By Narayana Narayana –
The September 23 2012 (pg 46) Sunday Times 'Think' article 'Pulling Singapore out of the slums' mentions today Sept 28 as the launch-date for a 'coffee-table book to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the setting up of the Ministry of the Environment & Water Resource (MOEWR ?)
Without intending in any way to denigrate the Ministry's undoubted accomplishments in its appointed field, today seems appropriate to comment on the article a little critically.
However unintentional, the impression conveyed in your caption is that before 'MOEWR', Singapore in 1972 was 'a slum' from which it was pulled out by MOEWR to its present 'Eco-city' status. As the cynical quip goes, 'self-praise is the best advertisement' and I suppose we could all go along with some chest-thumping, as long as there is no clash or distortion of historical facts.
Singapore was in fact accorded 'City' status as far back as 1951 (September) so when did the perception, and appellation/classification of it as a 'slum' end? Even in pre-WWII times, Singapore wore a look of, at least, comparative modernity. The term 'slum' inevitably tends to be associated with areas where the less-affluent (read 'wretched poor') stay bonded by their common poverty. The more highly visible slums may well have gone from Singapore today, but there is plenty of evidence around that, to paraphrase the Biblical saying, 'the poor will always remain with us".
The above (likely unwelcome/unpalatable) comments apart, the prominent photograph of the 'night soil worker' with his couple of buckets slund across his shoulders caught my attention. An aged friend reminded me that they were colloquially referred to as 'thohtties' which in a South Indian language, apparently means 'scavenger'. In fact, in Tamil, dust bins are referred to, literally, as 'kuppai-thotti' .
In those earlier times, there was a hilarious anecdote of a young Britisher who before coming out here, met up with a retired 'gent to be beefed up on the local scene. The latter told him of an exotic fruit, the durian, which was delicious to eat, but with a most horrible stink, which would be sold by itinerant hawkers who would be carrying them on poles across their shoulders. Lo and behold, on the morning after his arrival here, the young man did see someone going by that description, and tried to buy the 'goods' from the astonished carrier.
The reference to the general habit of 'smoking cigarettes' to disguise/disinfect the 'bad smell' was reflected in the Tamil phrase/description of 'jaamaan-koodu churuttu' literally 'toilet-room cheroot' ('jaaman' being the Tamil transliteration of 'jamban' – Malay for latrine) which had a particularly acrid pungent smell, that effectively camouflaged all other odours.
Although there were quite a number of two and even three-storeyed houses, the toilet/s were all on the gruund floor. It was fairly common to have some receptacles kept in smallish 'bedside cupboards' for those who were living in upper floors and urgently needed to 'evacuate' during the dark night hours. I do not think the Scottish/British/French practice of 'gardyloo' * was ever accepted here.
One must be pretty old, in the Singapore context, to be able to effectively relate to the night-soil workers, and in this connection, I wonder how many can remember the (happily few) days when they went on strike, and the buckets (cylindrically black and made of heavy cast-iron, with green covers, as in the picture) began to fill up in households. The gopvernment then sent convicts from the prison under armed guard to do the job. I think this would have been circa 1938/9.
Another story, also more likely anecdotal than apocryphal, was of of a poor Chinese immigrant who was able to rise out of his lowly job and became a big towkay. To keep himself always reminded of his humble beginnings, he commissioned a small figurine of a 'nightsoil worker' in solid gold and kept it prominently in his parlour.