A sunrise I have a lasting impression of

12 07 2013

I have enjoyed catching the sunrise ever since I watch my first, one that was over the South China Sea from Kemaman along the East Coast of Malaysia, back in the early 1970s. It was across that same sea – and the ocean beyond it, that I was to catch on of which I also have a lasting impression of – a rather spectacular one in a faraway place I would prior to that, never dreamt of going to. That sunrise was one which greeted my arrival, one January morning in 1985, into the port of Corinto on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua – the gorgeously colours of the lightening sky revealing the volcanic silhouettes tracing the part of the Ring of Fire that runs along the west coast of the country on the isthmus which connects the two large American continents with the Volcán San Cristóbal, which at 1745 metres, is the highest volcano in Nicaragua, standing out.

Sunrise over the Volcán San Cristóbal as seen from the Pacific Ocean, December 1984

Sunrise over the Volcán San Cristóbal as seen from the Pacific Ocean, December 1984

The country was then still fresh from a revolution which freed it from the U.S. supported Samoza regime – the bullet holes that riddled the walls of many of its towns and village, decorated by the symbols of revolution, did seem like they had been made only yesterday. The country was brought to the brink by the effects of a stranglehold placed by the United States which cut-off access to finance as well as to a market where the bulk of the country’s produce were traditionally exported to. What did give hope was that not all in the free world did go along with the actions of the U.S. government – their European allies refusal to participate in the sanctions was to provide the hope which the sunrise was to perhaps symbolise.





Reflections on Marina Bay

3 06 2013

For me, the story of Singapore is very a reflection of the way in which what we call Marina Bay today, has been transformed. Once the harbour at the heart of Singapore’s early success, the bay, like it or hate it, is today a magnificent sight to behold – particularly at certain times of the day, and a celebration of the tremendous strides Singapore has taken as a nation since the tumultuous events which surrounded a somewhat reluctantly achieved independence.

Marina Bay seen through the light rain at 6.30 am on 2 June 2013.

Marina Bay seen through the drama of the rain coloured scene at first light (photograph taken at 6.30 am on 2 June 2013).

The so-called bay itself (now a fresh water reservoir) and the developments that have taken root around it, was an afterthought made possible by massive land reclamation works which were started in the early 1970s – initially to provide land for a road which would bypass the already congested city (more information on which can be found in a previous post “The Making of Marina Bay“). While it did result in the disappearance of the old harbour – one of the things which did make Singapore, Singapore, it did provide new land for development. It is perhaps because of this, it became possible to widen the scope for conservation of Singapore’s built heritage, particularly in areas of the old city such as in the Tanjong Pagar / Chinatown area and other areas which had previously been earmarked for redevelopment .





Light after dark

20 05 2013

An attempt to capture the beautiful light as darkness falls at 7.42 pm on 19 May 2013 at Lower Peirce Reservoir.

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The light in the darkness

5 05 2013

Once again, I found myself seeking the peace and joy of the twilight at Lower Peirce Reservoir away from the crowds on a Saturday evening, and have these two photographs taken in the semi-darkness with just enough light in the sky to permit both the sky and the surroundings to be evenly exposed. The photographs were taken at about half an hour after sundown, the first at 7.37 pm and the second at 7.43 pm.

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A song which soon will be forgotten

18 04 2013

For me, one of the most difficult things about being at home in Singapore is how little there is of what ties me to it that I can hold on to. The Singapore of today is one which bears little or no resemblance to the Singapore I grew up in, and one which I am very much attached to. I often find myself overcome with that sense of longing and sadness that accompanies a realisation that I can never return to that Singapore I fell in love growing up in.

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I find myself wandering through many of the altered spaces, in search of the little reminders that remain of those times forgotten, often leaving only with regret. Many of these spaces, now devoid of a way of life it once supported, are empty except for the clutter of ornaments inherited from the modern world.

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There are but a few spaces which have been spared this clutter. It is in the echoes of these spaces left without their souls, that I sometimes hear the singing of a song the lyrics of which might once have familiar.

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A familiar tune is still heard along the northern shores. Spared thus far from the interventions the modern world is too fond of, it is where the memory of naturally formed beaches, now a rare find, has been preserved. It is where perhaps a memory of a way of life we have forgotten can also be found in the casting of nets and rowing of sampan–like hulls.

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Alas, the familiar tune may soon be one we are to forget. The advance of a world in which it is hard to find sanity, has reached its doorstep. We see swanky beach front units that reek of the smell of money sprout in an area in which the smells would have been that of seawater soaked wood, of fishing nets drying in the sun, and of the catch from the sea. For how much longer will I be able to hear the familiar tune in my ears, I do not now know, but it is a tune I am determined to try to hear for as long as I am able to.

