NOV 13 — A few weeks ago — on the eve of Deepavali — my family and I went to Little India for our annual family countdown at the festival bazaar.
We were especially excited this year as Covid-19 meant there had been no opportunity for us to do this the past two years.
Family and friends ask us why we do it as it can get very hectic, loud, and crowded.
But that is precisely why we do it — it is a living, breathing community that is coming together to revel in each other’s presence and celebrate. The mess of the music, cheering, haggling and commotion is authentic.
My absolute favourite moment happens a few minutes after the clock strikes 12 as you stand there covered in confetti while strangers wish each other heartily and an almost impromptu street parade happens as cars, bikes and trucks all take turns to drive down the main Serangoon Road drag — honking, cheering, and blasting their music as pedestrians greet them with enthusiasm.
In past years, I have seen the young men who make up the bulk of our foreign worker population dancing on the streets... just simply enjoying themselves.
However, from the telling announcement a few days prior that “more police to be deployed in Little India over Deepavali weekend for crowd and traffic control” I already had a suspicion that my city was going to snuff out the spark that made the Deepavali eve celebration special.
And it did.
This year, there were significantly fewer foreign workers on the streets (where were they, I wonder?) and perhaps because restaurants/bars could not sell alcohol after 10.30pm, many food joints including the one we usually go to were all closed by midnight.
The increased police deployment was hard to miss, with uniformed personnel on almost every corner.
Traffic was consistently halted with many vehicles pulled over for what I can only assume were routine traffic stops because as far I know it isn’t a crime to drive down Serangoon Road at midnight.
Some online commentators joked that as far as local authorities were concerned Deepavali is a riot waiting to repeat itself though in fact there has never been a riot; major violence or injuries in Singapore during Deepavali and The Little India riots often mentioned by the local media took place in December 2013.
Honestly, I am just puzzled.
The thinking here strikes me as short-sighted and unimaginative. Ironically, a few weeks prior, Little India had been selected as the “coolest neighbourhood” in Singapore and ranked the 19th coolest neighbourhood in the world by Time Out magazine.
That is pretty cool.
I am wondering if the decision makers and bureaucrats who allocate police presence and give out the relevant instructions saw this bit of news — and if they did, if they thought about what made it cool?
Did they not realise it was perhaps the spontaneity and authenticity of the neighbourhood and the people who frequent it that lent it its aura of “cool” – that Little India wasn’t a painful exercise in posing and curation but a place where people from all walks of life came to meet, eat, shop, live and celebrate?
And if they knew this, then why create an environment that would stifle this?
For most of my life, we have had foreigners dismiss Singapore as “sterilised” and “soulless” when it was anything but.
Yes, we were working hard to be the cleanest, greenest, and safest but we were still a people living our lives and that gets messy.
My fear is now — as we get even wealthier — we are looking to create only manicured, carefully constructed set pieces which are just... not cool.
This isn’t just happening to Little India — so many more pockets of "chaos" are closing. But cities aren’t just theme parks and people aren’t robots.
So why? Are the decision makers just not cool?
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.