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Nostalgia and physical history have no place in land-starved Singapore, it seems.

Singapore expunged – bit by bit

Ng Beng Choo

As Singaporeans ring in the new year with celebration, some residents of one area will leave their homes as development moves in on 1 January and demolishes their houses. The area will then be turned into an aerospace hub.

Expunge – verb (used with object), - punged, -pung-ing

1. - To strike or blot out; erase; obliterate

2. - To efface; wipe out or destroy

Gone, off the face of Singapore – The Oval, Edgware Road, Hyde Park Gate, Hamilton Place, Duke Street, Knights Bridge, Regent Street. The sign board said it all:  “This road will be expunged on 1 Jan 2009”.  The word “expunge” sent a chill to my heart.  

I did not know the meaning of the word, but it was easy to guess:  The picturesque estate of black-and-white houses in Seletar Airbase had come to an end. Of the 378 Seletar houses, 204 will be retained, and 174 demolished. Of those left standing, 131 will be retained as homes, and the remaining 73 redeveloped for non-residential use like food and beverage outlets.

I spent the last few days driving round the estate, soaking in the atmosphere.  If you wanted to know what Singapore looked like in the 40s, in the 60s, in the present – it was all here.  I feel gutted that yet another piece of Singapore’s history is gone.

Contrary to what many Singaporeans think, Seletar Airbase is not an exclusive expatriate dig. Many Singaporeans lived here.

938LIVE’s presenter Keith de Souza once lived at 5 Hyde Park Gate;  Violet Oon, artists Han Tsai Por, Vincent Leow and Yvonne Lee, all made it their home at some point in time. Then there are ordinary Singaporeans like Regina Meals and Bernadette Wong who, though no longer live there, continue their attachment to place by working at the Seletar Golf Course.

Why did these Singaporeans choose to pay rent to live in such tenements when a far wiser thing would be to put that money towards a property of their own? I know a number of these Singaporeans who, after paying the rent, have not much left for shopping, dining, massages and travel treats, but feel richer living in an environment surrounded by nature.

I spent my childhood growing up on British army camp property – Sussex Estate, Medway Park, Nepal Park – but none of these estates compare with Seletar Airbase – the trees, verdant stretches of land, fowls scurrying in the backyard, red hibiscus and bougainvilleas peeping out from someone’s hedge, greeting you as you walk past.

And the roads - with names like Old BirdCage Walk, Knights Bridge, The Oval - it is like living in an English countryside but in the tropics. Sadly, from tomorrow, they are gone.

According to Julian Davison, author of  “Black and White: The Singapore House 1898-1941”, which has now gone out of print, these houses were built from the end of the 19th century until World War Two by “the Public Works Department and the British Armed Forces, incorporating Art Deco elements. I love architecture and Art Deco.  I have stopped in mid-stride, arrested by the sight of good architecture.  Aesthetics is subjective, but good aesthetics simply takes your breath away – just like the simple clean lines and structure of Seletar’s black-and-whites.

And as I took photos of Hamilton Place, Knights Bridge and The Oval, I lamented the loss of history.  The reddish terracotta tiles which line the porch, the French windows, the quaint fencing and gates (the last time I saw such metalwork was my grandmother’s house in the 70s), the 1940s masonry, the postboxes, the drains - have you heard how gently the water gurgles? Listen to this: Lap, lap, lap, glug glug glug...  And the birds – where will they go?

The gates to the houses were padlocked.  But No. 5, The Oval, wasn’t.  A door in the middle of the house leads to the backyard.  And as the door swung open, I saw birds chirping merrily amongst the shrubs.  You can see your neighbour’s yard a yonder from here.  It is more than anything in the world I could want for, and I’m sure many Seletarians feel the same. Even if we had the money to buy a house in district 10, we would rather live here instead.

Unfortunately, nostalgia and physical history have no place in land-starved Singapore, not when 10,000 jobs can be created.

Sitting on 300 hectares, the Economic Devement Board and JTC Corporation to upgrade Seletar Airport to an aerospace park to the tune of $60 million.

When completed in 2018, the park will elevate Singapore's status as an aviation hub, and contribute $3.3 billion a year or one per cent of GDP.

How do you argue against these numbers?  You can’t. You mourn, you realize that life is so fleeting, and you move on, but not before kicking and screaming your heart out.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

Visit: http://postcardsfromseletar.com/

Read also: Sad farewell to tranquil Seletar Airbase.

And: Seletar Airbase residents hope to keep its rustic charm.

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