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About the beach and the former coastal villages :

The beach in the photographs is one of the last natural stretches of sandy beaches left in Singapore. It stretches from the seafront of Sembawang Park eastwards past the seawall at the former Kampong Wak Hassan and past the seafront area of the former Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah, where it is broken by the mouth of a diverted and canalised former tributary of Sungei Simpang, Sungei Simpang Kiri. It would have run further east towards Tanjong Irau at the mouth of Sungei Simpang – that area, currently used as a military training ground and is inaccessible, is a reserve site for public housing and will be the future Simpang New Town – the coastline of which will be altered by land reclamation based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Master Plan 2008.

Kampong Petempatan Melayu or Kampong Tengah was a Malay Settlement which was established in the 1960s on some 16.5 ha. of land acquired by the Government from the Bukit Sembawang Group. It was a group of three coastal villages just east of the Naval Base which also included Kampong Tanjong Irau to its east and Kampong Wak Hassan to its west. A mosque, touted as the “last kampong mosque in Singapore”, the Masjid Petempatan Melayu, was built in Kampong Tengah which still stands today, despite the disappearance of the village.

Coming a full circle, the land fronting the beach is currently being developed by the Bukit Sembawang Group as a luxury development, Watercove Ville which will see some 80 strata houses built, and in all probability, the beach and beachfront will soon have to be made over.






Recoloured memories

21 03 2013

It is in the silence of a once familiar world disfigured by the winds of change, that I often wander, clinging on to what little there is to remember of a forgotten time that the winds have not swept away. The memories I have are plenty. They are of wonderful times past painted in the colours of a world we have sought to discard. They are today, recoloured by bright hues that mask the grayness painting the world today.

A recoloured memory seen silos that seek to recolour another memory -  the former Stamford College repainted in the colours of the Oxford Hotel, seen through construction storage silos on the site of the former Stamford Community Centre.

A recoloured memory seen silos that seek to recolour another memory – the former Stamford College on Queen Street repainted in the colours of the Oxford Hotel, seen through construction storage silos on the site of the former Stamford Community Centre.

Along with the recoluring of the reminders, a gust from the winds of change has recently blown through, taking buildings which once belonged to the community which since has been dispersed – that of the former Stamford Community Centre on Queen Street. Rising in place of that will be a building that looks like another that will take attention away from the ones we should really be paying attention to.

The former Stamford Community Centre - where with schoolmates I often climbed into to kick a football on the basketball court has been demolished - in its place, a China Cultural Centre is bing built.

A window into a changing world. The former Stamford Community Centre – where with schoolmates I often climbed into to kick a football on the basketball court has been demolished – in its place, a China Cultural Centre is bing built.

The new building will be the home of the China Cultural Centre, intended to promote the understanding of Chinese culture and deepen ties with between China, which is setting it up with Singapore. The setting up of the centre in the heart of a historically rich district of Singapore is representative perhaps of the growing influence of an economically powerful and increasingly influential China and the influx of the new Chinese immigrants from that new China which all have the effect of recolouring the rich mix of Chinese cultures and sub-cultures that were brought in by the early Chinese immigrants who gave Singapore a huge part of its culturally rich and diverse flavour.

Signs of the times - the growing influence of a people descends on a world once built for the people.

Signs of the times – the growing influence of a people descends on a world once built for the people.

The school that I spent four wonderful years in, has also since moved, a contemporary art museum now occupies the buildings which were left behind. The main building – with its beautiful façade, its curved wings and portico giving it a very distinct and welcoming appearance, was one that welcomed the many white uniformed schoolboys – as many as 2200 were enrolled at its peak. Gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, it is one that I am thankful is being preserved, allowing me to keep some of my memories of the space intact, recoloured or otherwise.

A building that was the school I went to - recoloured as a museum for contemporary art. The far corner to the right of the portico was where a fish pond shaded by a guava tree was in my schooldays.

A building that was the school I went to – recoloured as a museum for contemporary art. The far corner to the right of the portico was where a fish pond shaded by a guava tree was in my schooldays.

A view recoloured - looking towards at the end of the wing where the 2104 Pelandok Scout Den had been.

A view recoloured – looking towards at the end of the wing where the 2104 Pelandok Scout Den had been.

Another that is recoloured, the former Middle Road Church at the corner of Middle Road and Waterloo Street, thankfully in this case for the better, is a favourite of mine for the curious sight it offered in my younger days – a motor workshop. That is the subject of a very recent post and a memory that, as with the others I am still fortunate to have, I will long hold on to.

The recoloured former church which was coloured by the oil and grease of a motor workshop in the days of my childhood.

The recoloured former church which was coloured by the oil and grease of a motor workshop in the days of my childhood.





Corridors of Trade

14 03 2013

A feature of the once ubiquitous shophouse is the five-foot-way. The corridors, conceived as shelter for pedestrians, also made an inexpensive space for many a tradesman to conduct business.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

The five-foot-way was often what we visited to pick the newspaper up; get our hair done; have our shoes mended; and, where we could indulge in that favourite bowl of noodles.

A treat I would look forward to as a child was having my favourite bowl of beef-ball soup sitting at a table on a five-foot-way along Hock Lam Street.

