These are the people in your neighbourhood

The HDB estates where most people in Singapore live are often characterised as the “heartlands”, thanks in no small part to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s characterisation of the alleged “cosmopolitan-heartlander” dichotomy in 1999 (see background at Jeff’s Blog). “Heartlander” has become shorthand for the “real” or “average” Singaporean: typically Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian or perhaps “Other”; middle-class or lower; holding certain allegedly conservative values.

Well, let me tell you — not in my neighbourhood.

Yeah, there are the “typical” Singaporean residents, but there’s a whole lot more too.

Like the Caucasian man whom I stumbled across one evening at the mailboxes, with curly shoulder-length brown hair pulled into an adventurer’s ponytail. Comfortably togged out in khaki bermudas, with his backpack slung over both shoulders, he looked ready for a trek into the tropical rainforest — or maybe just a hike up the stairs to his flat.

Like the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who share a flat in our block and shuffle downstairs in their sarongs to get the mail or pick up some groceries. It reminds me of my grandfather, who used to wear a sarong at home, which as a child I couldn’t understand because none of the adults in my picture books wore anything like that. But these men are younger, spryer and look, oddly, shyer when we our eyes meet in the elevator.

Like the men and women from the PRC who order dinner every night from the neighbourhood cze char stall — always one-dish rice or noodle dishes, usually something like fried rice rather than something more localised like char kway teow.

Like the African men who eat at our coffeeshop and buy groceries at our provision shop. They wear brightly coloured T-shirts and every time they talk on their mobile phones, I wonder if it’s an international call that runs all the way to a crowded township or a village on the edge of the Serengeti. I can’t imagine the world they come from; I wonder what they make of ours.

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