Tiong Bahru in Singapore, the Gentrification of a Nation

Old buildings demolished, new buildings constructed was the mantra of the national development agencies  in Singapore for many years; this process was phenomenal in speed, unhindered by heritage, nature or other sentimental considerations. This nation-on-the-move had no function for useless memories, progress waited for no man, onward Singapore.

But, onward to where?

This uncomfortable question came into focus when the unstoppable march of progress stopped a while for a breather. Where was Singapore going, where was she coming from, what was all this development for? Who were we as people? This led to a renewed appreciation of history and heritage that came into focus only in the 2010s.

The growing middle class in Singapore needed places to recall their past, places to remember; the tourism board needed cultural areas to re-position for the tourism dollars. The standards of the new Singapore would obviously not be downgraded,  and so the squalid, dim, parts of Singapore’s heritage were played down. The earliest individuals who wanted to investigate heritage and understand history were drowned out by those who chased concepts, customers and coolness.

This, dear reader, is my impression of the gentrification of Singapore. Chinatown and Kampong Glam are beautiful showcases of their culture, but no one will disagree that these are the products of gentification. An ever-enlarging part of Little India is also becoming gentrified.

None however, come close to the changed that has engulfed Singapore’s first public housing estate, Tiong Bahru.

This video makes clear the change that has taken place in Tiong Bahru.

It says a lot that the first public houses to be gentrified were not built during the term of the Housing Development Board in Singapore, but by its precursor the Singapore Improvement Trust.

The difference between the two government agencies was staggering, the SIT that was set up by the British colonial government and continued by the Labour Front government (self-governing Singapore was run first by the Labour Front and later the People’s Action Party), while the Housing Development Board took the place of SIT after the People’s Action Party came to power. SIT buildings were generally larger with each collection of buildings and districts having their own character, HDB buildings were shoebox style and colourless. The diffeerence was that in a time of dire need the rate of building by the SIT was underwhelming, it completed barely 23000 houses in 32 years, in contrast the HDB completed 51,000 dwellings in 5 years.

Tiong Bahru district was built in the 1920s, in the art-deco style that was au-courant at the time. Art deco is bold, and eclectic it stood out in the day for its embrace of the future, standing for a faith in the future of humanity through science, technology, progress and a warm belief in the many better days to come (makes sense, World War I had just ended). That is what Tiong Bahru is.

Old shophouses sit next to the most fancy cafes in town, a famous french bakery sells some of the freshest and tastiest breads in town. A hip local bookshop hides in a corner of the district allowing it to be discovered only by the ‘in’ and ‘woke’ group -BooksActually. I really like the bookshop and what they stand for though, I’m just making a point that this bookstore is updated fixture (bookshops used to exist in neighbourhoods) of the new gentrified district.

The people in the area are different too, well-supported expatriates and upper middle class professionals now make up the residents of this place rather than the former working class population.

Tiong Bahru has been romanticised, for sure. Apart from the architecture, it is hard to say that Tiong Bahru today is the Singapore of the 1960s. Romanticisation or making something exotic is not new, Singapore was romanticised as an exotic backdrop in this coming-of-age film A Matter of Innocence in 1967.

By contrast, the Singapore of the 1960s and 1970s was perhaps more accurately portrayed in the American film Saint Jack.

What stood out to me was how Tiong Bahru was a metaphor for the gentrification of a nation, it stands out because it looks different and is happening as we speak. Strictly speaking, gentrification had happened in Singapore 50 years ago. Whole districts in Singapore (Toa Payoh) were built from slum filled with gangs. The land was taken over by the government, houses rebuilt and a new group of working class individuals moved in, all traces of that hoodlum past erased.

Gentrification may be politically incorrect these days, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. The heritage buff in me may decry the loss of authenticity and character, but the flip-side of authenticity is poor living conditions and hanky panky, and Tiong Bahru is the best example of gentrification in Singapore.

But if we stop looking at the cool cafes and chic new concepts and introspect for a moment, has our gentrification given us anything more to enable us to answer the question – whither Singapore?



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