Man at His Best

Is Singapore Home, Truly?

Because while home is where the heart is, inversely, home can break it too.

BY Laura Eva Wong And Wayne Cheong | Aug 9, 2017 | Culture

Image by Darren Soh

New homeowners. Balloted once, waited four years for their Built-to-Order flat.

Joanna: Housing is expensive. We have to pay with our lives.
James: We’ve had to take a smaller space but we’re paying more. We paid SGD450,000 for our place, but every taxi driver that I meet says it’s so expensive.

Joanna: But I’m satisfied with it because it’s in a mature estate and it’s more convenient.
James: Growing up in Singapore is alright. Having travelled quite a bit, I feel that the wonderful thing about Singapore is the convenience. There’s this kampung feel because I’m close to my neighbours. Hari Raya and all that. We even exchange gifts at Christmas.

Joanna: It’s safe.
Joanna: I wouldn’t want to emigrate to another country.
James: Yeah. I’m too rooted here. 
Joanna: The food, especially. And safety.

Born in Singapore, lived through the war, occupation, independence.

“My mother worked as a helper and my father worked in a factory. It was tough in China and they wanted a better life in Singapore. They met here, settled down and had me.

“I remember riding the bullocks as they passed through Chinatown. I’d climb on the animal’s hairy back and grab hold of its large fore hump. In the ’40s, the Japanese invaded Singapore. It’s basically what you see in the news, the movies; bombs fell on key installations, there was chaos in the streets. I heard stories of collapsed buildings, beheadings, bodies in the street. One moment, there would be a crowd, and then the air-raid sirens would sound and the streets would empty. We hid in the basement of shophouses. Me and several other families. Families in those days were huge so there wasn’t much room to move around.

“The moment the Japanese attacked Singapore, the wealthy left. Anybody who had the means and the money left. Only the poor were left behind. The British offered us conscription, saying that even if we died, our family would be taken care of. 

“The only problem was that we didn’t know when we would get paid. But most of us felt that conscription was the better option because we had nothing else to do, might as well enter the army and earn a pay.

“When the Japanese left, even though I could depend on my parents for my meals, I went around stealing what I could from the other villages. I’d steal bananas, water, watermelons, sweet potatoes. If there was an unguarded tree, all the children would descend on it like locusts. I was 15 at the time.

“I was a Kok Kok Mee seller. As I roamed the streets, I hit a bigger piece of bamboo with a stick, which emitted a ‘kok’ sound; hence, the name. Anyone who wanted a bowl of noodles shouted out their orders, and no matter what floor they lived on, I’d make the noodles and bring it up to them. I only got paid after they finished eating. It was a more innocent time. No one was malicious. If we owed money, we paid it. If we didn’t pay, we’d probably just forgotten. There weren’t many disputes over money in those days.

“When they took a census of who was living in Singapore at the time, they didn’t have the manpower. You were stuck with whomever was available. So, your name [on your IC] wasn’t really your name. Your name was what the person interpreted it to be. It was very slipshod. That explains the weird surnames.

“To feed my wife and children, I picked up the grains that fell on the floor of the warehouse. They were smelly and we mixed those with proper rice. When I was younger, we gathered the grains that had fallen from the sacks carried by coolies.

“I wouldn’t move to another country. I don’t have the money or the capability to do so. I love Singapore. At the end of the day, it’s safe, it has good security and my kids can still make a living here.”

In a nondescript lorong in Geylang, there sits a house that is a shelter for homeless transgenders. The T Project is the brainchild of co-founder JUNE CHUA, 44. Knowing the difficulties that transgenders face in finding acceptance and getting gainful employment, she set up the space at another location in 2014 before moving to its present address. “At first, none of my neighbours knew what this place was about,” Chua says, “but I think they’re accepting of us. They have been quite nice.”

