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Back to the City of Blessings

Updated On: Feb 13, 2010

SIIA Chairman Simon Tay wrote an article which appeared in the "Life" section of the Straits Times on February 13, 2010.


Back to the city of blessings

Just over a month ago, I moved back to Singapore from New York. A bit more than a year has passed since my novel, City Of Small Blessings, was published. Returning to the country that I have called home all my life, many things have changed.

The city has a new horizon. Dominated by the rising towers of the Sands integrated resort, Marina Bay is taking shape. Further out, the Barrage is working - literally - a sea change, to create a lake in the middle of the city.

Familiar places have been redone. Orchard Road has new malls in Ion, Orchard Central and 313@Somerset while the Mandarin Gallery and Paragon have been revamped. Sentosa has undergone massive construction works for the new Resorts World.

These changes are not unexpected. Government leaders have laid out the plans in detail, almost like advertising. Singapore is a country sustained by the promise of the future.

Some changes are for the better. To sit at the Capella, look out to sea and sip a drink is to enjoy the island in a new way. Some changes merely displace the old. The Ion buzzes but Centrepoint suddenly seems emptier, dated.

The pace and scale of change can overwhelm and the sense of the familiar, of home, is eroded. The texture of society too has changed.

In everyday transactions, in shops and restaurants, one is now much more likely to be greeted and served by a foreigner than a Singaporean. In some cases, the service is better. In others, the server speaks neither English nor Singlish.

There are places where the customers too are predominately foreign. Added together, I sometimes wonder if I have come back home, or am still abroad. I look at my novel again in this context.

The main narrator in City Of Small Blessings is Bryan, a man who has grown up with Singapore and given his life to public service as the principal of a leading school. But in his end years, rather than finding reward and happiness, he feels distanced, alienated.

He has sold the house he grew up in to emigrate, only to return when he could not fit in. With his old house demolished for a condominium, he rents a black and white bungalow in a distant green corner of the island, only to have this too slated for redevelopment. The story unfolds as the house is taken away from him, leading him to think of Singapore as it used to be.

He thinks back to the Japanese occupation and the changes that were forced upon the people. He goes to the city centre and gets lost. He rails against the changes but is rejected by his former colleagues and students.

Readers have asked if the novel is based on my life. I began this novel some 12 years ago and, unlike the fictional narrator, am not in my 70s.

But, like the old man, I lived in a rented house in a faraway corner. And in this past month, as I have tried to settle back into the place called home, I struggle to understand and accept all that has changed.

Increasingly, I feel I am not alone. You do not have to have been away from Singapore to struggle to adjust. Nor do you need to have lost a house to feel no longer fully at home. It is not just Bryan from my novel.

Many others are asking similar questions: whether they belong to this place, and whether the city belongs to them. The current debate over foreigners in Singapore shows this.

Singaporeans are not basically anti-foreigner. But if his home is too quickly and fundamentally transformed, the Singaporean will react negatively to assert his claim. If, on the other hand, Singaporeans feel valued as citizens and at home, they will be gracious hosts.

In the year I have been away, the Seletar airbase where I lived for more than a decade has been redeveloped into an aerospace hub.

There are impressive, multi-million-dollar plans such as the newly launched Rolls Royce 'campus for the future' for manufacture and research. This new investment adds to the economy and must be welcome.

But to make way for this future, half of the houses have been demolished and highways are being built. The old airbase, historic and unique, will change fundamentally.

There are trade-offs that must be made in Singapore: between old and new, between the benefits to the overall economy and the cost to the individual, and between rational logic and emotional attachment. Yet if it is always the old, the individual and our emotional attachments that are sacrificed, then the city will become less and less of a home.

A balance must be struck and the pace of change negotiated. Only then can Singapore evolve and still remain true to those who would call this home.

When the Rolls Royce campus opened at Seletar, I was invited and would have gone. I know their director for South-east Asia, Jonathan Asherson, and have witnessed the growth of their business in Asia and Singapore. I do not hold the changes in Seletar against them.

I did not attend only because work took me to another city, Hong Kong. I enjoyed the visit, benefited from the work and could imagine living there comfortably for some time, as do many Singaporeans.

Still, when I returned to Singapore, late and tired, I felt I was coming back home.

Simon Tay


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