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Afterthoughts of Kampung Spirit

May 28, 2017

Often held up as a prime model where Singaporeans can explore the last vestiges of Kampung Spirit, Pulau Ubin contains a trove of memories that many older Singaporeans can still identify with, invoking in them a sense of NOSTALGIA. Yet, the same can't be said for the new millennials who did not experience what it was like living in villages prior to the construction of HDB flats when infrastructures and amenities - which we now regard as essential - were sorely lacking. How does the creation of such a sustained narrative affect the manifestation of Kampung Spirit in modern Singapore?


Having interacted with people of different walks of life during my years of volunteer work, it appears to me that several Singaporeans – having achieved material comfort at the expense of their emotional well-being and free time – have begun to look towards a slower pace of life whereby one begins questioning the need of an industrialized modern society, especially given increasing stress and a more competitive society.


A less optimistic perspective would echo that of Professor Chua Beng Huat, a senior lecturer in the NUS Sociology department which sees the revered Kampung spirit to be part of the government’s attempts to hark back to the days of a ‘mythic Asian communitarian society’ that shares the same ideals that the government envisions for its people (1994). Cynics might therefore consider this Kampung spirit narrative to be constructed for more ‘practical’ political purposes.


While a sensitive topic to be discussing openly, this is precisely the role of sociologists to study phenomena and debunk myths. Detracting from casting a moral judgment, we as sociologists attempt to find truths and study relationships and interactions beyond what is merely seen on the surface. We are always interested in finding out if what we see on the surface is the truth or merely a reflection of how we believe things ought to be like – a pre-conceived notion about the truth. But then again, the truth is subjective and there are so many ways to interpret one’s social reality. So, I’ll ask you what is your truth? Haven’t we all come to accept stress as part and parcel of our daily lives? Does coming to Ubin relieve you of your stress? After learning about the lives of the residents here, how has the kind of insights that you have gained affect your impression about the way they live their lives on Ubin? The narrative that each of you piece together is a unique reflection of how you see the world. I am sure we can make the case for both depending on who you had spoken to, the stories that were shared with you, and what you have chosen to believe.


For instance, you might think that while the residents do not live near one another, the fact that only a small number of them stays on the island makes their lives inextricably intertwined because all of them rely on only one main source of income – the visitors who come to Ubin. Thus, their social network thrives insofar as their businesses thrive and make money. Perhaps you may think that the taxi uncle is not kind for charging Madam Ong a fee of 12 dollars for her transport to and from the mainland to see the doctors for her bad legs. But in return, they are the ones who bring religious devotees to the temples in their vans and these people make donations to the temple, therefore allowing Mdm Ong to continue her job as the caretaker for Wei Tuo temple while paying the land rent at the same time. Also, without the help from the taxi uncle, how can Mdm Ong bring her physically handicapped husband to the jetty in his wheelchair? In this instance, is money more important to me or the fact that I should be grateful that there is still someone on this island who can help solve my family problems, particularly given my old age? Does the Kampung spirit therefore still survive?


On the other hand, while their lives are closely intertwined, the introduction of a commercial layer into their interpersonal relationships have made it more likely for arguments to occur. As you have also heard, residents have gravitated towards avoiding each other after a conflict has taken place instead of confronting one another, as they are more concerned with making money to sustain themselves. Despite their old age, you have seen how independent most of the residents are – happy to be just running their own businesses without bothering with other residents. Following this trajectory, you may surmise that residents may soon no longer have any reason to hold any affection for one another, much less help one another as everyone becomes more concerned with their personal well-being and material gains. Could this eventually lead to a decline in mutual trust and their shared cultural practices of the annual Tua Pek Kong festival? Could this therefore spell the end of their last semblance of a communal bond and, thereby the end of a Kampung spirit?


At the end of the day, you are not wrong regardless of whichever side you might choose to take as both are correct in their own right. Instead, the most important lesson that I want to leave with you is to question everything and never take things at face value – whether or not you are speaking from a friend, a professor or even a politician. There are always underlying influences and implications that we might be blindsided to. Even without realising, the media subtly shapes the discourse of culture through its pervasive influence and this gives it the power to shape the imagination of younger generation of students like us in the name of nation building and forging a consensus of identity. But more importantly, think about what comes afterwards upon gaining new insights from the Ubin field trip. How have your perspectives changed? How would this therefore change the way you think and behave?

To end off, it would perhaps be most timely to remind everyone that culture is not static, it is a way of life that constantly evolves together with the progress of society and other socioeconomic factors. While Ubin might seem like a lonely entity detached from mainland Singapore, it is by and large a by-product of modern Singapore where people are subjected to the influence of the media and capitalism, be it positively or negatively. Finally, we as sociologists must be able to understand and see things at a more macro level, and realize the importance of several seemingly distant factors which influence life on Kampung Ubin – whether or not such a spirit is a myth or a reality. 



Chua, B. H. (1994). That imagined space: Nostalgia for the kampung in Singapore. Singapore: Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.

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