My maternal grandmother might also have plied her trade on the five-foot-way – she sold appam in the vicinity of Simon Road Market in the uncertain days that followed the end of the war.

The surviving corridors are mostly silent, abandoned by tradesmen we no longer have need for, except for a few.

(A contribution to National Heritage Board’s “Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen” exhibition which will be on at the National Museum of Singapore from 15 March to 23 June 2013)


Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen is a community exhibition on old trade­­­­­­­s in Singapore and how tradesmen have coped with the challenge of changing times. Featuring the lives of six individuals who have made their living as a traditional goldsmith, movie poster painter, tukang urut or Malay confinement lady, Samsui woman, poultry farmer and letter writer, the exhibition sheds light on some of Singapore’s old trades through their personal stories – stories of sacrifices and struggles, of passion and fortitude, of entrepreneurial courage and adaptability.

This community exhibition at the Stamford Gallery also features numerous community contributions such as the loan of private keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit on old local trades. Members of the public are also invited to contribute to the exhibition by sharing their personal memories and stories of old trades in Singapore.





The sun sets on a Singapore we want only to forget

13 03 2013

The Singapore of my wonderful childhood, was one that was very different to the one I now find myself waking up to. It was one where we could find pleasure not in the clutter of the pompous paraphernalia we now seek to embrace, but in a simplicity we can no longer find beauty in. It was a world of places marked not by the cold hard stare of concrete, glass and steel that had rendered them faceless, but one where escapes could be found in the unique charms of places that even today, we seek to forget.

Twilight in a world we seem to want to forget.

Twilight in a world we seem to want to forget.





A final frontier

13 02 2013

One of the few places in present day Singapore that I am able to find myself at home in is the Sembawang area along the northern coast. It is an area which has in the last two and a half decades, as with much (if not all) of Singapore, undergone a huge transformation and also one that is still being transformed. Despite the transformation – Sembawang now plays host to a new public housing estate, it is still a place in which a Singapore we have forgotten about can still be found – at least for the time being.

An intermediate egret in flight.

An intermediate egret in flight over the canalised Sembawang River – the Sembawang area was one known in the past to be rich in bird life.

Sembawang is one of the last places left in which much of the past remains to be discovered. A past which perhaps with the planned future developments in the area, some for which preparations are already being made, is one which may soon be well forgotten. Best remembered for hosting a huge British naval base which was completed in 1938, Sembawang Shipyard which inherited the former Naval Dockyard in 1968 serves to remind us of that, as does the former Stores Basin, now used as a naval logistics base. It is however in several of the smaller reminders in which the past charms of the area can found in. These include the cluster of colonial bungalows (“black and white houses”) and in what is today Sembawang Park. Sembawang Park and perhaps the coastline east of it is where some of the old world does seem to have been left behind including what may be one of the last stretches of natural beaches in Singapore, the old jetty (sometimes referred to as the “Beaulieu”, prounounced “bew-lee” jetty, or “Mata” jetty), Beaulieu House, and a seawall which once belonged to Kampong Wak Hassan.

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Sunrise along the northern coast – an undeveloped part of the beach east of Sembawang Park, and an area which despite the kampongs being cleared from it, retains much of a charm which is missing from the overly manicured and cluttered urban spaces in Singapore.

Besides traces that is associated with the former naval base, reminders do also exist of the area’s lesser known natural past. The area (as had much of the coastline around it) played host to a swamp. Much had already been cleared when the naval base was built with the course of two rivers around which the marshy ground formed altered. There were, however, remnants of the marshland that remained around an area of what is today the Sembawang River up to the 1980s when it was drained for the development of Sembawang New Town. This lay about a kilometre west of what was then Chong Pang Village, just north of the Ulu Sembawang area (an area of farms and freshwater ponds around where Gambas Avenue is today). It was known then to have been a fertile feeding ground for marsh birds, attracting herons, egrets, sandpipers and storks to it. While the swamps have all since vanished – HDB blocks of flats have risen where the wetlands had once thrived, the is today a canalised Sembawang/Senoko River which on the evidence of what we do see today, does see a return of some of the previously rich bird life. Besides the marsh birds, the area today also sees many other birds. These include common birds such as the yellow-vented bulbulblack naped oriolepied fantailashy tailorbirdgreen pigeon, starling, Asian koel, several types of kingfishermunia and sunbird. There have also been some less common sightings in the area including the Sunda woodpeckerbrown hawk owlmilky stork, and what is perhaps an escapee, a white-rumped shama.

A yellow-vented bulbul in a Simpoh Air bush along the banks of the river.

A yellow-vented bulbul in a Simpoh Air bush along the banks of the river.

A white-throated kingfisher.

A white-throated kingfisher in flight over the canalised river.

Sembawang is toady, a world in which the charm of a forgotten old world missing from most of the redeveloped spaces on the island, can still be found. It is a world which has thus far, managed to remain free from the crowds and clutter which now seems to dominate almost all of the urban world we now find around us. The area is one which had for a long while boasted of welcome pockets of greenery and un-manicured beauty. But all that I fear, is soon going to change. Sembawang Park for one is already in the midst of a “renewal” which I feel will see it lose the character and charm which attracted me there since the days of my childhood as it becomes just another well manicured park cluttered with paraphernalia which Singapore really has too many of.

