Chris This is Home on the Dot, the podcast about the meaning of home in Singapore, as told through the lives of students from the National University of Singapore. I’m Chris McMorran.
I’ve spent the past two weeks cleaning closets and packing boxes, preparing to move to an apartment half the size of our current place. While it was cathartic during the first few days to say goodbye to old clothes and chipped plates, the process has stretched out longer than expected, leading to sleepless nights and concerns about everything I have to leave behind. Of course, I don’t just mean lovingly worn t-shirts. Moving also means leaving behind neighbors that have become close friends.
When I began to teach about home at NUS, I was surprised to learn most of my students have moved at least once in their short lives. This may not sound unusual. In fact, I moved house at least six times before university. But that was not normal among my classmates in Greenfield, Iowa.
I was surprised by my students because I thought most homeowners in Singapore followed the model we introduced in episode 9 of Season 3, called The Home Game. In that model a young couple marries and moves into their new HDB flat. Then they raise kids who grow up in this flat before they, too, marry and move into their own new flat.
Contrary to this model, I’ve come to discover that Singapore is a country constantly “on the move.” Those who can afford to do so are moving up the housing ladder, from HDB, to condo, to house, or what is known locally as “landed property.”
Those who cannot afford to climb the housing ladder, especially those in subsidized rental flats, may also be on the move, but not by choice. HDB estates that have grown old are often demolished, forcing all residents to relocate.
In this episode of Home on the Dot, we explore this kind of relocation through the case of Dakota Crescent, an HDB estate demolished beginning in 2020.
When does relocation become dislocation, and how do Singapore’s young people learn about and support the relocation of society’s most vulnerable? Stay tuned.
Singapore is a nation of neighborhoods. Beyond the gleaming towers of the central business district and architectural icons like the Marina Bay Sands hotel, Singapore is full of neighborhoods defined less by political boundaries and more by a train station or bus terminal and everything that surrounds it: shopping malls, food centers, schools, religious institutions, and parks.
One of my favorite neighborhoods is Dakota. Blending seamlessly into Mountbatten and Geylang, in many ways there is nothing unusual about Dakota. It has a school: Broadrick Secondary School, and it has a handful of HDB estates and private condos. It also happens to have an excellent hawker center: Old Airport Road Food Center.
I guess I like Dakota because of its quiet path along the Geylang River. Plus, I’m drawn to it because of its curious name. I mean, what is a Native American name connected to two U.S. states doing in Singapore?
This question is part of the reason I was motivated to visit the neighborhood in 2019, when a colleague from NUS, Dr. Ong EeCheng, recommended I take a tour of Dakota Crescent. She had just been there with students for her Economics course.
She told me that Dakota Crescent was about to be demolished, erasing a historical landmark. Plus, unlike HDB owners who get a lot of attention, most residents forced to vacate Dakota Crescent were low-income or no-income renters, who are often hidden in Singapore. What better story for the podcast?
So a small team from Home on the Dot met in front of an abandoned housing block at Dakota Crescent on a Saturday in December 2019. It would be our last field piece before Covid-19 arrived.
Our guide was Cai Yinzhou, who asked us to call him Joe. Joe is Director of Citizen Adventures, a group that gives walking tours of stigmatized neighborhoods like Dakota and Geylang. Joe hopes to destigmatize these places and the people living there, a noble aim that has led to serious accolades, including a nomination for Singaporean of the Year by The Straits Times newspaper in 2020. But on that Saturday in 2019, I thought he was just going to tell us about these buildings about to be torn down. I’ll let my co-producer Wei Yun take it from here.
Wei Yun We started the tour beneath a shady canopy of mature trees, in front of a handful of unique butterfly-shaped seven-story housing blocks. Joe shared the long history of the neighborhood, including the airport that used to be across the road, the construction of housing blocks by the Singapore Improvement Trust in 1958, and the relocation of thousands of residents made homeless by fires in 1958 and 1959.
