The past belongs there

Singapore is soaked in nostalgia this Golden Jubilee year. But once it's over, let's move on and focus on the present

It was barely a metre away. I screamed when I saw it.

Its sharp, scaly tail was swishing and its head was turned back, as though looking at me.

I was about to open the gate of my house for H to drive the car out last Sunday when I saw the changeable lizard.

It was clinging onto the grilles of the gate and trying to squeeze through but couldn't, and it looked as if it would flip backwards - towards me - any time.

Changeable lizards, in case you don't know, are giant outdoor lizards with very long tails. They can change colour from brown to grey to red. I'd not seen one in years.

There was no way I was going near it so I beckoned to H to get out of the car and open the gate himself.

As I walked away, another unusual sight greeted me, inducing another shriek of horror.

A huge grasshopper was sitting on the hood of our car, its emerald-coloured body shimmering in the sun, antenna twitching. I can't remember the last time I saw a grasshopper.

H calmly flicked it away.

You know, I declared when I was safely inside the car, Singaporeans like to go on about how wonderful "old" Singapore was, but there's one thing I never miss about those days.

I never ever miss, I said, the horrible creepy crawlies that were everywhere.

Growing up, the area I lived in (where I still live) was nothing at all like the urban landscape it is today.

For the first seven, eight years of my life, there were no tarred roads around my grandparents' house where we lived.

From the main road, people beat dirt paths to the houses and kampungs set deeper in.

These tracks were not lit and were surrounded by clumps of wild vegetation, coconut trees that were targets of lightning strikes, lalang that could cut your skin if you weren't careful - and lots and lots of creepy crawlies.

Grasshoppers and spiders of all sizes, beetles that clung to your hair, fruit bats that swooped down alarmingly at night, red ants with vicious bites, powdery moths the size of your palm - these were daily encounters and they scared the living daylights out of me.

The van that took me to school would pick me up at 5.30 in the morning. When I switched on the verandah lights, carpenter bees would emerge.

These big, black, shiny bees the size of table tennis balls would bounce from ceiling to wall making terrifying buzzing noises. I would look on, petrified. When my van arrived, I would make a mad dash across the verandah praying I wouldn't get stung.

Over time, however, roads were built, old houses torn down and new ones built, and these creatures disappeared from my life.

Nowadays, I so rarely see them that when I do, like on that Sunday, they're something to write about.

"Old" Singapore has been very much in the news these last couple of years, reaching a crescendo this Golden Jubilee year of Singapore's independence.

The country is steeped in nostalgia, brimming with memories of yesteryear and spilling with stories about how great life was back then.

It seems that everywhere you turn there's an exhibition of Singapore's history or a heritage trail being launched or a new museum or a video of a pioneer generation Singaporean reminiscing.

Nostalgia is a marketable commodity. Vintage furniture shops are trendy. Retro- themed cafes are all the rage. How quaint it is to eat from an enamel plate.

In 2011, the Singapore Memory Project was born "to capture and document precious moments and memories related to Singapore". As of last Friday, more than 446,800 "memories" have been collected.

On the one hand, it's all very laudable and exciting.

Singaporeans have learnt more about their history and heritage than ever before, and nostalgia acts as a bond.

I, too, am a fan of nostalgia. If you mention Yaohan anpan, triangular milk cartons, Yonex school bags and Brush Your Teeth campaign, I get excited.

A fair number of Singaporean readers will know what I'm referring to, and I'm sure they too feel a pang of sweet longing for those faraway days when our lives revolved around those things.

But truth is, I'm also starting to get nostalgia fatigue.

I'm beginning to tire of holding on to so many pieces of the past.

There's only so much of yesterday I can, or want to, take.

The problem with nostalgia is that it remembers the good stuff but not the bad. It blurs the sharp edges of how things really were.

Yes, Singapore of the past was quaint, but were things rosy?

Old kampungs and the way of life might look charming in sepia photos, but I am not at all sorry they no longer exist.

The reality was, life was harder, dirtier, messier and smellier back then.

It's no fun when lights flicker because the power supply is unstable.

It's inconvenient to have to rely on water from a well (as my grandmother did).

It's unpleasant when your car hits potholes on the road.

It's scary to have to live with creepy crawlies.

Those old-fashioned sugar-topped button biscuits? They bring back fuzzy memories all right, but is it really something you want to eat today?

That 1960s solid teak study desk with drawers? You grew up with something similar but is it practical today and can you place your computer on it?

Hardcore nostalgia buffs also like to lament how modern Singapore has lost its soul.

But new isn't necessarily sterile. Just look at Punggol Waterway, The Pinnacle@Duxton and Marina Bay Sands.

This journey down memory lane has been fun and it was necessary.

But once the Jubilee Year is over, let's pack away our memories and get on with life.

Rather than still dwell on the past, isn't it better we talk about how to make the present more perfect?

After all, your life today will become tomorrow's nostalgia.

sumiko@sph.com.sg

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan