It’s a Wednesday morning in the first days of 2021, and I’m walking down a row of British military houses. This was not a country fighting a war, nor was it a country still under colonial rule, so it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for me to be on these grounds, gazing slack-jawed upon these pretty, mock-Tudor-style cottages that were once homes to junior-ranking British officers.
But it didn’t feel entirely ordinary, either. After all, this was Singapore in 2021, a country that had long crossed the finish line in the race towards Modern Life, shattering multiple records along the way. So what was I doing here on a patch of forested land, during office hours, flanked by wild bird’s nest ferns taller than myself, having just been dropped off by my Grab outside a kampung mosque, itself an anachronism, out of place and out of touch?
Geographically, I was situated somewhere in the midpoint between the sprawling business parks at One North MRT and IKEA @ Alexandra. Both were just a short walk away. So it’s not like I was deep in the outskirts, somewhere rural or forgotten—this was close to the heart of the city.
But physically, I felt like someone had transported me far away, yet left careless traces of the everyday for me to pick up on. I was in an estate comprising of black-and-white houses, ones excluded from the usual categorizations of HDBs, Condominiums, Bungalows. Yet the details adorning the scenery were familiar: an old buddhist altar sitting outside a front door, SAF singlets hanging out to dry on clothing lines, a Honda Civic lining up neatly beside an Audi A4.
A Shiba Inu trots by, domestic helper in tow.
When I first came to Jalan Hang Jebat I did not yet know what I wanted to find out, but I stayed around a while, and made a few friends.
These were words spoken by Sharon, a Singaporean ex-teacher who’s done her rounds teaching literature at schools like Kent Ridge Secondary and NUS High School, and lives in a second-floor apartment in Jalan Hang Jebat with her husband, their four-year-old daughter, and Poppy, their beloved Shiba Inu.
Sharon wasn’t the first person I got to know at JHJ; in fact, she was one of the last, introduced to me by Indi, an Indonesian resident who runs a sustainable coffee shop in the CBD, himself taken off guard by me the first day I came. He was about to bring Kona, his huge one-year-old golden retriever, for a walk when I caught up to him and blurted a quick, “Hi, do you live here?” and, “Can I ask you some questions?”
(Yes, most of the residents here have dogs, and only writing this now do I realize that I did not meet a single person living at JHJ who did not own a pet of some sort.)
I told Indi that I was a photographer at an independent online magazine, and had come down to JHJ after hearing about the government’s plans to redevelop a certain charming old estate filled with colonial-era houses. I intended to make my own mini impact assessment—could this add anything to the recently-heated conversation on Conservation vs. Urbanization?—and of course, to try my hand at taking some pretty pictures before the area becomes just another HDB estate.
“Hmm? I don’t know anything about the plans to redevelop this area. We haven’t heard any news in awhile,” Indi tells me.
No new evidence for the case, then. This would be something I’d come to hear from the rest of the residents, that aside from the one Straits Times article (paywall-ed, FYI) published last year, none of the residents knew anything about what would become of their precious, albeit rented, homes. There was a vague sense that Covid-19 was the only thing that helped to delay the eviction notices, but even that was uncertain.
Still, I was lucky enough that Indi turned out (eventually, at least) to be someone who had quite a lot to say about the routine replacement of any un-maximized land in this country, among other things.
These quotes were not easy to come by. After my first brief encounter with Indi, I could barely squeeze a reply out of him over the next two weeks. He hardly used WhatsApp (mentioning in passing that he was transitioning to Signal) and had not been picking up my calls prior to my next visit. So upon my return I turned my attention to the many other inhabitants of the area—a pair of filipino sisters having breakfast in their backyard, a soft-spoken IT engineer living in the corner-most unit, and the plethora of flora/fauna ranging from cute to itchy—and was about to round off another day of field research when I saw Indi again, out in the field on a foldable Decathlon chair. Kona was running circles around him, and they looked, by all accounts, blissfully disconnected from whatever forces were propelling my world forward.
Here, I will venture to say that these didn’t feel like vacation homes, or mere enclaves for the super-rich who could afford to be blissfully disconnected. Yes, I couldn’t deny that the people I met here all seemed to be leading comfortable lives, and that many of them owned property elsewhere but chose to rent an apartment here. These things, when seen in isolation, made it easy to enviably dismiss the homes of these owners, and their seemingly watch-the-world-go-by lifestyles, as opulent and out-of-reach.
A few things made me reconsider the weight of these assessments. First of all, I was quite surprised to hear from one of the residents that back in 2012, he had secured a 2-room apartment here with his housemate for a combined monthly rent of around $2,000—which at $1000 per person, would not be far off from what I and many of my peers can reasonably afford. (Of course, prices have soared since then, but are still nowhere within range of the more upscale neighbourhoods around town.)
Two, vacation homes are, by definition, a respite from the unpleasantness of everyday life. Yet you wouldn’t see photographs of these houses on real-estate brochures advertising dream homes: their asbestos roofs were browning, tree branches creeped in through the windows, and pythons had even been spotted slithering past front doors. This wasn’t a place with neatly-trimmed gardens and well-insulated interiors; it was all too exposed to—and overflowing with—life.
Lastly … so what? So what if these people led comfortable, enviable lives? What stood out to me, I realized, was that what made their lives enviable to me, and what compelled me to come back to this stretch of road named after a legendary Malay warrior/anarchist, was not so much the wealth of their possessions, but the things they could not (and did not need to) own: trees, birds, mammals, sun, rain, wind … an entire thriving, luxuriant ecosystem of which they co-existed with. Where else could a place like this exist in our bustling little city?
(Or maybe: how could a place like this exist in our bustling little city?)
Eventually, the more disconcerting question that I found myself asking, while sitting in these homes taking notes and traipsing through unmarked roads and photographing everything that moved, was this: why do I consider it a privilege to be able to live close to nature like this? Shouldn’t it be a public good, accessible to both the rich and the poor, to be able to breathe in unpolluted air and hear morning birds sing?
When we inevitably arrive on the topic of the increasing scarcity of greenery (not just of the cultivated sort), Sharon quips that, while heartbreaking, it isn’t all that surprising.
“Having grown up in Singapore all this time, we can see how the government works. No-nonsense, pragmatic. Whatever brings in economic growth.”
I mutter something half-formed in reply, something about how living in such a place feels like a sort of antithesis to all that.
“Yes, and removing such places, I guess, removes the softness that Singapore needs. But anyway it’s never allowed us to feel like that kind of softness should be entertained. ‘Cus we’re always moving forward, to be edgier, have greater drive, attract bankers and entrepreneurs. It’s never been in the mentality.”
It’s 6pm, and I’m back at the kampung mosque at the end of the road. My grab is on the way, to pick me up and take me back onto the smooth-running highways en-route to my HDB home, high above the ground. My head still swims with anecdotes from multiple conversations, and with the magic of the fading day behind me I can’t help but romanticise the way of life I’ve just observed.
This is Singapore in 2021, and like Sharon says, here there is a constant, conscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most significant qualities of truly happy persons are wealth, progress, stability. Even for someone who has never quite bought into that ideal, stepping into Jalan Hang Jebat—where people leave their front doors open and pass eggs around and still have to worry about lightning felling trees outside their homes—brings back a sort of fundamental feeling that shakes at that thesis. And it’s a feeling I want to keep with me.