My bit of earth in the sun by Christine Suchen Lim

Friday, August 15, 2008

My bit of earth in the sun 10 min
Three writers share their hopes for Singapore this National Day
By Christine Suchen Lim

*I believe I first learnt to love Singapore when I walked by the sea under
the angsana trees every morning. That quiet place touched me somewhere
beyond my rational brain. It reached into my soul.*

*S'pore may now be a gleaming jewel, but it is her ancient voice and
earthy quality that I love*

Neither the People's Action Party Government nor my parents could claim her
for me. It was the sea and the trees that did it. And an ancient voice
beneath Singapore's skin of modernity.

I was 14 and miserable when I first stepped off the train at the railway
station in Keppel Road. Singapore was not the smart little red dot and
global city that she is today. She was a frowsy woman with unkempt hair
infested with lice. An urban, brown sprawl of shophouses.

Everywhere I looked, there were houses, and no trees. Decrepit shophouses
crowded Tanjong Pagar and Chinatown, crammed with people, spilling out onto
the pavements and covered walkways. Mothers and grandmothers - with babies
and toddlers strapped to their backs - washed, cooked, ate, quarrelled and
cursed the world, the Government and one another.

The covered walkways of Chinatown were noisy public rooms by day, and
dormitories by night when homeless old folk and unmarried males slept on
makeshift beds of planks and cardboard. Large brown rats scuttled along the
drains, inches away from the feet of diners having supper.

Besides the rats, stray cats, dogs and gangsters ruled Chinatown. Each time
my stepfather parked his car there, he had to pay an urchin to guard it if
he didn't want it vandalised. I did not feel safe. In my teenage
imagination, Singapore was a city of rats and gangsters.

Her physical geography was also unimpressive. There were no hills in the
city's skyline. Having grown up on the green isle of Penang in the shadow of
Penang Hill, I missed the pale view of blue hills on the horizon.

Fortunately, I was sent to Katong Convent, which was by the sea then. My
daily morning walk along the beach, from the former Odeon cinema to the back
gate of the school, pulled me out of misery. Trees shaded the beach. Wild
grass, creepers and bushes grew haphazardly. The winding sandy path did not
hurry me to my destination, the way a straight concrete path tends to do.

As the sun rose over the sea, Malay fishermen trawled the shallow waters
with hand-held nets for shrimp and fish. The peace and quiet of that daily
scene comforted a confused and rebellious 14-year-old who had to adapt to a
new family, a new school and a new country.

Looking back, I believe I first learnt to love Singapore when I walked by
the sea under the angsana trees every morning. That quiet place touched me
somewhere beyond my rational brain. It reached into my soul, perhaps it was
my intuition, I don't know, but it spoke to me. That quiet place became my
bit of earth in the sun when I was 14, and hated this island.

*Feelings take form *

Quiet places and nature can shape our feelings for land and country, far
more than national campaigns and national education policies. Far more than
even our national favourite hawker food. If there were no more Hainanese
chicken rice, laksa or char kway teow, would you still come back if you and
your family were living overseas?

Let's do a striptease. Strip Singapore of her jewellery. First, remove her
shopping malls and places of civic pride. Remove everything lauded 'world
class' by the mass media. Next, remove all her 'M's - MM, SM, PM and the
entire Cabinet of ministers. Then, strip her of her prosperity. Clothe her
in poverty. So poor that she could not afford to stage National Day Parades.
Would you still love her then? Would you?

I would, because I have heard her ancient voice in the quiet places like
that sea and that beach along the East Coast 46 years ago. And that ancient
voice was not the voice of Stamford Raffles or Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

It was the voice of an ancient island once known as Temasek and Singapura,
once a part of the ancient kingdoms of Majapahit and Sri Vijaya, once the
bit of rock on which our forefathers found a foothold and hammered out a

That voice has been muted for years by the pressure of our modernity. That
shallow sea and beach have since become the bustling neighbourhood of Marine
Parade, and Katong Convent is no longer by the sea. The sea has been filled
and reclaimed.

The two pictures of urban mess and rustic peace that I have painted above
encapsulate the gains and losses we have experienced as a people. The urban
mess is gone. In its place, we have gained a gleaming city, but lost our
quiet places, lost the spontaneity of our greenery and our sense of the
ancient and sacred in nature.

Our children see nature in neat grids, rows of trees and bushes planted at
regular intervals. Sometimes, I wonder if this planned orderliness was
designed to reflect our political control or whether it was an unplanned
by-product of it. Grids remind us of boundaries.

In the 1970s, I lived in Ang Mo Kio. From my window on the 10th floor, I
looked down on a path of beaten earth, zigzagging across the open space of
neatly planted grass. That crooked path gave me hope at a time when many of
my friends had left Singapore because they could not stand the tight
political control then.

I, who did not leave, clung to the hope that this crooked path gave me. A
path of beaten earth, made by anonymous feet that quietly went off tangent;
feet that refused to follow the straight-as- the-crow- flies concrete path
built by the authorities.

That path taught me a lesson. An authority can dictate a path, but it does
not necessarily mean that we can't walk off tangent and create our own path.
And sing our own song.

In the 1980s, at the height of the Speak Mandarin campaign, I overheard two
cleaners, an Indian woman and a Chinese woman, sitting in a quiet corner of
the Bukit Timah campus. They were sharing bread and feeding the birds,
chatting in a mix of pasar Malay and the Hokkien and Teochew dialects.

Formal education does not encourage this inter-language mixing. And yet, it
is often this willingness to mix (or campur-campur) languages that helps us
bridge race, language and culture to connect with others.

The two cleaners showed me that, if hearts were willing, words would be
forged in the smithy of willing hearts to connect regardless of campaigns.

We, Singaporeans, are creative in mixing words from different languages.
Just listen to our street lingo be it Singlish, pasar Malay or pasar
Mandarin. Our linguistic mix-and-match creativity is spontaneous, often
mischievous. No law can outlaw our people's creative tongues.

A quiet place, a crooked path and two cleaners make me proud of the earthy
Singapore beneath the one adorned with 'world class' jewellery.

She is the one I love when I speak of land and country. Hers is the voice
that our writers and poets hear in quiet places, when we listen not to the
news, but to the songs and stories embedded in this bit of earth.

For what is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
Dreams and memories?
But a bit of earth.

*The writer is the author of Fistful Of Colours, which won the Singapore
Literature Prize, and A Bit Of Earth, a novel shortlisted for the same
prize. Her latest book is The Lies That Build A Marriage. *