Northern exposure

In Singapore, having to drive longer than 20 minutes to get anywhere is considered as good as going to another country. For the longest time, Sembawang has been like the other side of the moon.

People who live elsewhere always exclaim, “so far!” That’s because for many years, Sembawang was only accessible by a couple of roads.

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With just two bus services, no nearby MRT station where I live (near Sembawang Park which faces the Straits of Johor), no shopping mall, and with commuters carrying fishing and crabbing paraphernalia on the bus, we really seem to be the last bastion of ulu (countryside) Singapore.

But therein lies the charm. The bonus of living in what was once kampung (village) land is the lush landscape which includes edible plants growing wild. Just beyond my backyard are three majestic banyan trees, obviously many decades old as they were already ancient when I moved in 26 years ago.

Surrounding state land and forested areas are dotted with plants and trees like pandan, curry, banana, jackfruit, neem, papaya, belimbing, and even kangkong if you’re adventurous enough to wander a little off the beaten track. The rambutan trees have been felled but there are other goodies. These, and a quaint mosque, are the only remnants of Malay and Chinese kampungs.

Basong bus stop

Above: Waiting for the shuttle bus isn’t so bad when the view is so pleasant

Although land value has risen, it’s still comparatively low. Up to half a century ago, this sleepy part was distinguished only by its status as HMS Sembawang – His/Her Majesty’s Naval Base. Today, we remember our colonial heritage by the street names – Montreal, Canberra, Cyprus, Malta, Gibraltar, Auckland, Wellington, Falkland, Tasmania, King’s, Queen’s …  In Sembawang Park, there’s the century-old Beaulieu (pronounced Bew-lee) House, once a residence, now a seafood restaurant. A dog run has been added to the upgraded park, so the K9 crowd no longer have to go to Bishan.


sembawang beaulieu house


sembawang dog run

In the last 10 years, we’ve seen our verdant area transformed as developers parcelled off choice bits of land to build four-storeyed houses and apartment blocks. New and old owners in the mature estate have also been tearing down their single-storey houses to add floors of space.


sembawang wak hassan bungalows

sembawang Wak-Hassan-Bungalows- 6m

Got $7-$9 million to spare? Resort living is yours.

The Sembawang HDB estate is also encroaching. Where once treetops met the sky, I can see concrete rising by the day as a new estate is born, with schools and all the attendant amenities.

It’s fine with me as my son will occupy one of those flats, and an injection of fresh life into our countryside estate is welcome. Already, I feel less distant from the rest of Singapore with new links to highways (Yishun Ave 8 to the TPE, Jalan Kayu and Sengkang) and an upcoming MRT station between Yishun and Sembawang.

My son was born a northerner whereas I lived all over Singapore and adapted gradually to what was once a rural part of the island. He fished, caught spiders, rescued critters (from abandoned bunnies to grass snakes), tramped through secondary forest collecting plants to bonsai, bicycled all over, and with his best friend, enjoyed a Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn childhood.

For me, highlights are birdsong and the kind of silence that leaves a ringing in your ears. At first, I thought I had tinnitus. Mosquitoes are a blight but a natural part of living on the ground surrounded by greens.

It’s a privilege to be country folk.


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