A HDB flat resident vehemently complains that his well-deserved weekend lay-ins have been disturbed by the exuberant pre-dawn songs of a bird in a nearby tree. Temples that have stood the ravages of time face the wrath of new neighbours who moved in with no inkling that they’d live next door to centres of devotion with a regular tutti of chants, chimes and recitatives. Some of these Johnny-come-lately characters even call for the tearing down of Buddhist lodges that sully the peace of newly urbane districts with the sounds and scents of age-old rituals of piety.
These are pleas that pop up in the press every now and then, like pimples that emerge and need picking at after a festive season of overindulgence on oily snacks. They might simply serve as occasional larks, chosen by editors to shed as much light on the accusers as on the phenomenon in question. But I can’t help but wonder if these gripes form the audible tip of a larger iceberg of discontent, a seething disinclination to come to terms with sonic booms in the seamless fabric of our local existence. Continuing the litany, 24-hour kopitiams, too, receive their share of grouses from light sleepers who live nearby. And it’s not unheard of for citizens of our ‘quiet’ city to recall how, during visits to Malaysia, they get shaken awake long before daylight by the muezzin’s call.
For all this ferocious defensiveness over the aural sanctity of allegedly private sanctuaries, there is little dissent when it comes to the din of public spaces. Migraines and mental health notwithstanding, commuters with leaky earphones, or lacking earphones altogether, readily share their playlists with fellow riders in buses and trains with room for neither thought nor thoughtfulness. Such appropriations of common ground for one’s aural pleasure – repeated in parks, sidewalks and almost every corridor of passage on the island with little consequence – appear to be an unwitting means by which individuals extend or express their musical preferences beyond the confines of their personal realms.
What accounts for this selective tolerance of noise in our midst? Are beastly fowl sitting ducks compared to TVs blaring a mere room away? Do houses of open tradition offer easier targets than halls of enclosed worship? Singling out and picking apart the auditory thresholds of a city that never really sleeps is probably an exercise in futility, for save those who reside in the most exclusive of neighbourhoods, most of us live in a perpetual state of white noise – a soundscape of human traffic and vehicular density that is only dulled but never deadened by the shell of insulated walls.
Living in a sound environment
Perhaps people have learnt to subconsciously shut out what they can’t shut up: the crescendos of passing cars, flat dialogue from high-definition screens next door, and the drilling sounds of never-ending rounds of municipal upgrading. Since I moved to this hallowed corner of Marine Parade just over two years ago, the neighbourhood has never wound down, as first the green plots between the blocks of flats gave way to parking lots, then the old pavements surrendered their ground to new slopes, and still the tireless authorities continue to erect an unbroken maze of sheltered walkways. Hardly a weekday passes without an unremitting series of industrial movements inimical to domestic life: the pounding of jackhammers, the whirl of struggling gears, and short-lived sounds of silence punctured by the warning sirens of lorries backing off from a concrete payload.
It could well be that, starved of choice and control over much of the sounds that surround our homes, and inured by a lifetime of exposure to the muzak of urban routines, listeners have acquired the ability to filter off decibels that remain squarely in the background. What stands out, aurally, are discrete particles – whistles, shouts, arias, barks and thrills – that pierce through the acoustic norm of a society already at knife’s edge and which arise from entities one can easily identify and indict.
What prompted these queries? Perhaps it was a recent meal in a noisy, and some would say noxious, part of town, where the smoke of stir-fries and chatter of all-night alfresco invade the corners of a low-rise apartment. Or it might have arisen from a trip across the Causeway to a town assaulted by annual bouts of gunpowder exuberance as the populace welcomes each new lunar year. Having grown up in this milieu, I thought nothing of tucking myself into bed, while children next door and on every street corner launched waves of fireworks that hit a high from midnight till two in the morning.
It also occurred to me that sounds such as barking dogs, calls to prayer and the squawks of non-domestic fowl, even right outside the window, seldom faze my slumber. Indeed, I find these organic intrusions welcome and derive a measure of comfort from the aural presence of knowable qualities, as opposed to indistinct knocks and suspicious scrapes that could suggest a novice burglar or simply a clumsy rat on the roof. It’s a habit that has persisted through the yearly motions of my life as a nomadic undergraduate: sharing a room with a ‘muggertoad’ who snored when he was not pulling all-nighters; reading to the nocturnal scuffles of a Clementi kopitiam just a couple of storeys below; or waking up (and dozing off again) to the repeated, breathless cries of amorous koels (a relative of the cuckoo that lays its eggs in crows’ nests, and thus helps to control the population of these even less-loved birds) in the thickets of Kent Ridge.
Escape from suburbia
Instead, what irks, and forces me to abandon the comforts of working from home, are the mechanical roars that work their way up from the road to the 13th floor of a public flat. It’s a near-daily barrage of grinding sequences with no end in sight (or sound, as it were), for the neighbourhood appears to be in perpetual need of improvement. I wonder, do such perpetuators of noise get a free pass because they are deemed to be working on necessities and additions to the public good? Or do they enjoy the dubious virtue of blending in with a pre-existing orchestra of rough-and-ready sounds from passing vehicles and nearby construction sites, which few have power against and none deride?
Music is no salve to me, for to ears trained and attuned to the formal analysis of musical composition, every theme and variation thereof constitutes a competing force for attention and thus offers greater distraction than relief. Thus, every now and then, like a pimple that perks up and demands to be popped, I surrender to the need to be able to hear my own thoughts with a walk through what remains of Singapore’s woods.
With motors a faint echo, the trails that penetrate local forests – such as those around Mandai and Lower Peirce Reservoir – offer an inkling of the soundscape of Singapore past. Squirrels chirp, birds tweet, and cicadas and crickets sing with deafening shrieks that still fail to dislodge a sense of serenity, for all the sweat of a wade through the heat. In the evenings, owls begin to call, nightjars emit wooden ‘chonks’ and frogs of all shapes and sizes squeak, honk, whistle and bray from the nooks in which they hid by day. It’s a search for silent springs that seep through the cracking soil, a brief attempt to recover the ability to listen without prejudice, to see without judging, to think with no limits to the imagination. But even these refugia from the madding crowd must endure the periodic indulgences of visitors who cannot fathom a stroll in the wild without the soundtracks of a portable boombox (once I encountered a couple with a clanging tambourine). You can take a man out of the city, it seems, but he will insist on bringing its rhythms and blues to wherever he goes, and broadcasting its beats to boot.
I still have no clear way of telling why in our society, certain sounds, loud and regular as they are, arouse little ire, while others, limited to certain seasons and hours, rank as public enemies to be silenced or at least switched off on command like the mute buttons of mobile devices. It could well be that such exercises in acoustic taxonomy simply elude ears inured by a lifetime of exposure to ambient noise and a limited tolerance for the vibes that envelope the city. Or could it be that people have, by and large, learnt to subconsciously pick out and pigeonhole the sources of the sounds they hear, into those which emit ‘necessary’ noises and those which enrich neither the wealth nor the world of those who see no purpose in sounds for their own sake?
Words Marcus Ng
Illustrations Norman Teh