Friday, January 05, 2007

Jalan jalan**

I hate to start off the new year with a snarky post but it's been something that's been bothering me for a while since we've been back. The seeds of these thoughts were actually planted way back last year when we watched Tan Pin Pin's wonderfully evocative Moving House, but has come into sharper relief since we've been back this year.

I am simultaneously amazed as well as disturbed by the rapidity with which the landscape of Singapore is continually transforming. There is construction work being done virtually everywhere I look and buildings are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rainy day. And even though we come home almost once a year, I find myself sometimes a little disoriented when landmarks I knew have now made way for something invariably bigger and shinier. I guess this means Singapore has become affluent enough that such change has become part and parcel of her development as a modern city.

But my question is this- honestly, do we need another shopping mall? Tampines- although a fairly large estate- is expecting its third shopping mall, on top of the hyper-mega Courts and Ikea that have just opened in the area. It is not without some resigned incredulity when I think about the fact that a small country like Singapore has two Ikeas (one of which is the largest in the region) while the whole state of Michigan virtually celebrated its socks off when the first and only one opened last year. And Orchard Road, already the shopping mecca of the country will have yet another shopping center opening just across the street from three existing malls. And of course, who can ignore VivoCity, 1.5 million square feet of "iconic retail, lifestyle and entertainment" space. Jude and I have steadfastly resisted the urge by every other person we've encountered to pay our respects to this behemoth of retail excess.

On the other hand, we've visited two beaches and there were chokeful of people- families with kids, families with pets, people in tents, people on bikes- everyone virtually packed like sardines in a place where relaxation and peace of mind are supposed to be key. Oh, and of course, there were rows upon rows of restaurants and retail outlets about. It's as if we walked into just another shopping mall, except that people were sweatier and there was no Bread Talk in sight...

Just as Moving House revealed the pathos associated with one's family's relocation of their ancestors' grave to a columbarium in the name of urban redevelopment, I too am coming to terms with a little tinge of sadness at the rapid (almost rabid) rate of consumption that has overcome my little country. I ask again, do we need another shopping mall? What are we giving up in exchange? How about building more parks and open areas where families can go to escape the busyness that already consumes all the other aspects of their waking lives? Does leisure now have to involve the same jostling and fighting for space as taking public transportation? What about the cultural sites that define us as a people? Our graveyards, markets or historically significant buildings which may not be aesthetically or architecturally pleasing but worth conserving nonetheless?

Looking through old postcards and history textbooks, we have been taught to marvel at how much this little tiny island has transformed into the modern, shining city that it is today- the narrow streets have given way to huge expressways, small shophouses into towering skyscrapers. We have been almost conditioned to view change as a sign of progress. I see the wistfulness in my parents' eyes sometimes when they reminisce about the place where they used to work and first met, or this one restaurant where my dad brought my mum on their first date, or where they bought the dress I was wearing in an old photograph. But these places don't exist anymore.

My little humble prayer is that when we grow old, let there be bits of our memory that can still find a physical anchor. Please, let our children be able to see parts of this country the same way as we do, see a building where Jude and I used to spend time in in the same site as it is today. Hopefully, there will not be in its place a 45-storey cineplex, or a 67-storey all-in-one living-entertainment-educational-retail-medical-hospice facility.

Call this my new year hope.
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
Put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em...
-Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

**[In Malay, jalan jalan means "streets". More commonly, it refers to Singaporeans' love for of walking about the city and its shopping areas.]


Noor said...

People often compare Dubai to Singapore and had you taken out the local references, I would have thought you were talking about Dubai.

Anonymous said...

isn't Dubai "building" a set of islands designed to look like a huge palm tree from the air?

my dad worked in Dubai for several years in the '70s/ '80s and always talks about how cosmopolitan the place is.