Dr Chee Soon Juan has voiced a heartfelt sentiment that I believe is shared by many Singaporeans (https://theindependent.sg.sg/a-people-cut-adrift). From a very personal perspective, Dr Chee has observed the rapid changes that Singapore has undergone through the experience of taking his son to a school that he too attended as a boy.
As a Singaporean who now works overseas, I can truly identify with his feelings. I come back to Singapore often – twice, thrice a year. Yet, each time I return, I find that one more of my stomping grounds has shut shop due to ever increasing rents or the ever pervading redevelopment projects.
Much as my friends and family are familiar to me, I find myself often a stranger in my own land. Gone are the places that I once had supper with friends, torn down are the old haunts that I used to dine with my family.
Everything that holds even a bit of the past has been upgraded and renewed. From schools to parks to the constant stream of en block sales and gleaming new skyscrapers, the ultra modern is encroaching what I once considered my Singapore.
I am not criticising the need to modernise – Far from it. For any country to stay relevant in the face of a changing world, it needs to adapt. I understand that.
However, is there no balance between the relentless march forward and the retention of some nostalgia to our very identity? Surely there must be!
I remember growing up in the 80s where I recall there to be a far larger middle class. In an average family of four, we were able to eat out, fly kites and run around. Open spaces seemed far more accessible. I thought perhaps that I was looking at the past through rose tinted glasses but given that others have also expressed the same yearning, perhaps not.
Clearly, others too have observed that Singapore has a shrinking middle class with the chasm between rich and poor widening (https://theindependent.sg.sg/who-wants-to-be-middle-class-why-singapore-has-lost-its-drive-for-better/). This is worrying because the bigger the gap between have and have nots, the greater the risk of instability (http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/20/growth-and-the-middle-class/).
This nostalgia for better days gone by is therefore not just maudlin wistful longing but a genuine uneasiness that the future may not be as rosy as the past.
As Singapore forges into the future, it should take note not to forget the little people who collectively make up the country. Progress must be taken inclusively and incrementally to ensure that people are not left behind and left bewildered.
As Dr Chee feels alien to a school that was an indelible part of his childhood, many Singaporeans feel lost in a country that is home but does not quite feel like it is. More than just mawkish emotion, it is a genuine disconnect to a country whereby they once could afford a meal out but are now struggling to save a dime and are living pay cheque to pay cheque.
Has progress for progress’s sake eroded our livelihoods? If the environment and the livelihood are both unfamiliar, how can there be patriotism and a spirit for the collective? How can there be “no one left behind” if the poor are getting poorer and the rich, richer?