Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Promise Of Punggol

Source : The Straits Times Forum News, Aug 24, 2007

Punggol is being touted as the next big thing in public housing. But will the plans and promises first made in 1996, and updated this week, come true? PEH SHING HUEI and LYNN LEE take the pulse of Punggol and speak to the people who make up its past, present and future

RIGHT opposite the pristine Punggol MRT station is the new town's landmark - a haunted house, or so residents here claim.

Once a seaside bungalow of an English family, it stands solitary in a field of unkempt grass, its peeling white paint a sad reminder of failed promises.

It was slated for so much more.

Officials say it is called the Matilda House and was identified by the Urban Redevelopment Authority seven years ago for restoration, conservation and put to community use for Punggol.

Today, the deserted single-storey building is not restored, conserved or put to any use.

Forgotten by the authorities, locals just refer to it as Punggol's haunted house.

And in many ways for the people of Punggol, the fate of Matilda reflects that of their town: forlorn.

As provision shop owner Tan Leong Choon, 47, says in Mandarin: 'The Government spoke about Punggol 21 10 years ago and nothing happened. Now they are talking about it again. But who knows if it's going to happen in the next 10 years.'

Indeed, Punggol is back on the Government's radar.

In his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered a new vision for the town, calling it Punggol 21-plus.

A beautiful future for the north-eastern coastal suburb was painted: Housing Board blocks soaring up along the banks of a pristine waterway, amid greenery, jogging tracks and alfresco restaurants serving Punggol's renowned chilli crab.

The Punggol and Serangoon rivers, which flank the town, will be dammed up to create a freshwater lake. A waterway will run through the estate, linking both rivers.

All of it sounds and looks impressive. But Punggol residents cannot avoid feeling a sense of deja vu.

During his rally speech of 1996, then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong put the original paint on the Punggol 21 canvas.

Touted as a new model for housing here, it was supposed to have both private and public housing, served by MRT and light-rail and with water-sports facilities, marinas and a waterfront park.

Coney Island would be developed into a recreation zone with a park, and bridges linking it to the main island.

A few months after the speech, Punggol 21 - which was part of Cheng San GRC then - became a big election carrot with the People's Action Party dangling it to beat a strong Workers' Party team led by J.B. Jeyaretnam and Tang Liang Hong.

The five-man PAP team won the bruising contest with 54.8 per cent of the valid votes.

But alas, the transformation of Punggol was halted in its tracks by the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Although construction began the next year, it was stopped when demand for new flats nosedived.

As a result, only some 16,000 flats - out of the 80,000 planned units - have been built.

Around 42,000 residents live here, lending the town a quiet laid-back charm, or at night, an eerie silence.

Pointing to the empty bus depot, Mr Tan Tse Chin, 54, who runs a cafe by the MRT station, says in Mandarin: 'This is Singapore's most deserted bus interchange.'

Walk into the bus interchange on a weekday mid-afternoon and chances are, there are more buses than passengers.

With just seven services travelling to places like Aljunied, Bedok and Tampines, the depot is bereft of the buzz found in other town centres.

The four-year-old MRT station - the last stop on the North-East Line - is next to the interchange and looks just as pristine, peaceful and startlingly new.

Fifteen stops were planned for the light rail system, but only seven are in operation.

'Tampines and Simei residents use this MRT stop, but only for transit. They rarely stop for a bite or a drink,' says Mr Tan with a sigh, lamenting that his cafe makes a daily profit of just $160.

'Even Punggol residents just transfer directly from the LRT to the MRT. You don't even see them outside the station.'

But while some are almost disillusioned with this former Malay kampung and Teochew enclave, others cannot wait for the realisation of PM Lee's plans.

Spa owner Doris Lee, 38, has already staked her turf near the site of the future town centre.

She set up a day spa and nail salon six months ago at the MRT station, attending to about 100 customers a month.

'Punggol residents are hungry for any sort of activity. So those who come here tell me that it's good that there's a spa, it gives them something to do, a place where they can relax after work or on the weekend,' she says.

MP Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC), whose ward includes half of Punggol town, says residents will be watching hawk-eyed to see if the Government delivers on this new vision.

'Something had better happen this time. Most residents understand that the lack of progress was due to the economic slowdown.

'But now they see things have improved. And they won't accept the same excuse again,' says Mr Chong.

Would there be any political backlash if plans do not materialise again?

Mr Chong is quick to reply: 'I didn't even consider that as a possibility. I am sure something will happen before then. Saying so at the National Day Rally was PM's way of telling residents that the Government has not forgotten its promise to them.'

On the national level, Punggol would also show that the Housing Board remains relevant and can more than keep up with rising expectations that Singaporeans of their housing needs.

This injection of new life to this far-flung town will benefit its established icons, like the famous Punggol Restaurant (known as Hock Kee to older customers), once located at the Punggol Point jetty but now ensconced at the Marina Country Club.

Says manager Ting Cheng Ping, 44: 'Singapore's population will grow, the vacant units here will be filled up in no time. You have the rivers, the sea and a rustic charm that are very hard to find anywhere else in the country.'

That is the hope, that Punggol will soon claim its long-awaited place as the shining new town that is the envy of all Singaporeans.

That it would somehow rediscover its status as a town for foreign dignitaries, like in 1951, when then-United States vice-president Richard Nixon - who later became president - paid a visit.

That it would somehow lay to rest the ghosts of its recent past, and see its iconic Matilda waltzing once again to the gentle sea breeze by its calming shores.

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