Where is this elusive kampong spirit that sociologists, politicians and too many writers and journalists have talked about? How do I find it and what is it, really?
On Thursday, I went in search of it – at where I thought it would be abundantly manifest: Kampong Lorong Buangkok, Singapore’s last remaining kampong.
In Parliament on Monday, MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC Intan Azura Mokhtar called for the preservation of the kampong, which occupies a 1.22 hectare plot of land – about the size of three football fields. Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, the area that now houses 26 families will make way for a road leading to Seletar – necessary because 10,000 new homes near the area will be ready by 2022 – as well as a primary and a secondary school.
“Surely we can explore ways where the kampong can co-exist and, in fact, enhance and bring value to urban life,” said Dr Intan.
That’s well and good, but my exploratory trip was not in consideration of such a co-existence; I just needed to see how the people in the kampong existed, and how the 26 families co-existed with one another.
My previous and only experience with kampongs was decades ago when a primary school classmate proudly invited me to his attap house near our school in Kampong Bahru Road, so it was with just a little bit of trepidation that I set off on my quest.
I also had a colleague – Aidil Teper – accompany me. Not because I was afraid of being eaten up by villagers, but because I knew it was a mainly Malay community and his proficiency in the vernacular could be helpful.
I decided also that I wasn’t going to pre-arrange a meeting with anyone in the kampong. I did not ask my thousands of Facebook friends if they had a contact among the 26 families living there. I would walk into the kampung and see what kind of welcome I’d receive.
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The nearest carpark was a 10-minute walk, and as we trudged along the laterite path leading to the kampong, I remarked to Aidil that we should have come in flip-flops.
“I should have worn my sarong…and songkok,” retorted Aidil. “We would have blended in.”
As we approached the first house, I saw a woman talking to two visitors at the entrance of her home.
“There’s a lot of talk about conservation…” she was saying.
“Let’s go to another house,” I told Aidil. “Those are reporters she’s talking to.”
There were casual visitors milling around the compound, including what looked like a film crew. Then we saw this elderly man striding purposefully to one of the houses.
“Uncle, may we talk to you?” I asked. He stopped at the door, turned to regard us, apologised for his lack of knowledge of English, and after a brief exchange with Aidil, in Malay, went into the house. Aidil explained that he was on his way to the surau – a place for religious assembly – next door and would talk to us there.
We sat in a room in the corner of the surau, and I learned that Mr Awe (pronounced Awie, though he did point out to Aidil that he was not the lead singer of Wings) was the surau’s caretaker.
The surau, apart from the people of the kampong, is also used by Bangladeshi workers who live in a nearby dormitory.
“I live here, not very long,” he said slowly. “Only 50 years.”
Right. And how old are you, sir?
“Me? 38,” he replies. Right. I wasn’t sure whether he had lost count of his age or that his hearing was bad. But before I could ask him again, he said, “U-turn the number.”
Right, he’s 83. So the first person we met in the kampong turned out to be its resident comedian.
The octogenarian rustic – a great grandfather – has three sons and three daughters, and worked in a rubber plantation when he was younger.
“My sons and daughters, grandchildren, all big already, they give me money,” he said. “I like here. Can walk,” he added, extending his arm to indicate the spaciousness of the kampong, and contrasting that, in a few words and actions, to the claustrophobic conditions of living in a flat.
“Children, they come, they see chicken, they say, ‘this one, chicken I eat ah’? Not eat, for show,” he explained.
Where else would they see chickens? he added.
“Go KFC and see, ah?” he suggested, before erupting into a raucous chuckle.
He then led us back to his home to show us his house.
“Five room, rent, $30,” he said as he walked us into his living room. The walls are adorned with photo frames, and taking pride of place is one of Mr Awe with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a visit to the kampong.
He told us that he wakes up every morning at 7am, waters the plants, and feeds his chickens and caged songbirds.
“All champion,” he said, pointing to his two merbok (zebra doves), and then to the trophies on a shelf. The noisy jambul (red-whiskered bulbul) in a cage outside seemed to agree with him.
“Here simple. Door open, we can see neighbour, neighbour can see us, we all know. If light broken, I call neighbour, Sunday, free? He help me. Next time, his light broken, he call me, I help him,” he said, explaining the essence of the kampong spirit with his limited English. This also extends to those not living in the neighbourhood.
“Bangla [the migrant workers from Bangladesh], they come, I give them eat, drink kopi, they also help me,” he explained.
Weekdays are generally quiet, with groups of visitors coming by to observe kampong life, but it’s hectic for him on Sundays, where he would host his friends – former neighbours who have left the kampong – and relatives.
“I buy six chicken, cook, we all eat, 20-something people,” he said of the group of relatives and friends.
