Dream pop for the promise of a peripheral paradise.

16 Sep 2011

SOUNDSCAPING soundtracks the different neighbourhoods of Singapore. For a far-flung one like Punggol, we had to take the LRT (Light Rapid Transit).

Join us for a tuneful ride around this would-be paradise with the Mixcloud player below. Or, download Mixcloud’s iPhone app, which allows you to stream the curated mixtape on the go. It's free, while a loop around Punggol's LRT costs only $1.10.

Doors are closing. Here's SOUNDSCAPING: Punggol.

Owning a place of your own is part of the Singapore Dream we’re not supposed to wake from. For most, the sedation/seduction of property means a HDB flat and what it affords: independence, financial stability, and marriageability – I’m not looking for a flat, though the women in my life think I should be.

But a flat in itself is a vehicle of upward mobility: one steppingstone, high in the sky, to larger properties and dreams to come. Flat-dwellers never truly arrive.

To arrive in Punggol, with its labyrinth of new flats, is to encounter the final suburban frontier. You can’t see Russia from here, but you can see Pasir Gudang, Malaysia. Also spotted, somewhere on the horizon, is Punggol 21, the grand, futuristic, and still ongoing vision of waterfront housing. First mooted in 1996, the plan was to create “a model town for the next century”, back when the 21st Century still meant something.

From a sprawl of pig farms and chilli crab restaurants, Punggol 21 was to transform this 957 ha area by the Johor Straits into an “eco-town” – complete with a waterfront park, roof gardens, and a higher ratio of private-to-public housing. “We reckon that Singaporeans have aspirations to own private property”, then-National Development Minister Lim Hng Kiang said upon its unveiling.

A year later, the financial crisis struck. With both public and private ambitions put on hold, construction only began in 1998, and in 2001, the first Punggolites finally trickled in. They needed reassurance. In 2006, resident Selina Ang wrote a numerically precise letter to the press. “In the three years I have lived here and the two years of monitoring the estate before that, only one plaza and three coffeeshops have sprung up … There are no real recreational or sporting facilities to speak of, no petrol stations, no fast-food outlets, nothing we can relate to the theme of ‘Town of the 21st Century’.”

Enter, in 2007, Punggol 21-plus. It offered a concrete proposal for the realisation of the Punggol Promenade, offering more goodies like a horse-riding centre and a golf course. Neighbouring Coney Island (or Pulau Serangoon) would be reclaimed into another park and connected to the mainland with a bridge. But the real value of Punggol 21-plus was symbolic – that this sleepy town on the peripheries, bordered on three sides by water, was, after all these years, still on the government’s mind.

“The Government spoke about Punggol 21 ten years ago and nothing happened,” Tan Leong Choon, an owner of one Punggol provision shop, said in 2007. “Now they are talking about it again. But who knows if it’s going to happen in the next 10 years.”

For now, flats are being built at a feverish pace, and the LRT offers a panoramic view of unending construction alongside undeveloped fields. There are two loops, East and West, but in the grand tradition of white elephants, the West loop has yet to commence service.

Your companions on the East bound ride are many other Singaporeans: Filipinos, Thais, Indians, Chinese, and air stewards and stewardesses (the neighbouring Tampines Expressway provides a fast track to Changi). In a transient thirteen minutes, this loop takes you on a hypnotic journey along other people’s houses – or perhaps, the very future of our public housing.

Then, it deposits you back at Punggol interchange, where you can rejoin civilisation and ponder about life in a box by the water. One hot afternoon, I take a ride around this SimCity, scored by the gentle waves of dream pop.

Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi’s sets the ride off with “Andare”, meaning ‘to go’. But his meditative, piano-based piece can provide only so much respite from the confronting sight at Cove, the first station. Here, the monolithic flats of white and beige line up on both sides of the track, as if in a military formation, an inspection of claustrophobia.

For the flats are impressively and oppressively dense, standing obliquely to each other and to the empty roads. The afternoon finds Cove largely devoid of human activity, the silence punctured only by the dull whirr of a Chinook, heading to Paya Lebar Air Base, or some other godforsaken place. In tandem, the opening grind of Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset, Pt. 1” revs up, alternately building in intensity and dropping off, going nowhere fast.

The flats at Cove and Meridian are some of Punggol’s oldest, meaning teenaged. They resemble, in their blandness, contemporaries in Bukit Panjang and Sengkang. But in terms of space management, they are a revelation.

Along each floor, the walkways and corridors are barely wider than my arm span. Some front doors are close enough to each other to spark arguments about shoe cabinet placements. The forty-millimeter intimacies fostered here bring the terror of urban spaces to the doorstep.

The void-decks, smaller than I expected, entrap with acute angles – a maze of ceramic, cement, and dust. When you finally find your way out of a block, a sight like this may greet you: a couple, in the heat of the day, quietly burning joss paper under the direction of a sharply dressed medium. To resist the suburban squeeze, a meek invocation to the gods?

“You tell me / That it’s getting better”, the Brooklyn trio Au Revoir Simone’s “Shadows” starts. With the first entry of a human voice, and an always hopeful one at that, you are reminded that in Punggol, there is the nature. The blocks here are clustered around green-roofed multistoried carparks. Amongst the synthetic, there are at least these prefab garden guardians.

The restless shoegazing of Jed and Lucia accompany me to Coral Edge station, where Punggol Plaza squats. The mini-mall was built in 2004 to mitigate the lack of amenities. You know you’re in the heartlands when the smell of waffles permeates everything: here, you can find waffle-tinged violin lessons, haircuts, and sushi. The quiet dignity of Mae’s guitar arpeggios quickly takes you out.

Back on the train carriage, a corner is turned, and you arrive at the optimistically named station, Riviera. Past a Chinese temple and agrotronic firms, the Lorong Halus wetlands lie. In time to come, this will constitute a significant part of Punggol’s promised waterfront, a riverine bulwark against concrete squash and sprawl.

The boardwalk along its banks, with its trickle of cyclists and runners, deserves a slow stroll, even if it does not immediately conjure up the Mediterranean. Sorcerer’s downtempo disco, “Push to Freeze”, and Uncle Leong’s Seafood goes some way towards making up for it.

As the LRT pummels towards the last three stations, the flats drop away and a huge green-brown expanse opens up. Along Kadaloor, Oasis, and Damai, half of this breathing space forms part of the as-yet-unfinished waterfront, and the other lies awaiting the executive condominiums to be built. Nature is obviously their selling point, as the names attest: Treelodge@Punggol and Damai Grove.

As the mixtape segues into its slower final grooves, the train itself seems to move down a notch, and it occurs to me that the defining point of Punggol is this schizophrenia. Vacillating between the monumentality of tightly packed flats and the astonishment of wide open fields, the ride around can be unnerving for a non-resident, equal parts wonderful and surreal.

Like The Sems say, “Leaving is easy”. Arriving isn’t. I might very well come here again, one day, in search of a martial home. They are considerably more affordable. But as I peek into their flats, Punggolites, it seems, are learning to redraw and relinquish their personal boundaries in exchange for a doorstep waterfront. I’m not sure if that is consolation enough, or whether a rented room or a shared flat would suffice.

Either way, when I do get married, I doubt it will be with, “Shall we buy a flat, in Punggol?”

Music Curation & Words Lucas Ho

Images Jean Qingwen Loo

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© 2011 Studio Wong Huzir

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