I woke up today morning, fully expecting to see this skyline from my balcony. It’s a wonderful view, and I love it to death; been staring at it every day for one and a half years now, and it always brightens my mood immensely. Not today, though. Today was the day the downtown went missing.
I realize the shot below is a tad grainy, but if you observe closely, there’s a lot of finer detail here that encapsulates Singapore as a multi-layered keuh lapis cake. Note that this view is the exact lateral inverse of your regular postcard-ized skyline; while that’s taken from the southern edge of the island, from Marina Bay perhaps, this is from the opposite side. Therefore, while you’d (if you were a Singapore regular) expect SunTEC City or Westin Stamford to be on your right, and the Raffles Place buildings on your left, here you’d expect them to switch sides. It’s a trite disorienting if you’ve handed out many Singapore-skyline postcards to your friends and family, but work with me on this; unlike that picture-perfect, Disneyland-ized postcard-skyline, this is a much more multilayered depiction of Singapore as it exists.
The yolk of this egg is, of course, what I call as the ERP Citadel, the City with its set of high-rise buildings and Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) gantries protecting the commercial business district (CBD) from unnecessary traffic, and even more rampant non-professional commoners. Don’t think for a moment that I’m complaining here; until April this year, I was one of those full-sleeved, white-collared, mp3-listening professionals working in the Tanjong Pagar – Raffles Place area. My previous workplace is quite noticeable in this picture; I won’t point it out for privacy reasons, but most of you who know me personally know the building anyway. Bollywood fans will, of course, recognize most of the buildings from the recent Hrithik Roshan flick, Krrish; the protagonist flies through, and across, this very skyline in an effort to save the world from further disaster.
What Krrish would have missed, of course, in addition to a couple of ‘r’s, is the next level in our keuh lapis cake. The subsidised Housing Development Board (HDB) blocks are those Stalin-isque cookie-cutter blocks you see immediately below those skyscrapers at the back; this is the HDB Heartland, as a previous Prime Minister called it in one of his National Day rallies, a heavily regulated, but still fairly colourful housing estates where most of Singapore lives in racially-enforced quotas. A microcosm of that idealized, hobo-less, spotless, sterile existence you’d expect Singapore to be.
While it might be idealized in countless television dramas, and even more travel essays by wandering international writers, the HDB Heartland isn’t, however, where the salaried class ascribes to live in. The salaried class wants to live in the third rung of buildings below the HDB estates; in the detached, tile-roofed independent bungalows that’s at the bottom. To live behind white-picket-fences is to live a priviledged life in Singapore; add the lawn, coconut trees and close proximity to an expressway, and this locality suddenly becomes one of the more desirable residential areas out here.
Somewhere in the picture are a Thai Buddhist temple, a Catholic church, Singapore’s railway station, a Hindu temple built by migrant railway workers, a Sikh gurudwara and lots of greenery; the detail might be rather dimunitive, but it’s all there somewhere. Too lazy to point them out specifically; I know they exist, you’ll have to ignore the unintended pun, and take me on faith.
Because this is such an iconic view, it provides us with a compelling setting when the Monsoon winds visit the island:
It wasn’t sun nor rain that greeted me today morning. It was, in fact, haze, suspended particulate matter brought over by rain-laden winds from Sumatra and Borneo, where there are forest fires in a couple of places, we’re told. The Singapore skyline has, in fact, completely disappeared from my balcony:
There’s a bit of an interesting politicking going on out here; because haze originates on Indonesian territory, and affects all of Singapore, western Malaysia and now even southern Thailand, tempers are rather high between the politico-nationalistic formations in the region. Notice, for example, how an earlier Wikipedia edit wasn’t “surprise[d]” that the haze came from “the highly irresponsible country”, Indonesia, or how CNA, gov.sg’s round-the-clock television arm, used kid-gloves to report the same topic (“At the end of the day, it is up to the Indonesian government, the Indonesian people …. we will continue to provide them …locations of the hotspots”, mostly quoting ministers.). Sacred diplomatic territory out here, clearly; you get the feeling the report was optimized to not to break any further shells on this beach.
Diplomatic niceties apart, the fact nevertheless remains that the PSI reading at 9PM today was 150; that’s borderline unhealthy. Still not as bad as it was in 1998, apparently, when the reading levels were 262; they shut the city down for two days back then. But yeah, there’s a heaviness in the air that you could slice with a knife; there’s a funny smell of burnt leaves, my eyes are burning, stomach churning a trite. The moon has completely disappeared from the sky, or even if it is visible, it’s a dull brown in colour.
In fact, the entire setting is right out of a cyberpunk narrative; the laptops, you’d think, would at times like this, become sentient, entrap us in lifepods, and make us believe we’re in a much brighter, green-tinged world. But that’s an unsettling thought to consider, not just because it’d mean an even more robotic existence than our current state, but also because it’d mean somebody will have to slug it all out and fight those mean bastards. On this saturday night, when we’ve used the weather as an excuse to not work on our GRE prep, nothing could more troubling than that.
The haze will persist for a few days now, and it might get worse before it gets better.