(In)famous couple Mr Casey and Ms Wong, and my husband and I, have one thing in common. We are couples of mixed races, Singaporean women married to non-Singaporean men. But our similarities end there.
To the uninitiated, let me break it down for you. There are generally two kinds of expats – those that earn top dollar and live in swanky black and white homes just like how the British of old used to, and those who live in 3-roomed HDB flats, are employed on local terms, have (and use) their EZ-link cards on a daily basis, and own several sets of the standard Ah Pek uniform. You know, the standard issue – white tattered Double Pagoda singlets with matching (or not) Bata slippers. My man belongs to the latter group. To say that he blends in is an understatement. He orders kaya toasts and kopi-c-kosong without me having to hold his hand. He’s a regular local angmoh, he is.
To me, marrying out of my race and nationality made me plunge deep into an immediate love affair with my culture. I’ve always been intruiged by the Chinese Peranakan history, and being married to one who had little knowledge of it spurred me to court my heritage with a vengence.
Nothing strengthens one’s loyalty to one’s country like a jolt similar to the possibility of having to pack up everything and leaving everything you’re familar with and everyone you know, and starting a new life in a new country. For good.
Many Singaporeans complain about transport hikes, trains that often break down, waiting more than 10 minutes for a bus. 10 minutes! Can you imagine! That’s absurd! How many times must I scroll on my iPhone while looking at my friends’ posts in that duration of time!
Probably the longest hour I ever spent was in Quebec during the Winter of 2003, when Max and I missed the public bus into town and had to wait at the bus stop for the next one while the winds howled around us. The temperature? Oh, about -20 degrees, give or take.
Whenever I hear people moaning about the MRT breaking down, again, I think about how, halfway through a 10-hour train ride from Beijing to Nanjing, an engine went bonkers and sprouted out black smoke and when we reached our destination, my nose was bleeding and the tissues I used to wipe my face were black.
That puts a 10-minute wait time in perfect perspective for me.
I like living here, I do. I love how it’s a young country with a deep history. I love how I am still able to say “Hey my grandmother used to have that in her house!” when we visit museums and admire exhibits.
Don’t I complain about “the good old days”? Of course I do. Because, like you, I’m Singaporean, and complain just about as much as any average Singaporean. I miss the old brick building that housed the National Library as much as anyone (it got torn down before I could have a proper date at that cozy little cafe). I miss Red House bakery and all the memories of me having ice cream from metal bowls with my parents. And my Katong, the beautiful Katong that I grew up with, what happened to you? (I dedicated a post to Katong some time ago; you can read about it here). I miss having to decide between circle seats and normal seats at the old Capitol Theatre. I miss hearing the echoes of the rubber stamps against envelopes at the General Post Office.
I miss 30-cent ice-creams. I miss a time when every kid would carry a quiet cellophane or paper lantern, not a battery operated one which also has music. I wish my home cost $30,000 like it did when it was first up for grabs.
My heart hurts to see old Peranakan shophouses turned into 7-elevens, and when I think of how my little girls will not get to run around the same school that I did. I feel sorry for our kids because their version of ‘playground’ is of a structure on a rubber mat as compared to our playgrounds that had swings, merry-go-rounds, and sand.
When I get my head out of the clouds, my vision becomes extremely clear. As clear as my shortsightedness allows anyway.
Remember what we learnt in Business Management classes, people? I was paying attention, yes. “People often resist change when they don’t understand the reason for it, or are not part of the decision-making process”. Seeing how none of us are running any government bodies (are you? I’m not), then only part of this sentence applies to us.
Of course I would like to continue living in a Singapore where life was much simpler. A time when kids played yeh-yeh and five stones instead of hunching over their electronic devices. When neighbours actually talked to each other. When schools had big open fields.
I’m not saying get rid of everything old. As much as I want to hug every Peranakan shophouse and bubble wrap every traditional metal red water insulating flask (you know, the ones with the flowers on them?), I am reminded of this:
If schools did not expand to include bigger buildings, our kids may not be able to go to school. There simply would be nowhere to house them. If we did not reclaim land, Marine Parade would not exist.
Oh so sad, the National Stadium is gone, grand old dame, Singapore icon. Um, ok. Are we moaning for the sake of moaning? Just going with the flow and saying what everyone else is saying?
We are a space starved country. If we do not demolish, we cannot build. Build what? The things that we need on a daily basis. Infrastructure for instance. Don’t want roads, you say? Perhaps you’d prefer dirt paths? Don’t want MRT train stations? Maybe 2 million other people (who rely on the trains everyday) might disagree with you.
If we had remained constant, and change had not taken place, we would not have fun places like the Marina Barrage and Gardens by the Bay to bring our kids today.
If our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were to have resisted change, then jobs like nightsoil collectors would probably still exist. We might still have to collect water from central taps during designated times.
Much as I mourn the loss of the railway tracks, the old Sentosa ferry terminal, Van Cleef Aquarium (Ok not that. Starfish freak me out), I’m glad that change has taken place, because it is necessary to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation. But I’m also glad that I have memories of the places that are now gone, and no one can take that away from me. For the places that mean something special to you, I urge you to visit them as often as you can, take as many pictures as possible, and introduce them to your children.
Change is inevitable. The old has to go to make space for the new if we want to progress. So here’s my unsolicited advice to those who complain about Singapore: travel. You might just find that grass is greener on your side after all.