Some random observations about my birthlace after 25 years

Returning to Malaysia/Singapore after many years, I noticed some things by their absence. Reflecting perhaps a more secure life, there were no sounds of beatings of women and children, with accompanying cries of desperation and anguish. Thankfully, there is no more spitting in the streets; there is also no littering in Singapore. The chewing of betel leaf with areca nut and lime by the Indians and Ceylonese is rarely seen (perhaps it reflects a Western-oriented sophistication and the antipathy to spitting).

The rickshaws have gone, again thankfully, as have the opium dens. However, a tri-shaw driver in Penang told us about the drug scene, although drugs are banned and the death penalty applies. There were no more centipedes, millipedes or scorpions to be avoided in wet areas, or in our pockets. There did not seem to be any need to shake out one’s clothing or shoes before donning them. Malaria seemed to be under control in Malaysia although dengue fever was found in some areas of Singapore.

Batik shirts for men were definitely out, even for the tourists. At the airport in Penang one time, I was the only one wearing a traditional batik shirt (not that anyone cared). Modernisation brings monotony, it seems. The ubiquitous T-shirt covers everyone, even the girls. But what happened to hats and umbrellas? I missed the attractive patterned waxed paper umbrellas, which kept the rain off us in the olden days; there were only a few black nylon umbrellas visible. Colour has given way to drabness, to ubiquity through economy.

When I searched all over Singapore for a hat, even in the tourist areas, all that I could find were a khaki pith helmet, of the hunting kind, and a cloth hat. Both seemed to be relics of a bygone era, exhibited in a major tourist store.

All the kampongs in Singapore had disappeared. More colour and diversity were thus lost in the interests of good housing and the building of a nation – a somewhat high price from a tourist and (perhaps) a lifestyle point of view. It is in this context that one can appreciate the French for refusing to so modernise their agriculture that centuries of lifestyle can be lost. The clean canals of Singapore are to be commended, unlike the reverse in Malaysia … I did not miss the steam trains which used to deposit soot in my eyes every so often.

In terms of lifestyles, oil baths seem to have been replaced by modern shampoos and conditioners; I have always thought it strange that modern people have accepted that oil on one’s hair, however lightly applied, is not acceptable; that one has to remove all traces of natural oils as well and then make one’s hair manageable by coating it with a chemical. It is little wonder that, after a lifetime of modern hair treatment, many scalps begin to look damaged. My relatives also seem to have adopted surnames, my generation’s names becoming the future family or clan names.

From a tourist point of view, as well as from the perspective that attractive features of cultural divergence ought to be maintained, at least for aesthetic reasons, it is sad to see the areas formerly described as Arab or Indian being modernised in Singapore. What results is a bland mélange of modern architectural mediocrity. So much of that nation’s architecture looks tawdry; the town houses are so uniform that one wonders why it has to be so. Since houses are already expensive, would it not be worthwhile, for a small additional cost, to change the appearance of neighbouring homes by relocating the front door and windows and by similar surface changes?

Yet there is some refurbishing and renovation taking place to preserve the character of old Singapore. And the installation of Chinese goldsmiths in the middle of a row of Indian shops is surely unwarranted. Indian tourists can surely shop for cheap gold at the boundaries of the Indian shopping area. The policy of mixing the communities (an excellent objective) must surely be modified in the interests of presenting an attractive city to tourists; otherwise why should they bother to stop at Singapore? Fortunately, Malaysia retains its colour; the beautiful Malay costumes are still to be seen.

(Globalisation, in terms of economic development, can lead to a homogenisation of local industries with an American flavour, if not coloration. In a comparable manner, a touristy Westernisation can result in a colourful cosmopolitan copy of Disney-like attractions. And that may be exactly what perambulating youthful travellers like.

In the above extracts from my memoir ‘Destiny Will Out’ I, however, take a nostalgic look at my place of birth, seeking what was beautiful scenically and socially in my day. That is to also say that I had a happy boyhood. Perhaps because that boyhood expired when the Japanese army arrived, and also because of my difficult and conflicted life experiences thereafter, I tended to look in the rear-vision mirror when writing this memoir.)


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