even if its called cut sand

There are some things that intellectually, you accept and expect to happen. Yet, when they do, its still emotionally affecting. The writing was on the wall for Potong Pasir as soon as incumbent MP Chiam See Tong announced that he will be contesting in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. But, I still find it upsetting.

Yup, Fahfi, I promised not to write about politics again, but the result at Potong Pasir brought an unexpected lump to my throat even though I was half-asleep when it was announced, so, I thought I would write a little about why the place is so special.

[I will add in pictures once I have time to go back and take them]

On a personal level, Potong Pasir is special to me because I have worked there for 5 years and its forever tied in to my teaching days. The St. Andrew’s Village dominates the skyline of Potong Pasir – such as it is – and the SA family of schools had roots there since the time of the granite quarries that gave the place its name. Even so, when the school “came home”, we were instructed by upper management not to refer to ourselves as being located at Potong Pasir. Instead we were to officially refer to our location as SAJC@Woodsville. Which was ridiculous, because (i) there are no woods (ii) no taxi driver in Singapore knew where Woodsville is. Try to explain and you will just end up saying – “just go to Potong Pasir Avenue 1” whereupon the aggrieved driver would immediately know where to go and probably wonder why you never said so in the first place.

The reticence in acknowledging any links to Potong Pasir was probably political – for this tiny town had the distinction of being the longest-held opposition ward. Since PAP lost it to Mr Chiam See Tong in the 1980s, it has never looked back. When I first came to work there, I looked for and expected differences. But I didn’t really find much. And its certainly not a slum.

source: streetdirectory.com


From my old journal entry in January 2006:

I was sent to sit under block 134, potong pasir ave 1 as part of orientation CIP – but when i got there, there were no students around and it became a ‘drink mango freeze and enjoy the breeze session’ (YAY). Potong pasir, now that it has become real to me, rather than the name of an opposition ward, is not run-down, as claimed by some. It just looks older. There were banners for  both Chiam See Tong  and PAP candidate Seetoh Yi Pin wishing residents a happy new year. I have never seen a PAP GRC/constituency with a ‘HELLO and HAPPY NEW YEAR from opposition candidates. Tiny evidence of inequality. 

I guess the instinctive familiarity  reminded me of my childhood days at Clementi West St. 2 in the early 1990s before someone decreed that every housing estate needs a supermarket and a mall with a cineplex on the top storey. The void deck still had stone tables. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there were still hopscotch markings. The playground was only syntheticised in 2006, I think. There is no post office, no supermarkets and only one bus service.

But there were a lot of taxis. There is no better place to flag a cab than the pavement joining the school gate to the nearby coffee shop. Most time, I just needed to stand for a few minutes besides the scorch marks left by years of Hungry Ghost Festival burning and a cab will appear. I couldn’t figure out why – until a taxi driver told me that they like this coffee shop because the parking is free.

This was the same coffee shop where supporters of Mr. Chiam’s party gathered after Polling Day to await the announcement of the results. For more than 20 years, he was returned as Member of Parliament. From an independent candidate speaking through a loudhailer in a Volkswagen, to his years in the SDP, SDA and now, SPP, the parties he represented changed but he didn’t. He was the consummate independent, eschewing party machinery for the immediate connection of meeting people he represented – in coffeeshops, in the neighbourhood and in the aircon-less void deck where he held his Meet-the-People sessions.

Sometimes, you can sense that independence in the people you meet in Potong Pasir. The people in the Oasis Center -a branch of Singapore Association of Mental Health – where my students served. And the people who still take time and listen to birds sing. And the old man who stopped me when I was hurrying to school one day to point out a caterpiller under a leaf. Take a picture, he urged. And I did.

Sometimes, you can sense it in the way that the estate steadfastly remained unglamourously named ‘Potong Pasir’ when HDB estates elsewhere are now called something silly like ‘Sunshine Villa’ or ‘Delta Meadows’ in a vain attempt to make them sound more like condominiums. My own HDB estate is called ‘Hillgrove Gardens’ and yup, there are no gardens. What’s wrong with Bukit Batok (Coughing Hill) anyway? So what if every Malay radio deejay pretends to cough when you say you are from the area? Potong Pasir remained resolutely named Potong Pasir and I, for one, was very glad for it.

The PAP-linked Housing Development Board may have been the one to build the characteristic sloping blocks of Potong Pasir. But it was Mr. Chiam See Tong who both highlighted and influenced its independent character. Somehow I think that with the loss, the era of the independent candidate is over. The opposition/alternative party which won the most support was the disciplined ‘brand-named’ Workers Party whose appeal is based on its consistent message of national good governance not its candidates connection with the grassroots. One fact that seemed to have been eclipsed in this elections was that this was the first elections without any independent candidates contesting in the single-member constituencies. It doesn’t seem likely that any would come forward in the future. In the upcoming era of party politics, I doubt that someone can work his way to the hearts of the neighbourhood voters, the way Mr. Chiam did.

I meant to write this last week. It feels odd to write this now, because the biggest news in Singapore politics this week is that MM Lee Kuan Yew and SM Goh Chok Tong is stepping down from Cabinet, thus, further adding a full stop to the end of an era. Online, it seems rather odd that, juxtaposed with calls for Mr. Chiam See Tong’s contributions in Potong Pasir to be memorialized, there are dismissive remarks made by some netizens about the contributions of MM Lee and SM Goh which are far larger. Some people went so far as to claim that MM Lee is best remembered for his repressive ‘Operation Cold Store’, ISA etc – which is really very unfair. These two men are statesmen; their contributions best measured by the systems that are in place and the framework of a system that will now work for Singapore’s benefit when they step down. Many Singaporeans and I respect them for that. But its an impersonal respect – and intellectual, rational one for people you know have done much for the nation. Mr Chiam – and the caring independent individual, they may not go down in the history textbooks – but the respect they earn is a much more personal one. And with the end of the independents, I think I will miss that.