Chris The Singapore Improvement Trust was the precursor to the HDB, or Housing Development Board: a frequent subject on Home on the Dot. HDB controls most elements of the public housing scheme, including estate planning, flat allocation, and decommissioning. HDB not only sells flats, but also rents flats to those who cannot afford to purchase. Indeed, despite many subsidies available to buy a new flat, some Singaporeans simply can’t afford it. So, public rental flats are highly subsidized by the government, meaning even the poorest residents can have a safe, clean place to live for less than $50 a month.
Wei Yun As we walked around the buildings, fully vacated by 2017, we spotted shattered windows and abandoned rental bikes. Some doors were still plastered with religious stickers. Objects that reminded us that this abandoned place had once been lived in and brimming with activity. Our tour included a stop at the dove-shaped playground, cousin of the iconic dragon playground in Toa Payoh, and designed by the same artist, Mr Khor Ean Ghee.
In 2014, the government announced plans to redevelop Dakota Crescent due to its prime location near the Central Business District and East Coast Park. This announcement set off concerns by both architectural historians, worried about the loss of these unique buildings, and people like Joe who worried about the impacts of relocation on residents, many of whom were already economically marginalized.
Chris HDB redevelopment feels inevitable in Singapore, where neighborhoods constantly change. In the past ten years, two condos, one HDB estate, and at least a dozen buildings at NUS have been built within ten minutes of my front door, completely reshaping my neighborhood. And another nearby HDB estate – West Coast Parkview – is nearly complete. In other words, Singapore residents are used to the constant churn of housing stock. But that doesn’t make relocation any easier, especially when it’s not by choice.
When an aging HDB block is slated for tear-down, current owners get first priority to purchase a new flat with a fresh 99-year lease. They can also apply for housing grants worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Renters at Dakota Crescent hoping to purchase a new HDB home were offered a $15,000 relocation grant, on top of other housing subsidies. And for those who could still not afford to buy, the government offered new rental flats in nearby Cassia Crescent or other neighborhoods, plus $1000 to help with moving costs.
Wei Yun News of the government’s redevelopment plans reached residents in different ways. While they received an official letter informing them of the relocation deadline, some are illiterate, while others have poor vision and cannot read well. Instead, their neighbors and strangers broke the news to them.
Despite government support, some ex-residents of Dakota Crescent still faced challenges when it came to settling into their new homes due to their age, health conditions, and limited finances. Most could not afford to buy new HDB homes and had no choice but to move to rental flats. Although they were fortunate not to be left homeless, the transition was not easy for some.
Chris I must admit, I joined the Dakota Crescent tour to see the historically significant HDB blocks before they were gone. Inspired by the work of Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs and their book “All Buildings Must Die,” I visited Dakota hoping to understand something new about the death of HDB homes.
But Joe made it painfully clear what else dies when buildings do: the ties that bind neighbors and the comfort of a place that has been lived-in for a long time. Joe had spent countless hours helping Dakota Crescent residents negotiate the housing bureaucracy, pack their things, and discard what wouldn’t fit in their new flats. Even after they moved, he was still helping them settle in: explaining government documents, informing them how to collect benefits, checking in on their well-being. In a sense, he was trying to reproduce the old neighborhood; recreating the sense of community they had lost.
Our tour gave me new insights into Singapore’s young people, whose compassion for those in less-privileged positions and selfless dedication to the well-being of others took me by surprise. Our producer Wei Yun caught up with one of those people.
Wei Yun After my tour in Dakota Crescent, I wanted to learn more about the volunteers who devote their time and energy to helping residents like those in Dakota Crescent relocate. I began by speaking to Lim Jing Zhou who co-founded Cassia Resettlement Team in 2017 – a volunteer group that regularly visits the residents of Block 52 Cassia Crescent – the new home of many former residents of Dakota Crescent.
As he helped some of the residents pack up their homes, he noticed how physically and emotionally taxing it was to go through the process of sorting and packing decades of one’s life.
Lim Jing Zhou Some residents might have to procure an entirely new set of furniture as they move to their new homes. It could be because their previous home might have been infested with bed bugs. And if the resident has a lot of things to move, then you might require additional transportation. If the resident has additional health conditions and needs which render them unable to pack for themselves, then they will need to engage a packer. These costs do add up.
