The Death of Community Farms in Singapore and what they mean for the next generation of Singaporeans
July 22, 2012
Long before I became a farmer. I used to spend my weekends after my bike rides in Bukit Timah helping out in a community farm – this was just a sliver of unused state land where some old men were farming vegetables underneath a concrete underpass – later on when I got to know the community better. They even asked me to help them improve their irrigation which I did. I installed drip irrigators and would even advise this group on how to compost bio-mass instead of burning dead branches, leaves etc.
Today these community farms have all been scrubbed clean from the Singapore cityscape. But what is sadder is how the community that once met every weekend comprising of folk from all walks of life are now suddenly uprooted and displaced – I remember Ah Khong, a wryly seventy year old retired technicians who prided himself by being able to plant the crunchiest kang kong. Samsuddin a factory general hand who used to have a small plot of land during the Kampung days in Aljunied – he often came over during his off days to tend in the community plot. And we would often share a bench talking about the different types of chili padi plants – there were also many others from all walks of life who would often bring along their kids to this community farm. From time to time, we would all go out for makan and simply revel in the idea that thought life in Singapore is hard and often cruel and uncaring – at least in this little sliver of land where we all turned the wheel of life, there was a slice of happiness in our community farm.
Today it is all gone. In March they were all served notices. The only thing that is likely to remain is the faint and distant memory of a place in Singapore called a slice of happiness.
“I did not just wake up one morning and decide to plant row after row of palm oil – I don’t think anyone truly understands how scary it is for someone who comes from Singapore to be a planter. The first thing that hits you about commercial farming is the sheer scale of the enterprise – it is huge. So big that you can’t even wrap your head around it. And success is never guaranteed – for every 10 person who goes into commercial farming only one make it, the rest die off. Those are the brutal statistics.
Something can never come out from nothing – if you ask me where my confidence came from. Sure I can say it came from books and research. But in reality it came from spending a lot of time hanging out in those community farms – every weekend I would go cycling in Bukit Timah and spend the rest of the afternoon tending to the community farm with my friends – many of them used to wonder what was a young man mixing around with a bunch of old men for? I had very good teachers, mentors like Ah Khong and Samsuddin who were both veteran farmers who once planted rubber trees in Bukit Timah during the colonial days – these men taught me how to farm and so I started off planting chili padi trees and slowly graduated to sweet potatoes and so on and so forth. By the time I learnt how to tend bananas and papaya’s trees – I knew that oil palm could not be so different.
But the greatest thing I have learnt from all my elderly friends who always saw me as an odd ball was the idea of friendship, camaraderie and nourishing that simple idea of community and the collective good - today, things are less certain. As they have been served eviction notices last March. I fear that they may not be with us for very long any longer. So before I left Singapre, I took a few of those seeds and planted it here – now it lives here and I am the custodian of that miniature idea of “our way of life.”
My fear of planting oil palm has diminished these days. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night in cold sweat wondering whether I did the right thing anymore – today I go where no mind dares to go. I have even planted oil palm on hilly terrain and with computerized modern irrigation techniques and precision farming, I can even get the same yield as flat land. I have even developed new methods to plant in swamp and salty land – but I am a simple man and I have never ever forgotten where my confidence came from and above all I can never forget those gentle and kind old men who once openly embraced me as one of their own and gave me a strong foundation as a planter.
One day when it finally sinks into the thick skull of the middle class that they can no longer afford to turn the wheel of life in Singapore. As the government is really squeezing the shit out of them – a new generation of farmers will step forward. These men will probably be like me back then when I just had book knowledge about agriculture – they wander into those community farms and just try to make themselves useful in the hope of learning the gentle art of cultivating a thing. The art of beginning and seeing a thing right to the very end – some may even want to learn more about what it means to make this their career. They may want a brother to show them the ropes, to make those door opening introductions, show them the network along with share with them how to finance and manage a plantation along with getting to know the Kong he of the planters world - when that day comes, I will be ready.
You see the baton has been passed down to my generation – I am the last of the Mohicans – there is no one else – I am the only one left – as one by one my gentle old friends are all dying off as the government is very good a threatening to take away their plots and causing them high blood pressure – as time goes by, their way of life will give way to the kitsch and vapidness of more glass and more stainless steel and more air conditioning of temples of montrosities such as Garden by the bay.
The situation is really quite comical and not so different from Will Smith in that movie Iam Legend, who is just going to the jetty everyday to broadcast his message that I am here and I can do this and that….
But that is how I see it. That is how those old men see it when I send their photos of my plantations. That is how we all see it. I do not expect most of you to understand this. But that is how it really is when a man sees himself as a custodian of the community. A guardian of a way of life – a man cannot just take and take all the time, if he does that he will end up pear shaped like Kong He and Joe Singh – as sometimes for a man to come full circle, he simply has to learn to give back to that community that once nourished and made him what he is today – this is what it really means when the old say, you must never forget your roots – only through this way, can a man hope to lead an organically balanced life that is synch with the laws of heaven and earth.
One day you will all see that I am right. One day it will all come together again. One day when I am rich and powerful, I will make it all right. And it will be the way it used to be before the age of endless hype and spin of Gardens at the bay.”