When I think about agriculture, the images that come to mind are not those of my country. In neighboring Malaysia, I remember being safely strapped into the backseat as my father drove our deep-purple Honda Civic past the hectares and hectares of palm oil plantations. When we lived on the 21st floor, my mother continues to maintain a small balcony garden of potted and wall-mounting ornamentals like bird’s nest and staghorn ferns, lipstick plants that brought olive-backed sunbirds, fragile air plants that looked like old-man eyebrows in martial arts films that I watched with my father. My father grew up in Nee Soon on state land, he told us, regaling my brother and I with stories of heading into the forest to cut firewood, shooting orioles and bulbuls with slingshot, sitting in the rambutan tree and eating himself silly. He also told us many times about those durians that they sold to the wealthy for $5 apiece – worth a fortune back then. Perhaps the older generation is more in touch with nature than we are, from their kampung days.
We Singaporeans are disconnected from our food. This is not new. What is surprising, however, is that in between the busy and rapid transport lines and highways, farmers persist in our midst. Some percentage of eggs, vegetables and fish comes from the local farm industry – a small percentage, but existent and important. While walking to a nature reserve I volunteered at after junior college, I walked past signs to fish farms and crocodile farms. Childhood school trips to mushroom farms (oyster, straw, shitake) and quail farms (the chick died within a week) made an imprint on me. Where are these narratives in our main national story? Singapore is more complex than the well-worn caricature of a ‘concrete jungle’.
Back home, urban farms and community gardens form the base of the “Grow Your Own Food” movement in Singapore. The “Grow Your Own Food” movement is one of urban farmers and community gardeners, working to instill in its participants a fundamental consciousness of where their food comes from – something that my generation particularly lacks for want of experience. An example of one of these groups is the Edible Garden City, a group of urban farmers who design, build and maintain food gardens. I reached out to them and they commented that individuals not only learned essential gardening skills and but also expierenced “character development” from working with the plants.
What this “character development” could be is well-illustrated by an interview with a secondary-school aged boy who had spent a good amount of time at a community garden in his housing complex, part of the government-run Community in Bloom Initiative.
“In my community garden, the gardeners are very close with one another and there’s this strong kampung spirit. We call it the strong Sembawang Kampung spirit. I feel at home when I’m in the garden. I think that ‘the kampung’ refers to a strong belonging and close ties with friends and family members.”
“Kampung spirit” is a Singlish phrase that I, as a young Singaporean, am familiar with but still struggle to define it. The Malay word Kampung or kampong, loosely translated as ‘village’, is often spoken of with nostalgia by the older generation. The kampung speaks of an idealized tight-knit community where everyone is in each other’s business yet is familiar and kind to one another. My father often told me stories of life in the kampung, where he lived “in the old days”, as he would put it. He himself was part of this generation and socio-economic group that lived in small kampungs, before he reached my age and lived through Singapore’s shift to urbanization.
“Not everyone in [my] generation would have been interested in gardening…I think that gardening is a very fulfilling hobby, it has made my childhood more interesting and I’ve learned more about life values with the older generation.”
I’ve heard of anecdotes about children who think that rice comes from the rice cooker and that chickens look like four fleshy, featherless legs from a Styrofoam pack wrapped tight lywith clingwrap. Though comical, it points to a certain pattern where the young people including myself, who inherit an obsession with the pursuit of the most delicious hawker food and the best place for late-night makan, don’t think about what their food looked like before it was killed or harvested and processed. As a country that imports 90% of their food, it is even more important that Singaporeans become conscious from a young age about food issues and the complexity of the agriculture industry and the food commodity chain that feeds us, instead of being reduced to a single economic unit that purchases and consumes.
Despite these ideals, I have questions about the nuts and bolts (or in this case, seeds) of building a garden and a community in residential and school contexts. I wonder how conflicts about decision-making in this close environment are resolved, and if at all. I also wonder how difficult it is to bring people averse to getting their hands dirty to volunteer their time. Certainly, I do not believe that a garden is a magic bullet that inexplicably knits those close ties; I think that hard work, time and coordination is essential. That said, I remain a strong believer that community garden is a useful platform in the urban Singaporean context not only to bring people closer to the environment and to think deeper about the food that we eat, but also to cultivate this kampung spirit that we look towards as a society.
“We feel satisfied when we see the harvest and the things we’ve grown…community gardening, in that way, would inculcate strong life values in you.” – young participant in the Community in Bloom community garden initiative, recorded by the Singapore Memory Project.
Photo credit: Pictured is the community garden of the Bishan Home for the Intellectually Disabled, with an ongoing workday for residents and volunteers. Photo from the National Parks Board, published by Today. Via Today Online.
For further information about this issue:
Tan, L. H., & Neo, H. (2009). “Community in Bloom”: local participation of community gardens in urban Singapore. Local Environment, 14(6), 529-539.
Ruici was born and raised in Singapore, Singapore. She is a senior at Duke studying Environmental Science and Policy and Latin American Studies. What she thinks about most of the time, (in no particular order): sustainable agriculture, rock climbing, our disappearing forests, mapping minds, comics and cartoons. When not climbing the Wilson rock wall, she works on her thesis on farmer perceptions of climate change.