A once beautiful area that is now being cleared for possibly what is the beginnings of the HDB's new Simpang estate.

A place where the sun would shine on an uncluttered space …

As I look around me, I also see huge tracts of land which were once held much beauty behind hoardings and in the midst of being cleared. That I understand is part of the effort to provide new homes. What that also means is that the crowds the area has hitherto been spared from would soon descend on it, attracted not just by the homes, but the inevitable as it now seems – a huge redevelopment effort which has been outlined in the recently released Land Use Plan intended to supplement the somewhat controversial Population White Paper. That speaks of “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” with the aim “of providing land for new business activities”. With that it will not just be the character and charm of the area that will be lost, but what it does also mean is that it will see the breaking of what may be the last links it has with its past.

Another part of the same area seen on a misty morning on 28 August 2012.

… and a space where once there were trees.

Inevitable as it may seem, that future  is one that I hope, perhaps for selfish reasons, is one that will never come. Development which has broken many of our links to our past as well as the more recent wave of immigration has without a doubt provided great economic benefit to us living in Singapore. For many of us however, it has also come at a huge cost, a cost which has also seen us lose the soul of who we are as a people. The country is today, one where I find it a struggle to feel at home in. Much of what once was familiar and a source of joy and comfort is no longer with us, creating in us that sense of longing for what has been lost, as well as a sense of loss … a feeling which perhaps can best be described by the Welsh word Hiraeth or  the Portuguese word Saudade

The final frontier?

Now perhaps the final frontier?

One of the positive things that did come out of the land use plan is that it makes mention of some of the more immediate future developments to provide public housing at Bidadari, Tengah and Tampines North. What that does mean is that for the time being at least, the large parcel of land reserved for the future Simpang New Town, an area by the northern coast part of which was once a land of idyllic coastal villages and prawn farming ponds will be left undeveloped. What that also means is that while the area will certainly become more crowded over time, it will for a while, be spared from an even bigger   one, remaining as a final frontier where not just the birds, but also free spirits such as myself can still find space to roam free.





Bukit Timah Railway Station revisited

7 02 2013

It was in the final days of the Malayan Railway’s operations through Singapore just over a year and a half ago that the former Bukit Timah Railway Station drew crowds it that had not previously seen before. The station, built in 1932 as part of the Railway Deviation which took the railway towards a new terminal close to the docks at Tanjong Pagar, was one that was long forgotten. Once where prized racehorses bound for the nearby Turf Club were offloaded, the station’s role had over time diminished. Its sole purpose had in the years leading up to its final moments been reduced to that of a point at which authority for the tracks north of the station to Woodlands and south of it to Tanjong Pagar was exchanged through a key token system. The practice was an archaic signalling practice that had been made necessary by the single track system on which the outbound and inbound trains shared. It had in its final days been the last point along the Malayan Railway at which the practice was still in use and added to the impression one always had of time leaving the station and its surroundings behind. It was for that sense of the old world, a world which if not for the railway might not have existed any more,  for which it had, in its calmer days, been a place where one could find an escape from the concrete world which in recent years was never far away. It was a world in which the sanity which often eludes the citizens of the concrete world could be rediscovered. It is a world, despite the green mesh fencing now reminding us of its place in the concrete world, which still offers that escape, albeit one which will no longer come with those little reminders of a time we otherwise might have long forgotten.

Scenes from the station’s gentler days

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Solitude

1 02 2013

It is in a world we have forgotten, that I have come to enjoy a peaceful moment in. It is a world which in being seemingly far removed from the cold, grey and unfamiliar world that has grown around me; I take great joy having a moment in quiet solitude in. It is also one in which I find a sanity that can no longer be found in the Singapore I struggle to feel at home in. The world is one which will soon change. A change necessary, as we are told, for the small island we call home to move forward. A change which, as with the many changes we have been forced to accept, we will surely look back at with regret.

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A memory of a forgotten time

24 08 2012

In the silence of a world that lies momentarily abandoned and forgotten, it is the glow of the breaking morn off the gentle undulations that is the surface of the sea that calls to me. The sea’s surface once broken by wooden structures of a village by the sea, is only broken by the silhouette of a man bent over seemingly awkwardly on a wooden sampan. The sight of the sampan is one that takes me back to a time and a place that now seems so distant, a time when sustenance was sought from the sea and a place where coconut tree lined beaches lined the shore. It is a memory hidden deep in me that I have for long clung very tightly to, a memory of a gentle world, a world found in the many wonderful places of my childhood by the sea which I will never again be able to see.





