Estate Frequencies

How do we see a city? From skyway, bus, car, train, or taxi? On foot? How do we consider the smaller units of the city? Parks, neighbourhoods, malls and markets? Are they experienced as discrete units or do we think about the intertwining aspects of they way we ambulate, the way we commute beyond the quotidian? 

Estate Frequencies is a brand new project that I’ve written and voiced (at least for this first season) that offers a through line to experience neighbourhoods in a city, connecting history, culture, art and people together in the form of an audio walking tour encompassing narration, interviews and poems that can be experienced in person or remotely. 

The first neighbourhood that’s being featured is Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s oldest housing estate. One might say that it is almost inevitable given the compact size of the estate, its pre-war beginnings and the many visible layers of ‘storying’ that are part of its landscape; from its much-photographed architectural style to the iconic market and its penchant for being part of social media backgrounds. 

But Estate Frequencies is also after the invisible, i.e. the people who make up Tiong Bahru. They represent, in many ways, a sounding board for the estate, one that reverberates at a different frequency from the ubiquity of the community centre as a kind of faux nexus for communal life. 

Estate Frequencies: Tiong Bahru is a three-episode series that encourages the listener to walk the street in real-time, adding a spatial dimension to the narration and soundscape. The latter, composed by Saturn Sound Studios, takes in the diegetic sounds of the neighbourhood and intersperses it with specially composed soundtracks for the poems. Poetry also offers a different way of seeing the estate, one that isn’t marshalled by the immutable aegis of government agencies and the throes of late-stage capitalism. They offer a space to imagine and wonder, even as we wander the streets and backlanes of Tiong Bahru. 

To listen, visit 

An Afternoon in the Heartland

Toa Payoh Central is a quintessential microcosm of life in Singapore’s HDB heartland. It is a melange of commercial enterprises, peopled by older folk as well as a slew of younger people who work in the HDB Hub that links to the MRT station and the bus interchange and becomes an all encompassing multi-level strip mall.

These are common moments; pauses to buy 4D, to check messages, to while away work hours.

Starbucks is contemplated by a small group of statues of uncertain provenance. Security cameras exchange safety for privacy.

Sharp corners of buildings jut out, trying to add a touch of post-2010 into the landscape.

A row of spiral staircases are surprising spectators in a nondescript car-park.

Courts rises out of the shimmering afternoon heat, a bastion of A/C and relevant home appliances.

Older folk pause in the middle of their perambulations, stopping to think and dream, to remember what no one else sees.

Photographed with the Fuji X-T2 and Meike 28/f2.8.


There is no place like this

The new Singapore Tourism Board video (above) is all about hip people in pretty places. The average tourist will never see any of these people. And if they do go to these locations they certainly will not get these perspectives.

The feel is gritty, the soundtrack grooves to the refrain ‘this is the place’ and builds an anticipation to be blown away by the unseen. The sparse spoken word voice-over hints at a country of edgy, defiant possibilities.

The reality is that these human possibilities are colorfully engineered constructs of ideals. The entire video is a freeze frame homage to the mise en scene of social media. It’s guaranteed to get a lot of likes. And hopefully some package tours.

Yes, we have to sell Singapore. And perhaps it is true, Orchard Road is no longer current and the theme park has lost its thrill. But there are other things to feature beyond this slick selection of experiential moments that seem to comprise the passion of this country.

Passion also means suffering, and that word is indeed apt, as there are whole swathes of people who will never be cool enough for this country.

There is no place like this
with flattened ideas, hearts and hills
There is no place for those
who deny the whitewashed will

This is the place
where passion is a mod-sin word
raised up to be worshipped
by an undercut, lit shook herd

But passion is also suffering
stateless, disoriented
frustrated from raids
on dreams disappeared
A wish to have a full meal,
lights on at night
make good on impossible loans
no rats gnawing at toes

To love who you want to love

But this is a place
where you cannot love freely
So when people visit
what is it they really see?

They won’t hear about one people,
one nation, they don’t care for our songs
of celebration, they only see success
stories, buildings that clip the clouds,
shops full of bright baubles
trains that wear no frown

They don’t see the offerings
swept up by workers
with no minimum wage
behind maximum fences

When race is not about the finish line
but the colour of our skin,
all of the Others
are washed away by the spin
When the boxes that keep us apart
help to keep our nation smart
When the leaders that we need
are voted least likely to succeed

This is the place
with world-class education and
bad grammar littered everywhere,
where schools are processions of paperwork
real learning is after school tuition-care

This is where we live
amongst a splendour of trees
but insist on double-bagging
styro-foamed plastic wrapped packaging

This is where creativity becomes a hashtag
and then a graded course in five sessions
with a complimentary tote bag

This is the place
where gambling is never as bad
as honest questioning
Where we’re encouraged to spend
without worry, but the interest
on our lives grows daily

This is the place where we roll dice, leave on the red lights
patrol with swagger, check IDs to prevent terror.
where we claim to be secure, claim to endure,
but will not stop to ask if people are ok;
we’re messaging the monsters in our heads

Where backstreets are abandoned trolleys and non-existent homeless,
where graffiti is state-sanctioned, toe the line wholeness
where nostalgia is best sold with one story-line
where we’re told what to do, and do what we’re told
time after time
and any other way out needs a license
and any other opinion means silence

Where impossibilities lead to endless possibilities
and then censorship and then fewer possibilities,
until all that’s left is a national education lesson on harmony

Where who you were will not be who you will become,
not unless your name is Meritocracy

This is where compassion should be made compulsory,
but all we get is a country we love to hate, and passion
becomes just another word for never being sorry