Residents are referred by social workers. Each application is heavily vetted as the shelter can only house up to eight people. Shelter Manager, EZTELLE ROCHE KAYE, 48, explains that everything needs to be “by the book”; there cannot be even the smallest iota of indiscretion as that will undermine the shelter. Chua showed me around the modestly furnished place, as a few of the residents got ready for a job interview later that afternoon.

Chua and Kaye are very different people. The former is gregarious, prone to levity and, in Kaye’s words, “more forgiving of infractions”, while the latter runs a tight ship; Kaye looks like she would have no problem reading the riot act should the situation call for it. Despite their contrasting personalities, they work well together, their banter reminiscent of a well-paced rally at a tennis match.

One of the residents, SONY ELZABETH, 36, has been staying at The T Project for about a month now. Diagnosed with HIV, her body aches, but despite the pain, Elzabeth was sweeping the patio that morning. Before The T Project, Elzabeth slept in void decks and self-medicated by drinking herself into a stupor. Now, she has a schedule to keep, as she tries to regain some sense of normality. Recently, during her birthday, her boyfriend took her out and bought her make-up. Elzabeth looks forward to moving out and being independent, but for now, she calls the T Project a sanctuary.

Globalisation makes accessing the rest of the world much easier, and it’s not unusual to see Singaporeans travelling out of the country on vacation or for work. And while those who choose the latter sacrifice a great deal like comfort and familiarity, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t still tethered to the place that they come from.

Associate Creative Director at Spotify

“I was a pretty good, disciplined boy. I had an unusual amount of freedom growing up. I was only 10 but would take the bus to meet friends. We went wherever our imagination took us after that... like haunted houses. I don’t imagine many Singaporean 10-year-olds doing this now. Or maybe they do.

“My living overseas has nothing to do with Singapore. It’s specific to my work, which is advertising. I just wanted to play in a bigger pond, that’s all. This probably isn’t the answer that you’re looking for. I think Singapore will need to run its own course and come to its own conclusions rather than be told what to do or think.

“I don’t think I’ve ‘left’ Singapore. I just think that this world is so much bigger than our island, and I’d be doing my life a disservice if I never lived or worked elsewhere. So, I’ve always been open to the idea of living somewhere else for as long as I can remember. Everything is a possibility and I find that very, very exciting.”

While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong encouraged young Singaporeans to take job opportunities abroad in a 2016 dialogue session at the Singapore Institute of Technology, he also added that about 25 percent do not return to Singapore. It’s a wonder why.

What is it that other countries have that Singapore don’t? As talent becomes more mobile, the brain drain might get worse. Patriotism and familial attachments, these factors once had a strong enough pull to bring Singaporeans back to the country, but what if it’s something else that’s pushing people away from Singapore?

Partner and Director of a Contemporary Art Gallery

“As kids, I remember having real fun. We had decent access to Western culture (and sub-culture) so it’s not like we grew up in an igloo. But in hindsight, it was too safe, sheltered and manicured. A bit of uncertainty now and then keeps one on one’s toes.

“I had been extremely productive in Singapore. I was lucky to have started my creative career during what I felt was the most exciting formative years for Singapore. Opportunities were there for those who looked and wanted them.

“[And then,] one day, I felt that it wasn’t so exciting anymore, that everything felt a little contrived. That’s when I knew I had to get out.

“Moving is always a pain in the ass. You don’t realise how much junk you accumulate until you start packing. Besides that, I had to tie up loose ends: sell my car, rent out the house and apply for working visas. Without [my wife], I wouldn’t have done it. She’s here with me in New York, and I’m lucky that she is enjoying and sharing the experience with me.

“[But] leaving [Singapore] was the best thing that I could have done: I was back at square one. Even things as simple as opening a bank account had to be seriously considered. It felt real and humbling.

“Singapore is always home. We’re Singaporeans, that’s hard to shake off. “I definitely don’t wish to work in Singapore, but it feels good to be a tourist in your own homeland.”

And, of course, we had to ask the opinion of someone who came here to work…

Public relations; moved from Malaysia to Singapore for work.

