A self-contained community amid nature.
How do Singaporeans see change as the Little Red Dot sets out to realise its future as a vibrant global city? In the fourth of a DBS series on a new Singapore, Wong Kim Hoh talks to humanitarian-relief veteran Hassan Ahmad about life in Pasir Ris
A COUPLE of weeks ago, several anglers in Pasir Ris struggled for two hours before bringing in a whopper of a stingray, weighing an estimated 100kg.
It is another colourful entry in the wildlife diary of this town, which boasts a 71ha coastal park, in eastern Singapore.
Some years ago, a group of smooth otters was seen basking on the banks of Sungei Api Api.
Residents there will also tell you all about the monitor lizards, fiddler crabs and mudskippers which regularly make their appearance in the canals in their estate.
It is the proximity to nature that drew Mr Hassan Ahmad, the former chief of Mercy Relief who now spearheads Corporate Citizen Foundation, to move there in 2006.
Together with his homemaker wife and two children, aged 11 and 13, the humanitarian-relief veteran lives in an executive Housing Board flat just next to Sungei Api Api Park, which is lined with mangroves.
"We do a lot of cycling around here, my kids also love the beach at Pasir Ris Park. There are a lot of big open spaces," says the 45-year-old.
Depending on who you talk to, Pasir Ris means either "white sand" or "beach boltrope" in Malay.
This area was once a low-lying area dotted with several Malay kampungs, Chinese villages and plantations, including Singapore United Plantations.
A popular spot for water skiers, the place's biggest attraction was the Pasir Ris Hotel, where many parties, picnics and barbecues were held from the 1950s right up to the 1970s.
In the 1970s, the place began changing. Fishing villages made way for fishing farms rearing freshwater fish, which have since been relocated to the Pasir Ris Farmway area.
The Government started building many holiday chalets, and Pasir Ris became a popular recreation area.
Mr Hassan Ahmad enjoys the surroundings of his home in Pasir Ris, one of Singapore's newer towns, which boasts modern facilities while remaining a green lung. Sometimes, otters may be spotted sunbathing on the sandy bank of Sungei Api Api near Pasir Ris Park. -- PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM, TNP FILE
Not long after, the Pasir Ris Hotel became a private housing estate, where more than 300 terrace and semi-detached houses were built. Many of these are now holiday bungalows owned by government and private corporations.
The development of Pasir Ris as we know it today began in the early 1980s.
Its transformation into a self-contained community was rapid. Today, it has seven sub-zones: Pasir Ris West, Elias, Pasir Ris Town, Pasir Ris Drive, Pasir Ris Park, Loyang and Loyang East.
Besides public and private housing, it also has White Sands Shopping Centre, recreation areas such as NTUC Downtown East and the Wild Wild West, and several schools.
Despite the changes, care was taken to ensure that Pasir Ris remains a green lung.
Pasir Ris Park, one of the largest coastal parks in Singapore, boasts not just a 6ha mangrove forest but also a three-storey birdwatching tower, a beach, cycling tracks and a big playground.
More ambitious plans are afoot. The Lorong Halus Wetland, a sanctuary for wildlife, will be expanded and The Round-Island-Route - a 150km-long recreational corridor which runs around the Little Red Dot - will connect the Eastern Coastal and North Eastern Park Connector loops in a couple of years.
When all is done, most homes in Pasir Ris - which has also been earmarked for the Housing Board's Remaking Our Heartland Progamme - will be within 400m of a park or park connector.
Mr Hassan says his neighbourhood is not as quiet as it used to be because of the rapid developments.
"But the green open space here is a luxury in Singapore," he says.
The youngest of 14 children, he has lived next to a river most of his life.
Born in a kampung in Geylang, he moved to Upper Boon Keng Road, next to the Kallang River, when he was four.
"In those days, there were natural mangroves alongside the river and people would actually swim in it although there were buaya in the river," he says, using the Malay word for crocodile.
Mr Hassan - who lost his mother when he was two, and his policeman father 12 years later - became independent at a pretty young age.
After completing his A levels at Nanyang Junior College, he flew for two years with Singapore Airlines and worked at a couple of marketing jobs before getting his law degree from the University of Buckingham in London in 1997.
Upon his return, he spent several years in law enforcement and event management. He also became a volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation and Mercy Relief, which saw him going on several trips to war-torn Afghanistan in the early 2000s.
The stints piqued his interest in humanitarian work, and led him to take up the position of executive director of Mercy in 2003.
The humanitarian charity logged up a high profile because of its work in Indonesia and other affected countries in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
"We really rode the waves with the tsunami. People were comparing us to Red Cross although we had only four staff coordinating relief and reconstruction work," he recalls.
Three years later, he became the chief of philanthropic organisation Lien Aid, spearheading sustainable development projects in Asia. He also completed a policy review with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on the involvement of militaries in disasters for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Then it was back to Mercy again for another five years before a slipped disc prompted him to quit in 2013.
The self-confessed adrenaline junkie, however, could not resist it when HSL - a local civil engineering and construction firm - asked him to come on board as its director of philanthrophy and sustainability last year.
He helped the corporation set up Corporate Citizen Foundation, a private-sector initiative to offer humanitarian aid and disaster response.
Over the last year, the foundation has already led teams to the Philippines, Kelantan and Nepal, in areas hit by Typhoon Hagupit, floods and earthquakes.
With a laugh, Mr Hassan says one of the reasons he moved to Pasir Ris is its proximity to the airport.
"I'm in disaster relief. When disaster strikes, I need to get on a plane and fast," he says.
Having spent the last decade working on disaster relief and sustainable development in many countries, he says he has come to appreciate Singapore and how it has changed. "Many Singaporeans complain about change here and how rapid it is. They complain about traffic congestion. They should head over to Jakarta or Manila, where it takes you one hour to cover 4km," he says.
"And when you do development work in other countries, you start to wonder why they can't come up with this or that, like Singapore has."
Singapore, he says, is on track to becoming a global city but Singaporeans could do more to become global citizens.
"Singaporeans could do better in reaching out to others. In terms of giving back, we should do more."
The Straits Times/ Singapore Published on Wednesday, 10 June 2015
By Won Kim Hoh firstname.lastname@example.org
A self-contained community amid nature