A calm that may never again be found

18 07 2012

I often find myself by the sea in a place that seems forgotten. It is here that, despite it having lost much of the charm it once exuded, one does still find a semblance of the old and gentler world we have chosen to discard. It is also where it often is a joy to take the start of the new day in, free from the distraction of the urban world that now does not seem far away. Sitting by the old crumbling sea wall, the reflection of the changing hues of daybreak off the gentle undulations of the sea brings not just that moment of magic that precedes the rising of the sun, but also a sense of calm that is hard to find in a world now dominated by the cold of steel and concrete. Every moment of magic is one to celebrate as if it were the last – the winds that bring with it the change that until now this world escaped seem not far away. It is a matter of time before it does arrive bringing a world with it in which the calm that I now seek may be a calm that will never again be found.

The celebration of the new day in a world that for now seems forgotten.

The magical calm that the surface of the sea takes on at the start of the new day.





The joy of the morning

25 06 2012

Dawn is a time that never fails to bring much pleasure to me. It is a time when the day is fresh, calm and free from anger … a time to pause and reflect before the rush of the day begins. It is also a time which always surprises, sometimes with that quiet celebration that can accompany the break of day, one that is expressed in a show of joy that paints the canvas that is the sky in a way that only the dawn is able to.

The celebration of the new day, 6.50 am, 24 June 2012.

A different day, a different celebration, 6.57 am, 22 June 2012.





Vertically unchallenged

20 06 2012

Trying to find a world I once knew in one that I can no longer recognise, I stumbled on a scene at the end of Cuppage Terrace I could not resist taking a snapshot of that could well describe the nonchalance with which we in Singapore have allowed a vertically unchallenged and two-dimensional world to bury the multi-dimensional world which made us who we are …





The song of a forgotten shore

31 05 2012

I have, of late, stolen moments alone, moments in which I am able to wander at the break of day along a forgotten shore. In the calm of the morning, it is the song that is sung in the greeting that the sea gives the shore that I hear, a tune that takes me to a time I might otherwise have forgotten. As I listen, the lightening of the sky reveals the shore which except for the signs of human interventions of a not so recent past, is one that is untamed. The shore is one that wears textures painted by the meeting of water with a litter of sand, wood and stone. It exudes a beauty that only few can see, a beauty that finds no place in the manicured world we now embrace. I sometimes spot a figure dancing through the wash. In the face of the figure it is my face that I often see, my face not of today, but of a yesterday of three decades past. As I take the walk the figure takes, I find myself walking back to once familiar shores, shores that although distant, are close by through a familiarity of sight. I am grateful to still be able today to take these walks yesterday, taking each as if it were a last. The next may be a walk into tomorrow. And with tomorrow, the forgotten shore and the distant shores that I am reminded of, will be ones that will certainly be forgotten.

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Whispers of an otherwise silent world

26 03 2012

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) are ones that once spoke to me. It was on these streets and some that are no more that as a schoolboy, I had spent four years wandering through a little more than three decades ago, developing a strong attachment to them as they were back then. My schooldays in the area ended at the end of 1980, and leaving that behind me, I did not realise that that it was the world around it that I so loved that I was to leave behind as well.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. The streets are colourless and silent now, a silence that is broken by the sounds of traffic that pass it by.

I often wander down the same streets today, hoping to find that world that in the distractions of my passage into adulthood was swept away by the winds of change that blew over the area in the decade that followed my last days of school. It is not the voices that I had been familiar with that now greet me, but the screams of a deafening silence that I am unable to close my ears to. The world that was coloured by the uniforms of school children scurrying to school or thronging the many book shops the area had a reputation for; its silence broken by the passing of those who lived, worked and shopped along the well worn sidewalks and five-foot ways; is but a pale shadow of its former self, rendered silent and colourless by the world we have chosen to embrace.

A world that has changed.

Once a world dominated by the towering spires and domes that flavoured the area, it is now a world where the same spires and domes have become mere reflections on the glass and steel edifices that now tower over the area. It is in these reflections that the voices of that old world are sometimes heard. They no longer are the loud and confident voices I had grown accustomed to, but fading whispers which I struggle to hear over the loudness of the silence that has befallen the area.

A world once dominated by the spires and domes, is now one where the spires and domes have become mere reflections of that world in the glass and steel of the new world.

A reflection on a world that I once knew - the SAM reflected on the polished walls of the NTUC INCOME Centre.

One whose whispers I can sometimes hear is the soul of the magnificent domed building that is today’s SAM. The building, gazetted as a National Monument in 1992, was where I attended school – St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI), one that I spent four wonderful years going to. Although a lot has changed since it held airy classrooms behind the green louvered wooden doors that are now painted grey, it is a building that I still have a deep attachment to. Beyond the coolness of the climate controlled galleries that now fill the spaces behind the grey doors, there are many areas in which I can hear those whispers of its forgotten past.

The buildings of the former St. Joseph's Institution now houses the Singapore Art Museum.

It is no longer through gates manned by school prefects identifiable by the green ties that stood out against the all white uniforms we wore that I now pass through – the half height walls on which iron grilles had stood are no more, but across a lawn that I rebelliously can now walk across to arrive at the portico on top of which a famous statue stands. The lawn had been a garden populated not just by shrubs, but also a weather station and a fountain that I don’t remember seeing come on.

