THE LION CITY OF SINGAPORE
In the first quarter of 1983 while attending a seminar-workshop on PLANNING and BUDGETING, a yearly activity of the government office where I was then working; I received news that I will be sent to Singapore. The seminar-workshop I was attending was in relation to a World Bank-financed project dubbed as the Tondo Foreshore and Dagat-Dagatan Development Project (the “Project”) of the National Housing Authority (“NHA”). As the then Asst. General Manager Antonio Fernando (“AGM Fernando”) briefed me, during a break in the seminar, I was told that I have been awarded a Colombo Plan scholarship and that I will receive training at the Housing & Development Board in Singapore.
At that time, Singapore though a pygmy-sized nation was acknowledged as a giant in the field of housing. As I was then the Estates Division Manager of the Project’s Dagat-Dagatan Development, it was the shared perception of the NHA’s top management then that knowledge on housing development from a perceived GIANT in the field would do me good particularly on the aspect of CONSERVANCY. Conservancy in the field of estate management pertains to the program of effectively maintaining the estate in tip-top condition.
The grand plan then by the Marcos government was to do an ON-SITE development in the Tondo Foreshore area which was highly considered as a totally blighted area, degraded by population explosion, and aggravated by the consequent sprouting of slums and that it has emerged as a nightmare in sanitation. At that time, the ON-SITE works was already ongoing in the Tondo Foreshore area as streets were being created out of dimly-lit alleys and catwalks, the shanties being improved through what was called as a HOUSING MATERIALS LOAN Program and communities were being RE-BLOCKED to achieve some semblance of order. I started out as a Research Assistant in 1974, thereafter as Project Officer at the Tondo Foreshore side of the Project and at that time in 1983, I have been promoted to the rank of Division Manager of the Estates Management on the Dagat-Dagatan side of the Project. The Dagat-Dagatan area which is a vast tract measuring about 600 hectares was to serve as the relocation/resettlement area of Tondo Foreshore residents who will be affected by the ON-SITE development in the Tondo Foreshore area which measures about 140 hectares.
Censused residents of Tondo Foreshore, which census was conducted in the early 70s, who actually did not own the land where their houses have been erected are actually called “squatters”. The term “squatters” which was then being used carried a disparaging connotation of a law-breaker and a plague in the metropolis. Eventually, a politically correct term was coined and used instead, they in the Tondo Foreshore area were thereupon called as INFORMAL SETTLERS. What was totally fulfilling was that the Marcos government was set to sell the residential lots to censused residents at ONLY Php 95.00 per square meter and to be amortized through a period of 15 years, to boot.
Going back to my Colombo Plan scholarship….I left for Singapore in the last week of August 1983 via a Singapore Airlines flight. The passengers of that flight were dined and wined by the comely, well-mannered and friendly Singaporean stewardesses. I felt I was on FIRST CLASS because the meal was superb which consisted of prawns and wine was literally overflowing. I learned thereafter that Singapore Airlines was and still is among the BEST managed airlines in the world.
The flight took me about 3 hours and when I arrived at the Changi Airport in Singapore, I was met by a gracious Singaporean lady who works at the Singapore’s Foreign Affairs ministry. It was at the Changi Airport when I learned that the Singaporean lady will fetch not only me, but TWO (2) other Filipinos, a government doctor and an engineer who was also working at the NHA, and finally, a Thai engineer too.
Thus, we boarded a van and traveled from the airport to our destination into the Lion City. I came prepared and I wanted to promote the image of the Filipino as grateful, cordial and friendly people. Thus, when the Singaporean lady brought me to where I will be staying at the topmost floor of a high-rise condominium at the place called OUTRAM Park, and when she was about to leave, I pulled out something from my carry-on bag. It was a Filipino souvenir item, actually native hand-made doilies which I bought at the Quiapo market and which I attempted to hand over to her. The Singaporean lady politely refused my offer despite my persistence by my statement that it was just a token of my gratitude for her having fetched me at the airport. And that actuation on the part of the Singaporean lady gave me an amazing show of selfless and self-abnegating service.
And I met Mr. Low, who will, according to the Singaporean lady who bought us to him, be our foster parent together with Mrs. Low. Mr. Low was a retired police officer receiving some pension while, Mrs. Low who herself was a retiree, was busying herself cooking meals and selling them to neighbors and friends. The Spouses Low have THREE (3) little daughters at that time and they all stayed and slept at the larger master bedroom in the 2-room affair of their condominium unit. We, the FOUR (4) of us, stayed in a relatively smaller room where TWO (2) double-decked beds were stacked up opposite each other. The one and a half meter-sized aisle which leads to the door served as our communal area where we do some exercises to keep us fit and dandy.
Every day, we went to our respective destinations (i.e. the doctor into a government hospital, the engineers at the government utility companies) and I would usually be assigned from place to place particularly housing projects of the Housing and Development Board of Singapore where I will be first given some kind of an orientation lecture, then afterwards, doing some kind of ON-THE-JOB training on HOUSING AND ESTATES MANAGEMENT.
I and Mr. Low became friends and he would usually treat me to a cup of coffee or tea, in a nearby coffee/tea shop. At the coffee/tea shop, Mr. Low would confide to me about his exasperation regarding the other lodgers in their home, particularly the doctor, whom he felt was discourteous to him. Actually, the doctor and Mr. Low would from time to time engage in some kind of a debate about almost all kinds of subject and Mr. Low would be irked with the smart-alecky posture of the doctor.
In my talks and dealings with Mr. Low, what further amazed me was how Singaporeans revered and respect their leader, who was then the charismatic Prime Minister of the Garden State, Mr. Lew Kuan Yew. Mr. Lee even gained the moniker of being the CHIEF GARDENER of Singapore as during Mr. Lee’s tenure he started an honest-to-goodness program of greening the whole of Singapore. I was myself brought once by an HDB functionary to the central plant and trees nursery which distributes plants and tree saplings to the whole of Singapore’s housing projects in this magnificent Lion City. I was really awed, amazed and enchanted by the Lion City (and that was many years ago) and I am sure that today Singapore would look much more astounding, magnificent and awe-inspiring. What I learned most of all was that the Singaporeans were a lot of DISCIPLINED people. And that perhaps, is what the people of the Philippines lack in great measure. Looking back, the call for DISCIPLINE by Pres. Marcos, was a step in the right direction.
Going back to my Singaporean friend….Mr. Low not only became a friend but some kind of a my guardian angel as he gave me moralizing tips on how to find one’s lifetime partner, looking into the internal beauty of a person rather than that of the person’s external gloss.
What further amazed me was Singapore’s cleanliness. And that quality of cleanliness in their streets and other public places was made attainable because, one can see that in every place within the Lion City, a garbage receptacle of whatever shape, size and form is always accessible.
As our stay at Mr. Low’s unit was mainly lodging, a special treat was accorded me when I celebrated my 34th birthday on September 12, 1983. That was when Mrs. Low served us birthday noodles plus, a birthday cake. Ordinarily, we take our meals at the street-side eateries near our place at OUTRAM Park.
And one Singaporean cook-meal vendor, a cheerful fortyish lady would almost always smile and be moved to laughter, every time we would order chicken noodle soup. To keep us easily satiated, we, myself and my co-lodgers at Mr. Low’s place, would continuously request servings of the noodle soup’s broth; and would finish off with the noodles when our stomachs have almost been filled to the brim by the warm and spicy broth.