Leave Orchard Road alone

Sense And Nonsense – by Tan Bah Bah

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There are some issues that are slow burning. Important enough but perhaps not all that sexy to get all that many people hot and bothered. But they are all-Singaporean stuff, as local as CPF or Katong. Three of these issues cropped up this week.

What shall we do with Orchard Road?  This seems to be a favourite pastime of our esteemed urban planners – doing something about Singapore’s premier shopping belt. Like turning it into a pedestrian mall.

I have two stories to contribute to the discussion, for whatever they are worth. I am not even sure whether they are relevant because I cannot really see where all the talk about Orchard Road is going, in the first place.

Sometime in the 1960s, I was walking along the road with my friend, Siva Choy (the writer, comedian and musician, who is now in Perth, a subject which I will come to later in the column).  It was around 3 am and we were just outside MacDonald House. You may not believe it, there was no traffic! I quickly told Siva: “Hey, let’s do this, lie down on the road for two or three minutes. We may not get a chance to do this again in future. I think Orchard Road is not going to be like this for long.” And so we did. We survived five minutes without being run over by a car. Try doing that today.

Long before all the recent attempts to have the road car-free, there had been even older, monthly, tries at pedestrianising it in the 1980s.  Because of the novelty effect, the first Sunday saw a fairly large crowd. People were “entertained” by a fire-swallowing act, a snake dance and someone walking on eggs!  But the novelty wore off very fast. The crowd started to dwindle on subsequent Sundays and the scheme was finally scrapped.

But, as the Peter Cetera/Cher song puts it, “well, here we are – again”.

Of course, all these efforts at making the road more friendly and accessible to pedestrians are simply aimed at getting more people to go to Orchard Road and staying there longer, so that they will spend more money and make the business operators there happy. Nothing more, nothing less.

Traffic, however, is only one part of the story. It is NOT a major problem, especially when more visitors, foreign or local, now travel there by train and buses. Three MRT stops serve the relatively short stretch.

I see little wrong with Orchard Road as it is. It has a great mix of attractions and amenities. High-end clients get their spas and designer fashion houses. Millennials hang out at their WiFi cafes and fastfood joints.  Everyone else have their local food and other fare at some of the older shopping centres (they are still there). Tourists still go there to shop and dine.

Leave Orchard Road alone. Market forces – which, to me, is the fair exchange of value for money – alone will determine how many people will still go there. Businessmen are not stupid.

Suddenly, too, HDB leases – all of 99 years, to be exact – are back in the news. All because National Development Minister Lawrence Wong last month cautioned buyers of older resale flats against assuming their flats were automatically eligible for the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme  – and would therefore fetch higher sale prices. Only 4 per cent of HDB flats have been identified for SERs since it was launched in 1995, he said. But he quickly pointed out this week that the HDB remained a good nest egg for retirement through monetisation options for the elderly.

Don’t worry, be happy. Sure, if you say so.

We have more than 40 years to go before the first of the 99-year leases runs out. It will start as a blob here and a blob there. First Stirling Road, then some Singapore Improvement Trust blocks (like in Kallang Airport), the older Queenstown and Toa Payoh/MacPherson buildings and later the bigger waves of next generation flats in Ang Mo Kio, Clementi and Bedok. Tampines, Woodlands, Serangoon, Hougang and Jurong East and West are still fairly new. Take a deep breath.

Now, the third slowburner. I am absolutely delighted that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to the contributions made by the Eurasian community to the country at the Eurasian Festival in Tampines Hub. These are highly talented Singaporeans who have a big difference to our lives here – politically, professionally and culturally.

It is a great pity that so many of them have migrated and left Singapore. My long-held belief is that our standard of English took a serious southward dive when our Eurasians, who were proficient in the language, went Down Under. As they like to say, half of Katong and Siglap is in Perth today, many Eurasians included.

Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.