Barren

It was a pity I began to have multiple backlogs the moment school work started to pile up. I had less time and motivation to read about the newspapers and think deeply about issues raised in classes. ( This is something I still have to work on.) Even if I did develop some thoughts, they faded away when I failed to note them down.

However, one thought or rather, many thoughts regarding one issue continue to stick in my head till today. I only became aware of it as it is a recurring theme that is constantly reinforced in my TS3235 Singapore English Language Theatre (SELT) Module. That, is the theme of “Alienation” and “Memory” in Singapore. These topics are constantly dealt with in SELT, as seen from plays such as “Mama looking for her cat” and “The silly little girl and the funny old tree” by Kuo Pao Kun.

Alienation refers to the estrangement one feels towards his or her environment or community. In Singapore, alienation is experienced due to the rapid developments in our physical landscapes and society. This causes a void of memory because the spaces where we lived, played and breathed in no longer exists to remind us of the past. When this occurs, we easily fall prey to memories that are manufactured, and we unknowingly accept them, creating an illusive sense of belonging.

I never realised how alienated Singaporeans are until I started reflecting about my childhood, and how my environments looked like when I was younger, which is not too long ago, considering the fact that I am only 20. I have a friend who is almost obsessed with dainty and fluffy dandelions recently. Initially, she was upset because the only dandelions she had seen were the ones she found in Vietnam. We both thought that since we have never seen dandelions in Singapore before, there must be none, or probably only a few dandelions in Singapore. But upon closer observations, we started finding dandelions almost everywhere in Singapore, from home to school. I guess the concept of alienation or everything that we learnt works the same way. We overlook so many things that they often become invisible to us.

Hence, after introspection, I realised that within two decades, the large piece of forest in front of my house transformed into another primary school. The ice-cream shop in my neighbourhood where I used to visit to buy ice-cream cups with little toys to be uncovered in the cups was replaced by a modern hair dressing saloon. A makeshift stall in the neighbourhood used to sell my favourite kueh tu tu, but the stall does not exist anymore. King Albert Park Macdonalds, a dearly missed location where my friends and I used to gather in our school days was tore down last year to give way to a residential and commercial estate. Longhouse, a common “makan” place where my boyfriend and I visited a few times, no longer exist now. More recently, a large number of HDB flats were built on top of a large patch of green land in front of my house. The more I thought about everything, the more disturbing it got.

Some may say that the green patch of land will be developed sooner or later. It will be a wastage of land if it were to have nothing on it. But I question if a seemingly “barren” piece of land was nothing. I think it was something when my family and I once ran up the small green hill and attempted to fly a kite. It was something when we used to jog around it and the green hues never failed to bring me tranquility. It was definitely something when I could actually seen the sun set right above the hill beautifully. Simple as it is, a beautiful sunset is still one of the most pleasurable scene I have ever seen. Yet, even that is blocked behind the blocks of buildings as well.

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I saw this tree as I was walking home the another day. It was not just another photo you would instagram, but it just got me very concerned. If Singaporeans were to call ourselves a green city, where many trees are planted, why does it seem that things never grow old enough before they are demolished in this city?

Well, the thing about dandelions is that they are hardy plants that can survive in almost any condition. When the wind blows, they are able to disperse their seeds through the wind. This is why they can be found in almost every continent on the planet. But I do suspect that one of the reasons why we don’t see them so often is because the grass is trimmed regularly. Beautiful wild flowers are often levelled till what is left is only cold hard ground.

So why is there a need for such rapid developments? Indeed, despite all the alienation it brings, they were crucial, especially in Singapore’s nation building years. Since then, we have never stopped building, and demolishing, and building again, and demolishing again. But at this point of time, I would like to share one haunting story/ excerpt from Haresh Sharma’s play, This Chord and Others.

“Once there was this man who was invited to his girlfriend’s house for Christmas dinner. During dinner, he noticed that the roast turkey’s head and back were both chopped off. He was curious, so after the meal, he questioned his girlfriend. But, she too didn’t know why. All her life the turkey had been served that way. So, they went to ask her mother. Her mother didn’t know as well. Ever since she was a child, turkey was always served that way. So, finally, they went to ask the girl’s grandmother, who was old and bedridden. Her grandmother said that when she was young, her family couldn’t afford a big oven. So every time they wanted turkey, they had to cut off its head and back so that it could fit into their oven. That was the reason why in that household the turkey will always be served with its head and back chopped off.”

Just because a practice was justified in the past, doesn’t mean it is still correct in today’s context. Personally, I do not think that development is an absolute evil. Coming from a middle class family, I am admittedly and bashfully ignorant about the plight of Singaporean poor and how lives of people have been liberated from the developments that have taken place. What I do know is that something’s lost when something’s gained. Similar to the head and the back of the turkey in the short story above, what is lost at the expense of the ideologies we have taken for granted for all these years? Even if these measures are still justified today, at the very least, we ought to be aware of what we had lost, what we had lost them for, and constantly ask ourselves if these sacrifices were worth it. If we fail to do so, how can we trace them back and hopefully regain an ownership of the memories we have lost? How can we prevent ourselves from falling prey to the same pitfalls again?

Though it is an extremely idealistic dream, it is my humble wish that one day Singapore will start to value the spaces we own in our 716.1 km² land. Not all lands that are barren are useless. All the more so, not all lands that are barren are nothing. Instead, they are vacant spaces with the potential for beautiful wild flowers and memories to grow.

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Author: Cheryl Tan

21 // +65 A closet thinker. Documents her life in words and songs. Hopelessly obsessed with skies, and oh, FOOD.

4 thoughts on “Barren”

    1. Thank you for dropping by and commenting! True, I only hope that more people will recognise and appreciate that. I visited your blog and realised that you are currently staying in Singapore too! I’ll definitely take time to read some of your posts on Singapore 🙂 Hope that you will enjoy your time here!

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