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St. Joseph's Institution by night in the 1970s.

The garden in front of the school building in the 1980s.

The famous statue is that of St. John the Baptist de la Salle, showing what seems to be the way to two boys beside him. St. John the Baptist de la Salle was the founder of the De La Salle Brothers – a Catholic missionary organisation dedicated to the education of boys from poor backgrounds. Aside from the many jokes we heard about the statue that wore a coat of silver paint back then, it was famous as a landmark for the area, having stood in its place above the portico since 1913. The bronze statue was cast with money donated, coincidentally it may seem, by an old boy of the school John La Salle on the occasion of the school’s Diamond Jubilee in 1912. The statue is a replica a marble sculpture by Cesare Aureli that stands in Saint Peter’s Basilica.

The statue of St. John the Baptist de la Salle above the portico of the former school building (seen here in 1980), served as a landmark for the area.

To the right of the portico is another area that whispers loud enough to be heard. The shallow fishpond coloured green by algae lay and the guava tree which lent its shade to the pond is now an area that has been paved. The pond had been a convenient point for several of us to meet. Immediately behind the area where the pond was, the corridor beyond the arches of the building had been one that led towards first the staff room and turning left at the end of it, the tuck-shop. The tuck-shop was on the ground level of a building which had above it, the Brothers’ Quarters, along Queen Street. The building is one that has since been replaced by a new building. The Brothers’ Quarters with flagpoles mounted on the ledge on the second level was where we faced as we said our prayers, sung the National Anthem and recited the Pledge during our school assemblies that were held on the tarred surface of a courtyard that has now been made much smaller. At right angles to the Brothers’ Quarters with its back to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, was another building that lined the courtyard that has been replaced. This held rooms for several societies including the Co-op and the 2013 Hippo Scout troupe’s den.

Assembly at the Courtyard.

The 2103 Hippo Scout Unit had its den at a building that lined one side of the courtyard.

Prize giving during school assembly. The doors led to the school's tuck-shop on the ground level of the building that housed the Brothers' Quarters.

Across from the Brothers’ Quarters was the building (still there) which held the dark school hall (now the very bright Glass Hall) on the lower floor, and the school’s chapel (now the Chapel) on the upper floor. The chapel was where as schoolboys we could sit in quiet contemplation. The chapel stripped of its benches and Sanctuary does still fill me with a sense of calm and peace. It does still thankfully bear some reminders of its days as the school’s chapel: the floor tiles; the ceiling panels; and the plaques that served as the 14 Stations of the Cross a Catholic place of worship is never usually without.

The chapel in 1977.

The building we see today, wasn’t always how it had looked like. It took on its distinctive appearance in 1903 when the curved wings and the portico were added. The school the building was home to dates back long before 1903. It started its illustrious life as Saint John’s School on 1 May 1852 on the premises of an old Catholic church on the same grounds. It establishment in 1852 was due largely to the efforts of a French missionary priest, Father Jean Marie Beurel. Father Beurel, who arrived in Singapore in October 1839, had spared no effort in the early years of his posting to Singapore in trying to enlist the services of the De La Salle Brothers to set up what was to be the first De La Salle school in the Far East. Father Beurel was also instrumental in the construction of the new prior to that – the Church of the Good Shepherd (which is the present Cathedral of the Good Shepherd) and also in bringing the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) to our shores two years later in 1854.

Fr Jean Marie Beurel, a French priest whose efforts were instrumental in the setting up of not just SJI, but also the setting up of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the construction of the Church (now Cathedral) of the Good Shepherd.

A view of CHIJ as it was in its early days. Father Beurel is credited with bringing the Convent in two years after his efforts brought the De La Salle Brothers to our shores.

The complex of buildings that housed CHIJ and also the Cathedral are ones where the spires that dominated the area stands, along with that of the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (then referred to as ‘Chinese Church’) on Queen Street. The three (or parts of then in the case of CHIJ) have also been gazetted as National Monuments. The most beautiful of the buildings that hold up the spires is the beautiful Gothic styled former chapel of CHIJ – now the CHIJMES complex. It is however the other two whose whispers I hear, having interacted with them both as a child and during my days in school when we attended many school Masses in both churches. The earliest of the buildings to be gazetted as a National Monument, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (gazetted in 1973) is one that is perhaps one that is most in need of attention. The structure of the building has suffered not just from its age (it was opened on 6 June 1847), but also from more recent construction activity in the area – ironically ones that were to have a minimal impact on the character of the area, the tunnelling work for the MRT as well as the construction of the Singapore Management University campus which was to blend in with the surroundings (some think it otherwise).

Temporary shoring of the Cathedral's structure is obvious when seen from Victoria Street.

