“While much has been said about the demise of the community spirit with the gradual disappearance of Singapore’s kampungs, Mr. Lim’s group of basketball enthusiasts is testament to the “kampung spirit” that is still kept alive in pockets of this vertical city” (Keeping The Kampung Spirit Alive In Modern Singapore, Kelly Ng).
Much is often made of the disappearing, traditional “kampung spirit” in modern Singapore, and how the government and its agencies have sought to foster stronger ties among residents. Moreover, “as Singapore continues to build upwards and families move into vertical silos, recent national efforts to revive the kampung spirit have centred on infrastructural design” (TODAY, Jul. 18). Yet absent from this discourse – besides the spurious anecdotes in the commentary – are longitudinal studies of these trends (if they are ascertained to be present in the first place), and the related investigation of the impact of public projects which seek to facilitate or ambitiously heighten neighbourly interactions.
Stating the obvious, former NTUC deputy secretary-general Ong Ye Kung – who was defeated at the 2011 polls as a candidate of the People’s Action Party, and who was coincidentally at the basketball court along Woodlands Street 51 during the visit by the newspaper – said “the vibrant village vibe can still develop naturally and organically … we cannot over-organise or regulate too much”. According to the piece Mr. Ong has also been active in the grassroots activities of Sembawang GRC, since his loss four years ago.
The problem with a manufactured “movement” or “spirit” is its lack of sustainability. The initial investment of manpower and resources generates buzz which might be great for photo-opportunities or media mentions, but unless there is genuine interest undertakings will fizz out quickly. Something like the smart screens which Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan alluded to – which displays information of community events and boasts of other features – appears to be designed in the same mould. In fact, one could even make the point that the appeal of the kampung spirit lay in its spontaneity. And maybe its convenience, given the proximity of houses in the past. Naturally and organically, in the words of Mr. Ong, Singaporeans have always congregated along common interests or activities.
For instance, while the community gardens are also described with much aplomb, it is interesting to wonder how many of these spaces would have emerged without official intervention.
Though ultimately all of us are grasping at straws, unless the perspectives are backed by empirical evidence pointing to meaningful observations. An associate professor points to young people and their supposed withdrawal into private spaces, policymakers make comparisons about the past and present, and residents have their own opinions about relationships and the kampung spirit. Amidst these disparate points, perhaps a laissez-faire approach – wherein residents make their own arrangement – is the way forward. And all these worries about the diminishing kampung spirit will come to pass, as the new generation figures out new ways to be nice and neighbourly; if it has not already learnt to be so.