Go with a smile!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

HDBs and SAF

I used to deplore the uniformity of the HDB blocks. There is something really oppressive about the landscape. Rows upon rows of long blocks, broken by the occasional point block. (But point blocks are getting rarer.) Designs are the same regardless of whether you’re in Marine Parade, Tampines, Bedok, Ang Mo Kio or Jurong. HDB estates spread like a virus, and are only hemmed in by the shoreline.

It didn’t really occur to me that it was a little more miserable living in those places rather than my little more comfy and spacious home. But I suppose I got glimpses: first when I was a scout doing job week, and later on, when I did NS and met people who lived in those places. It really hit me that I was living completely different lives from them. We cared about different things. We listened to different music. Went to different schools.

Yet I spent the first 7 years of my life in a HDB apartment, and I always regarded those places as my first real home, and the soul of Singapore. Never mind that HDB flats had only been around for less than 20 years at the time I was born. Never mind that I don’t think that I will ever be the “man in the street”. But these places have this warmth and unpretentiousness about them that is hard to find in places that are more upmarket, or in District 10 places. And at the same time I feel that many members of my generation have lost this unpretentiousness.

And somehow when I think about the HDB, I also think about NS, because when they say that you’re “defending your way of life”, well I think about this HDB jungle. Never the epitomy of high living, but neither a slum of sorrow. There are ungated places, in that the public may walk in and out of those places. But yet there are walls everywhere, and you just feel, while walking around downstairs, that you are at the bottom of a very large well. The place which is so strange and yet so familiar. I used to wonder whether these places were a cure for homesickness, or I was sick of these places. Often it was a combination of both.

And the buildings that make up army camps – they do remind me of HDB flats. Rows and rows of buildings housing bunks stacked up next to each other. Bunks housing double decker beds stacked up to each other. When I watched Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu” and saw the peasant communes, I was thinking, “so that’s where they got the idea of HDB from.

For me the landscape of the army camp and the HDB flat is all intertwined. When you step out of camp, you’re right up next to a HDB block. You might go into a familiar but unfamiliar HDB town centre, and you don’t see this place every day, but you know it’s the same as every other town centre out there. In Yishun. Or Pasir Ris. Or Jurong. Or Choa Chu Kang.

Now, war is very nasty business. We all know that. But the very fact that it is possible at all, it does tell you something about human nature. Somewhere deep down inside – and I know this because I read books about psychology – we love being among a “band of brothers”. We know what it is like to form gangs, and what it is to identify with them. We instinctively know what it’s like to inflict violence on each other in order to make territorial gains, and recently research has shown that we were doing this shit to each other ever since we were primates. I would say that if these things weren’t built into our personalities, war would be impossible because everybody would defect once hostilities started. Now lest you think that this sort of thing takes place only in national armies, remember that in gang wars, gangs also fight for turf.

That’s why I wonder whether our concept of community and our instinct for organised violence are somehow related to each other.

And I’ll confess: I had a very bad habit, during my NS days, of wandering around Tower / HMV after work, still dressed in my number 4 or number 3. At least when you’re in a no 3 you vaguely look like an office worker. In you no. 4, you’re basically a soldier. I didn’t really think that much about walking around Orchard Road in number 4s. Back then, Singapore didn’t have a whole lot of foreigners.

These days, you won’t see a lot of soldiers walking around Orchard Road. You would get stared at a little bit. Now I find that very funny. Now, see, we’re citizens. We shed literally buckets of sweat to keep this island safe and orderly so that you have this nice place where you can earn a little bit more money than back home. But at the same time you’re looking at us like we don’t even belong here in this – well after all this whole island is ours.

Well maybe I’m misinterpreting. Maybe they feel queasy about freeloading on all that free security. But my instinct is “who the fuck do I think I am? Well who the fuck do you think you are?”

And it’s very very funny. I don’t understand. They put this uniform on me. Then I walk around and I see foreigners everywhere. Are we protecting our country against foreign invasion? It’s too fucking late. Who is the enemy? Are they on the other side or are they here? What does it all mean? Singapore vs Malaysia, it means Chinese, Malays and Indians are hacking away at Chinese Malays and Indians? I sometimes look at Shingot’s smiling face and I wonder what it’d be like if I was ordered to hack his head off. Nationhood – it has never been properly defined. You need to read “Imagined Communities” to understand how complicated this stuff is.


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