A week after the authorities announced that one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates would make way for redevelopment, the National Environment Agency (NEA) has confirmed that the iconic flea market at Sungei Road will also be erased forever.
It is the latest casualty in Singapore’s redevelopment plans, this time the Thieves Market will be making way for the new Sungei Road MRT station, which is expected to be completed by 2017.
Last week, the government revealed that Dakota Crescent, a small HDB precinct made of up 50-year old flats, will be demolished as part of its estate renewal plans. (See here: “Please do not tear down Dakota Crescent flats”.)
Some experts and conservation activists have called for the estate to be preserved as they say it is part of Singapore public housing history.
The Thieves Market came to be in the 1930s, when stolen, smuggled or illegal goods were sold. Over time, it became famous for second-hand goods or bric-a-brac, and even rare or antique offerings, sold cheaply. Now, the market has about 300 peddlers offering a range of goods, from old coins to video tapes, from clothing to well, just about anything really.
The market runs along the banks of the Rochor River (Sungei Rochor), hence its Malay name “sungei” meaning "river". The area was home to the more affluent Europeans and Asians in Singapore’s earlier days.
In 2011, the authorities downsized the market from its seven hectares to about half its size, as part of its now obvious goal of erasing the historical market for development.
At the time, the NEA said “the area is not meant to be a permanent one for business activity.”
The news then also reported that the NEA would refer some of these peddlers or vendors to the Central Community Development Council so they can get help finding jobs or upgrading their skills.
On Thursday, some of the vendors revealed that this was indeed true, and that the NEA had also offered them hawker stalls when they are no longer able to hawk their goods at Sungei Road.
But the offer was dismissed by some of them.
“We’re not selling food,” said Mr Koh Ah Koon, the president of the Association for the recycling of Second Hand Goods. “[A] hawker stall space makes little sense. We shouldn’t be split up either. It’s the variety of goods that helps make the market unique.”
Mr Koh said the traders had suggested four alternative sites which the authorities could consider moving the market to.
However, this was apparently rejected by the NEA, even though the hawkers offered to take on the responsibility of maintaining cleanliness and security of the alternative areas.
No reasons were given by the NEA for rejecting the vendors’ suggestion.
Most of the traders at the market are in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Finding alternative sources of income, such as taking on a new job, would be a challenge to most of them.
“Who will employ us?” asked Mr Loon Kwai Sng, 74. “We’re used to making a living on our own.”
Mr Koh said shutting down the market will deprive the many elder folk there of an avenue for income.
The NEA, however, said it “will work with vendors and match them with financial assistance schemes.”
However, to some of the hawkers, depending on handouts is not what they hope to do.
“We want the chance to fend for ourselves and be independent,” the Straits Times reported 62-year old Ng Gin Kun as having said.
The demolition of yet another iconic piece of Singapore’s history will again raise questions of whether the country is paying enough consideration to conserving its heritage, which has become an issue in recent years, as the Singapore Government surges on with its plans for a projected 6.9 million population by 2030.
Perhaps it would be good for the authorities to keep in mind what former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1995, in a speech at the World Travel and Tourism Council Dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel:
“We made our share of mistakes in Singapore. For example in our rush to rebuild Singapore, we knocked down many old and quaint Singapore buildings. Then we realize we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive and unique in Singapore. We halted the demolition.”
While historically significant buildings should be saved or conserved, it is also important that areas such as the Thieves Market at Sungei Road be preserved as well.
There does not seem to be any justification not to move the market to another area, or to allow alternative sites for it.
The authorities should not keep silent when asked or when suggestions are offered.
Singaporeans deserve more than stoic silence from the authorities when it comes to the destruction of their heritage.
“Singapore’s cultural heritage is not limited to old buildings alone,” one article said. “With its colourful history and local flavor, the Thieves’ Market could very well be a genuine attraction for tourists looking for something other than the air-conditioned malls along Orchard Road. Some people have argued that the market looks unsightly but it’s nothing that a good sprucing up can’t fix. Given a choice between closing their stalls permanently and tidying up their acts, most vendors would, in all probability, choose the latter.
“So what is to be the fate of Thieves Market and more to the point, do Singaporeans want to wait till 2017 to find out?”
Unfortunately, the fate of the 80-year old Thieves Market, as with so many other places of heritage in Singapore, now seems sealed, even before 2017.
What do you think of the destruction of the flea market? Click here to vote: "NEA should consider alternative sites for Sungei Rd flea market".