Our next stop is the home of the kampong’s penghulu, or chief. That’s Ms Sng Mui Hong, who is actually the landlady – her father purchased the plot of land in 1956 and handed it down to his children. Ms Sng’s three siblings have since moved out. The land was valued at $33 million in 2007.
Ms Sng, 65, was cooking dinner when we called at her gate. There was no doorbell. It would have been easy to unlatch the gate and walk in, but there was a dog – a mongrel – which did not respond positively to any of my friendly overtures. But as Aidil and I began to walk away, we heard someone calling us from the door.
Ms Sng came to the gate to greet us. She apologised for not being able to speak English, then gave me hell for not being able to speak Mandarin.
“You Malay, ah?” No, I assured her, though my friend Aidil is. “You baba, ah?” Again, no, but never mind, can we just chat a little? Your Malay is fine.
As she came out from behind the gate, a neighbourhood cat showed up, and its appearance worked Ms Sng’s dog into a frenzy.
“Sotong! You cannot fight the cat,” she said in English, obviously for my benefit. The mongrel named Cuttlefish seemed to understand her, scampering away. Ms Sng dashed into the house with some cat food and placed it in a pile in the compound of a neighbouring house.
“This cat very good. When small, he very naughty, fight with other cats.
“I call him ‘Meow Gong’,” she added. Grandfather cat, she explained.
“Now he very good, give other cats eat the food. I tell him, I give you eat, you cannot fight other cats. Now he very good,” explained Ms Sng in her brand of English. She had taught the neighbourhood cat to share its food with other cats. The kampong spirit was well and alive among the animals at Kampong Lorong Buangkok.
But was that also the case among Ms Sng’s neighbours?
No more kampong spirit here, she said. “Last time got, now no have, lah,” she said, waving her hands animatedly, and scrunching her face.
Surely it couldn’t have vanished?
“New people come, old people go away, people different already. Last time got kampong spirit,” she said. But I gathered that she meant that even here, the kampong spirit appeared to have diminished as families left the community.
Ms Sng continued chatting, asking me what I did. I’m a writer, I explained.
“Oh! I thought you singer!” she said, guffawing at her declaration. I’m working on looking like a writer, I offered, and she laughed even harder. She stopped laughing abruptly, realising she had forgotten something.
“Sorry, sorry, I cooking dinner. I must go in. Wait the food chao tar,” she said, apologising again and dashing back into the house with the vivacity of a woman a third her age. She may have denied the existence of that kampong spirit, but her coming out to chat with us was just an instance of it.
“It’s very sad, Ivan,” said the well-spoken, bespectacled Chinese woman who was talking to journalists from TODAY earlier, when we finally called on her. Apart from telling us her name was Chris, she did not want to disclose what she did for a living.
“People in Singapore have forgotten how to be humans in their pursuit of material gain,” she said sagely. She loves life in the kampong. She enjoyed the friendship of her neighbours. And she was worried that if the village were to make way for redevelopment, her parents – both in their 80s, would not enjoy the good health they now did.
“My mum and dad have the space to walk and get the exercise they need, which is why they are fit now,” she explained. “If they were to move into an apartment, it would be different. They may not want to move around so much.”
Chris said that whereas the people here are friendly, she did not find Singaporeans so, outside of the kampong.
“You hold the door of the lift and people walk past you like you owe them a living. There’s not a word of thanks. People, even children, would have their faces stuck to their mobile devices. It is not like that here. When I see my neighbours, even as far as the park connector, the Malay auntie would say, ‘Hello, Chris, how are you? I haven’t seen you for such a long time.’ Some of my friends who live in private apartments and landed property haven’t even spoken to their neighbours in all the years they’ve been living there,’ she said.
This lack of a sense of neighbourliness was what she worried would deter her parents from stepping out of the home should they be required to move.
It would be sad if all this had to go, she said.
Mr Awe, whom we had spoken to earlier, said: “If government want to take, take. We cannot fight them.”
He broke into a smile, not of resignation, but of acceptance. He did, however, indicate that he would much prefer it if he could continue living here.
Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee, in response to Dr Intan’s call to preserve the kampong, had said that redevelopment would probably only happen “several decades later”. Which should be a very pleasing outcome for Mr Awe.
“If government say, can stay, 20 year – I very happy. I don’t know I where, 100 over years already, but if can stay, I happy,” he said, raising his arms in a child-like display of delight.
The rustic life kept them happy, the open doors also kept their hearts open to each other, and there was always a willingness to share and help whenever they could. They were also open and helpful to strangers, as Aidil and I had discovered.
That, perhaps, is what the kampong spirit is about. And it will continue to live in Singapore’s last remaining kampong. At least for several decades more.