“The thing when you’re in Singapore is that it’s hard to distinguish a visitor from a local.” A friend of mine was visiting the other week and that was an observation she casually pointed out as we made our way through the crowds inside the MRT station. I then carefully looked at each and every other face passing by. Nothing surprising except perhaps, in my view, the strange level of homogeneity working paradoxically against the multicultural society that is Singapore.
Since my own relocation from Paris to Singapore 2 months ago, many people have mistaken me for a long-term resident, or even a Singaporean, which left me quite perplexed. Of course, the fact that I am Asian can lead to some confusion, however, in a different instance, in Japan, a Japanese person would rarely make such a mistake. In Korea, people immediately identify me as a Japanese person before I even open my mouth. So why this confusion in Singapore? Could it mean that a Singaporean identity cannot really be defined? Or that Singaporeans themselves do not have a real idea about their own identity? Ultimately, I would like to know if there is such a thing as being quintessentially Singaporean, and whether that can be captured in one word or one sentence. Perhaps just being here means that I belong here like million others who come from all corners of the world.
Watching people in Singapore makes me imagine all the different individual stories of where they came from, why they are here, and where they are going next. I feel that it is similar to sitting in an airport terminal where fragments of lives cross-over one hour after another. There is no sense of permanence in this city. I feel that everything comes and goes, whether they are people or places. Buildings are torn to leave space for new ones; people arrive, settle for a few years, then pack up and leave without a trace.
I took this picture near Teck Lim Road, on an ordinarily hot and humid afternoon. Before I took the photo, I stood by to look at the scene, and I could not tell if it was just rubbish to be collected the following morning. It seemed too carefully arranged to be rubbish, but the chairs were not in a condition to be used either. Was it some sort of deliberate installation to trigger people’s imagination? In any case, it was intriguing and unexpected in a city that controls its environment obsessively. The chairs were each completely different, but I could imagine people sitting on them. Different people, with different faces, and different backgrounds. People who speak different languages, eat different foods. Have different faiths and beliefs, different jobs, and different dreams for the future. To me, this picture reflects the way I currently see Singapore: an accidental mix and match of people who have to share the same space and somehow become part of a narrative written by the city. Singapore is a place, which seems to be chasing its own identity yet simultaneously, it has already defined itself as a global product, guided by the common patterns of economic development and international trade.
This article was originally published in The Design Society Journal No. 6, Representation.