“[I wanted to] challenge myself to live out of my comfort zone; be independent, gain experience for personal development. Singapore’s culture isn’t too different from Malaysia’s, which made it easier to adapt [to]. Also, the competitive culture here keeps you on your game. They say, if you can work in Singapore, you can work anywhere in the world.

“There are differences though: Singaporeans are more open-minded, compared to a Muslim country like Malaysia. [You have] a very active outdoor lifestyle too, but the biggest difference would be safety. In Malaysia, robbery is still a major issue. In Singapore, [you can] wear whatever you want without fear of being catcalled, stared at or robbed.

“Malaysia will always be my home, but a few months in Singapore has made me feel that if I were to return to KL, it’d mean I’d be going backwards. Singapore’s fast-paced work life can be trying, but it’s more suited to my personality. Moreover, the economy here is more [reliable] than Malaysia.”

Other than food, there’s nothing more endearing to Singaporeans than the National Day Parade (NDP) theme song. We recall the sing-ability of the tunes (“We are Singapore, we are Singapore / We will stand together, hear the lion roar”), and how the lyrics evoke imagery (“There are five stars arising, out of the stormy sea”). But not all National Day songs are created equal. The most reviled is 2013’s “One Singapore” (remember the “woah-oh-oh-oho” refrain?). But one song stands out and, according to a 2013 online poll, conducted by The Straits Times, readers selected “Home” as their favourite National Day song.

First sung in 1998 by Kit Chan, the song was never meant to be a National Day song; it was originally submitted for a competition organised by MICA for their Sing Singapore Campaign in 1997. One of the selection committee happened to be the Chairman of NDP, and he decided to feature it the following year. We talked to Dick Lee about the enduring quality of the song.

Singer, composer, songwriter, playwright

Why does “Home” still resonate with Singaporeans?

“Throughout my career, I have tried to find my identity as a Singaporean through my music. When I explored our social history, I realised that we had no folk songs—not surprising as we are such a young country. So, I hoped that somehow my work could contribute to evolving our own folk song, and perhaps “Home” has become that. I figure that a song becomes a folk song because the [people] keep singing it. And it has been 19 years so… fingers-crossed that [it’ll evolve into a] folk song.

Years later, do you still hold that same sentiment of what Singapore is to you?

“I’ve ridden through several storms but feel that I have grown with my country, and feel that my country made me. I also think it sets me apart, which is why I keep having Singapore references in my work. I am constantly inspired by home, and it has been noticed overseas, which is something I’m most proud of.”

Accused of being the key figure in the alleged Marxist Conspiracy to overthrow the Singapore Government, Tan Wah-Piow has been a de facto exile in London since 1976. Tan is now a practising lawyer, but he has taken on the artist’s role with an exhibition called The Other Side of the Moon. Despite his 42 years in exile, Tan’s desire to return to Singapore has not diminished.

Lawyer and artist

“While I have a desire to return, it is not at any price. A good friend asked me a few days ago if I would accept a few months’ imprisonment as the price for my return. My reply was: “Of course, I will plead not guilty to the charges of absconding from National Service!” The à la carte conscription used against me in the hour of my release from prison after a trumped-up charge was politically motivated, and an abuse of the system.

“With the recent mother of all family disputes in Singapore, I am more confident [than] ever that the politics of the dominant family, and the party are approaching their sell-by date. So yes, the hope of return within my lifetime is there.

“But having accepted exile as a reality the moment I landed in [the UK] on June 30, 1976, I got on with making this place my home. It is definitely easier for me in London than if I were in Sweden, for example, as London is huge internationally. One gets to meet friends from Singapore, Malaysia and Asia probably far more regularly than when one is back in Singapore. London is also a very liveable, tolerant, culturally and intellectually stimulating, and cool global city. There’s never a dull moment.

“It’s your family, and in my case, my circle of friends, that makes me feel at home in London. By birth right, my home is in Joo Chiat Place.”

