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Opinion

Yishun (Part 1)

undefined - Nigel Paul Villarete - The Freeman

When we wrote last Sunday that Singapore does not have dedicated bicycle lanes islandwide, I didn’t mean that they don’t like biking.  The jam-packed bicycle parking bays at their MRT stations says otherwise.  They use bikes alright, extensively, but in the right way and for the right reasons – to link to the more efficient public transport network – the buses and the trains.

We often hear people ask, “Why can’t we be like Singapore?”  I simply don’t know whether they do it in aspiration or exasperation, considering the general conditions we are in.  Most, if not all of us, in Southeast Asia feel the same, dreaming in awe of our small city-state neighbor.  Maybe Tokyo and Hong Kong can boast of similar status, but all will agree this island has gone a long way from its undeveloped status when it became independent in 1965.

I was in Singapore last week, but this time I didn’t stay in the usual glittering sites even some Singaporeans call as “artificial,” for lack of a better word.  There’s nothing artificial about the country, but it’s just that what you see is what they want you to see, as most of us do in our own cities when we entice tourists to visit – shopping malls, conventions centers, the Marina Bay Sands, reaching up to the sky, screaming “we can do it!,” the efficient MRT and the traffic which does get congested at times but leaves the rest of us envious of its efficiency.

What we do not see is actually what matters, for it is in their daily lives that I realize how effective the city-state really is – as precise and efficient as it is simple, spartan, but livable.  Oh, our official meetings were still held at the sleek buildings across the Sands, but each afternoon, I joined the throng going home – 15 km. direct distance north, 13 stations away, and 40 minutes at 5 pm peak hour.  Having the sunset after 7 pm provides enough time to explore the town, but the 7 am sunrise is a headache for us who wake up to a bright 6 am daylight.  I was in a place where no tourist visits, except maybe for a few who lost their way.

I stayed with a family who, unfortunately, didn’t want me to state their names here but to whom I am forever grateful for gracefully allowing me to see the real Singapore from the inside.  They have two sons.  The elder is in the National Service (NS) – the compulsory conscription in their armed forces for all male Singaporean citizens and non-first-generation permanent residents who have reached the age of 18; the younger is in high school.  The couple, both civil engineers, work in different construction companies.

“Neal” works on a project of the Housing Development Board (HDB), the agency which transformed the country’s utter lack of housing in the past to one of the best in the world.  They may be light-years ahead of us, but all over the city, construction of housing flats continue to dot the skyline.  They never stop building, as they never stop improving.  Neal pointed out to me the early 1970-80 designs of housing blocks and the present day models.  If there are three fields prominent in Singapore, it’s their housing sector, transportation, and urban environmental management – all ingredients of a livable and sustainable city.

Most people know that, but what is significant from my point of view is how they do it.  I have picked up good information during my visits to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in the past, but seeing it firsthand disarmed me.  Everything is by grand design, and the execution is determined, surgical, and persistent – to a level you’d be surprised.  Where I stayed is the epitome of what Singapore’s housing development is, and it’s called “Yishun.”

Yishun is a suburban residential town.  Google can give you all information you want about it.  In our next two or three write-ups, allow me to describe how this township, as many others, provide a place to live for families, my friends “Neal” and “Joyce” included, in a manner which is both sustainable and livable.  And by the way, before I forget, Neal and Joyce are Filipinos, Cebuanos actually, my schoolmates at CIT sometime in the distant past.  They have long since made Singapore their home and country of citizenship.  (To be continued…)

HOUSING DEVELOPMENT BOARD

MARINA BAY SANDS

MAYBE TOKYO AND HONG KONG

NATIONAL SERVICE

NEAL AND JOYCE

SOUTHEAST ASIA

URBAN REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY

WHERE I

YISHUN

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