Dear Sumiko Tan,

I want to tell you about the homeless man who sleeps on the pavement just below my flat. I’m sure you think it’s a little weird, my writing to you like this, to talk about someone you don’t know. But bear with me, Sumiko, bear with me. I’ll explain in a bit.

So, this homeless man. I think he’s about sixty, give or take a few years. We see him often, walking down the street with his cart, looking for unwanted cardboard boxes and other bits and bobs. Life as a karang guni man is evidently hard work. Hard, physical work, filled with uncertainty. There are days when he collects very little and days when his cart looks like it’s going to topple over. Occasionally, we hear him complain – about the rising cost of food, about how little he’s getting for his cardboard, about his swollen calves, about how life was better in the old days.

He has quite a lot to say, Homeless Man. But we’ve never once seen him beg or ask anyone for anything. In fact, word is that he’s repeatedly turned down offers to move him to a homeless shelter. He prefers to rely on himself. To make do with whatever he earns. He is, in many ways, a hardworking, self-sufficient Singaporean.

And now, my point – Homeless Man reads the Straits Time. Pretty regularly, in fact. I’ve seen him sitting quietly on that pavement on quite a few occasions, going through your paper. If you’re surprised, don’t be. Lots of poor people are quite literate these days, you know?

The thing is this – I’m wondering, Sumiko, how Homeless Man felt when he read this article you wrote recently. He’s one of those Singaporeans you so casually dismiss in your piece. One of those people feeling increasingly alienated and bewildered by changes around them.

I’m not sure if Homeless Man misses the kampung spirit. But I’m pretty damn certain he’s never been on a Duck Tour, visited Gardens by the Bay or attended anything F1 related. And he sure as hell isn’t contemplating a second property. You see, unlike you, he has not been able to partake of the goodies Singapore has to give.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dissing any of those things. I too, think Singapore is a beautiful city. We have a gorgeous skyline. We host world-class events. More than a few people have raved about Punggol Waterway. And the view from the top of MBS, oh the view! Who can resist a view like that?

But surely there’s more to progress than parties and scenery and buildings? Surely, there’s no point in being happy about living in a glamorous city if you’re barely getting by?

I know, I know, your article isn’t targeted at those hanging out on the wrong side of the income divide. But the problem is that you work for our country’s only broadsheet. You’re not only writing for a small select audience. Your paper enjoys the highest daily circulation in Singapore. It also claims to play a vital role in “nation building”.

The poor, Sumiko, are part of this nation too. Try not to diss them, dismiss them or piss them off.

I never realised just how glamorous Singapore had become until I went on a Duck Tour recently.

Neither have many Singaporeans who can’t afford to go on a Duck Tour.

Beautiful new Singapore is not limited to the city; it doesn’t just serve tourists or the rich people who can afford to live there.

Really? That’s good to know! Now… let’s hear about the fabulous delights the rest of us get to savour…

Beautiful new Singapore is not limited to the city; it doesn’t just serve tourists or the rich people who can afford to live there. You see it in the heartlands too.

When the kids were here, they wanted to go ice-skating, so we headed to the newJCube mall in Jurong which has an Olympic-size rink.

$19.50, Sumiko. For a child under 12 to skate in that amazing rink for two hours.

The rink, is not as you’re implying, serving heartland Singapore. It just happens to be taking up space in the heartland.

For the past few weekends, I’ve been taking my dogs for walks at the Punggol Waterway park. If you haven’t been there, you should, because the place is pretty fantastic.

On the road there, condominiums (14 at last count) are springing up like crazy, with billboards screaming the joys of waterside living.

Your lucky, lucky dogs. And those lucky lucky people buying condos! Have you seen how much they cost?

Since independence in 1965, Singapore has strived to be a First World country.

I think that moment has not only arrived, but that we are also now living in what future generations will look back as Singapore’s Golden Age.

It is quite pointless to talk about a “golden age” when you don’t mention the arts, or literature, or culture or human beings.

The Singapore dollar is strong, many households have maids, luxury cars hog the road and many have holidays abroad.

Maidless, luxury-carless, non-globetrotting Singaporeans who don’t dabble in foreign exchange shouldn’t feel so left out! They still have that rink in Jurong, remember?

Property is a national preoccupation, but it’s not whether you can afford a roof over your head that Singaporeans fret about. It’s whether or not to get a second property to invest in.

Tell that to Homeless Man, or the many families camping out in East Coast Park.

There are downsides to progress, of course. The income divide is growing.

How inconvenient! And how inconsiderate of those lower income people!

The infrastructure is groaning. It’s become noisier and very crowded.

How ghastly, to be stuck stuck in a traffic jam in your luxury car! Oh, the sacrifices one must make in the name of progress!

There’s a loss of that proverbial kampung spirit when Singapore was just a village.

Post-independence Singapore was never just a village. Also, you don’t need a kampung to have kampung spirit, Sumiko. It’s just a figure of speech. We’re losing our kampung spirit because people are stressed out, worried about the mortgage, about being left behind, about having to fight to get onto a crowded train, about losing their jobs to cheaper foreign imports.

There are also Singaporeans who feel increasingly alienated and bewildered by the changes around them. Why do we need Formula 1 or the casinos, they cry. Why spend hundreds of millions to build Gardens by the Bay when we can preserve Bukit Brown cemetery and enjoy nature there? Singapore must slow down so we all can go back to a simpler life, they say.

I prefer progress myself.

What kind of shitty logic is this? I like progress too. Everyone likes progress. It’s not like any Singaporean is out to sabo progress. But your definition of progress is so narrow, so filled with sightseeing that you’ve neglected to consider that progress is meaningless to the people who are left behind. Evidently, you feel this group should just shut up and suck it up.

Between being a magnetic, magnificent city that has to grapple with the problems of success and a drab backwater town crying for foreign investments and tourists, I prefer the former anytime.

There are Singaporeans, Sumiko, who are far more ambitious than you. They prefer a magnificent, magnetic city that’s a little more inclusive, that values its heritage a bit more. They cry out against the destruction of Bukit Brown or speak up for the poor because they care. Because they think this country can be better than it is right now. That it should be more than just a fun place for tourists to explore.

On your part, you’ve made it blatantly clear – some citizens’ opinions don’t count. We have arrived no matter what they might say. Want proof? Look at the number of foreigners who want to settle here!

To whom does Singapore belong, Sumiko? Does Homeless Man have a right to demand a stake too? The answer, according to your article, would be no – because you, your dogs and a whole load of Duck Tour-ists are having a great time.

You are entitled to your views, of course. But to have them take up column space on our national paper, presumable as a way of influencing public opinion? How very telling. And also, a little frightening.


Lynn Lee

Read Sumiko Tan’s reply here.