Change is what you need?

Change is what you need?
Construction workers upgrading pavements in 2014.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Upgrading season is upon us, it seems.

Yesterday, I jolted out of bed at 8.55am, convinced that an earthquake was being visited on us. From my king-sized bed on the fourth floor of a Housing Board block, I felt tremors. The building seemed to sway, as though lightning bolts were jabbing straight into its foundations.

While I clutched my iPad to my chest (thereby making clear to me what my priorities are) and tried to determine how to crawl to the nearest exit, I realised that it was not a natural disaster, but a jackhammer pulverising the pavement my window overlooked. Workmen were bulldozing the concrete surface of the open-air carpark outside.

Ah, August. Glorious sunshine, and the unending symphony of drilling and hammering in Potong Pasir.

Everywhere I walk, in the estate I live in, the sight of construction folk greets my eyes. Here is a serious-looking dude, intent on carving out more space to erect a new covered walkway between blocks. There, if you look to your right, you will find the thrilling sight of a brave soul on a motorised platform, stoically patching some cracks on that facade.

Notice the lovely blue-and-white canvas sheets, used everywhere to demarcate Where-You-Can-Walk-Pesky-Pedestrian from Danger!-Important-Construction-Supplies-Here.

A few weeks ago, we were treated to the sight of ninjas scampering over the rooftops of our neighbours' blocks. We ooh-ed, ah-ed and clapped, until we were disabused of our illusions: they were more builders mending leaking roofs.

A few repairs are always necessary and desirable in modern urban living. I'd be lying if I said I do not want any maintenance works carried out - evvah! - where I live (gaping potholes on the roads and a rampant rat population, for example, are not my idea of fun).


But there is something to be said about leaving - as well as living - well enough alone. Not all my neighbours might agree with me, but there seems to be a diminishing margin of returns, even when it comes to upgrading.

A playground my two kids used to go to had recently been torn down, only to be replaced by another that does not look, to my naked eye, much different from it. Same faux-castle plastic structure for kids to clamber on and slide down (my kids say the new one is "a little bit more fun", but look confused when I ask them to elaborate).

One difference, however, is that the benches that used to ring the playground have been removed. Mothers and helpers who once could rest on those convenient seats, while watching their children play, now have to sit on the floor.

It's no good, either, to tell them to hang out at pavilions about 100m away, where there are spanking new seats. Kids, if you have them, will scream blue murder if mum or dad are not within a few yards to watch or catch them.

People - unfortunately, or fortunately - are creatures of habit. A recently unveiled waterfront park looks lovely, with its careful landscaping and lookout decks, a few minutes' walk from my home.

Described in some media outlets as having transformed into "a vibrant community space", I have no doubt that it will find a place in my heart eventually.

For now, however, it has yet to displace the nearby kopitiam as the heart and nerve centre of my community: the coffee shop where I eat my wanton noodles on Sundays, watching the weekly informal gathering of ukulele and guitar players from the sidelines.

In that run-down coffee shop, with its orange Formica tables flaunting their cigarette burns, I love soaking in the atmosphere - the Jason Mraz-singing aunties ordering Carlsberg for themselves at noon; the pink lists tacked on the wall of the names of Hungry Ghost Festival festivities' sponsors; the well-dressed church ladies trying their best to look chic in the heat.


Community spirit, for me, does not reside in the newness of facilities. Ironically, the flaws in a place sometimes convince people that they are all in the same boat, dealing with the same warts and all. At times, we embrace the unfixable, and elevate them to iconic points of pride.

Some days, I look at the old people shuffling around or shooting the breeze at the newly refurbished corners, on shiny stone chairs: It's probably my imagination, but they look just a tad lost.

Midway through writing this column, I had to go downstairs to take a walk to examine the neighbourhood: Again, my mind is playing tricks on me - signs I remembered as saying "a community project by the residents" have either disappeared or now say something different.

I, too, at 38, am lost and suffering from some weird form of amnesia.

In opting for the new, we sometimes lose more than we know.

When I first moved to the area more than two years ago, I had a secret cheap thrill. Turning into the estate, from Jalan Toa Payoh, I loved the moment when the tip of the slanted HDB block popped into view on my left, along with the words "Welcome to Potong Pasir" in greenish-blue capital letters.

These days, that mundane magic no longer exists. A new condo-cum-retail development is coming up by the main road, obscuring my once-favourite tableau when I approach from that direction.

Perhaps, the time will come, too, when that relic of HDB block art will change as well - upgraded with fresh paint to Gill Sans font - just barely making the grade as a sign that this is home, truly.

So, please, upgraders. Upgrade sensitively. Don't rip everything away, and leave a gaping hole in my heart.


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