Wei Yun What made the relocation process even more difficult for some was that their new rental flats were significantly smaller than those in Dakota Crescent.
Lim Jing Zhou We like to call this sort of a “Double Downgrade.” So, what happens is that the flats in newer housing estates are by nature already smaller in design. The second downgrade is that, for some of these residents, they had to downgrade from a 3-room rental flat to a 2-room rental flat, or even a 3-room to a 1-room. This is not just a simple matter of how much space I have in my home, but “How many things can I keep?” “Do I have enough space to cook now?”
Wei Yun Of course, these issues are not unique to Cassia Crescent or rental flats. Over the past few decades, Singapore’s public housing stock has gotten both taller and smaller. The average height of HDB blocks has increased, with some new towers today reaching 40 stories, unlike the 7 stories at Dakota Crescent. At the same time, the average area of a HDB flat has decreased. Similar shrinkage has occurred in the private rental market, with some new studio apartments arriving at less than 400 square feet.
Dakota Crescent was built in the late-1950s, before Singapore even became a country, so it’s not surprising that the rooms were more spacious and the estate itself was less densely packed than estates being built today. But because they had become used to these conditions, the move from Dakota Crescent to Cassia Crescent has not been without stress. Relocation has also made it harder for some ex-residents to access neighborhood services.
Lim Jing Zhou In terms of the geography, Dakota Crescent is only a street away from all the different amenities that residents would require. From the wet market, to the coffee shops, to the hawker center, to the supermarket, to the ATM, so on and so forth – it’s around maximum, a 5-10 minutes walk, even for a senior with poor mobility. Whereas Cassia Crescent – despite it being within the same region as Dakota Crescent – it’s proving to be a difficult distance for some seniors. For some of them now, the distance have increased and the time taken to travel to the entire stretch of amenities could be anywhere between 15 minutes to half an hour. And to some of them, they completely cannot make the journey anymore.
Wei Yun We experienced this first-hand on our tour with Joe. We crossed the street from Dakota Crescent to the Old Airport Road Food Center for a break and a fruit juice. Then we walked to the other side of the hawker toward Cassia Crescent. Cars sped by us and the loud construction noises made it hard to concentrate. If crossing the road felt dangerous to me as a young, able-bodied person, I wondered how an elderly person with poor mobility or vision could cross the road safely.
Cai Yin Zhou So we are going to walk from the hawker to Cassia. Just now we walked from Dakota to the hawker. It was across the road, essentially. So you’d notice the distance, with that being the biggest difference, but the mobility in terms of the type of infrastructure. And even things like the traffic, access ramps, sheltered walkways, handicap friendly access. So, I actually live next door from Cassia. After I had my accident, I was wheelchair-bound for a week. I never crossed the road from this side, because it was too hectic. So it really like helped me see that even when I was in crutches, I couldn’t cross the road in time – the cars had to stop. These are the perspectives that we want to also see, from the shoes of a elderly.
Wei Yun Ex-residents of Dakota Crescent also lost a sense of community. They could not request flats near their previous neighbors, so they were suddenly separated from people they had lived next to for decades. Residents needed to get used to unfamiliar faces in the corridors and rebuild their social support systems.
Dakota Crescent was old, and not everything worked. The drains would clog and the lifts were often unreliable. But it was home. Before they moved out, some residents even gave guided tours around the estate to members of the public. Perhaps this was their way of bidding farewell.
Despite the difficulties of moving out, there are upsides to relocation. Ex-residents who moved into newer rental flats in Cassia Crescent now enjoy cleaner environments with more functional infrastructure. Some younger ex-residents became HDB homeowners, fulfilling a housing aspiration shared by many Singaporeans.
Lim Jing Zhou We have spent a fair amount of time discussing about the different issues and challenges that the residents have faced. But the truth is that for some residents, the relocation might even be a happy thing for them. In the old estates, the lifts only stopped on odd levels, and the lifts were old and often broke down. And that would cause a big problem, especially for seniors who were unable to cope with stairs. So in the new flat, we have new lifts and we have a large number of them to serve the entire block. For some residents, it [Cassia Crescent] was also a new environment that they enjoy. So there were also upsides to moving to a new estate.
