(Illustration and essay are created and written to accompany a book collecting photographs by Lau Eng Seng documenting the housing estate before its imminent tearing down.
Eng Seng’s book and an exhibition will take place from 17 – 27 Aug 2017 at Objectifs, Middle Road; but he and Li Li Chung of the Exactly Foundation have given me permission to post the picture and the essay early since part of the message is a shout out to get involved in efforts to help preserve the Sungei Road Market, due to be shut down this coming July.
When Rochore Lost its ‘e’
Once, it’d been known as both Rochore and Rochor. Somehow or another, over the years, Rochor has lost its ‘e’.
In 1957, one S. Ramachandra wrote in to the Straits Times to express his bewilderment as to why street nameplates in the area that had once read ‘Rochore Canal Road’ had been replaced with ones that spelt Rochor without the ‘e’. While it is not clear if Ramachandra ever got a satisfactory reply to his query, an eventual attempt by a journalist to discover the story behind the mysterious disappearance of the ‘e’ some decades later failed to yield any more real results. One instance the journalist did find of the missing ‘e’ was in the name for the Rochore Kongsi for the Aged, a void deck nursing home opened in 1977 at the Rochor Centre by Dr Toh Chin Chye, a former Deputy Prime Minister and long-time Member of Parliament for the area.
In his role then as Minister for Health, Dr Toh often spoke about the need to address the welfare of the elderly, and for a country not run by robots and computers, but one “with a soul.” His service to the residents of Rochor, where he remained MP for nearly three decades – from 1959 to 1988 – along with his willingness to speak up against his own party after leaving the Cabinet in 1981, lends a warm glow to memories of the man, especially amongst those who feel that the MPs of today have long lost touch with the ground and toe the party line much too often.
A quick look at Dr Toh’s career, however, throws up some apparent contradictions.
As one of the core group of the first generation of PAP leaders, Dr Toh is widely seen to have been instrumental in forming and implementing an ideology of progressive depoliticization. During his tenure as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore from 1968 to 1975, he acquired a reputation for being a “ruthless autocrat” who had sought to overturn the school’s “British liberal tradition of academic freedom and its focus on the intellectual cultivation of the individual,” in favour of an apolitical, top-down culture that would better serve the country’s needs.
So when the senior former party stalwart called on Singaporeans to speak up fearlessly against policies they disagreed with, and in fact, sought to do so himself in Parliament whilst effectively labelling those who did not as “dumb cows,” a colleague (Tan Soo Khoon, MP for Alexandra) responded by asking why Dr Toh had not been “more receptive to dissent when he was a minister and a university Vice-Chancellor. He did not take too kindly to dissent then. Why is he now so voluble in his views?”
Of course, shifts and changes can be principled rather than hypocritical, as experience brings new ideas and challenges long-held notions. Dr Toh called on the people to respond to the changing needs of the country, even as some accused him of sour grapes. Part of his rationale was that where a firm hand might have been necessary to overcome the demanding tests faced during the instability of the nation’s formative years, more openness and debate was required now that the country was being confronted with new challenges. The founding party chairman also pointed out that although the PAP had come to power on the basis of its democratic socialist principles, it had now “changed its constitution completely,” and that he felt impelled to “[express] the views of [Singaporeans[ who dare[d] not speak up.”
The Nostalgia Industry
Change and dislocation have been constant features of the lives of its citizens from the early days of PAP rule in Singapore. Resettling from kampongs to densely populated, confined HDB flats had been traumatic for many; in Rochor itself, shophouses and street hawkers had given way to buildings like Rochor Centre and Sim Lim Square, before the Rochor Constituency itself disappeared with the 1988 electoral redrawing of boundaries, as the area was absorbed into the Jalan Besar and Kampong Glam constituencies.
A Straits Times interview with Rochor residents when the Constituency was scrapped elicited some despondent responses. One was reported to have felt “terribly let down,” saying that the constituency should be significant as it had “existed since Parliament was formed,” and wondered why the electoral committee did not “do away with Jalan Besar Constituency and keep Rochore instead.” Another constituency stalwart and CC management committee member described a “loss of identity” shared with him by some residents.
We hear the same sentiments expressed today for recent sites slated for redevelopment, such as Dakota Crescent, the Sungei Road Flea Market area, and Rochor Centre itself. There is a shared sense of sadness over the passing of eras, a loss of identity, community and familiar surrounds, usually accompanied by a sense of resignation that this is, after all, a country of constant change, and all we can really do is to bear it and move on.
The government has responded on numerous occasions that it understands the trade-off between development and heritage, and the need to strike a balance between the two. Clearly, though, the exact nature of this understanding needs to be more rigorously examined, so that hard choices can be made with greater wisdom and more public consultation, rather than sleepwalked into by a KPI-obsessed bureaucracy sometimes too focused on short-term results.
Old buildings and communities, once gone, will never be again. If we do not try to reimagine our values and priorities as a nation, we will soon be left with little more than colourful keychains, tote bags and other designer knick-knacks manufactured by the Nostalgia Industry and the digital databases of the Singapore Memory Project – mere representations of our lost heritage and culture, rather than the things themselves.
Over the years, Rochor has lost its ‘e’ and then its status as an electoral constituency; now, the beating heart of Rochor Centre itself is slated to be demolished and replaced by an expressway. But Dakota Crescent and the Sungei Road Flea Market might still be saved. So if you care, go out there and do whatever you can to help spread the word. Get involved, engage the authorities and yes, make a fuss.
You might not get a chance to do so again.
 The Straits Times, “Man-in-the-Street” letters section, p.8, 16 Aug 1957.
 “In Search of Old Rochore,” Toh Yong Chuan, The Straits Times, p.43, 19 Feb 2012.
 “Don’t let the country become a city without a soul,” The Straits Times, p.9, 05 Nov 1977.
 He was often described as “an outspoken critic of the Government” by the Straits Times. See, for example, “Rochore MP Dr Toh will not Stand in Next Election,” p.20, 18 June 1988.
 eds. Kevin YL Tan and Peng Er Lam, Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s Old Guard (St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2001, c.1999), p.9.
 “We speak up if we have to, say eight MPs,” The Straits Times, p.12, 31 Aug 1984.
 “‘I Can’t Remain a Dumb Cow,’” The Straits Times, p.2, 26 Aug 1984.
 “Voters from three wards regrouped,” The Straits Times, p.20, 20 June 1988.