Hubert Burda Media

Let’s Remember

In our new op-ed series, we invite society’s best to pen topics closest to their hearts. This month, as we celebrate our country’s 48th birthday, Roland Van Remoortele writes about the Singapore of yesteryear and wonders where it all went

In our new op-ed series, we invite society’s best to pen topics closest to their hearts. This month, as we celebrate our country’s 48th birthday, Roland Van Remoortele writes about the Singapore of yesteryear and wonders where it all went
From my office window, I am able to enjoy a privileged view of the activity at Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal and beyond — ships come and go; containers are loaded and offloaded by a ballet of green and yellow cranes; frantic construction activity goes on to the left, right and front; offshore work reclaims more land to accommodate the ever-growing need for space.
Often times, I can’t help but reminisce about what this place, this little red dot, looked like many years ago. Admittedly, it is amazing how, in barely fifty years, from a fishing and farming community of old, and a trading post and naval base in the distant past, this place I call my temporary home has evolved, morphed, transformed and still keeps reinventing itself.
There are now plenty of examples of modern and provocative architecture, ingenious transformations of old neighbourhoods, daring feats of engineering and showy examples of technical skill. It sure all looks very shiny and squeaky clean, but it is also very hackneyed, sterile and stale.
Still, I feel a sense of nostalgia and can’t help but be reminded of what once was not all that long ago — the different smells, colours, sounds, shapes and sizes…all the things that made this island uniquely Singapore.
Where has it all gone? Sure, there are still some pockets left here and there — although heavily sanitised, even sterilised — but overall, modernity and progress have wreaked havoc on the old and the quaint, and left us with the modern and the trite.
Ah, the good old times of 27 years ago when I first arrived here as first secretary of the Embassy of Belgium in the 1980s. There were hardly any of the sterile and angular cubes that dot the landscape today. Life was neither as complicated nor complex. It wasn’t rushed and buzzing as it is today. Singapore still had a soul.
For one, there were far less people than today. The “ang moh” expatriate (today called “foreign talent”) was already present in the city, but fewer in numbers than today, and definitely a rarity in the numerous tuck and coffee shops around town.
Whenever I ordered a char kuay teow at a hawker stall in, say Bukit Batok, the stares and muffled comments from the locals made me very much aware that I was really the odd one out in the neighbourhood. Sometimes, curious people would come up to me and ask questions as to what I was doing there and where I came from, before hurrying back to their table and brief their equally kay-poh mates on the foreigner in their midst.
The simple act of walking down the road and holding hands with my then local girlfriend (she’s now my wife) invariably led to inquisitive stares from passers-by, and sometimes very disapproving looks from pyjama-clad grannies who surely saw me as the foreign devil out to corrupt their nubile granddaughters.
It was also the time when the al fresco dining concept had not yet reached Singapore, save perhaps for fellow Belgian trailblazer and entrepreneur Fabrice de Barsy and his Saxophone bar at Cuppage Terrace, where curious locals would walk by, shaking their head at the fools who preferred to sit outdoors rather than in air-conditioned comfort; when most bars and restaurants had to close at midnight or 1am just to make sure everyone had a good night’s sleep; when service in the restaurants outside of those in the traditional hotels was overwhelming with too many waiters chasing too few customers; when Western food was equated to breaded pork chop accompanied by baked beans and crinkle-cut fries; and when the first-ever Délifrance opened, serving baguette bread with only five types of spreads (pepper chicken was my favourite).
It was hard to find a decent piece of cheese in the supermarkets. Only one small supermarket catered for the expatriate crowd, selling mostly British and American fare. I remember the joy of discovering some “exotic” vegetables such as endives on the shelf but for a “limited time” only.
Yet, it all felt cosy and homely, everyone was cheerful and easy-going. We all had time for a chat or a kopi and seemed eager to get to know each other. The sense of belonging was strong and you were accepted without misgivings.
I do cherish these memories of the simplicity of the satay club (now replaced by a futuristic “Durian”), of the weekend bumboat rides from Collyer Quay terminal (now Fullerton Bay Hotel) to St John’s and Kusu Island, of the idyllic charm of rural Punggol and the many kelongs in the surrounding sea serving unpretentious but delicious seafood on demand, and even the feeder rides with the 10-cent difference between air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned buses.
Am I really getting that old? Or do I long for something that was more human and not so artificial, when people were not glued to a mobile phone or tablet every single minute of the day and fail to notice whoever (or whatever) passes them by?
Ah, those good old days…too many memories of times gone by. Where have they all gone?
Roland Van Remoortele is the Belgian ambassador to Singapore. He first came to Singapore in 1986 as the first secretary of the Embassy of Belgium.