Wei Yun While these ex-residents might have lost their social networks after moving out of Dakota Crescent, Jing Zhou’s Cassia Resettlement Team shows that a community need not be place-based. The team’s volunteers from across Singapore forged a new social support system with the residents living at Block 52 Cassia Crescent. These volunteers are now treated like friends and family.
Lim Jing Zhou The community we work with is very resilient. They find their own ways to adapt, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with the support of their neighbors and friends in the community. And sometimes we try to step in and see how we can also support the process of adaptation.
Wei Yun The decision to redevelop Dakota Crescent comes with trade-offs. While some saw the benefits of redeveloping a run-down and under-utilized neighborhood, others wanted to keep a part of our public housing history intact. It is difficult to measure what is lost through redevelopment when not all trade-offs can be quantified.
How do you put a price on the value of heritage? How do we measure the sense of belongingness that the residents of Dakota Crescent shared? How do we value the sense of home that a community builds over time?
For Jing Zhou, the fact that Dakota Crescent’s redevelopment involved public rental tenants, an economically and socially marginalized community, makes such questions even more difficult to resolve.
Chris From the outside, Singapore may not seem like a country with much social and economic inequality. In fact, even from the inside, inequality may be invisible to many people, including NUS students. But the rising costs of housing have recently put inequality front and center in the news. Price increases benefit current homeowners, but they often squeeze renters and the poor out of prime areas like Dakota, further marginalizing a vulnerable population.
To say that rental flat residents are marginalized actually underestimates how invisible they are in Singapore. This is something Dr. Ong EeCheng, my NUS colleague who works in the Department of Economics, knows firsthand. When teaching about economic inequality, she is sometimes shocked at how little her students know about inequality in their own backyard. So she’s included visits to Dakota to open their eyes.
Ong EeCheng So in our class, a lot of it is reading empirical papers, right. Looking at different theories, economic theories of income inequality or discrimination, or power, stuff like that. And I think it’s important for students to realize what is going on in their own backyard, right? Because each of us, we have our own set of lived experiences, we have our own social circles. And if we don’t talk to people outside our social struggles, right? We’re not gonna be aware that these problems exist. So I don’t actually blame the students for that, right? Because for all of us really, you know, it’s what we’re exposed to and what we choose to expose ourselves to. For Dakota, it’s really like… Here, this is a part of Singapore that you might not have known about, and let’s learn about the lives of people who might be different from us, or from you, right? And obviously, I’m not saying that all students are the same, you know, students are also coming from a range of backgrounds, but I think a lot of our students are probably coming from the middle income, the upper middle income sphere, right?
Chris Upper middle… So, they have no exposure, really?
Ong EeCheng Yeah. So I think what’s was really funny. So, you know, in high school, in JC, they have this, some community involvement project thing, right? That they do. And I’ve heard from students that, when they did their community involvement project, and they went to a rental housing, they did not even know that it was rental housing.
Chris Oh, really? They went that many years, what? 15, 16 years of their lives without even knowing rental…
Ong EeCheng No no no, but also the fact that when they did their community involvement project. I don’t know what, they’re like 16, 17, 18 years old at that point, right? And they did something that’s at a rental housing, and they did not know that was rental housing, until we went to Dakota, and they’re like, wait a minute.
Ong EeCheng “That thing that I did like three, four years ago, that was rental housing.”
Chris Oh, they didn’t know that it was rental housing at that time.
Ong EeCheng Yeah, isn’t it crazy.
Chris It hadn’t been pointed out that that was…
Ong EeCheng I don’t know. I think, I’m guessing that it was mentioned, but maybe it didn’t like sink through to their consciousness, right? They just thought that, oh, these people don’t have a lot of money. They didn’t… They did not think that these people are renting.
Ong EeCheng Yeah, and to be fair, you know, when you enter college as 18, 19 year olds, what do we expect them to know, right? You know, most of us have lived our lives in a bubble up to that point.
