When Absolut Vodka unveiled their Absolut Singapore advertisement 15 years ago, featuring nothing but a clear bottle being wiped by a red cloth, many were outraged that the brand saw this country as a place with a squeaky clean exterior, but is essentially quite hollow and characterless. Today, 15 years later, we are inching ever closer to this image of Singapore, marked by “progress” that replaces the time-honoured and precious with the new and modern.

After eight long decades, the Sungei Road flea market (otherwise known as the Thieves’ Market) is set to face a brutal annihilation by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Proposals submitted to the URA, suggesting the flea market’s relocation to one of four other areas nearby, have also been rebuffed as those areas have been set aside under Master Plan 2014 for recreational and residential use.

A rent-free hawking area, the Thieves’ Market made its name selling stolen goods. Now, it offers a whole range of cheap, preowned items, such as books, vinyl records, clothing and electronic gadgets, as well as slightly more valuable antiques. And what will replace all the goodness of this historic landmark? A new Sungei Road MRT station, slated for an opening in 2017.

This is an unforgivably enormous mistake they’re making. A veritable second home for as many as 200 vendors, the removal of the flea market would cost these regulars their livelihood. More than a destruction of jobs, it is a destruction of a community that’s been around for such a long time it’s practically ingrained in the local culture.

Landmarks such as this that are older than Singapore herself should be preserved, shouldn’t they? Or must they fulfil a certain criterion such as being big enough or colourful enough to attract tourists? Is the Thieves’ Market just not good enough to preserve – not government-approved heritage? A friend of mine expressed my sentiments brilliantly, “I feel like the only kind of heritage that the government likes is manicured and polished. Kind of sterilised. Any actual heritage that isn’t marketable to tourists is wiped out.”

The flea market at Sungei Road (Singapore’s oldest, largest and arguably the best, for its unbelievable steals – $2 vinyl records and $1 DVDs, among others – and its bustling, rough-and-ready energy) is among the few places in Singapore that make it a truly unique country, not Marina Bay Sands or Universal Studios Singapore or any of those manufactured moneymaking places of attraction.

While seeking progress, we have failed to remember the stuff that really matters, stuff that makes us proud to be a part of this nation. NEA and URA may not recognise the significance of the Thieves’ Market, but I do, even in its dwindling days. So, to those government organisations: Don’t give Singaporeans more reasons to flee the country or spit on your ludicrous decisions. Don’t reduce this little red dot to a country that’s simply shiny on the outside, yet empty on the inside.

Cover photo credit: Aldwin Teo

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