Elaine Ee: 'Where is that again?'

Elaine Ee: 'Where is that again?'

Elaine Ee looks at the curious phenomenon of why some places in Singapore are not anywhere near where they say they are

Nomination day for Singapore’s General Election 2011 is over and the political parties contesting each constituency have been confirmed.

With all but one constituency uncontested -- Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew’s five-seat GRC Tanjong Pagar -- this is the most keenly fought election since Singapore's independence, a strong sign that the forces of democracy are finally making themselves felt in this island republic.

As campaigning officially begins, one fact that never fails to elicit comment is how electoral boundaries are drawn and redrawn for each election until they really stretch one’s imagination as to where a constituency is physically located.

"Marine Parade can stretch till Woodlands," posted someone in jest on Facebook. Moulmein-Kallang GRC stretches to Bukit Timah, and Tanjong Pagar covers the whole of Orchard.

Is it just me that finds it strange to drive through a neighborhood and see signs saying it is part of a constituency you thought was located on the other side of the island?

Of course, the accusation dripping from everyone’s lips is that this is gerrymandering at work.

The official reason given by the Singapore Elections Department is that boundaries are shifted to reflect shifting populations. Right.

So it's sheer coincidence that part of Aljunied, which the Workers’ Party very nearly won in the last General Elections in 2006, has been hived off and subsumed into Ang Mo Kio, the constituency of the Prime Minister himself.

This point was raised by Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim to the press in February this year, and reiterated by its secretary-general, Low Thia Khiang, at the party’s media conference on nomination day.

This disconnect between something that bears the name of a place and where that thing is actually located spills over to other spheres of Singapore’s geography too.

For instance, Siglap Secondary School used to be, well, in Siglap (naturally); but it is now in Pasir Ris, a neighborhood miles away. And River Valley High School is not in River Valley, but way out west in Boon Lay.

This seems to be urban planning at its most arbitrary. Imagine the discussion a bunch of urban planners might have over this:

“We have to move Siglap Secondary School.”
“Ok, where shall we move it to?”
“Don’t know, there’s no room left for it in Siglap.”
“Oh. Well, where would it be then?”
“How about here?”

Urban planner points to a small gap in the map of Singapore.

“Where’s that?”
“Pasir Ris.”
“But that’s not in Siglap, it’s not even anywhere near.”
Silence and blank stares.
“Oh ya.” Pause. “What to do, la?”
“Can the school still be called Siglap Secondary School if it’s in Pasir Ris?”
“Don’t know. That doesn’t fall under our department.”
More silence.
“Are we done?”
“Coffee break.”

Maybe this is what happens when authorities overly shape a country. Compare it to former colonial powers divvying up continents into new nations with little sensitivity to ethnic or tribal territories and the resulting clashes that ensued in some cases.

Fortunately, in Singapore we won’t see the natives of Ang Mo Kio rising up against those of Aljunied (but maybe some blue shirts against white shirts), and the worst we’ve had to contend with is getting confused on the road and wondering which constituency we’re going to be in each election time.

Nevertheless, if things named after a place can actually be in the place they’re named after, so that they mean something to the people and not just the urban planners or the elections department, they might resonate more deeply in people’s minds and hearts. Which makes sense really, especially during a General Election.

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Elaine Ee.