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Potong Pasir, the people’s Town

by: Howard Lee and Benjamin Cheah/

You've heard it before. The slum of Singapore, the dirty neighbourhood, the run-down poorer cousin of modern housing. Such associations have often been cast on the township of Potong Pasir, that enigma of Singapore politics that has held out against the temptations of modernisation for the privilege of being the longest-standing bastion of the opposition voice.

We began with a healthy dose of skepticism, and decided to see for ourselves, as well as provide a first-hand account to readers, if Potong Pasir is anything like what it has been made out to be.

Our first cursory glance would not surprise you much, as you would have heard it often in online forums: Potong Pasir is old, but not the dirty, dilapidated back-water town it has been suspected of being. It is old, but not in the sense that things are falling apart. In fact, the town is quite well-maintained, evidently by the last town council more than the current.

As we strolled towards the edges (geographically, Potong Pasir is not very big), we were able to piece together a thematic map of the town and shoot some pictures.

Road down the middle

Potong Pasir is a town divided - and by that, we mean structurally. There are four distinguishable areas:
1) Multi-storied public housing to the north and west
2) The former Bidadari cemetary area and crematorium flanking the far north
3) Low-rise private housing in the east
4) Light industries in the south

The first two sections are divided from the other two by Upper Serangoon Road, and it gave a unique character to the place. The public housing area had mainly red-bricked buildings (as opposed to the concrete, prefabricated blocks that you see in newer housing estates) with a unique slanted rooftop design, a design mirrored in the town council's logo. There are also a number of four- to five-storey high blocks, which really speaks more of the era when they were built.

The public housing zone is also characterised by many pockets of greenery and tree-lined streets. Neighbourhood shops and coffee shops speckle void decks and common blocks, and in between blocks, ample facilities like playgrounds, exercise zones, green areas and seats provide welcome relief for tired legs. The scene is similar to what you might find in mature estates. What makes these housing blocks different, however, are not the common facilities. We took a look around a few blocks, and it was clear that, even with new lifts installed, not all stop on every floor. There are none of the stand-alone lift towers that mark other old-made-new settlements in Bedok or Clementi.

Across Upper Serangoon Road, which is conveniently marked by Potong Pasir MRT station, the town yields to a different kind of urbanisation – the landed property of Sennett estate. While there are indications of development in the public areas, such as walkways covering drains, it is clear that this area remains relatively untouched by any upgrading. It is a scene that would not be very different from estates such as Serangoon Gardens, perhaps different only in that the houses do not rise beyond two stories.

And similar to the older parts of Serangoon Gardens, some units show signs of in-between developments, with remnants of old alley-ways and drain curbs still in existence. There are also fewer green patches in Sennett compared to the public housing zone, and trees offering shade to pedestrians grow from the gardens of residents more that from road banks – again, no different from Serangoon Gardens and symptomatic of development as drains get covered up and trees are removed as a compromise.

An interesting development are the outcrops condominiums in the town, both built-and-occupied and under construction. These mark the town at various places, with one that was only just up for booking at the edge of the private residential area. Media reports have indicated that these new blocks could have accounted for the swing in votes against the Singapore People's Party. But a cursory look from street level would suggest that their numbers would not likely be a key contributing factor.

The difference that the condominiums do make, however, is the overall landscape of the town. Constructed mostly of concrete and glass, these taller buildings stand in contrast to the red-bricked, slanted-roof look of the public housing area and can be seen from afar. As Potong Pasir heads into more development, as promised by Sitoh Yi Pin, one wonders if these modern facades will take over the character of the town.

Subjectively special

For sure, Potong Pasir is not the dirty, run-down place that most would make it out to be. Or if it is, the level of maintenance is no different from some parts of more mature estates in the rest of Singapore. If anything, it has maintained an environment of green patches and familiar common areas for the residents. Pieces of modernity have started to show, primarily surrounding the community centre at the heart of the town, but not overdeveloped to disturb the peace. Think KTV pubs, busy cafes and alfresco eateries (think the Serangoon Gardens of today, actually), and you would begin to appreciate its quaint quiet.

There are some areas of the town that need attention. Lifts on every floor, for instance, would be an urgent matter given the ageing population that we saw around us. But the temptation to make “better use” of common areas might risk overdeveloping the greenery that residents currently enjoy. There is also risk in losing its current identity, although that point would be more subjective.

All in all, the physically-seen Potong Pasir would best be described as “peaceful but upcoming”. How much it will evolve from peaceful town image remains in the hands of its residents, through their votes at the last general elections.

But to call it “my kind of town” would really be a statement that residents have to make, because from street view, there is nothing physically apparent about the town that makes it unique. Or more appropriately, it is unique in as much as any other town would have its own identifying trademarks, facilities and mix of architecture. What makes it unique, then, would be the values and passion that its residents attribute to it.

Watch out for Part 2, where we examine residents’ views and wishes for Potong Pasir.

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This is the first of a three-part series where TOC explores the real Potong Pasir.