It’s close to seven when I make my way through the congregation of blocks to the bus stop near the main road. I should have reached by around six forty five but as per usual, I spend precious few minutes with the neighbourhood cat stretching lavishly at the playground, awaiting all of her subpar admirers. The bus stop is empty save for one elderly man and we sit for a while on the same bench (the other two are wet after a burst of rain) in the discomfort of silence shared by two complete strangers.
This doesn’t last long – a loud ringing sound interrupts the space between us.
It’s his phone and for a long while, the piercing sound continues in the air before I hear his hesitant voice. How to answer ah? It takes me by surprise but I cover it with a sudden polite smile, taking his smartphone. It’s obviously a new phone and he seems to be struggling with the mechanics of it. Well, at least we can help them in some way. You know how to make it softer? The sound very loud. This does make me laugh and I go through the steps slowly with him. My bus has left by then but that seems inconsequential to the experience shared over a too-loud phone.
heartland (n): the central or the most important part of a country.
When I think about this strange little word – heartlands – it is this experience that comes to mind. There are many others of course. There’s that time when an old lady instructed me when I seemed completely confused over choosing bananas, a primary school child quickly stuffing the incriminating contents of her lunchbox as she waits for the lift, small children who engage in incomprehensible conversations with everyone around them, the awkward exchanges held over girl, which floor you want? within the metal walls of the lift. It’s the seamless convergence between the generations and the cauldron with the past brews along with the future.
But this convergence is often disturbed – there are always news of condominiums being built and the number of floors overshadow the uniform skyline of old HDBs. There’s always that barging in by the modernity next door with their branded stores that threaten the small shop houses and the swanky food which sideline the “hawker” culture. News about “revamping heartlands” seems to be directed less towards updating old infrastructure and more on making the towns seem like a smaller reflection of the claustrophobic lanes of Orchard. There is a bizarre proposal to bring R&D facilities to the heartlands which seems, more than anything, another “practical” utilisation of space.
All that while we preach endlessly about the kampong spirit.
Searching for the elusive kampong spirit and hoping it’ll still be present among these pastel concrete walls is a futile exercise. It eventually becomes nothing but an echo of nostalgia and if there’s one thing the youth fail to engage themselves with, it’s this stubborn clinging onto the past. How will the youth understand the life hidden in the days gone by when they’ve just embarked on the journey? We search endlessly for the shared experience that will bind a thread through all of us when it is right in front of us – it is not so much saying the pledge in National Day Rallies nor the complex skyline of Singapore that sings of home but something else entirely.
It’s these carbon copy blocks with their fading pastel paint, it’s these void decks of culture clashes, it’s these playgrounds where every child has a fair shot of securing the swing, it’s the corner shops where the popsicle sticks are dubiously cheap and it’s the weekend crowd at the heart of town which turns the library to the place to be and the rare Sunday meals at your favourite hawker stall. For most of us, this is the quintessential experience of growing up in the heartlands, this is the real meaning of being a Singaporean.
It’s been 11 years in this country for this stubborn migrant but slowly, it’s beginning to feel home. But removing the heartlands, the central part of this country, will be akin to diluting the meaning of home, at least for me. So this is a quiet request to everyone to value the places where you grew up because before you know it, the looming condominiums and the modernity spearheaded by shopping complexes might have just replaced the Singapore of your childhood.