No Mud, No flower – Singapore is 50 years old

“There cannot be a flower without mud”

Behind an industrial real estate, a parking lot for trucks, next door to aquariam fish resale outlets, cheek by jowl with one of Singapore’s largest dog puppy outlets, lives SOSD.

Twice a week, I made this trek to Pasir Ris Farmway Drive 2 to be part of a dog loving predominantly Singaporean volunteer community – SOSD (Save Our Street Dogs).

In a few short years, SOSD has gone from 4 people, to a group of 100 or so dog rehab/walking volunteers, fosterers, outreach arms for educating the community on responsible dog ownership, a care/dog therapy unit, and the first dog sterilization campaign in Singapore last year. With no government funding.

Coming to Singapore via living in Thailand for a few years, I was convinced I was not going to like Singapore. The original free spirit, Singapore was confining, too rigid, and lacking, well, soul.

I was heartbroken at leaving my Thai street dog, Tan. (She did not want to come, that’s another story). To enshrine her memory, I thought volunteer walking Singapore ‘street’ dogs would be a ‘good’ thing. The unexpected ‘good’ thing I also discovered was that this giving back showed a side of Singapore and its people which helped me ‘settle’ here.

Don’t waste a thing, but be prepared to buy plenty

We all had to bring our own water bottles. We did have a soda machine attached to one of the two functional power outlets. I became a huge fan of chrysanthemum tea. Not too long ago, electricity was far more pervasive than drinkable water. Plus the guy who delivered was really quite nice, so who was going to put him out of work?

There is always time to eat good food

Cakes, biscuits were omnipresent. Plans on what to bring next week, where to lunch were in the constant making. I got to like durian cake (although still cannot eat the fruit itself).  And to understand that multiple phone devices taking multiple photos doing silly signs with your fingers and making strange faces taken with multiple which were then uploaded to FB, Tumblr, instagram was considered a social norm, almost beyond funny (still a bit wacky for me).

What did you do wrong?

When I was bitten by a dog, (when you rehabilitate dogs, comes with the territory), everyone went in overdrive with medical intervention, and concern. But also accompanied with  “you need to watch where you put your hand, la”. A factual reminder of the personal accountability ethic for all good and bad that happens in your life. Such a change from the increasing tendency in my home country to blame family, community, other religions and race, for any ills that befall you.

Fill in the form, la

The average Singaporean acknowledges they have a process obsession. It’s in their DNA, like swearing is in Australian DNA.

50 years ago, Singapore, like SOSD 4 years ago, had lots to do and was in a big hurry to do it. You don’t get far with just a vision, you need people to ‘toe’ the line, dance to the same tune, you get the drift.

To be a dog walker, you take a shelter tour, complete an online application form, do training for one day for two weekends in a row, then are apprenticed to a more senior handler, before you were allowed to walk a dog on your own. Trying to pay a phone bill online, or setting up a bank account in Singapore, became minor irritations as I learnt to let of my natural desire for less rather than more process.

The dark side – and there always is one 

Unlike Thailand, the vast majority of street dogs of Singapore are not always born there. Frequently caste off by usually Singaporean owners – too big, noisy, ‘old’, difficult to manage. HDB regulations mean a cute puppy one day becomes unwanted in a few months, as it outgrows the size restriction (and many do), begins to bark constantly (because they are not trained), or starts to eat too much food. It was a frequent sight to find a dog tied up outside SOSD as began our walk preparations in the morning.  Concepts of how to train and habituate dogs were draconian, and the legacy was the dogs we walked.

Survivors of abuse and torture have emotional baggage – dogs keep this baggage longer due to their brain structure. The morning read out on who (dog) could go near whom (or risk fights and possible human injury) sounded like something from a Mad Max movie.

The contrast of the people who did this to the people who helped these dogs was stark. From a country where people appear so ‘calm’, where did this dark side come from? I saw the antithesis for animals in SOSD, and began to see the light and dark in other areas of my life, as I went about catching taxis, buying food.

A community is a network, not a monolith 

The dog walkers of SOSD are a mixed bunch – some older people, a few expats, but mainly young Singaporean men and women, recently out of uni, national service. I heard a generation asking and trying to answer, what is the option to this drive for money and wealth – does it have to be a choice between prosperity and caring for others? And expats are not the only ones that ask – how come cars and bikes are so expensive?

Had I not stepped into the mud, I would not have found the lotus flowers of Singapore spirit and heart.  I would not have connected to this diverse community. And be reminded that cultures are not stereotyped monoliths but networks of groups, which have to learn to live in, dare I say it, harmony. Happy 50th birthday Singapore – may you prosper and grow.

(A shorter version of this article was published in the ANZA Community Magazine.  ANZA is the Australian New Zealand Association based in Singapore).

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