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Living the kampong spirit – the ghost of kampongs past

Lorong Buangkok 1By Simon Vincent

In a somewhat poignant article, the Straits Times reported on the dwindling rusticity of Kampong Lorong Buangkok -- the last kampong in mainland Singapore. The replacement of wood with metal during the latest renovation can be read as a symbol of encroaching modernisation.

The shifting topography of Kampong Lorong Buangkok brings to mind the classic thought experiment on the Ship of Theseus. In the paradoxical puzzle, it is asked if a ship whose parts are replaced is the same ship at the beginning and at the end.

The question feels almost urgent when we apply it to the kampong -- totem of tradition, culture and history.

In fact, when the Straits Times article was published in AsiaOne and The Star Online, the title was changed from “Singapore’s last remaining kampong losing rustic appeal amidst improvement works” to “The clock is ticking for S’pore’s kampong houses” and “Last kampong fading from view” respectively.

Is Kampong Lorong Buangkok the same kampong now as before?

The answer, as far as appearances go, is “no.”

As even some of the residents have noted, prior to using wood, attap palm was the material of choice in Kampong Lorong Buangkok. Nevertheless, Mr Seah Y.K., who is behind the latest modification of a kampong house, had a rather curious point to make:

“We’re keeping as much as we can intact. We won’t have air-conditioning and we will build an outdoor toilet.”

Would these minor concessions really make a difference to the sanctity of Kampong Lorong Buangkok?

If we are to understand Mr Seah’s seemingly contrite statement, perhaps the more important question to ask is: What does the kampong mean to Singaporeans?

A telling response can be gleaned from Fandi Ahmad’s comment in an 8 Days magazine interview last year:

Lorong Buangkok 3“I want to retire in Batam. It’s just a 45-minute ferry ride back to Singapore if I get bored, and I’m an Indonesian PR. I like the Kampongs there with their coconut trees. Singapore has no kampongs anymore, and it’s getting so expensive.”

The local football hero’s comment gained much approval from online Singaporeans. The kampong seems to represent an idyllic and simple life, away from dog-eat-dog commercialism.

The now-pervasive use of the phrase “kampong spirit” i.e “gotong royong” also indicates that the kampong broadly represents a sense of togetherness and community.

From local initiatives such as social linkways and farming collectives to international initiatives such as the Enhancing Palliative Care Practice Project and the Asean Economic Community, the kampong spirit has been invoked as a sign of solidarity.

I highly doubt, though, that Singaporeans -- Fandi Ahmad included -- would want to live in a kampong themselves. Surely, the lack of modern amenities would be a difficult adjustment for almost all of us to make.

Do we look to preserve the kampong so that we can vicariously live our dreams of simplicity and kinship through indigenous others?

If so, our answer to the Ship of Theseus paradox, as applied to the kampong, is to cling to a little wood amid metal -- a little tradition amid modernity. However, this belies almost a desperation for what Benedict Anderson once called an “image of communion.”

This response is understandable, of course. Voracious urbanisation has outpaced our nation-building efforts.

There are two types of kampong we have to distinguish, though -- the quaint one in our minds and the actual one at 7 Lorong Buangkok.

If the kampong is the final frontier of our search for a Singapore identity, we have to be wary of preserving the visible -- tangible -- kampong simply to conjure up a ghostly -- idealised -- kampong from the past.

Lest we forget: Real people with mutable needs, much like ourselves, exist in Kampong Lorong Buangkok. They will not miraculously possess us with timeless Singaporean-ness.