Ong EeCheng But at the same time, it’s college. And for most of them, they’re almost graduating. And I think it’s time to wake up and smell the roses. Life is really not very easy for a lot of people. And it’s very easy, it’s super easy for us to forget that, right? Because we’re so consumed with our own struggles and our own little problems. And like “Oh, I need to get an A in this class” and “Why is this Professor so mean to me”
Ong EeCheng We forget that some people are dealing with, you know, physical, financial, mental, family, social, emotional, whatever, you name it, right.
Ong EeCheng I mean, I think it’s also a nice setting because it’s a little bit different from other neighborhoods in Singapore. So I think it’s a nice space for them to think about some very abstract concepts, or theories that we’ve learnt in class and how these theories or concepts might apply, or might not apply and why.
Chris Dr. Ong takes her students to Dakota to teach about social justice and inequality in Singapore. But does this place and the reality of Singapore’s marginalized renters really speak to Singapore’s young people?
Regular listeners of Home on the Dot know our episodes often have a deep personal connection for one of the producers. Indeed, Wei Yun’s anxiety about her own delays in achieving housing independence is the glue holding together her most recent episode: The Home Game.
In the case of Dakota Crescent, I invited some producers, hoping to spark a personal connection for one of them. But it turns out Weiyun had a connection of her own. She had visited two years before, and she was eager to experience Dakota Crescent in a new light.
In 2017, when residents were moving out, the estate began to attract ruins hunters, folks who want to photograph, or be photographed with, old buildings before they are torn down. Wei Yun accompanied a friend on just such a hunt. It made her feel uncomfortable at the time, but she couldn’t quite articulate why. Joining the tour, and co-producing this episode, offered her an opportunity to reset her relationship with the place before it was gone.
We sat down in July 2021 to discuss how her perspective on this episode had changed since her first trip to Dakota Crescent, and how this trip had inspired her to engage in volunteer work with other rental flat residents.
Wei Yun So when you invited me on the tour, I was like ok, maybe having someone explain to me the historical significance behind these buildings, then I would be able to appreciate it more.
Wei Yun Right? I did, you know, accept your invite to go on a tour because I wanted to get to know the place a little bit better. Yeah, and maybe understand why it felt so uncomfortable.
Chris So did you get some resolution at the end of the tour? Did it make you feel not as creepy in the space? Or did you still have those feelings when we went to tour?
Wei Yun Not as creepy because now I understand, but it left me wanting. Like. even after the tour I just felt like it was not enough, you know? To me, the question then became, “So what gives a place it’s meaning?” Especially for somebody who hasn’t lived in that place yet and to me it’s getting to know the people who have lived in the place, right? So, to me, I just feel like a place is a space unless people live in it and make something out of it, which is why I wanted the podcast to be so people-centric or the stories to be centered on the residents, ex-residents of Dakota Crescent. I didn’t want to talk about how nice the building was or the architectural significance of it, which is important. But to me, just personally, I felt most connected learning about the people who had lived there. Which is why when I told you, I read the book They Told Us To Move…
Chris What, it’s called They Told Us To Move? Who wrote it?
Wei Yun It was written by the Cassia Resettlement Team. Their volunteers, so they transcribe the interviews with the residents, ex-residents of Dakota Crescent and they also invited academics to give their opinions on this issue of relocation. Reading the book… I’ve never met any of these residents personally, but reading the book and reading through their interviews, that was when I really understood what the place meant to them and what moving away meant to them.
It was a very special feeling because I don’t know any of these people but somehow I just felt so connected to them. Just through the words, you know, that they say and… Maybe I’m being a bit dramatic, but I can feel their sense of loss. Even though you’ve never lived in Dakota Crescent. I’ve not even relocated before, so it’s like what do I know about losing a home, right? But it’s through their words that you understand. You have a vicarious experience of it. So I think the next time, not the next, the first time I will experience moving home is when I move out of my current flat with my parents. But I think I’ll be overwhelmed with the joy of my first home and not feel like “Oh, this is so sad, I’m moving out of my parents home.” Yeah.
