Water pours out from the mouth of the landmark Merlion in Singapore's opulent Marina Bay. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Koh Ah Koon never expected the police to show up at his front door. The 76-year-old president of the Association for the Recycling of Second-Hand Goods has been engaged in a years-long grass roots effort to save the Sungei Road Market, Singapore’s oldest and largest flea market.

On April 28, two police officers arrived on his doorstep at around midnight as part of an investigation into a threatening letter sent to Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shamugaratnam.

The letter, accompanied by two ‘hell notes’, or traditional Chinese offerings made to those in the afterlife, mentioned the need to preserve the Sungei Road Market and was allegedly signed in Koh’s name.

Koh says he repeatedly insisted on his innocence as the police officers searched his home. The letter was written in English, a language the Chinese-speaking Koh says he neither speaks nor reads. When he inquired the searching officers about the contents of the letter, Koh was told they could not disclose the information.

Singaporean vendor Koh An Koon has led grass roots resistance to government plans to demolish the Sungei Street Market. Photo: Kirsten Han

The officers left at 1:30 am after confiscating his mobile telephone as evidence. “They kept asking if I really didn’t write the letter,” he recalled. “They asked, ‘If you didn’t write it, who did?’ But how would I know?”

It was a heavy-handed turn of events for the flea market’s most dedicated advocate. Although the police eventually arrested two suspects – an 18-year-old girl and 53-year-old man – for allegedly sending threatening letters to not only the deputy premier but also other government officials, the incident has cast an official shadow on the grassroots effort to save a vestige of Singapore’s living heritage.

Singapore’s police force did not reply to Asia Times’ questions regarding the search of Koh’s home and the related ongoing investigation.

The Sungei Road Market was established in the 1930s, rooted in the island-state’s British colonial history. Some vendors boast that Singapore’s national founder after independence and first premier Lee Kuan Yew was once a regular patron, scouting out deals among the various stalls.

Modern shopping complexes have not detracted from the Sungei Road Market’s popularity. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Even with modern shopping malls and plazas, the market has managed to maintain its freewheeling market force; anyone may set up a stall selling second-hand goods, with no need to pay rent or seek an official permit. Every afternoon, shoppers mill about the market’s narrow lanes for bric-a-brac and sundry goods, ranging from clothing to electronics to antiques. 

But the market’s free trade days are numbered. The government has announced that it will be permanently closed on July 11, 2017 to make way for a future residential development. There’s little other information about the plan, but a new train station opened nearby gives an indication of the government’s modern vision for the area.

Koh has been fighting back against the development plan since 2012, when he first formed his association so that vendors were represented as a unified lobby group. His advocacy efforts have included writing letters to various government ministries and agencies – and even to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – in hope of getting state approval for a temporary space for the market to continue.

Singapore’’s oldest flea market, also known as the Thieves Market, first emerged in the 1930s. Photo: AFP Forum

Koh’s struggle has won him allies in certain influential places. Both the state-influenced mainstream and independent alternative media have extensively covered the saga. The Save Sungei Road Market campaign, powered by volunteers, sprung up in recent weeks to support his work.

The campaign has made posters, videos and photos to spread the word via Facebook and conducts tours for visitors to raise awareness about the market’s unique heritage.

Volunteers also helped Koh draft a parliamentary petition calling for allowances to relocate the market and dialogue with state agencies on the vendors’ livelihoods. The petition was submitted on May 5. According to their count, 937 signatures had been collected from the vendors and members of the public in only two weeks.

Still, the campaign’s chances of success are slim, as the government has so far stood firm on its development decision.

Market vendors appeal for public support against the government’s development plan for the area. Photo: Kirsten Han

“While the [market] has had a long history, and holds special memories for many Singaporeans, over time, the nature of the site has changed, as reflected in both the profile of vendors and buyers, and type of goods sold,” said a joint press statement from six different government agencies, including the National Heritage Board, the Ministry for National Development and the National Environment Agency.

“The government has assessed that such street trades should only be allowed to continue in designated venues like trade fairs and flea markets, rather than on a permanent basis, to minimize disamenities to the public,” the statement said

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli asserted in parliament in April that authorities had “engaged enough” with stakeholders and that the issue was one the government would not “want to dwell [on] further.”

Other markets in Singapore have been protected and promoted for their cultural heritage, including Chinatown’s Unesco recognized market. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Fear of possible state reprisals has limited popular support for the preservation campaign. While volunteers say there is plenty of public sympathy for the market’s survival and its elderly vendors, many people were hesitant to put their names down on a parliamentary petition which requires signatories to include their home addresses.

“There were a group of people, particularly older people, whose first reaction was that ‘this is useless’… they said the government will do whatever they’ve decided to do and won’t entertain any alternative voices,” said campaigner Tan Biyun. “We also had people who were afraid to sign the minute they saw they had to write down their address.”

A few days after the police’s late-night visit, Koh was questioned for hours at the Police Cantonment Complex. He told Asia Times that he was interrogated about his association, including requests for the identities of his fellow committee members and others who have helped the campaign. He was also asked to consent to a polygraph test, although the test was not carried out.

Fear of possible state reprisals has limited popular support for the preservation campaign. While volunteers say there is plenty of public sympathy for the market’s survival and its elderly vendors, many people were hesitant to put their names down on a parliamentary petition which requires signatories to include their home addresses.

Activists have questioned the investigation into Koh, with the Community Action Network – a loose group of activists concerned with civil liberties in Singapore – describing his harassment as “intimidating, aggressive and intrusive.” The timing of the visit to his home, as well as the seizure of his mobile phone without a warrant, was also criticized by the group.

The arrests of two suspects have eased the pressure somewhat, but Koh says he’s still in the dark about why someone would have tried to frame him. “They’ve returned my phone and arrested two people but I haven’t heard any news or seen anyone charged in court,” said Koh. “I want to know who wrote these letters who implicated me.”

Meanwhile, time is ticking down for the market’s patrons and vendors. “Saving Sungei Road Market goes beyond keeping a marketplace as a tourist spot or a quaint place to shop for used goods,” said campaigner Tan.

“It’s about the livelihood of a group of elderly folks who have turned to the market as a place of last resort after losing their jobs from old age, illness and retrenchment. It is the soul of Singapore, a country that has prioritized economic growth above social goods like equality and respect for diversity.”

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