I was walking to the MRT station yesterday when another man came up to me to ask for a dollar for his lunch. It’s the fourth time this month that someone has come up to me on the streets to ask for money and it, perhaps, is a sign of these bad times.
It got me thinking again about the remarks that the chairman of the Orchard Road Business Association made in a Straits Times interview on Monday about clearing the streets off beggars, flyer distributors and street buskers because they were unsightly. Today, someone wrote back in Life supporting the chairman’s point-of-view.
As in my letter to the forum, I feel that these people are missing the point. They seem more concerned with the image of Orchard Road or their own interests than why these people are out on the streets doing what they do. Would any one of us enjoy putting ourselves out there begging people for money? Or enduring the terrible weather and dirty looks giving out flyers? Perhaps, even the street busker prefers to perform to crowds in a nice amphitheater. It’s so easy to talk about “clearing them” but where do they go after that?
The other argument in this issue is why is our public space increasingly encroached by the interests of commercial entities. Personally, I think it’s bad enough that the park next to Orchard MRT has become another shopping mall. I’m sure the Filipinos who used to picnic there feel the same way too. Today, they try to do the same around Lucky Plaza and this is what happens:
Indeed, the shopping mall has every right to exert their claims to the space they own, but who then is fighting for the public’s space? With every inch increasingly taken over by the state (should they be doing more for the public?) and commercial entities, it’s no wonder people feel there is not enough space in Singapore. But, let’s not be too pessimistic about things, here’s something I came across recently:
It would be churlish to suggest that Singaporeans are not happy to comply with such imperatives. That public space is policed, surveyed, homogenised and corporatised is part of the pay-off for living in a safe, clean and reasonably affluent environment: and people subert it in their own way. Any new pavement not respecting the most direct route from A to B will go unused, while a more practical path is worn in the grass within days. The lack of public seating is compensated for by the inveterate co-option of stairs; and sub-cultural groups, from breakdancers and skateboarders to picnicking Filipino maids, effortlessly seek out and appropriate architectural features that meet their needs. In addition, one only needs scratch the surface to realise that people are unwilling to take Singapore’s social spaces at face value. More arresting even than the corporate feng shui that determines the design of some of its most significant developments (such as Suntec City), the island is teeming with altars, positioned everywhere from the foot of great trees and the space beneath flyovers, to ledges in otherwise pristine shopping malls. During the Hungry Ghost Festival in August, when offerings are left by the roadside, Chinese opera performance and pop concerts (ge tai) are held on temporary stages to entertain the ghosts. It is at times like these that one is reminded most powerfully that, however policed and privatised public space may appear to be in Singapore, it is never entirely dominated or possessed: from inter-personal negotiations and ad-hoc improvisations, to the overlaying of the physical space with other worlds — and other inhabitants — space in Singapore is multiple,contested, and highly charged.
Paul Rae in At Large in a Small Town: Theatrical and Civil Space in the Works of The Necessary Stage (2004)
It sounds exactly like what my FYP, Reclaim Land: The fight for space in Singapore, is all about, and I’ve actually linked the relevant pages to the quote.