Stepping into the Cathedral, one can’t help but notice the large crack at the wall at the far end to the right above the Sanctuary, and behind that – very obvious temporary shoring can be seen supporting the building’s structure on the outside. Being a National Monument that is run by a religious or non-profit organisation, the Cathedral is only able to draw on the limited public funds available to such monuments badly in need of repair. Based on information on the Preservation of Monuments Board’s (PMB) website, the funds available for the 29 monuments run by a religious or non-profit organisations for such urgent repair work is limited to a total of $5 million that is to be distributed to qualifying monuments over a five-year period (i.e. $1 million per year) from 2009. A pre-requisite for monuments to qualify for the funding is that the organisations involved must first have the means to fund the required work. The amount does seem rather misery considering the amounts being spent on some of the other National Monuments. The repair has been estimated to cost up to some $35 million. As of now only a fifth of the amount needed has been raised. The Cathedral is attempting to raise the remainder of the much-needed funds privately with fund raising activities organised at the Cathedral.

A large crack is clearly visible on the wall of the Cathedral's Sanctuary.

The Cathedral is attempting to raise much needed money - some S$35 million is needed, to repair and restore the building.

A close-up of an information board providing the progress of the fund raising shows that only about a fifth of the money required had been rasied as of December 2011.

As I leave behind the whispers of familiar voices, the contrast that the silent new world is becomes apparent. In the coldness and greyness and in the hush of that new world, I can sometimes hear the silent screams of the faces of the old. The screams are ones that fade with the passage of time. The whispers are ones that in the decrescendo of voices that I hope I would still be able to listen to, in a world where the only other sounds are the sounds of traffic that passes it by, much as the new world that has now passed it by.

The Cathedral is an oasis of calm in a sea of deafening silence.





Let the bananas grow on State Land

14 03 2012

There has been a fair bit of news on the Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) eviction of farmers occupying land along Sungei Ulu Pandan just north of the Clementi Avenue 4 area. The issue first came to light when an impassioned letter, written by the son of one of the farmers was sent to SLA on 7 March to appeal the eviction, which was followed by a Straits Time report “Group told to clear out ‘farm’ on state land” published on 10 Mar 2012. The SLA has since clarified their position, stating the reasons behind the eviction of the farmers who have for several years illegally occupied what is State Land.

Vegetable plots along a former rail corridor. An eviction notice has been posted on each of the farms occupying what is State Land along Sungei Ulu Pandan.

The land in question lies along the Jurong Rail Corridor. The rail corridor was built in the mid 1960s to serve Jurong Industrial Estate and has been disused since the mid 1990s – after which the land was returned to the State by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM). The writer of the letter, had written of what the farm had meant to his 71-year-old father who tended to it, which provided “much joy, personal well-being and an avenue for physical activity”. He also added that the space had also allowed his children an education beyond what the classrooms are able to provide.

The farms being evicted are along a stretch of the former Jurong Rail Corridor which has been disused since the 1990s and returned to the State by the railway operator KTM.

The SLA in exercising its right to evict the farmers – not least for the illegal occupation of State land, also cited several reasons beyond illegal occupation. These include the fencing up of the parcels of land involved, the erection of make-shift sheds and an outdoor toilet, as well as the collection of stagnant water which had a potential for mosquito breeding. It does appear that the SLA has acted on complaints made by residents in the area on the nuisance caused by the burning of branches and leaves which has affected the air quality in the area – as well as the act being a potential fire hazard. SLA position has also drawn support from some members of the public – one, Mr Tony Lee, in a letter to the Straits Times Forum published today, brought up an important consideration that “if such squatters are tolerated, more and more will occupy state land illegally”.

Banana trees on State land - some of the younger generation have never seen bananas growing on trees.

There isn’t any doubt about the validity of the concerns raised over the illegal use of land, or on the need to carry out the necessary enforcement on the SLA’s part. This episode does however, open a window of opportunity for the Authorities to look beyond the enforcement of the law (which is there for good reason) and take a step towards a gentler and more inclusive society that has very much been talked about of late. The signs are certainly encouraging based on a news report in today’s edition of the Straits Times (“Let’s talk, SLA tells farmers”, Grace Chua, The Straits Times, 14 Mar 2012). The report does indicate that the SLA has changed its tact slightly and has now opened a channel for discussion with farmers who willing to come forward by 20 March.

A makeshift scarecrow at one of the farms?

While in all probability the discussion would be on a possible extension to the deadline of 20 March imposed by the SLA for the clearance of illegally occupied State Land, I do hope that it goes far beyond that. While that the farms have been illegally set-up and fenced up and that there are public safety and health concerns associated with them is never in question, there is some scope to look into maintaining what is already there and extending access to them to the wider community in the interim (the SLA does note that there are no immediate plans for the use of the particular stretch of land). An idea mooted by a guide during one of the walks organised by the good people behind “We Support the Green Corridor” I attended a while ago, Ms Margie Hall of the Nature Society of Singapore, was that the Authorities grant temporary occupation licences to the farmers. This would not only allow the farmers – mostly retirees, a useful pursuit in their advanced years, it will also permit the use of land to be regulated. This will also allow concerns of residents and the Authorities to be managed and eliminated and its use opened up to the community. It is the community that would stand to gain most from this – allowing both young and old a space in their neighbourhood to which they would be able to escape the urban Singapore we have become to a calmer, gentler and greener Singapore – a Singapore from which we have all emerged from and a Singapore we have long forgotten of.


