There are many Singapores.
My Singapore started on a quiet road with ixora bushes and a rambutan tree that stretched its way across the neighbour’s fence, and when the season came to pluck its fruit we’d sit beside it, prying open each red, furry cover. Childhood brings with it a set of routines, held under the banner of protection, and mine involved porridge for lunch, Yakult and a packet of salty Wang Wang biscuits for tea (but always before 5pm), and rice for dinner. It involved a basement filled with Barbies and plastic Fisher Price kitchen sets, and I think that it was somewhere in that makeshift wonderland that I started to dream.
At the end of that quiet road was the comfort of my school, and for ten years I’d dress up in its blue and white, braid my hair, and head through its gates. We’d play hopscotch on its concourse tiles every morning before the morning bell would ring, scrambling into our allocated spots among the two thousand girls who would mumble the national anthem. Mumbling turned into silent apathy as we grew older, standing half-asleep while our principal coughed and enunciated with particular crispness the daily devotionals and prayers that had become a routine part of our mornings. My Singapore was filled with this enunciated crispness, an English that was not the Queen’s but certainly considered hers good, an English that I would realise, many years later, lead to bizarre respect in some places and exclusion in others.
That English, I think, was first instilled in me by one Mrs Jega in a two storey terrace house along Vanda Road. She would hold weekly sessions on spelling; I remember once being tested on the word, ‘incinerator’. Why she thought that word relevant to a six year old, I’d never know. I’d spend my afternoons on a host of other after-school enrichment activities that were thought of as ideal and coincidentally bore Caucasian brand names, like Lorna Whiston and Julia Gabriel. Other similar-sounding names soon entered my literary life: Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Francine Pascal, and later, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis. It was only in junior college, when I began to read the collections of Cyril Wong and Alfian Sa’at, that I pondered the missing narratives of my childhood.
However, for the ten years before that I would be quite content with the story of a schooling life protected by the walls of 11 Blackmore Drive. It was a story of happy families and BMWs and holding Jesus to be true. This truth I held deeply, evidenced in my forays into church youth leadership and weekly Bible studies. I was leafing through my old journals recently and found heartfelt proclamations and confessions to a God that was good and kind and sufficient. These were beliefs that were unquestioned, even when I fell into a kind of love that was kept secret from most around me and most of all from myself, one that would follow me to Boston and leave me at odds with myself for years. It is a Singapore that many still struggle to understand, but I think it is getting better. Once a year, it is even celebrated.
Such optimism can only be felt when you’ve had the privilege of distance and perspective, and now that I’m back its changes seem more striking, more frenzied, as if nothing is ever quite fast enough. In the Singapore that I grew up in, however, time seems to grant its inhabitants breathing space. I take a bus route that has remained familiar to me all these years; one that meanders past Upper Bukit Timah and winds onto Sixth Avenue, then slowly makes its way up to Holland Village and the city. It is a quiet world for old friends who meet once a year, maybe two. People seem to leave Singapore a lot, but more often than not they make their way back, while these days others seem to come through. I am here for now, and although I no longer live on that quiet road with ixora bushes and a rambutan tree, my Singapore holds the spaces where I have fought, and felt joy and also numbness. It is just a page, and there are other pages like it, but the ones that are different are the ones that I want to read.