Chris But it’s different when you get to choose.
Wei Yun Yes.
Chris I mean, that’s the thing about Dakota Crescent, is the people didn’t get to choose. They told us… That’s the title of the book, right? They Told Us To Move.
Wei Yun Yes, They Told Us To Move.
Chris Right, so it’ll be different when you’re independent and you are financially independent and you can choose to move out of your parent’s house. Out of a different experience, yeah.
Wei Yun Yeah.
Chris So when we were on the tour and afterwards, you interviewed someone who works with these people in their resettlement and you’ve told me that in the meantime, you’ve started to volunteer with a different group of people in a different neighborhood who are also getting ready for resettlement or undergoing it, can you explain?
Wei Yun Yeah, so in January, the start of 2021. One of my friends actually asked if I wanted to befriend a few residents at a few blocks of rental flats. The rental flats are located in Merpati Road, which is near MacPherson.
Chris Macpherson, that’s on the circle line, right?
Wei Yun Yes. And they are… They will be moving out of their current rental flats by next year, 2022. I think somehow, the topic of relocation, it just feels fated, right?
Chris It keeps following you around [laughs].
Wei Yun Yeah, even though I’m probably am not going to experience it in the near future, it’s just somehow, it just comes into my life, okay. I didn’t know, I don’t think I accepted his invitation to befriend these residents because they were relocating. I just wanted to experience what it feels like to be a befriender.
Chris A befriender, is that a title?
Wei Yun Yes.
Chris Oh, really. So, this is not, I mean you’re not just using normal language. This is like, the lingo of the community, is to befriend?
Wei Yun Yes. Befriend these residents.
Chris Interesting. I haven’t heard that before.
Wei Yun You haven’t? It’s quite a common term in social service, in community work. So, yeah, like I said, this is another layer of experience with relocation, secondhand experience because I’m not the one relocating. I now get to read HDB letters sent to the residents. “Dear Mr something, something, you have to relocate by when. Please indicate your option. Where would you like to shift to?” And then they give them a list of venues to pick from, and hearing… These residents tell me their feelings about relocating, mostly the challenges they need help with because that’s what we’re there for, right? Yes, it made me, it lessened the sense of disconnect I had with the topic when I first started writing about this in 2019. In 2019, my script, I really struggled…
Chris Early 2020.
Wei Yun Early 2020, yes. After the tour. I really struggled to start with the script because I’m like, I don’t understand how to write this without sounding factual and objective.
Wei Yun When I read the script I was like…
Chris No personal connection to it.
Wei Yun Yes, no personal connection. But now that you’ve personally, yes,
Chris Not you, you.
Wei Yun Yes, now that I have personally spoken with residents who are about to relocate and you can… And these people, eventually we form some kind of connection with them, they are your friends, right? We see how much they struggle with the process of relocating. You just feel a stronger sense of, you feel more indignant, you know.
Chris You feel more indignant [laughs].
Wei Yun Yes, I… I began to feel more indignant and angry and sad about how this whole relocation process is being carried out and conducted. So…
Chris What kind of struggles do the people have? What do they tell you they need or what do they… What are the primary struggles?
Wei Yun Okay, so one of the primary struggles of relocating is the physical, the physical process of it. How am I gonna shift everything here? Years of existence, into a new flat. And… So, one of the residents we befriend, she has a lot of things in her house.
Chris Is she a hoarder? It’s not quite that bad? She just has a lot of stuff?
Wei Yun Okay, I don’t want to label her as a hoarder because of the negative connotations, but we are worried about how she will move.
Chris Right, understood.
Wei Yun And she is a single elderly lady in her 60s, and she is unable to use her phone, which means we cannot contact her. She does not know how to use her phone.
Wei Yun We have taught her before, and she doesn’t know how to…
Chris She has a phone, but she doesn’t know how to use it?
Wei Yun Yes, she doesn’t know how to slide to pick up calls. She doesn’t know how to unlock the phone.
Chris Oh no.