Poet and construction worker

A person can’t be in two places at once, but the same needn’t be true of his or her heart. For 26-year-old migrant Mukul Hossine, it was his yearning to be in another place that led him to find a home in this one. Whenever he missed the country where he grew up and the family he left behind—his mother, in particular—he would go to one of his favourite places in Singapore, East Coast Park, to put his loneliness down on paper in the form of poetry. What started as a way to cope with homesickness, slowly developed into a platform for him to speak for migrant workers like himself, who are often misunderstood, if not completely ignored. Mukul, who came over to Singapore in 2008 to work in the construction sector, has been writing poetry since he was 12, and was first published back in his hometown when he was merely 13, a piece that now makes him cringe. What he remains extremely proud of, however, is his collection of poems titled Me, Migrant, which was published by Ethos Books and launched at The Arts House on May
1 last year, an experience that he ranks as one of the top two moments in his newfound home.

Since arriving in 2008, his relationship with Singapore has grown from obligation of having to be in a certain place at a certain time to fulfil a certain duty, to a genuine desire to settle down and stay. As he himself admits, he wouldn’t have left Bangladesh if he didn’t have to earn a living, but now that he’s here, he would like to remain, even if he can afford to leave. Anyone can say that they love how safe, clean and quiet Singapore is, but few would queue for hours, on two separate occasions, to pay respects to her founding father when he passed on and dedicate a poem in his memory, what more if they weren’t even born here. Luckily for him, it seems that Singapore loves him too. Most Singaporeans that he’s met—from his boss and the people at the non-profit HealthServe clinic where he volunteers, to the local writers that he’s gotten to know in the local arts scene—offer him nothing but unwavering support in his endeavours—although he is not exempt from the occasional person covering his or her nose with a tissue when he walks by.

Perhaps this is why he is so firm in maintaining the divide between the migrant worker that he insists he is and the Singaporean that he hopes to be, even though Singapore feels like his second motherland, next to, not after, Bangladesh. Yet, he refuses to consider himself Singaporean, never mind that he’s quite open about it being one of his dreams. He points out that it will hurt even more, at the end of the day, if he thinks of himself as Singaporean, but this thought doesn’t translate to paper. He still hopes, though, that he will be able to settle down in one of the houses here with his parents someday, instead of merely building them for other families and feeling wistful that he will never be able to set foot inside, much less live in one. Of all the things that he’s ever wanted, what he wants most is to be able to see his parents before going to work every morning. He doesn’t think it will ever happen but “I hope. I hope, always.”

Until then, he would like to focus on writing, and aims to publish a second collection of poems that focuses more on Singaporeans and their lesser-known hardships by the end of this year. He also wants to continue creating spaces for migrants like him to be heard. In a bid to give them the opportunity that he received, he scours for talent from as young as 10 years of age and invites them to Migrant Poetry Evening, which he started with his own money. With his event being one of the few times they have ever shared their work with an audience, Mukul hopes that this will inspire them to continue writing. But most of all, he hopes that it will bridge the divide between Singaporeans and migrants. He wants Singaporeans to realise that migrant workers aren’t just foreigners who come from unknown, far-flung, dirt-poor places to make money, but people with hearts and minds who possess different talents and dream different dreams, the way he’s been fortunate enough for most Singaporeans to see him. Because, yes, he may be a migrant worker from Bangladesh whose job it is to build our—and his—Singapore, but he is also much more than that, and that’s all he’s ever wanted you to know about him.

