With a general election on the way, I spent the weekend snapping — and I mean snapping, not bothering much to compose for line and light — photos I may find useful for blogging purposes. The plan was to visit a fair selection of constituencies to build up a collection of stock photos.
The first difficulty was the travelling time involved. Perhaps I was too ambitious in wanting to get to as many places as possible. However, since I had no deadlines to meet, it didn’t matter that much. At worst, I’d have to devote another weekend making more trips.
The greater difficulty was that one part of our “heartlands” looks very much like any other part, thanks to the massive role played by the Housing and Development Board in building satellite towns. After spending an hour on the train from Bukit Batok, one arrives at Tampines only to find it looks no different.
I need local colour, I tell myself. But everywhere I look, it was generalised bland.
I reckon I should feel vindicated. One of my arguments for proportional representation is that Singapore is too homogenous. Our unvarying physical appearance is a good indicator of demographic uniformity. . . . but I shan’t go there in this article.
The biggest headache over the photography weekend was: Where is the demos (in the Greek sense)? Where are the people that characterise the land?
The above picture, for example, is quite typical. Inhabitants are stacked 15 layers high and yet there is nobody on the ground. I waited five minutes (the most I could spare) for some life to appear. A few cars drove past, but no one was seen walking. The Singapore of that picture looks like it has been hit by a neutron bomb.
Why aren’t there men kicking a ball around on the field? Why aren’t there boys joy-riding their bikes? Where are the little girls playing hop-scotch or zipping around on their foot scooters?
It’s the same from one suburb to the next.
We tend to think of Singapore as overcrowded. For goodness sakes, we have a population density in excess of 20,000 people per square kilometre in our built-up areas, many would exclaim. But over the Saturday and Sunday, I walked kilometres randomly weaving in and out among void decks and along minor roads between blocks. I didn’t see many people; and if you ignore the constant hum of airconditioners and the distant traffic, it’s relatively quiet.
In a way, it’s a bad sign. We know there are people, but they must be cooped up in their homes playing computer games or watching mind-numbing movies. The sedentary lifestyle has its effects: obesity, as we know, is on a steady upward curve. Another bad sign: few know their neighbours and sense of community is weak. Simply because socialising does not exist. I’m not sure what to make of the ruling party members of parliaments’ claims that ethnic integration is progressing well when I don’t see any integration, ethnic or any other kind.
So why do people feel crowded upon? Because we all go to the same few places: shopping centres. We don’t wander aimlessly among void decks. We pack into trains and head directly for airconditioned shopping malls like tens of thousands of others. But I’ll come back to them later.
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Both afternoons, it rained. It made my mission harder, becoming more difficult to get from one place to another and washing out whatever potential pictures of “typical scenes of constituencies” there might have been.
On the other hand, it also showed up something else: we’ve got a long way more to go to truly connect up our buildings with sheltered walkways. With our climate that is either baking or drenching, this is an important consideration if we’re ever to encourage walking. Undeniably, over the years, we’ve done a lot of retrofitting, but most times, the connections are meant to lead to bus stops, which then means people are funnelled into carbon-emitting modes of transport. And then we complain the buses are too crowded.
What is needed is a more comprehensive plan to allow people to walk up to a kilometre from train nodes under shelter. Encourage people to walk from their homes to town centres rather than take buses; it’s healthier and greener.
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Shopping malls were like a world apart. The noise, the muzak, the human load! With half the population from all those flats packing into these commercial boxes, it’s hardly any wonder we complain Singapore’s too crowded. Other than the computer, the shopping mall is Singaporeans’ chief form of entertainment, offering scope for consumerism (shopping) and nutritional self-destruction (eating), all achieved with no loss of anonymity, despite being elbow to elbow with others.
But let me not knock shopping centres. I had use for them myself, not to take pictures, but when I needed clean toilets. Others, like quite a few elderly people I saw, were probably there to enjoy the free airconditioning for an afternoon, the outside being warm and muggy — though having nowhere to sit (as is often the case in many places) was a constraint.
The attraction of airconditioning was obvious at dinner time. Inside Compass Point shopping centre in Sengkang, the food court was jammed with people and in front of almost every restaurant, there was a queue for tables. But just across the road, another food court, without airconditioning, had plenty of vacant seats. The outside tables, as we you can see, are half occupied, but inside where it was warmer and noticeably stuffier, less than 5 percent of the seats were taken.
However, cast your eyes to the mid-ground. The field is empty again. It’s the same neutron bomb look.
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So, is Singapore too crowded? Many people, especially those with eyes glazed over by anti-government sentiment, would roar “Yes!”. The reality is a lot more complex, with two important angles.
The first is that geography is not two-dimensional, but four-dimensional. We have a habit of seeing urban layout as two-dimensional, like on a map. In actual fact we inhabit three-dimensional space, like all those people in the 15 floors of flats, never interacting with each other being on separate layers and leaving the ground devoid of human life. Even in a shopping centre, humans are distributed on multiple floors. If we collapsed them onto the same floor, the density would be such that we might not have space to move, but by expanding two-dimensional shopping streets into three-dimensional mega-buildings, we have created room to shop and eat and otherwise kill ourselves and our planet with our “modern lifestyle”.
There is the fourth dimension: time. Different spaces fill up and empty out at different times. Even shopping centres are never always filled with people. For about 10 – 12 hours a day, they look like they too have been hit by neutron bombs. Ditto with homes, schools and offices.
The second is the way we channel people into pathways, nodes and time segments. There, things get crowded. Elsewhere, fields lie fallow and playgrounds beg for children. But channelling has economic value. By increasing usage of selected, built-up or serviced areas, we increase the efficiency and return of those areas. If we’re going to expend resources airconditioning a space or running a train back and forth along a track, it makes sense to ensure that these spaces and vehicles are constantly used.
That in turn creates the subjectivity in us. Since we ourselves tend to be within those nodes, pathways and time segments as everybody else, then almost every minute of the day, we find ourselves sharing the same spaces with strangers. It’s crowded, we say. Partly, it’s the way our physical economy is designed, but partly too, it lies in the choices we make. Why was the food court opposite Compass Point four-fifths empty? Why is the field never trod upon?