SLA’s reply to Straits Times article “Group told to clear out ‘farm’ on state land” published on 10 Mar 2012:

SLA makes available vacant State land, pending their development, for interim use by the community for recreational activities. Over the years, SLA has upgraded vacant State land for such uses. There are today 270 community use sites in various parts of Singapore for the community to use and enjoy.

However, State land is a precious resource and must be maintained and managed responsibly. An important principle that we uphold without exception is that individuals or groups of them are not allowed to encroach and lay claim on State land for their private use. Where State land is allowed for community use, it is important that it does not cause disamenities for the neighbourhood, and does not adversely affect the land and the environment, such as causing ground contamination or mosquito breeding.

In this case, some individuals have not only encroached on State land for their private purposes but several of them have also fenced up parcels of land as their “own” and padlocked them for their exclusive use. There are also illegally erected make-shift sheds and even an outdoor toilet (photos attached). During our inspection, we found several ponds with stagnant water which are potential mosquito breeding grounds if left unchecked. We have also received feedback of the burning of branches and leaves which affects the air quality for the residents nearby and are a potential fire hazard.

In the interest of all residents living in the vicinity, SLA’s immediate priority is to stop the burning of leaves and commence vector control measures. We will also give those responsible for the encroachment a reasonable period of time to dismantle and remove the enclosed areas and illegally erected structures, failing which we will have to take action to remove them.

The land is zoned as “Reserve” under the Master Plan 2008 and there are no immediate plans for the site at this point in time. In the interim, SLA will seek and consider the views of the grassroots organisations whether the land can be put to some form of community use for the enjoyment of the residents in the vicinity. However, any such use is interim and will have to cease when the land is required for future development.






A celebration of the joy that is life

9 03 2012

As I look forward to this evening’s opening of what would be spectacular man-made show of colour and light, i Light Marina Bay 2012, that will be on until 1 April, my thoughts somehow drifted to another show of colour and light – one made not by man but by forces man has no control of. This show, is one that comes not once every two years, but one that we can see as often as twice in a day, once at the break of day and once with the fall of night. It is a show that in its unpredictability, suprises us sometimes with an unimaginable range of colours, and at times disappoints us with an unfulfilled promise. The unpredictability does permit an appreciation of the moments when there is a surprise. The sunrise and the sunset have for long been my favourite times of day – the sunrise is when I can approach the day with freshness and optimism, and the sunset being when I can leave the tiredness and the anger of the day behind. And, when it does come with that surprise, as it did during a sunrise in mid February I was fortunate to witness, it isn’t just a treat for the eyes and for the soul, but also a celebration – a celebration that is one of the joy that is life.

Colours of sunrise, Northern Singapore, 18 February 2012.





Dawn over the new Singapore

1 03 2012

Finding myself early one morning in a delightful old world I once knew that now is surrounded by a new world, I was drawn to the eerie blue glow that now colours the trusses of the gorgeous Anderson Bridge to venture in that direction and a little beyond it. As I walked past the Boat House – I half expected to be greeted by that joyful chaos that would have been the harbour of old, coloured by the icons of the old Singapore – that of the bumboats, tongkangs and towkows that Singapore’s success depended on. It wasn’t the old harbour however that greeted me, but a sea of calm coloured by the glow and the hues of the lightening sky, a sea without the chaos of old, surrounded by the icons of the Singapore we have become.

An icon of a developing and newly independent Singapore, the Merlion, stares at the icons of the new Singapore across a body of water that played an important role in Singapore's development.

The sea that I speak of is actually not anymore a sea. Bound by fingers of land carved out from the depths of the old harbour, it is now a body of sweet water, Marina Bay – a resource to supplement Singapore’s growing thirst for a resource it never has enough of. The icons we see around it are now the icons of the present and the future – representative of the Singapore we’ve become perhaps. One is the Merlion – a curious and unlikely fusion which is the icon of a confident and developing Singapore that emerged from the darkness that was the uncertainty of the early days of our independence. The Merlion stares towards even more curious edifices on the piece of land that sits over the old outer harbour – the edifices of the Marina Bay Sands Complex – which silhouetted against the glow of the lightening sky is a sight to behold.

The sunrise over a new Singapore.

As I sat in quiet contemplation marvelling at the magnificence of the sight that was before my eyes, I tried hard to imagine the world that once had been there, a world that I deeply miss. The gentle undulations of the water’s surface which was otherwise undisturbed served to remind me that world is no more, replaced by a world I often struggle to come to terms with. It is this new world however that I must now must love – one that when seen in the calmness and light of the new day, is one that certainly is hard not to grow love.








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