Singapore prepares to gobble up its last village

By Seth Mydans, New York Times, 4 April 2011

SINGAPORE — It is Singapore’s secret Eden, a miniature village called Kampong Buangkok that is hidden in trees among the massed apartment blocks, where a fresh breeze rustles the coconut palms and tropical birds whoop and whistle. With just 28 houses in an area the size of three football fields, it is Singapore’s last rural hamlet, a forgotten straggler in the rush to modernize this high-rise, high-tech city-state. But apparently not for much longer. Kampong Buangkok is designated by the government for demolition and redevelopment, possibly in the near future. When it is gone, one of the world’s most extreme national makeovers will be complete.

Kampong is a local word for village and also defines a traditional rural way of life that Singapore has left behind.

“The big overhaul began in the early 1960s,” said Rodolph de Koninck, a professor of geography at the University of Montreal and one of the authors of “Singapore: An Atlas of Perpetual Territorial Transformation,” which graphically charts a half-century of change.

As the decades passed, a clamorous tropical settlement reinvented itself as a spic-and-span outpost of the developed world.

Now 90 percent of Singapore’s population has been moved into government housing, and many people have moved at least once again as the city continues to change.

“Everything is up for redevelopment,” Mr. de Koninck said. “Even downtown, things that were developed in the 1960s and 1970s are already being torn down.”

When Sng Mui Hong’s father bought the land in 1956, Kampong Buangkok was a muddy village like hundreds of others around Singapore. No one could have guessed that it would be the last.

Under the city’s master plan, at an unannounced date Kampong Buangkok will be “comprehensively developed to provide future housing, schools and other neighborhood facilities,” said Serene Tng of the Urban Redevelopment Authority in an e-mail message.

Ms. Sng, 55, is now the landowner, wheeling her bicycle among the metal-roofed, one-story homes of her tenants, who are also her friends and pay only nominal rents for their houses.

The government provides electricity, running water and trash collection, and once a day a postman comes by on his motorcycle.

Ms. Sng grew up here, and many of her neighbors were her childhood companions. Few people in Singapore of her generation can say that.

Fruits and flowers cluster in the village like endangered species in a vanishing ecosystem. There are tiny guavas and giant papayas, yams and tapioca plants, dill and edible bamboo shoots, bougainvillea and hibiscus.

Snakes and lizards scurry through the undergrowth, and tiny fish swim in a tiny stream.

Through the trees in all directions, the people of Kampong Buangkok can glimpse the government housing blocks that represent their future.

Under Singapore law, the government can buy the land at any time, at a designated price, and Ms. Sng has already prepared herself.

“If there’s a change, I won’t have my friends any more,” she said, but added: “We must not cling on to things. If the government wants to take the land, they will take it.”

There is no question that Singapore needs the land. Its population, which was 1.6 million in 1960, has grown to 4.8 million living in an area less than 300 square miles, one of the world’s highest population densities. Planners project a growth of nearly 40 percent by midcentury, to 6.5 million.

We will need to optimize land use, whether it is though reclamation, building upwards or using subterranean space,” Minister of National Development Mah Bow Tan said recently, in describing the plans for population growth. To make more space, neighborhoods are razed, landmarks are sacrificed and cemeteries — an inefficient use of land — are cleared away, the buried remains cremated and placed in vaults. In its most ambitious development project, Singapore has simply made itself bigger. In 1957 its land area was 224 square miles. Since then vast amounts of landfill, dumped into the sea, have expanded it by more than one-third, to 299 square miles.

Few people in Singapore know that one village still survives, hidden in trees 200 yards from a highway.

“Even if I want to show my children how I was brought up I can’t show them,” said Ho Why Hong, 50, a taxi driver, as he searched for Kampong Buangkok. “Everything is torn down.”

“When we were growing up we didn’t lock our doors,” he said. “That kind of trust we had. Everyone knew each other. Any stranger who came into the kampong, we knew.”

In modern Singapore, few neighbors know each other, said Sarimah Cokol, 50, who grew up in Kampong Buangkok and now lives in one of the apartments that people here call pigeonholes.

“Open door, close door,” she said in the terse speech of no-nonsense Singapore. “After work, go in. Close door.”

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