Friday, October 2, 2009

Singapore's hidden heartland - a story you can't read in the Lion City

I've written an extended piece on the joys of Singapore's little-known farming hinterlands in the October edition of the soon-to-be-closed Far Eastern Economic Review.

But, in a Kafkaesque twist, FEER says it is unable to send me a copy of my own story because of the restrictions enforced by the Singapore government on foreign publications in 2006 after FEER was accused of "engaging in domestic politics" by the government.

Meanwhile, in the letters pages of this week's edition of The Economist, Singapore's high commissioner in London insists that FEER is not and has never been banned in Singapore.

Michael Eng Cheng Teo says that FEER "voluntarily discontinued circulating in Singapore" after refusing to comply with the requirement to put up a security bond [of S$200,000] and appoint a representative in Singapore upon whom legal notice could be served.

Anyway - here's a taster of the story:

The car weaves along the winding country lane, cutting a narrow path through the lush tropical vegetation. As well as the occasional dog ambling sleepily down the roadside, we pass farm after farm producing everything from vegetables to goat’s milk and even crocodiles. We reach the summit of a short incline from where the gently-undulating landscape stretches out in front of us, punctuated only by farm buildings and electricity pylons.

Briefly, it’s almost possible to imagine that I’m in one of Asia’s expansive agricultural heartlands such as Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands or Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. But the frequent road signs warning people away from state land and urging trespassers not to enter “protected areas” at risk of being shot give the plot away.

Welcome to Singapore’s last remaining slice of rural life: the Kranji countryside. The Southeast Asian city-state may be better known for its banks, shopping malls and sprawling public housing estates but here, in the northwestern corner of the island, Singapore’s hardy farmers struggle on, producing 18,000 tons of vegetables, 47 million chickens, millions of eggs and 5,000 tons of fish each year.

“There’s no PAP up here—we’re not prim and proper,” quips Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), as she pokes fun at Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which has maintained a tight and, critics say, stifling grip on power since Britain granted self-rule in 1959.

“Singapore should not try to become a global city because we will bloody implode,” she continues. “We need to put aside our progress and prosperity model and look at Singapore as a country with a hinterland.”

“Back in the 1960s, all of our chickens, eggs, pigs and fish and 40% of our vegetables were grown locally,” Ms. Singh-Lim laments. “But the land here was neglected and this place almost became a lost valley because of the focus on urbanization.”

Ms. Singh-Lim believes that Singapore lost much of its “kampong spirit” as villages and farms were bulldozed and their residents moved into the towering government apartments that now house more than 80% of the population. But, as the 60-year-old sips a whiskey on the rocks at 3:30 in the afternoon in the cafĂ© that adjoins Bollywood Veggies, her farm, she insists that Singapore’s countryside can still offer “solace to a weary soul.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr user pixculture.


  1. we trekked up to bollywood veges for a meal last year - was ok, not great i thought - but ivy's farm and the surrounding countryside is indeed a great place for an idle wander. incidentally, ivy was being interviewed by a camera crew on that occasion and holding forth on her favourite subjects - at that time it was the local outbreak of chikungunya and the govt's spraying program - she's certainly not media shy!

    one of the more amazing things on that walk was that it started to rain quite heavily (that's not the amazing bit), and several cars sped by us but the fifth one stopped at my outstretched thunb and gave us a lift back to ivy's farm. hitchhiking! in singapore!

  2. Ivy clearly likes to speak her mind - the Singapore press don't often like to quote her in full flow though, for some reason...

    It's interesting to hear you managed to hitch a lift. The people up on the Kranji farms do seem more open and welcoming than the rat-racers in central Singapore.

  3. I was told in 2007 by FEER that it is banned in Singapore. This was when I tried to transfer my subscription from Europe to Singapore after having moved here.

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