Wei Yun It’s so dangerous, if we have to call her if anything happens. She can’t call us and we can’t call her. Right? Anyway, she has to relocate, she definitely has to relocate to somewhere near because she is already familiar with the neighborhood. It is going to be very hard for her to adapt to a new neighborhood. And we are already in touch with the residents to find out their relocation needs. To assess their relocation needs, and to arrange for transportation in advance. So that when they have to move out this year or next year, it’s not going to be like a crazy scramble for resources. Where am I going to get people to move?
Wei Yun Yeah, so she’s just one example. There are other residents we befriend who may not have as many things, but who struggle with other aspects of relocation like, picking a suitable neighborhood that they think they’ll feel comfortable with. Some neighborhoods, because these are rental flat residents, they are likely going to relocate to another rental flat if they cannot afford to purchase. Different rental flat estates have different stereotypes, even rental flat residents, have… Tthey do know that, oh, you know, “this area is not particularly safe.”
Wei Yun Yeah, they know. They hear rumors about it and they are like “I don’t want to move there, you know, it’s not very safe there. I don’t like it there.” Some of them are in economically precarious situations, they owe arrears, they owe HDB rent arrears.
Chris What does that mean?
Wei Yun It means, they can’t pay rent.
Chris “They owe arrears” means?
Wei Yun HDB allows them to stay in the flat but they accumulate arrears.
Chris They are supposed to be paying and they’re just accumulating debt right now.
Wei Yun Yes.
Chris They just don’t have any money.
Wei Yun Yes, and they’re worried.
Chris How do they eat?
Wei Yun We arrange. If we can, we arrange for meals, food aid for them. Or sometimes, they borrow from their neighbors, or borrow from their siblings. They can’t even pay for food, right, so how do they pay for rent? He was really worried that “Oh, you know, I have this HDB arrears. What if they don’t let me choose my new flat?”
Chris “What if they kick me out? Because I haven’t been paying for years.” That’s a huge concern.
Wei Yun It is. So, he was running low on cash, I think somewhere in May, and he asked us if we can give him any financial aid. And he doesn’t like to be interviewed for financial aid. We did ask him “You can approach the social service office.”
Chris Because the government has some kind of social service that they can provide for this. You would qualify if you are willing to be interviewed and talk about your situation.
Wei Yun Yes, and I’m like “I think you would qualify.” But he doesn’t want to. I think he has had bad experiences and he has pride. Which you know, I understand. When we finally managed to get him financial aid without an interview, he used it to pay rent. He used like the bulk of it to pay rent. Not even food, and he doesn’t even have enough food. He’s eating instant noodles every day. When I befriended him, I came to his house in the evening. He was having his dinner and I looked at his plate, it was just instant noodles. No eggs, no vegetables, no nothing at all.
I can learn by visiting a place, by going on a tour, by reading about stories from a book. But to me, I think what I’ve learnt, right? Working on this podcast and everything I have experienced so far.
Chris And doing the volunteering.
Wei Yun And doing the volunteering, is that empathy. How do you cultivate empathy? You have to be physically present with these people. There’s only so much you can get, secondhand from books and from listening, and from people telling you, right. When you actually see, when you go into their homes, and they show you their rooms, how small it is, and how much they really would like a flat of their own. That’s when you really feel that sense of, like, you feel for them, you know. It’s a completely different feeling than if I read the book and they told me “Oh, the uncle has cried.” I’m like, okay, that’s really sad but when I see that person crying and I see him eating only a plate of instant noodles with nothing else. It’s really, the sense of empathy is elevated.
Chris Yeah. Would you recommend everyone to become a befriender?
Wei Yun I think… When I wanted to become a befriender, right? I was thinking “Oh, this is something that.. It’s a good use of time.” I feel like I wanted to go in there with a very problem-solving approach. I’m here to solve problems. When I leave the place, the residents should be happier than they was before I came. And then, my volunteer, sort of my team leader, he told me, “Why do you always come in with the problem-oriented lens of things? Sometimes, people just want your companionship. They just want to tell you. Like your presence is enough.” Because when you come with a problem oriented disposition, you feel frustrated when you can’t solve the problem.You feel discouraged and I don’t want to come anymore, why do I go? I go and the next week you will tell me the same problem. I have arrears. I don’t have a job. My health is bad, And I can’t solve any of these, it’s beyond me, right? But when you go there and you just go there to care, to listen, to just allow them to see a familiar face every other week. It takes the pressure off you to have to solve everything.
