By Aloysius Chia
Although I sympathize very much with Mr. Potter’s letter, published here in The Online Citizen (10th April 2014), I think that he has romanticized too much the overall experience of Singapore’s development.
By all means the last decade has seen a spurt in population that has been intolerable, not just in sheer numbers but also in the diversity of foreigners who come here to live and play. The presence of people can be felt most by those who travel by public transportation.
In the shops that people go to and places where people eat, the number of Filipino, Malaysians and Chinese people who work as service crew abound, and sometimes one cannot but feel a sense of loss at those who do not speak and behave in a distinctly Singaporean way.
That there has been too much emphasis placed on development and the economy at the expense of all other values such as the cultivation of culture or the preservation of nature, can be reflected in such actions like the demolishing of Bukit Brown Cemetery and proposal to build a rail line through the Central Catchment Reserve.
But before one starts to feel a surging sense of nostalgia and an inevitable sense of loss, perhaps it is better to take a step back to think about what Mr. Potter is saying. Though it is true that Mr. Potter, who has married and settled here, has spent a substantial part of his life in Singapore, his ruminations about what Singapore is losing is somewhat limited by his experience.
If a comparison is made to the 1960s and before, perhaps a different portrait will emerge. Singapore then will not be much different from what many developing countries are like now – no decent places to live for the general population, decent infrastructure, good education and healthcare for all. An elite class, namely, the British bureaucracy and businesses, would be in ownership of many things. They will not be compelled to improve things if it didn’t concern them.
Although this might sound nationalistic, this was the reality of the world just barely half a century ago. It is easy to forget why economic development is important in the first place. When the British colonized India in the 19th century, they deindustrialized it so that it would serve as a market for cotton, not a producer of one (Hobsbawm, 1996, pg. 35). The railroads and tea plantations that was built there was meant to serve mainly British companies, and so were their interests in Singapore.
Anyone who has traveled to neighboring countries, which is just a budget flight away, would be ignorant not to pay attention to the differences in all the things that are so easily enjoyed here. The lack of proper sanitation, roads, houses, the number of people living in abject poverty, making a living out of limited circumstances, are widely visible and apparent.
The lack of good seafood places in local coffeeshops, are really not as scarce as it seems. One has only to go and find the right places in order to look for them. Likewise, the opportunity to water ski or do water sports is not absolutely out of bounds. These romantic notions of a more relaxed past, is simply an attempt to envision places, such as kampungs and villages, without consideration for the amount of labor that would have to be put in order to experience them.
Two years ago when I was in Sapa, in Northern Vietnam, I was told by a villager, who lived in traditional houses built from wooden planks without electricity, that she and her fellow villagers would trek 10km up the hill every day to the town to sell items for a living, and then trek back 10 km down for a total of 20 km every day, without guarantees of selling anything. No Singaporean would like to imagine this was a better life, for one’s labor to be tied to the land and not freed to do other things. It is an excessively nostalgic notion to imagine such things.
Certainly, such comparisons to more undeveloped times do not in itself give reasons for unbridled growth. What Mr. Potter has gotten right is the sense among many that development has not been spread equitably. The vast differences in the lives between the rich and poor, or the rich and average person, makes it seem as if there was no sense of location and identity; the lack of open space for expression holds up feelings of resentment. It seems, upon reflection, that Singapore is merely a transient place – for corporations, for the wealthy, for foreign workers who would eventually go back to their hometown.
Perhaps a more critical question would be to ask whether the dichotomy that is so often presented – that a choice has to be made between absolutely business friendly or suffer – has been wrongly stated, and that there are better alternatives, not just for the rich to flourish, but for the average and ordinary person as well. That there are other forms of achievements such as scientific, literary, artistic, humanitarian and social achievements, should be celebrated and cherished. Right now the definitions have been so narrowly defined and taught, through a myopic press and education, that what has been considered so important at the beginning has become a source of alienation.
Eric Hobsbawm. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848. Vintage Books, 1996 (1962).