Friday, March 12, 2010

High Street Story

During the 2010 budget debate, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan (MBT) recounting his childhood years growing up in various housing types (The Straits Times. Mar 6, 2010),

'When I was young, I lived in various places with my mother, who was a domestic servant. I lost my father when I was three years old, so we moved around a lot.

We stayed in a kampong in Lorong Ah Soo, …..I still remember where the kampong house was…..Then we moved to a shop house in High Street. My mum was working for a High Street merchant at that time. Today, that is where the MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) and MOF (Ministry of Finance) are (in The Treasury building)…..’

High Street, Sunday morning, 1977

You may not agree on his way of managing housing. You may also wonder if he could score another decisive victory in his political career if so decided to serve another term. However, MBT had worked hard and pulled himself out of poverty. His story is also the common story of many local of my generation.

MBT implemented a series of controversial public housing policies in the mid 2000s e.g. reduced the resale levy and relaxed the occupancy rules. The changes would possibly serve the multiple frontiers: (1) They aimed at the "upgraders" in order to generate more income for HDB; (2) solve the over supply problems in some remote areas such as Jurong West; (3) attract a critical mass to those under-development sectors like Punggol; (4) fulfill other economical and political agenda such as sustaining the domestic construction and renovation industries, and winning votes from the heart-landers.

In so doing, MBT broke away from the long-standing guiding principle of providing affordable public housing for the mass and ventured into high-end products. The public housing is closing the gap with the private. To show his support, PM Lee had been repeatedly telling the public that this move enabled a steady housing price appreciation and cumulated wealth for our citizen.

The series of new policies were like a double-edge sword. In the budget debate, MBT attempted to explain the housing price hike was not due to the popular reasons cited by many people. He used various statistics to show that the influence from PR and investors were insignificance. Realistically, HDB had to battle with many evolving challenges. Apart from unreasonable expectations from the youth, there was an overhang of 31,000 unsold flats following the 1997-98 Asian currency collapse. It took a decade to clear that. Pent-up demand after the 2003 SARS period and the 2008 banking meltdown created what now appears to be a supply shortfall.

The recent open criticism from MM Lee led to a series of market cooling measures from MBT. However, it was not certain if the cooling measures were drawer plans that prepared much earlier, or they were established and implemented as a result of the wakeup call.

MM Lee's criticism may also be viewed as a political move of dissociating the government from MBT. It had successfully directed the people's attention to MBT. However, looking at how the government functions, it is rather difficult to imagine that important issues like housing which affects most of the Singaporeans was decided by an individual and not the collective brains in the cabinet.

Back to the lighter moment. High Street ( 谐街) had provided me some fond memories in the 1970s. I stayed in Hill Street (禧街) directly opposite today’s MITA Building. MITA Building was a Police Station cum living quarters. It housed the Provost Unit for a few months in the early 1970s before returning back to the Police Force.

High Street Scene 1972

High Street was just a few ten metres away from where my family of six stayed. In the late 1960s to 1970s, High Street was a busy shopping district. It was like Orchard Road, or perhaps a mini Oxford Street of London. Sincere Watch, one of the public listed companies today, was first established at the corner of High Street and North Bridge road. Emporium (东风百货公司, belonged to the Emporium Group 英保良集团) opened in 1967, occupying another corner of High Street and North Bridge road directly opposite Sincere Watch. Emporium imported China products. Even the uniforms put up by the sales staff (white top and pink skirt) were very Chinese.

Although internet did not exist in that era, High Street No 86 Melwani’s Men’s Shop had already connected itself well with the globe, selling men wear from all around the world except China.

No 86 Melwani's men's shop, linking itself with the world

There were many other shops along High Street selling beautiful Indian Sari. These shops also carried interesting Chinese names such as 企企哈里(K K Harjani) and 祥加士(M Kishin). I collected international stamps from them and exchanged with schoolmates. The stamp albums continued to grow until my childhood was over. They also reflected how well these entrepreneurs had linked themselves up with the various continents.

High Street - Dominated by Indian merchants, 1972

Metro (美罗) was situated at the heart of High Street and attracted big crowds in the busy afternoon. The departmental store closed at night and on Sunday. High Street was quiet after seven, only Emporium provided night life (up to 9pm) for the residents.

High Street after 7pm. 1971

Vicky Dutton, fashion designer and model told Her World in July 1964, “The woman who dresses with a difference is one who chooses materials, colour and cut of her clothes, her hairstyle, her jewels all to match a sense of personal uniqueness.”

High Street was trendy. You could discover the fashion. Fashion was not limited to the mini-skirts for the ladies. The thick frame spectacles worn by the men also recounted the lost era of 1970s.

High Street Fashion (1), 1971

High Street fashion (2), 1971
High Street Fashion (3), 1972

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