Place of Interest – Bukit Timah

Bukit Timah, Singapore by Lee Tzu Pheng

This highway I know,

the only way into the city

where the muddy canal goes.

These are the sides of coarse grasses

where the schoolboys stumble in early morning

wet-staining their white shoes.

This is the way the city is fed

men, machines,

flushed out of their short dreams

and suburban holes

to churn down this waiting gullet.

They flow endlessly this way

from dawn, before sky opens,

to the narrow glare of noon

and evening’s slow closing.

Under the steaming morning,

ambition flashes by in a new car:

the reluctant salesman faced

with another day of selling his pride

hunches over the lambretta, swerving

from old farmer with fruit-heavy basket.

The women back from market

remark that this monsoon will be bad

for the price of vegetables:

their loitering children, too small for school,

learn the value of five cents, ten cents,

from hunger and these market days.

All morning the tired buses whine

their monotonous route, drag

from stop to stop,

disgorge schoolchildren, pale-faced clerks,

long-suffering civil servants,

pretty office girls, to feed

the megalopolitan appetite.

This highway I know,

the only way out of the city:

the same highway under the moon,

the same people under the sea-green

of lamps newly turned on at evening.

One day there will be tall buildings

here, where the green trees reach

for the narrow canal.

The holes where the restless sleepers are

will be neat, boxed up in ten-stories.

Life will be orderly, comfortable,

exciting, occasionally, at the new nightclubs.

I wonder what that old farmer would say

if he lived to come this way

Bukit Timah

Located in the central region of Singapore, Bukit Timah district is named after Singapore’s tallest hill which stands at an altitude of 163.63 metres (537 ft.) and is the highest natural point in Singapore. Spanning 25km long, Bukit Timah is the main road linking Singapore to Johor, through the Bukit Timah railway station. Furthermore, the old Ford Factory in Bukit Timah, is where the British surrendered Singapore over to the Japanese, who used the factory as their headquarters during the war. As such, Bukit Timah had witnessed much of the historical war moments.

Bukit Timah was also a granite quarry in the 19th century, surrounded by vast stretches of plantation and rainforest. However after the Japanese Occupation, existing farms and plantations in Bukit Timah evolved into industrialised buildings and high-rise flats. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bukit Timah was a major industrial center. Today, Bukit Timah is better known to be the residency for the wealthy, occupied by luxury estates, making Bukit Timah Singapore’s premier residential district.

 bukittimah railway bukit timah landed property

(From left, Bukit Timah Railway Station in 1900s and Bukit Timah landed property in 2000s)

The poem touches on a theme of conservation along with Singapore’s drive towards urbanization.  Where villages are transforming into industrialized buildings, the poet expresses her personal view of Singapore’s steer towards modernization resulting in the inevitable erasure of past memories as seen from “This is the way the city is fed, men, machines, flushed out of their short dreams”.

In a passive and gentle conversational tone, the poet goes on to describe the frugal lives of Bukit Timah residents before the changes of industrialization, from “their loitering children, too small for school, learn the value of five cents, ten cents, from hunger and these market days”, where the mention of “alcohol” and “nightclubs” in the poem corresponds to the portrayal of the poet’s mental image of the future Singapore.


The poet is apprehensive of Singapore’s development into a city, from “disgorge schoolchildren, pale-faced clerks, long-suffering civil servants, pretty office girls, to feed the megapolitan appetite” where she referred the people to be the victims of urbanization. At the same time, she acknowledges the benefits of industrialization, from “The holes where the restless sleepers are, will be neat, boxed up in ten-stories”, shows that people will be better off in the high rise flats. On the other hand, she puts up resistance to the idea as seen from “Life will be orderly, comfortable, exciting, occasionally, at the new nightclubs”, the mention of nightclubs here indicates a sense of unfamiliarity to the poet, as well as uncongenial to the poetic self.  Also, from “I wonder what that old farmer would say / if he lived to come this way” seems to show that she is hesitant and  uncertain about what the future brings, as she verbalized the thoughts of a farmer aloud, of their livelihood being threatened when urbanization transforms the farms into buildings.


Chee), Tham (Seong. “Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia.” Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia. (accessed March 23, 2013).


Place of Interest – Changi Prison

Changi Prison

Out of Changi
(To a friend)

You have recanted, and returned
From the red wilderness of your impatient anger.
Though you were only reddish
Not your shade, but the colour
Made you unsafe
To the new power
And their democracy.

Changi has altered you
Without twisting your arm or mind
(Your comrades would have done both)
Merely by isolating you, there,
Where you cannot have the sea
But hear it distinctly,
Can feel the gusts of change-
Changes, you know, for the better.

There’s no cause to see red now.
Everywhere there are multi-storied schools and flats;
Or blush today because
It’s the Governor’s birthday
And Union Jacks claim the Padarig…

The elected
In their diffidence
Had shut you up.
Now in their confidence
Have released you.

Having meantime secured the house,
Evicted legally S. Kee
His landlords and his tenants,
Efficiently removed other eyesores
That platformed your protests
And renovated and overhauled with new ideas…

No doubt they will further construct and expand
With you along.

