I had to go to Mount Elizabeth today, and decided to take the train because I didn’t feel up to navigating peak hour traffic. The train ride didn’t take as long as I’d thought it would. So I ended up at Orchard MRT station a half hour before my appointment. My plan to sit out the half hour at a café somewhere never materialised. I couldn’t find my way out of the underpass! (Just a note for those who aren’t familiar with the place: the station is underground, and there is an underpass that leads to various points around the major crossroads above the ground where the station is located.) I tried three different exits, emerging each time from the underpass either on the wrong road, or the wrong side of the right road. Of course there were only so many options and elimination eventually got me to the right exit, just in time for my appointment.
I tweeted about this, and one follower jokingly asked if I were new to Singapore. That set me thinking. In some ways I am not new to Singapore. I was born here, went to school here, have spent my whole life here. But in some ways I am new to Singapore, because the Singapore I know keeps changing. I wasn’t new to Orchard Road today, but I was new to its current configuration. Fluidity of physical spaces is a constant here, as my last blog post suggests. A reality of modern society and a response to land scarcity, this fluidity can be refreshing for a vibrant young city, but it can also prove grating sometimes and lead to fatigue.
I see some aspects of this in the recent episode where residents in Woodlands expressed concern when they heard about plans to build a day care facility for the elderly in their neighbourhood. Of course there are many issues embedded in this and other such episodes. One Straits Times reader wrote that “If the HDB had stuck to its original aim of selling flats at cost and for residing in rather than as investment assets, residents would have less of a leg to stand on if a host of socially enhancing facilities like childcare and elder-care centres are built.” This is an intriguing way of looking at the issue, and I think that it certainly explains the perspective of those who express fear that the value of their property will fall if an elder day care centre were to be built nearby. There is clearly a mismatch between the way in which citizens view their living spaces and how the state views the same spaces, as there is between citizens’ views of living spaces and how the state thinks citizens ought to view them.
Another way in which the issue has been framed is in the form of a division between two camps – those who care about the elderly and those who don’t. (Click here for a more nuanced view of this argument.) But maybe there are some people who just need their physical spaces to contain some continuity. Perhaps it is unsettling to keep having the rug pulled out from under your feet, especially if it is made of concrete and therefore gave the impression of being permanent. When it was announced that Ren Ci hospital was going to build a facility in an open space in Bukit Batok, this is how some residents felt. Again, they were portrayed as uncaring of the elderly, materialistic and selfish, accused of having a “not in my backyard” mentality. If I had just looked at the articles in the press and some of the blog posts, I would probably have come to the same conclusion. But this time it was different. This time it was my backyard.
Do I know that we are facing a shortage of facilities for our increasingly aging population? Yes. Do I care about the elderly? Yes. Do I worry about the price of my flat? No (Very early on I realised that there is not much I can do about it). Do I feel that the elderly should not be in my backyard? No. On the contrary, I think it is a good idea to integrate facilities for the elderly into the neighbourhood. I am very opposed to the idea of packing our seniors away in remote areas.
So what was the problem? For an outsider, it seemed like a no-brainer. There is an open space. Why not go ahead with building a hospital for the elderly there? The problem was that this was not just a waste land, but a space that was very well used by the community. Everyday the space was filled with people: seniors exercising in the morning, children playing in the evening, families sitting around and chatting after dinner. At the risk of sounding like a National Day Parade script, there were people of all races and ages sharing the space, reflecting and constructing a sense of community as they escaped the closely spaced boxes they lived in and enjoyed the open space together.
A group of residents tried to make their voices heard. They gathered opinions from their neighbours and managed to speak to the MP. They suggested alternate spaces for the hospital, all very much within the neighbourhood. What they learned was that the decision to use the space for the hospital had already been made, and was irreversible. A new open space has been built under the MRT track. It is neither as big, nor as peaceful as the original space. We will adapt, as we always do.
But something has changed. In my mind, episodes like this show that we are renegotiating our identities as citizens. Fluidity fatigue, as I see it, points to a need for roots, and some semblance of continuity. Sometimes it can be strong enough to push normally pliant and apathetic citizens to organise themselves and try to effect some change. It can make us question the sort of relationship we want with our government, our position on social justice and community building, and our connections with our fellow citizens. In our technological society, where efficiency is an overarching framework, episodes like this put the spotlight back on the humans who are struggling to cope.