Chris Do you think you still want to solve all the problems? But you’re just learning to keep that part of you in the background?
Wei Yun I think I’m learning to pick the right battles, the battles that we feel like we can win. The episode on Dakota Crescent, this podcast on Dakota Crescent meant a lot more… It felt… When I rewrote the script, when I reread the script, it felt a lot more personal after I started volunteering at Merpati Road. Like the challenges they faced, these were things I observed personally with my own eyes, heard, you know, heard personally from the residents. When I interviewed Jingzhou and he told me how they struggled a lot, I was like “That’s really sad,” but there’s always that sense of disconnect I cannot bridge. Only through active volunteering, being present with these residents that… Finally this sense of disconnect is lessened. It’s not completely dissolved because I am still not the one personally relocating, but it’s definitely much less.
Chris Thanks for your work on this episode. I really appreciate it. I know it’s a long time coming.
Wei Yun Yeah. Thanks for the opportunity.
Chris Great. Okay, cool. You are so personally involved in this.
Wei Yun Yeah.
Chris In so many ways.
Wei Yun Yes, but also I don’t know why. Sometimes I just feel like I don’t really understand their lives well enough. Our contact is still so transient, even though I know they trust us a lot. And they really open, like who would open a door to strangers, we are just volunteers, right. You told me whether I want to go and record them or not, right? Actually, I did think about it and I think they wouldn’t mind being recorded, but at the same time I’m like – How do I say it – I don’t want them to feel used but I also know I’m not using them. But it’s like sometimes, why do we even want to know these stories for? You know, some people want to know stories of like… It’s a bit like poverty porn. There’s this term.
Chris I know this idea. That’s true. Poverty porn. I mean, I totally understood that and some people would say, this is the only way to build empathy.
Wei Yun Yeah.
Chris Building empathy is only possible through hearing about these stories in the first place. And the only way they can hear about them is by tadah, recording and sharing them.
Wei Yun Yeah.
Chris And if not, then they will be more invisible than they already are.
Wei Yun Yeah. But hearing them is not enough.
Chris Yeah. You’re right.
Chris Over the past few years, Wei Yun has tried to make a difference for those forced to relocate. She has learned that making a difference does not require solving problems. It can be as simple as showing up and being friendly. In other words, being neighborly.
Relocation is a complex process that is neither entirely positive nor negative. Change can be promising – a fresh start in a new home. Change can also be destabilizing – feeling displaced and dislocated; struggling to adapt. After all, leaving a place behind often means giving up the routines and rhythms that have become inseparable from who we are. For the former residents of Dakota Crescent, like all who have been forced to move, the challenge is having the strength, courage, and support to start new routines and make a new place feel like home.
This episode has been a labor of love for over two years. We first started working on it in 2019 before Covid-19 emerged to disrupt our podcast, our classes, and so many other plans. It’s a relief to finally see it finished. I couldn’t have done it without my co-producer Wei Yun, our sound engineer David Chew, and our project manager Shaun Tan. Special thanks to Yinzhou of Citizen Adventures, Jing Zhou of the Cassia Resettlement Team, and EeCheng from NUS for talking with us. This episode’s shout out to faithful listeners goes to Josef Tan and Sheemun Ho. I am also excited to announce that select episodes of Home on the Dot are now playing on the Singapore Airlines in-flight entertainment system. This is completely unexpected, and we are so proud of the work we have done and the ability to share it with people around the world. Next time you’re in the sky, consider drifting off to my voice, like my students sometimes do. And if you want to learn more about Dakota Crescent or our podcast, please visit the links on our homepage: tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook, just search for Home on the Dot. Thanks for listening.