Stubbornly Separate: A Symbol of Defiance in Singapore

Stubbornly Separate:  A Symbol of Defiance in Singapore
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
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The Potong Pasir estate has long looked, felt, and behaved differently from other parts of Singapore. Melvin Wah takes a look at the history of this unusual area and why it stands apart in Singaporean society and politics.

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With its slanted, orange concrete skyline, Potong Pasir sticks out in a landscape of glass and steel skyscrapers.

The old unchanging housing estate, with its distinctive "mom-and-pop" grocery shops and public gardens, defies the city’s constant renewal. Known for its charm and “kampong spirit," the neighborhood is just as important for the collaborative grassroots political activism it has cultivated.

The estate also stands out for being the longest-held opposition ward in one-party dominant Singapore. Its Opposition Member of Parliament, Chiam See Tong, held the ward from 1984 to 2011.

This is what makes Potong Pasir so unusual — it is home to people who work together to get what they want out of politicians; both from the political opposition and the People’s Action Party (PAP). This goes against the popular myth that in Singapore the PAP has everyone beneath its thumb. Potong Pasir shows that the PAP is not in total control of Singapore, and disproves the idea that the typical Singaporean on the street has no political power.

From 1963 to today, Potong Pasir has jostled against the transformation of Singapore from a colonial trading town to an independent, wealthy city-state. This physical transformation engineered by the long-ruling PAP consisted of bulldozing slums and erecting new buildings, to create completely new neighborhoods from scratch. The PAP’s minutely detailed urban planning was key to Singapore’s reinvention post-independence. The multitude of changes within these spaces was engineered to split existing personal relationships and local communities, which were replaced by sterile environments optimized to achieving the goals of the state.

Yet, even as a planned town, Potong Pasir has produced a contrasting Singaporean mentality hyper-visible through its various buildings, streets, and parks. Residents band together to maintain soccer fields, they tend to their fruit and vegetable gardens on state land, and hold public celebratory gatherings without required licenses. It therefore becomes easy to present Potong Pasir as a case of the people versus the State.

However, it is not that simple. Society and the State of Singapore are both subversive and complicit in perpetuating different ideas of Potong Pasir for their own interests.

The reputation of Potong Pasir as a vibrant urban community and a concrete symbol of people power is not simply an accomplishment of its residents, but is the result of a finely crafted product from urban planners, politicians, and activists.

The exclusion of housing upgrades by the PAP, when Potong Pasir was held by the opposition between 1984 and 2011 also contributed to the physical aesthetic of the estate standing still in time — something a lot of the residents ironically appreciated and fiercely guarded.

But this all changed in 2012, when after 28 years of resistance Potong Pasir finally had a facelift. The year before, Chiam See Tong’s successor Lina Chaim lost the ward to PAP by a meager 114 votes. The loss handed PAP the keys to the "holdout" ward.

Elections, 2011 included, have always been hotly contested in Potong Pasir. One way parties tried to win over voters was with the promise of housing upgrades. But, it is in these promises that we can see a clear example of how the use of physical benefits to entice voters has not simply been a sole use of political power by the PAP. Instead, various actors in the public sphere have constantly reshaped what the strategy consists of.

For example, in the 1980s, promised upgrades consisted of adding extra recreational facilities like swimming pools before moving towards essential infrastructure upgrades in the 1990s and early 2000s. This eventually evolved into housing upgrades being seen as multifaceted improvements beyond the physical realm, taking into consideration human relationships, residents’ nostalgia for the neighborhood, and preservation.

This was not the work of the PAP alone. This shift in ideas about urban development was the collaborative product of politicians, residents, and urban planners.

Potong Pasir contrasts with the idea that the PAP or the people can be the sole author of politics in Singapore. It is no longer enough to associate certain ideas with who it is that expresses them. This simplifies Singaporean politics and portrays a highly inaccurate imagery that does not reflect reality.

The residents of Potong Pasir often approach different politicians of different parties for different matters. It did not matter to them which party it was, as long as the politicians delivered. According to one resident, the PAP politicians are better at solving bureaucratic matters, whereas opposition politicians are better at solving municipal issues. The dynamic between the ruling party, the residents of Potong Pasir and the opposition incumbent is thus constantly changing.

The problem with any existing characterisation of Singaporean politics is that it subscribes to thinking in dualistic terms — an either/or situation that places the state as a distinct and separate entity. The state, instead can be viewed as an outcome of various conflicting interests from the different groups that have been sieved through and then presented as the state.

For example, interactions between residents of Potong Pasir residents and their politicians is a good illustration of Singaporean politics.

Potong Pasir showcases collaboration and not mere opposition. The state is but one actor within the complex relations in Singapore, especially in the sphere of urban planning and politics, contrary to how it has been previously portrayed as an opposition ward that has been intentionally neglected by the State. The Singaporean State has always been an active, though not the only agent within the urban development of Potong Pasir.

The roles of the state and society are constantly oscillating, often varying the extent of the roles they play in statecraft and urban development. State and society, and progressive and conservative interests can be collaborative but also be ill-disposed to each other. Potong Pasir has provided a clear example of such negotiations.

This article was first published at New Mandala ­– a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.

TNL Editor: Edward White