The progressive narrative has dominated much of Singapore’s development, and while this has generally been seen from the perspective of economy development, the physical changes it has wrought on our living spaces is just as undeniable.
Much of the anguish that has arisen from Chek Jawa and Bukit Brown has stemmed from an uneasiness that our quest for progress necessarily means that what little natural and historical heritage we have must make way for the development of the nation. If a cemetery has to go to make way for homes for the living, then so it must be – this has been a mantra we have been taught to recite.
Such physical changes will definitely have an impact on our psyche. Physical presence evokes memories, triggers sense of belonging, and give us a sense of time and place. The concept of museums is based very much on that principle.
From this time and place, we develop our communities – gatherings of people bonded by a common past, purpose or vision.
The issue becomes dicier when the place we are talking about is an active living space. In Singapore’s earlier history, many residents were moved from kampongs to the more familiar Housing Development Board (HDB) flat we see today. The reasons cited for this massive relocation effort were many – sanitation, congestion, fire hazard and workforce efficiency.
This saw the gradual destruction of kumpongs. In its place, the new HDB flats attempted to replicate some of the human characteristics of the “kumpong days”. Key among this was ethnic integration, where certain quotas of flats were allocated to residents of certain races.
To this date, the stated HDB policy for ethnic integration remains:
“The Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) was implemented to promote racial integration and harmony. The policy also aims to prevent the formation of racial enclaves by ensuring a balanced ethnic mix among the various ethnic communities living in public housing estates.”
The reality of the situation, of course, is clearly very far from the “logically derived” numbers of HDB. If anything, living together in close proximity with people of different races does not seem to have cultivated the multi-racial, multi-religious, all-Singapore concept that the early planners of our public housing system has apparently dreamed up.
In fact, what we see around us are neighbours being even more distant from one another. The reasons are many, but it is not difficult to imagine that the hectic lives that modernity brings shorten our leisure time, keep us tired and confined within the walls of our own homes, and brought communal activities down to zero.
Kampongs have their community halls and an “open door policy” between neighbours. How many of us today have actually seen the inside of our neighbour’s house? How many of us bother to gather downstairs for social functions that are organised, not by some block party representatives from the People’s Association, but by the residents themselves?
When individuals who share a common space do not interact, we lose our physical communities. When we also lose the last vestiges of common space – old school buildings, cemeteries, parks, even void decks – we lose all sense of community.
All hope is not lost, of course. Technology brings its ability to connect people across space and time, and Internet communities have sprung up.
This does not mean, however, that we can conveniently cede our physical real for the virtual one. Virtual communities I have seen depend as much on interactions in the real world as in cyberworld. Individuals who do not show up for gatherings are generally viewed with greater suspicion online. In spite of the connectivity that technology brings, a shared physical space is necessary for us to affirm our relationships.
Losing the physical kampong is only the surface of the problem. Our folly would be to think that we can manufacture a “kampong spirit”, a sense of togetherness, without the need for physical spaces that connect us.
This makes virtual memory project, such as the citizen archiving initiative announced recently by the Ministry for Communications and Information, highly problematic. For one, the government’s involvement in any project that is meant to be grounds up is already a highly uncomfortable concept.
For another, even if we were to believe that the effort would be completely uninhibited by the state apparatus, the experience of the virtual world can never replace the experienced one. We do not want to simply gawk at historical artefacts others have surfaced. We want to touch them, give it our opinion, discuss with others, offer our own exhibits, become part of the conversation. This is how communities are built.
Kampong spirit is not the can-do attitude that align us to Singapore, mass produced in national education messages. It requires a physical “kampong” as much as a grounds-up belief that this “kampong” is important to us as a community.
We need to understand that we cannot talk about having a “kampong spirit” without a physical presence that binds us to a common cause, acknowledges a common heritage, and grounds us in common values.