There are many labels in Singapore, but there is one that’s not easy to get: “stateless”. Sure, a lot has been written about the stateless, but think about it: being stateless is an anomaly, a fluke. No one strives to be stateless. Usually, it’s due to the actions of the parents that a child is made stateless. Consider: the parents fail to produce their marriage certificate at the time of the child’s birth; the father refuses to serve National Service (NS); or in the case of ALEXANDER ALRIVERS, 50, his parents were former prisoners of war. His parents were classified as “stateless permanent residents who had lost their foreign citizenship”. Alrivers’ eldest sister dodged the bullet by being born before Singapore gained its independence; Alrivers and his other sister weren’t as lucky, but still, she managed to attain citizenship years later. He was offered citizenship after serving NS, but he refused it based on his brother-in-law’s claim that he didn’t need it as they were planning to emigrate to Australia. That plan fell through.

While citizenship is hard to obtain, a stateless person can become a Permanent Resident. His passport and IC say “stateless”, but Alrivers can still get a job and reap all the benefits of PR-hood. The ramifications of his status didn’t hit Alrivers until he started to travel. He recalls, with unflinching alacrity, the moment he was stopped by immigration in Vietnam. As his Vietnamese wife passed through with ease, Alrivers was detained because the authorities were stymied by his passport. He was grilled about his “stateless status” for hours before he was put on a plane back to Singapore. This past May, after rejections and failed appeals, Alrivers finally became a citizen. He plans to move out of the rented cubicle that he and his wife have stayed in for nine years and purchase a resale HDB flat. The couple also plan to have children (Alrivers refused to in the past because he feared that his offspring might suffer the same fate as him). There is an uncertainty though, in spite of his newly-minted citizenship. “I don’t know if I’ll be allowed through immigration in Vietnam,” Alrivers says. “I have no doubt that my new passport can allow me easy passage, but after the ruckus that I made the last time I was there, I don’t know if I’m blacklisted.”

Alrivers will find out soon enough as he planned to travel to Vietnam at press time.

While Alrivers hopes that his story offers hope to other stateless people in Singapore, DAVID PENG, 22, believes that he’ll get his citizenship through a higher power. Born to parents who are PR (his mother attained citizenship in 1999 after four failed attempts), Peng is considered stateless. His attempts at applying for citizenship were dashed when he was not called up to enlist in NS. “I think the army found out about my bipolar disorder and didn’t want to take me in,” Peng says. To complicate matters, he is also stricken with diabetes and suffers asthma attacks. His medical bills are piling up and he wants to apply for medical subsidies, but is unable to because he is not a citizen. It’s the worst-case version of Catch-22: to get citizenship, Peng needs to prove that he is beneficial to the country, but he can’t be beneficial if he’s saddled with debt that only government aide can alleviate. These days, Peng turns to God, hoping that his citizenship process will be swift. “I believe it will be quicker,” he says. But why would it be quicker for you? “I don’t know.” Beat. “But I just believe it. That’s all I have.”


Gregg Speirs’ past takes a little unravelling. His father’s job meant the family had to relocate to different parts of the world frequently, and so Speirs could be considered a citizen of the world. But he has spent the majority of his life (around 20 years) in Singapore. Spiers knows the ins-and-outs of the country, loves chicken rice, remembers his vocation in Tanglin Trust, and the list goes on. While his parents are Permanent Residents, his application for citizenship has been rejected time and again. This year, Speirs is weighing whether to move to Australia or eke it out in the Little Red Dot.

“For me, home is an ethereal feeling. It’s a memory, it’s a flavour. It’s a temperature, it’s a sound. Home is so many things, it’s a part of where you live. It’s the pandan in the nasi lemak, it’s brandy being poured over the Christmas pudding and set alight. It’s the smell of fish slime when you’re cleaning trout. It’s the humidity that hits you in the face when you step out of Changi Airport. That’s home. That’s me. What is home? If you don’t have a home, you make a home. You construct one. I think a lot of things are tied together. There’s a lot to experience in Singapore. So many parts of it is home that I don’t really feel at home anywhere else. I’ll always be Singapore’s number one cheerleader when I’m overseas. When I’m in Singapore, I’ll shit on Singapore with other Singaporeans because that’s what Singaporeans do. That’s how it goes.”

This article was first published in Esquire Singapore, August 2017.