From ‘Venice of Punggol the pride of former backwater’, 24 Oct 2011, article by Cai Haoxiang in ST
…Punggol used to be a fishing village and farming area, and a relative backwater. PM Lee recalled going to Punggol Point to eat at its famous seafood restaurants, and to the area for an orienteering exercise when he attended the Outward Bound School.
‘We had to navigate from point to point with a map but without a compass. It was quite possible in those days to be lost in Punggol because there were no roads, no signs; some attap houses and tracks, and you had to find your way around. But we got lost,’ he said.
In 1996, the Government announced plans to develop the area, with private and public housing, MRT and light rail lines and water sports facilities, marinas and a waterfront park. But the project, Punggol 21, was halted in its tracks by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
After the economy recovered, the Government revisited its plans for Punggol, and in 2007, PM Lee unveiled Punggol 21-Plus, which includes the waterway as the rejuvenated estate’s centrepiece.
He said yesterday that some have called the waterway the ‘Venice of Punggol’, and promised more developments to come. By the end of the year, 23,000 families will be living in Punggol, and by 2015, there will be a new commercial hub and town plaza by the Punggol MRT station.
Bringing a little bit of Marina Bay into the ‘heartland’ is no doubt a sweetener to many Singaporeans and a refreshing change from the usual high-rise steel and concrete projects which have been dominating most of our landscape. ‘Venice of Punggol’ is probably a harmless exaggeration, but I was amused to discover that ‘Venice’ analogies weren’t always as charming or picturesque as what our PM makes Punggol out to be. In fact, it’s not just Punggol that has the ‘honour’ of being called the ‘Venice’ of Singapore. It’s unfortunate that this classic mercantile city, renown for its architecture and art history, has become reduced to a romantic cliche describing any town where you have to ride a sampan to borrow stuff from your neighbours, or go ‘prawning’ literally at your doorstep.
In a 1896 article titled ‘Venice At Singapore’, Waterloo Street was ‘always like a river when it rains’, proof that sarcasm was alive and well in the late 19th century. In 1906, ‘a modern Venice’ was used to describe ‘a veritable river that had transformed’ and ‘emptied itself into the (Bukit Timah) canal at the Junction of Syed Alley Road’ following heavy flooding. It was reported that houses were flooded and the ‘natives’ must have ‘suffered terribly’. 3 years later, a series of floods following the overspill of Stamford and Rochore Canals, creating ‘miniature lakes’ in Geylang and cataracts down Mount Sophia, prompted the ST headline ‘Venice in Singapore’. More than a century on and areas like Orchard Road continue to be flooded, according to this 1982 complaint titled- what else - ‘Venice of the East’. Just last year, we had a taste of ‘Venice’ again, captured perfectly by the image below of some guy putting a positive, wacky spin on a really bad situation.
Not all analogies were derogatory, of course. In 1969, a Sydney architecture professor praised Singapore as the ‘Venice of the East’, suggesting that our public buildings adopt a form of architecture representing a ‘fusion of both East and West’, without any mention of waterways becoming a mode of leisure transport. A more ambitious analogy was drawn in a letter ALSO titled ‘Venice of the East’ in 2008, where waterways were envisioned as additional traffic arteries to relieve the burden on roads and the MRT, so instead of singing gondoliers entertaining lazy lovers you’d have ‘boat uncles’ with a schedule to meet and impatient commuters to ferry. People would need a life-jacket IN ADDITION to an EZ-link card to hitch a ride.
Architecture and waterworks aside, in 1979 the ‘Renaissance Venice of South East Asia’ , a dynamic techonological hub, was what Singapore was forecast to become in 2000, according to the director of the Science Centre. Minister of State Tay Eng Soon proclaimed that ‘Singapore can survive 1000 years like Venice’ (1988) whose assets are her people, ‘outward-looking, patriotic and practical’ (just like Shylock). So much for predictions then; we have become nothing like the ‘good’ Venice of the East, Asia, or even South East Asia, though now we finally have one to call our own thanks to our PM. And it’s in once ulu-like-hell Punggol.
So there we have it, a Venice that we aspire to be, and a ‘Venice’ that Minister of Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan silently prays that we’d never turn into for good. Let’s hope, for the sake of Punggol residents, that PM Lee’s dreamy description of their rejuvenated ‘marine’ town doesn’t turn out to be a self-prophesising double-edged one.