Monday 21 May 2012

Getting to grips with a changing Singapore

One can feel envy over swanky homes for rich foreigners, or let go and get on with life
By Chua Mui Hoong, The Straits Times, 20 May 2012

Labrador Park was my hunting ground as a child. Or rather, Labrador Villa Hawker Centre, the tiny food centre on its edge close to Pasir Panjang Road, was.

My parents ran a char kway teow stall there for years, from the time I was a toddler who would curl up to sleep on a box by the door, to when I graduated from university, when they sub-let the stall.

They finally gave it up when my mother found it too tiring to take a bus from our home in Upper Thomson to Pasir Panjang every day just so she could sit there and keep up the charade that she was the towkay and the folks running the stall were her 'workers'. This was so my parents wouldn't get booked for illegal sub-letting of a hawker stall.

Last week, a friend and I drove to Labrador Park. The hawker centre of course is gone, razed to the ground. The park has been gentrified. There's even an MRT station leading to the park now.

A seafronting boardwalk beckoned. We walked its length. Our jaws dropped as we sauntered past gorgeous expensive condos, past luxury yachts and ships at the cruise centre, past the riverine waterways.

It was dark and the place looked empty, but I could see its potential to be a teeming glitzy waterfront, once the shops and cafes are open, more residents move in and the place dances to life.

I should have felt excited and proud. Instead, I felt a niggling sense of envy. The leasehold condos there start from about $2,000 psf to buy, and from $5,000 to rent a two-bedder. They are far beyond the reach of most Singaporeans, myself included.

This was my childhood area, now being remade into a luxe haven for the rich - and probably foreign - elite.

I thought of my feelings at Labrador Park last week, when news erupted about the Ferrari driven by a Chinese immigrant, which hit a taxi in the wee hours of Saturday night. The Singaporean taxi-driver and his Japanese passenger died, as did the Ferrari driver.

Footage from another taxi at the scene suggests the Ferrari driver beat a red light and crashed into the taxi.

Singaporeans online and in coffee shops have been talking about the incident. The usual anxiety felt by locals over the large influx of immigrants is intensified by the tragedy of innocent lives lost.

Then there is the potent mix of envy at the lifestyle of the foreign elite, which adds a dangerously emotive underlay to the cauldron of feelings over the large influx of immigrants.

It is a tinderbox of feelings that can turn nasty, online and offline.

The rich-poor gap has always existed, in Singapore and in all societies. Singaporeans are familiar with, and have made peace with, the contours of the social landscape.

We know what it means when someone says he lives in Queen Astrid Park, versus Queen Street, versus Queenstown. But whichever queenly estate Singaporeans live in, there has been hitherto a shared communality of experience forged in schools, during national service, in hawker centres, and in meritocratic, multiracial workplaces. We may come from different socio-economic strata but our hearts beat to the same rhythm.

Singapore's well-to-do have usually borne their wealth lightly and simply, with some humility. We celebrate immigrants' rags-to-riches stories, like the flower seller who built the CK Tang empire. Our history is peppered with stories of rich philanthropists: Tan Tock Seng, Tan Kah Kee and Khoo Teck Puat.

In 2005, the issue of elitism and foreigners cropped up. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sketched out in a speech his vision of an 'inclusive elite' - where it is demonstrated 'to all that if you work hard, do well, you will make it to the top, which is the whole basis for Singapore's success'.

He made it a point to say that foreigners should be part of this elite, but he also added: 'We discourage ostentation in lifestyles, dress or social norms, which will make others who are less affluent feel out of place.'

Seven years on, the lifestyle of the rich in our midst has become more visible, thanks in part to the glittering residential skyscrapers and Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. The norms of the rich - both foreign and local - are evolving.

We can get huffy and say foreigners shouldn't flaunt their wealth in Singapore. Even the Chinese Embassy here saw fit to issue a statement to remind its nationals overseas to abide by local laws and live 'responsibly and gracefully'.

But the truth is, we also benefit from having the global elite here. They buy our properties. They spur domestic consumption. They create jobs for retail assistants, food and beverage workers, financial services support staff, marketing agents. Because of the ranks of the global elite in our midst, we have access to arts and entertainment options, and hotels and shops, that would not find it worth their while to set up here if only middle-class locals gave them custom.

I know all that intellectually.

And still, when I walked past the condos at Keppel Bay, when I went to see the W Residences at Sentosa last year, I felt a sense of dislocation.

What is my country coming to, if a place from my childhood becomes a playground for the rich foreign elite? I wonder: Do I belong here? Or do they?

And yet the average fair-minded Singaporean knows such sentiments do ourselves no credit. We are a nation of immigrants after all. My own parents boarded a ship from Swatow to Singapore to make a life. They found a home here and raised three children.

Perhaps because of my background, I find it easier to accept struggling immigrants rather than super-rich ones.

When I see a mainland Chinese couple manning a hawker stall, sometimes with a child helping out, I am reminded of my own family. I patronise their stall and mentally wish them well, hoping my family's story of social mobility continues into another generation.

If I accept poor immigrants, why should I be less accepting of rich ones?

There are no rational reasons.

And so, I had to grapple with my own mixed feelings and come to an emotionally and ethically acceptable position as I reflected on Labrador Park. This is how I reasoned it out to myself.

Walking past the harbourfront area with the swanky condos is like visiting the house of your childhood, which has been transformed from a modest abode into a temple of luxury.

You feel a sense of possessiveness over the house, because it was part of your shared history. You feel a twinge of regret: that could have been your home too, if only you had the money to do it up and didn't have to sell it. You feel a tad envious and an amorphous, barely acknowledged, resentment at the new occupants.

But really, there's another way to look at it.

The shared history is real and never goes away. But time moves on and things change. If you can let go of your sense of possession, and accept that your childhood home is part of your past but has a different future, then you can admire it for what it has become without denying its humble past.

The truth is, Singapore is changing, often faster than many of us, especially those middle-aged and above, can bear.

We would like to hold on to simpler times of yore. The smart ones among us keep sane by finding our own sanctuaries where we can relax and enjoy the lifestyle we are comfortable with, where we can have our $2.50 mee pok tar (minced pork noodles) and teh peng (iced tea) in shorts, T-shirt and slippers.

But we also know we have to let go and allow the country to move on - if only so that our own children, the fast-paced, fast-talking, fast-living digital natives - will want to call it home.

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