“They Told Us to Move”: Challenging the contributions of academia

View of a block of HDB flats

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Book: “They Told Us to Move” (2019, Ethos Books), Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team (Rocky Howe, Lim Jingzhou, Sammie Ng)

Focused on the relocation of Dakota Crescent residents to Cassia Crescent, “They Told Us to Move” (2019) by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team (CRT) – a volunteer team founded in 2017 to help these residents settle into their new homes – is a powerful collection of resident and volunteer narratives, unfortunately let down by the uneven and seemingly disconnected academic contributions, especially in the final third of the book. In this vein, the book is both a testament to the strong resident-volunteer forged through the relocation, resettlement, and redevelopment process as well as to the challenges of drawing meaningful connections between developments on the ground and the work of academia to effectively translate research into practice or policy change.

The central message of the book? “Progress in public housing is not only judged by what the majority has achieved; it is also measured by whether citizens with the least means are able to live in security, peace, and dignity”. Ng and the CRT hence bring attention to the relocation process in one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates (Dakota Crescent), the resettlement process to a HDB block with a mix of purchase and rental flats (Cassia Crescent), and the redevelopment of this rental-flat block with a large number of low-income households, by focusing on the first-hand narratives of the residents and reflections of the volunteers. Thereafter, researchers or academics tie these first-hand views and experiences in essays to complete the resident-volunteer-academic triad.

Nine of such triads are organised in three parts: First, “Family, neighbour, society”; second, “Care, service, policy”; and third, “History, memory, heritage”.

The strength of the resident-volunteer dyad, both of whom share a relationship, is primarily premised upon the personal experiences and interactions as well as complex perceptions which defy straightforward or good-or-bad interpretations. The move from Dakota to Cassia is neither good nor bad, in other words, and is based on personal perspectives and familial circumstances which inevitably vary. In addition, given the small glimpses into the everyday conversations that the residents have with each other and with the volunteers – or a slice of the everyday lives of the residents – the reader is prompted to suspend judgement and to instead feel what the residents went and have been going through. And as the volunteers juxtapose their observations and volunteerism with their personal lives, readers further examine their potential oblivion and complicity too.

Academic Teo You Yenn establishes the value of analytical or research work from the get-go. “A case implies that it is not the singular story … that we should focus on, but what her story can tell us about something larger. A case sheds light on social phenomena and social conditions”. She adds: “We have to understand how things work. And we cannot understand how things work without drawing out patterns, without stepping back to look at the big picture, without attempts to link cause and effect”.

Two of the most compelling triads – which successfully and substantively engaged all three parties in conversation – are featured in the second part of the book, involving: First, resident Tong (the bodyguard of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew), volunteer Rocky Howe, and academic Ad Mauloud; the second, centre manager of former Tung Ling Community Services Neo Hock Ann (Roger), volunteer Lim Jingzhou, and academic Neo Yu Wei.

The first revolves around the responsiveness of state and public institutions to the needs of beneficiaries, the agency of the beneficiary, as well as a proposed system of human rights and institutional accountability, wherein the volunteer too responds to ideas raised by the academic. The second considers not just the provision or availability of social programmes and services, but also the experience of accessing and negotiating these programmes and services, from the perspective of the beneficiary.

Notwithstanding the lack of a primer or introduction – at the start of each of the three parts of the book – to thematically tie the groups of interviews, reflections, and essays together, the disjointed research or academic contributions felt most apparent throughout the third part of the book on history, memory, and heritage. The essays of the researchers or academics seemed disengaged from the resident-volunteer dyad, presented their own research or academic agendas without prioritising the views of the residents or the volunteers, and therefore added little that was meaningful.

Furthermore, the uneven and seemingly disconnected academic contributions – which did not always tie the individual narratives coherently – also limits broader considerations of the role of the state (and how it might respond), which more importantly limits the discussion of more expansive proposals to improve not just other relocation and resettlement processes in Singapore, but also the provision of social programmes and services. It may be argued that since the state already occupies a privileged discursive position, “They Told Us to Move”, by focusing on the other parties, is in fact disrupting the status quo. Yet it ultimately feels like a missed opportunity for academia to elevate the insights of the residents and the volunteers and to juxtapose those with state policies and responses.

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