. And so it is here in Seletar as well.
More HDB flats are obviously on the way; some already close to completion. Still others are only starting to be built. On the other side are rows of semi-detached houses, the gaps between them representing more than physical space: they symbolise gaps in income and lifestyle. Just next to this large field there is a smaller one, where the construction of a temple is taking place, slowly.
Like several others of its kind elsewhere, the funds for its construction are still being raised.
I move on to one of the smaller roads, Seletar West Farmway 4. The first things that greet me were the small signs that indicate the presence of the temple. And nearby is a relatively new home for the elderly, a jarring presence in a neighbourhood surrounded by derelict buildings.
I continue walking. Further ahead lies an old abandoned HDB estate. Each time I accompanied my parents to visit the temple, I would always see these HDB flats from another age, poorly maintained with long-faded paint and overgrown grass. This time, though, it looks different. The flats here have gotten a new coat of paint and though their design betrays their true age, they look new. New doors and windows have replaced their broken predecessors.
Where once there were only locals, now one can catch glimpses of some foreign workers like the few I see now talking on their handphones and walking around. You see humanity in all its colours; dark-skinned Indians and Bangladeshis, lighter skinned Burmese or Thais.
It is clear that quiet, “ulu” Seletar is transforming; change is everywhere as we speak. On the ground floor, various shops are opening, among them a coffeeshop under renovation, the contractors making small talk, relaxing from work.
Walking a little further up, I reach the Chinese temple at last. It’s got a brick wall along its perimeter, and as I walk up the steps to the main entrance, I see some temple caretakers resting and watching TV, while others attend to the worshippers who are buying joss sticks and incense paper, going around the entire temple. They would make their offerings and bow a few times before sticking the joss sticks into the urn.
The temple is really old. The statues of the gods are blackened from years of smoke and dust, and whatever original glory they might have had is now almost faded away, their features the only hint of their former selves. Yet they are still remembered by the worshippers who come to visit them, entering at the chamber in front and then proceeding to the chamber at the back, where they would offer their respects to the gods and ask for blessings.
In this back chamber, the statues and figurines of the gods are still bright and gleaming from the gold plating. Safe behind a glass partition, these figures have been barely touched by the smoke that afflicts their counterparts in the front chamber. These statues and figurines are those of the Buddha, the Monkey God, and various other deities.
To the side of the temple are the offices for the temple caretakers. Further out is the burning chamber for the incense paper. This chamber has obviously seen better days. Now it is almost black, from the many years of soot and ashes. The temple caretakers themselves aren’t becoming younger. They are ageing and there are no new caretakers to replace them. Sure, the temple might be relocated to a new place, but without fresh blood, how long can the temple stay around?
Will these temples then fade away from our consciousness, consigned to become tourist attractions, a mere memory of a forgotten era?
The temple here in Seletar is not alone. The thousands of temples that dot the island are facing a problem of succession. It’s the same for the clans and societies that formed the backbone of community for the immigrant Chinese who worked and settled down in Singapore in the early years. These organisations of a previous era are dying off, becoming extinct in our age of digital communities.
I don’t know what these potential losses of heritage mean to me. On the one hand, it’s a pity if they were all to just fade away. On the other, what can I do to stop this erosion? Is this a tension between tradition and modernity? I don’t really know.