By Luke Lu–
Before we begin proper, some caveats are in order, lest some amongst you accuse this article of not being an objective piece again and then set out to declare that you “disagree COMPLETELY” (yes, some actually did use CAPS), or that I need to stop smoking whatever I am smoking. Well, let’s just state categorically that this is a subjective commentary. A personal opinion rather than an objective argument. It’s like saying why I prefer a 1975 Toyota Celica to a brand new Corolla. From the feedback I got the last time out, I was wondering if people will soon be disagreeing with me for why I prefer tea to coffee, and chastise me in the process.
Also, to pre-empt those with much nationalistic fervour now that National Day is just round the corner, this is not an indictment against what Singapore is or will be. I like to recite my Pledge loudly with pride too. Perhaps, a nostalgic soliloquy that the past seemed better, but hardly a full-blown bitter gripe. If my Grandma can eulogise about the past, why can’t I?
Whew… only in Singapore must we state such detailed qualifications to prevent ourselves from incurring legal reprisal or public disdain. And so…
1. We had proper playgrounds with real sand. Architecturally, the playgrounds had cultural motifs familiar to Singaporeans, not pre-fabricated plastic modules installed on foam cushions.
2. There was better music. In the 80s, there was Duran Duran, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses… All of which were proper countercultural stuff. Even dance music sounded better with the Petshop Boys. The 90s heard Nirvana, U2, R.E.M., not the mass-produced boy bands of the noughties who all sound the same. Plus, I can’t tell the female artistes in K-pop groups apart. Is it me or do they seem to share an uncanny likeness? I always pitied young kids to whom I had to explain Suede the band and not the leather.
3. We were actually better at football in the 90s. Malaysia League and Cup double 1994. Fandi Ahmad. Sundram. Ok, maybe Lim Tong Hai was a tad dodgy (sorry Mr Lim, but I’ll always remember the own goals against Myanmar), but at least he was a tall defender… By Asian standards… At the time.
4. Cars, HDB flats, food were all cheaper. Obviously they cost less, but I what I mean is they were immensely more affordable. Taxi peak hour surcharges did not extend to more than half the 24-hr day.
5. MRT trains were new and relatively empty. I remember an age long past when I could sit on the floor just by the doors playing card games with friends. You’d be lucky now to be able to sit down, and then you must be careful which seat you take. We could once boast about our trains that never broke down and were always on time. Not anymore.
6. Life was less sedentary and healthier. We had to walk to the TV to change channels, which made channel surfing an activity that only the fit and healthy could indulge in (or those who could afford new TV sets with a chunky remote control much later). Then again, we only had 3 SBC channels to choose from in the 80s. The term “couch potato” only entered the Collins English Dictionary in 1991. In an age before the internet, kids were forced to either pick up a book or play with friends outdoors. We had actual board games with moving pieces and kicked a real ball around. Playing games on a computer were never conceived of as a sport.
7. Home appliances almost NEVER broke down. Or if they did suay-suay become spoiled, you could get a TV repairman to fix your cathode ray tubes, solder the circuit boards or change the “head” of your VCR player. I had a National Panasonic TV set that lasted 15 years. We had to replace the buttons for channel surfing (see #6) when some fell off. When we did get rid of the set, it wasn’t because it couldn’t work anymore, but because we wanted a new one with a remote control and teletext. Throwing stuff away while it could still be used and replacing it with a brand new item was known as wastage. Now, it is called upgrading. And oh, TV was the wrong word to use. You had to say television in school.
8. The world, not only Singapore, seemed a more equal place. The wage gap we are experiencing today has never been as wide. This worldwide trend isn’t only so for the gap between CEOs and lowest employees in the private sector, but is also true of public sector pay. In fact, it has been argued that inequality is now higher in the US than the Roman Empire. Just check out Singapore’s Gini coefficient in the 80s, compared to what we have now.
9. We were on better terms with neighbours. People living in HDB estates used to have an open-door policy where kids could run in and out of neighbours’ flats and play block catching or hide-and-seek together. We shared toys and borrowed various cooking implements or ingredients when we lacked them. My old neighbour in Ang Mo Kio used to babysit me. Nowadays the only time I see my neighbours is by the lift lobby. On a good day, we might ask each other if we have had breakfast/lunch/dinner.
10. Gone are the heady days of exploring what it means to be Singaporean. In the 80s, Singaporean culture and identity were still the holy grail to be sought. Those were exciting times when Emily of Emerald Hill and Army Daze captured the public’s imagination, and even Under one Roof and Phua Chu Kang became iconic. Singlish was bad and Standard English all-important (actually this hasn’t changed). Singaporean culture was “emerging” and undefined according to the government in the 80s and 90s (Hansard, Debate on President’s Address, 13/6/1990, Vol: 56 , Start Col: 173 , End Col: 260). We were a fledgling nation (not sure when exactly we became adults, it seems largely down to the whims of politicians) and it was our excuse to still be finding our feet and developing an identity (“Whatever Happened to Singaporean Singapore?” The Straits Times, 13/3/1990). Today, this same culture (which we supposedly never had) is being talked about in terms of dilution by immigrants. Funny how we suddenly switched from not having it yet, to being culturally under siege, all in the space of just over a decade.
Luke Lu grew up in the 80s and 90s. He doesn’t live in the past, even though he likes the period. He does, however, wish he could actually own a 1975 Toyota Celica. Anyone with lobang?