It is Friday night, 7.30pm, on Orchard Road in Singapore. The crowds are out. The wide pathways as well as the underground labyrinths linking the malls from Ngee Ann City to the new boringly glitzy, pseudo glamorous Ion are busy with people. Office workers are window shopping and looking for something to eat – the food courts are crazily busy. Young women in fashionably sexy clothes right out of the glamorous window displays of the franchised fashion shops make their way around on the arm of their escort. Others, more tired as well as more casually dressed, buy some fried snacks at one of the stalls. Some just sit and rest on the concrete benches on the foot path.
Whether sitting, jostling, heading determinedly for the underground train station or wondering where to eat, on this evening there is one thing that is very obvious. An even more heightened period of consumption is about to start: everywhere there are christmas trees. Yes, 6 November and christmas trees dominate. Coming down from Kinokuniya bookshop in “Southeast Asia’s largest mall”, Ngee Ann City, there is a huge christmas tree reaching up towards the roof of the atrium. Electrified tinsel. Alongside the the tinsel hanging-balls and the fake leaves and other colourful artificiality are scores of little signs: “high voltage, don’t touch”. These are the only real thing on the tree.
The whole street has been flooded with gory, glaring tinselistic lighting. It is meant look to spectacular: its time to buy, buy, buy. The pretty stars you see are those that circle your head after being hit with a sledge-hammer. Even after a few minutes, we decided it would be best to sit down and have a drink. But where? The streets are lined with look-a-like franchised outlets. The social engineering of former mayoral boss and now “Minister Mentor” in the cabinet, Lee Kuan Yew, has engineered any capacity for independent initiative out of the entrepreneurial class. They seem incapable of anything except buying a franchise from overseas. It is not just that Starbucks, and McDonalds and Kentucky are everywhere. (I have read that Orchard has the highest density of McDonalds per square kilometre in the world.) Middle level and top-level cafes and restaurants also seem to be franchised. Singapore has become the upper-class airlines food restaurant capital of the world. No matter how fancy the restaurant, so much food seems to be produced in a factory somewhere and heated up in a microwave, or at least it tastes like that.
Assaulted by the tinsel lighting, the barrage of neon franchise signs and the crowds, we decide a drink at home would be the more convivial experience. A ten minute ride on the underground train and another ten minutes on a bus brings us back Toa Payoh – another world.
Block after block of Housing Development Board flats make up the landscape. They are all almost identical. It is important to note the specific landmarks so as to be able to find your way around the labyrinth of 15 story buildings. It is these kinds of developments where 80% of the population live – the Singaporean working class. It is referred to as the “heartlands”. It is the home of factory workers and taxi drivers, shop assistants and office workers and food stall holders.
Every effort (they would say) has been made to make Orchard look attractive and “alive”. However, the artistic efforts to enliven Orchard are the efforts of advertising zombies. In Toa Payoh, the block after block of look-alike flats defy attempts to give them individuality. Lee Kuan Yew, I am told, once called them “pigeon holes in a chicken coop”. Here, despite this architectural uniformity, and despite the cramped indoor space of each flat, there is immediately a sense of life.
Hustle and bustle at the railway station exudes life, though hurried and exasperated – the most vibrant reminder of the existence of class society in any country in the world. Tired faces eager to get home remind you that people are real, they work, and have homes and are not just roaming consumers under the hypnosis of the neon sirens calling the shopper in zombie like to but something they don’t need. In any case, most of the fellow travellers on the bus can’t afford to buy anything in Orchard, not even a cup of coffee, usually going for nothing less than $4-5.
In between the blocks, there is space. People use it. Tai chi or other sports. Meetings. Social events and dinners. Exercise. A man and a woman are chatting, one interested the other not. The grocery shop owner hopes the drunk man buying cigarettes would stop talking and go away. Sizzling noises from the cafes at the base of our building accompany the aroma of frying monosodium glutamate as it makes its way to our nostrils. But we had eaten at Orchard.
The walk along the corridor out the front of the pigeon holes in the chicken coop is always a reminder that despite many visits to Singapore and twice living here for extended periods, I cannot claim to really know the country. I could, perhaps, claim to know a little about English-speaking middle class Singapore. But I have no real sense of these heartlands. I have only one close friend who came from the heartlands, and he has long escaped – more-or-less. Walking along that corridor, means glimpsing inside the flats. They are tiny. My friend lives in his alone, which is thus more than comfortable. But the quick peers into their private world reveals double bed bunks jammed up against the walls; a bed in the tiny lounge room; sofas forced to be just a meter away from the TV, and sometimes decades of accumulated possessions leaving almost no space for the humans.
I have lived in worse conditions in Australia, as a student, or in the regular bout of unemployment or while on an activists’ “wage”. But I always knew (more-or-less) that it was temporary. This was these peoples’ life sentence: a 10 hour day in a shop or factory and life in a pigeon hole in a chicken coop.
Class society lives. Just travel from Orchard to Toa Payoh on a Friday night – or just keep your eyes open any time of any day in any country.