Robert Yeo, 1971

Robert Yeo, in Out of Changi, made a reference to it as a tribute to a friend who had been detained there as a political prisoner. It seems Changi Prison is a symbol of the state’s absolute power and non-tolerance for political non-conformity (referring to Communism in the poem as seen from the repeated mention of the colour red) by being a house with poor conditions to political prisoners which is perceived to be enough to change them. This is portrayed through Yeo’s personification of Changi Prison as a kind of being that has the power to ‘alter’ a person, supposedly through both physical and mental torture (“twisting your arm or mind”, “by isolating you”).

Changi Prison, located in the eastern part of Singapore, is most known for being a Prisoners-of-War (POW) holding ground during World War II. Initially Selarang Barracks, it was widely referred to as Changi together with the civilian prison and had held 50,000 POWs during the war. It also housed the headquarters of the Japanese military police, the Kempeitai which carried out torture of suspected spies within the premises.

An overcrowded Changi Prison during World War II, typifying the poor living conditions under the Japanese regime.
(Image taken from

Changi Prison, at the end of World War II
(Image taken from,_Singapore_-_c._1945.jpg)

Following the war, Changi Prison has then been noted for being a place of detention for political dissidents. The Moon Crescent Centre was built as a political wing within the Changi prison compound to house detainees under the Internal Security Act and conditions are said to be torturous with issues such as poor food and undernourishment, isolation within a cell for up to 16 hours a day, very limited contact with the outside world in the form of writing letters or visits from family members and lawyers, and alleged brutality. This is reflected by Yeo’s portrayal of Changi Prison: the ability to twist arms and minds, the mental impact of isolation, and a total cut-off from the external world which culminated in the persona needing to update his friend on changes which have taken place. One famous dissident to have been held captive at the compound include Chia Thye Poh who at one point of time gained prominence over the world for being a political prisoner for a period of time comparable to that of South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mendela.

Today the new Changi Prison houses the most serious offenders in the country, including prisoners who have been sentenced to death and awaiting execution.

The present day interior of Changi Prison
(Image taken from

Present day Changi Prison
(Image taken from


Place of Interest – Ann Siang Hill

Ang Siang Hill

old house at ang siang hill

an unusual house this is
dreams are here before you sleep
tread softly
into the three-storeyed gloom
sit gently
on the straits-born furniture
imported from china
speak quietly
to the contemporary occupants

they are not afraid of you
waiting for you to go
before they dislocate your intentions
so what if this is
your grandfather’s house
his ghost doesn’t live here anymore
your family past is
superannuated grime
which increases with time
otherwise nothing adds or subtracts
the bricks and tiles
until re-development
which will greatly change
this house-that-was
dozens like it along the street
the next and the next as well

nothing much will be appreciated
eyes not tradition tell you this.

Arthur Yap, 1971


Ang Siang Hill can be said to illustrate the tradeoff between traditions and heritage, and advancement and modernisation, and such is its relevance to the Singaporean literature scene by being a symbol of this compromise which is argued to be inevitable with the evolution of the country into an economic power. A number of literary figures in Singapore have explored this concern in their works, including Kuo Pao Kun and Lee Tzu Pheng.

Ang Siang Hill or Ann Siang Hill was located at South Bridge Road and was the estate of Chia Ann Siang, a wealthy businessman. It was a Chinese graveyard till the mid-1800s, and then it became known for being a traditional site for Chinese migrants who set up clan associations and social clubs, before being bought over by Chia at the turn of the 20th century.

Most of the buildings today at Ann Siang Road / Ann Siang Hill were built before World War II, and located within the Central Business District (CBD) of Singapore, it is home to many offices and shops. It consists of many eating houses, commercial units and bars which has made the area a trendy and popular place.

Club Street at Ann Siang Hill in 1998
(Image taken from

Present day Ann Siang Hill
(Image taken from

As seen the government has been active in trying to promote it as a site for tourism and hence the numerous developments. This is explored in the poem where Yap portrays tradition and heritage to be dispensable in the face of growth and development, this is done by juxtapositioning tradition (elements of religious worship in “tread softly”, “sit gently”, and “speak quietly”) and re-developing, to illustrate that to move on and progress, the past can be sacrificed. This is in reality is done forcefully and unfeelingly which is illustrated by the strict and business-like tone in the lines from the second stanza “so what if this is / your grandfather’s house / his ghost doesn’t live here anymore / your family past is / superannuated grime” which reflect a lack of empathy and sympathy for heritage. There is a sense of holding on to tradition and the past being incongruent with the modern ideals that the nation is pursuing which has dictated the changing of the Singapore landscapes, which are attacked in the poem for being mechanical and standardised, as seen from how the old house in the poem would turn out to be just another house along the streets like many others, with nothing to differentiate it from similar to being another brick in the wall, and another tile on the floor. To prove this point, we may even draw parallels to many other instances in the Singaporean context today, most strikingly the demolishing of the iconic Bukit Brown cemetery as a symbol of old Singaporean history and heritage (as it houses the remnants of many Singaporean pioneers such as Chia Ann Siang, Eu Tong Sen and Gan Eng Seng) for economic purposes (it will make way for roads to ease congestion along Lornie Road and the PIE during peak hours).

Ann Siang Hill, entrance to walking trail
(Image taken from

Today a walk down the Ann Siang Road / Ann Siang Hill will expose one to the old and restored shophouses of the old Chinese clans and associations.

Present day Ann Siang Hill
(Image taken from




Leo, S. (Ed.). (1993). Chinese Adaptation & Diversity: Essays On Society And Literature In Indonesia,Malaysia & Singapore. Singapore, Singapore: Singapore University Press.