Bukit Batok residents may have seen a somewhat eclectic set of National Day decorations at a particular HDB void deck since early July.
Flags and banners of various sizes are mounted on the walls and lampposts in the void deck, with streamers hanging down from the second and third floor corridors.
Above it all, another flag can be viewed from the ground floor, secured with string at all four corners.
The decorations, held together with staples, string, and cable ties, comprise flags and banners carefully collected by longtime Bukit Batok resident, Eddie Koh.
He collects these materials from various sources, including decorations that have been discarded after being used for National Day events.
2020 will be his third year decorating for National Day.
Never planned to do National Day decorations
55-year-old Koh he explains that initially started decorating the corridor outside his own unit for Chinese New Year.
This had been a yearly habit, since he first moved there in 2002.
What started as his way of preserving CNY customs and traditions slowly took on more significance, as neighbours began to appreciate how his little initiative livened up the mood during festive season.
Neighbours began to request for him to put up decorations during other festive occasions as well, such as Hari Raya, Deepavali, and Christmas.
"I started with National Day because National Day is a common one," Koh says, as it is an event that could be celebrated by all the neighbours regardless of their backgrounds.
Sparking conversations among residents
He tells us that he is heartened by the fact that he sees neighbours starting conversations at the lift lobby because of the decorations.
"I mean, that made me feel that, it's ok you know, to put this. By the conversation, I can tell they don't know each other."
Even delivery riders have stopped to admire the decorations, sparking conversations between riders and residents.
"You feel very proud lah," Koh says, happy to be able to liven up their day through his efforts.
"At least give them a break mah, to stop and look-see look-see lah."
Practical considerations and help from many hands
As Koh does most of the prep work at home beforehand, the decorations can be installed within a couple of days, with just a few hours of work each day.
But he is quick to point out the contributions of others.
For example, one of his relatives who owns a sewing machine helped with sewing flags together.
Elsewhere, Koh shows how binder clips provided by a neighbour helps to keep the decorations secure even when strong winds blow in.
As we step out of Koh's flat, he is pleasantly surprised by a "delivery" of more supplies, which apparently just arrived at his door while we were chatting inside.
Slowly gaining reputation among neighbours
"Why don't you bring the fun to the lobby?" Koh recalls one neighbour asking, sometime last year.
Koh says that when he started decorating at the void deck, he was initially regarded with some suspicion.
After all, it had mostly been the neighbours on his own floor, and a few others, who were accustomed to the festive decorations, having become familiar with Koh's habit over the years.
"I got good neighbours, who can tolerate me lah," Koh jokes.
However, moving to the void deck meant that more and more neighbours saw him working.
Residents from neighbouring blocks would pass by as well, on their way to and from the nearby MRT station.
Many of the neighbours assumed that he had been employed by the Resident's Committee, and paid him little regard.
Over time, however, their curiosity led them to approach him to ask what he was up to.
Those from different floors then began to support Koh's efforts too, such as offering him food and drink while he worked, putting on music for him, and even donating items.
For example, one family gave him their old Christmas tree after they purchased a new one.
Today, thanks to his consistent efforts, he is somewhat well-known and recognised by many of his neighbours.
Can't please everyone
However, Koh is also fully aware that he won't be able to please everyone.
"Can see by their reaction, they don't stop. They just come out from the lift, they just walk... you can tell, some people don't like."
There is a limit to what he can do to liven up the festive mood, and after all, "you don't have to make them happy what, right?" he says.
What he can do, however, is to take the relevant precautions.
Koh is careful to ensure that the decorations are "not too messy", so as to avoid causing irritation to those who don't quite appreciate them.
"Don't anyhow paste, and then make the place dirty lah," Koh says, adding that he checks his decorations each evening to ensure things are in order, and even does some sweeping.
He theorises, with a laugh, that the additional cleaning may actually be one of the reasons his neighbours are receptive.
Koh has made sure to check with the Town Council, to ensure that there haven't been any complaints.
He's also careful to ensure that he doesn't hang up any heavy objects, and has also declined to put up lighting fixtures, in spite of a neighbour living on one of the lower floors offering free electricity, as it might cause hazards, Koh shares.
How are things different in 2020?
I ask Koh whether he feels that the National Day atmosphere is different this year, given the state of the economy, and the still-persisting Covid-19 pandemic.
"It's even better this year," Koh says confidently, as "we meet each other more often".
Koh is now a full-time caregiver for his mother-in-law, after declining an offer to move overseas with his former company some years back, and spends much of his time at home.
"It was always quiet before! Everyone was at work, and would only come home in the evenings."
He explains that with more neighbours working from home since February, there are more opportunities to meet and interact when bumping into each other while on the way out to get meals and groceries.
That, Koh says, is one silver lining of 2020 thus far.
While National Day celebrations at the national level have been greatly scaled down in light of safe distancing restrictions, Koh has been seeing his own local community coming together more, and is glad to have contributed in his own way.
Koh has a happy-go-lucky attitude toward the entire affair.
He is always receptive to opinions and suggestions from neighbours on how and where to hang up the decorations.
After all, he says, he's not keen to buy new materials, preferring to work with the recycled materials he's managed to accumulate over the years.
Parts of his decorations tend to go missing, he says, with smaller items like flags being rather easy for a random passerby to pinch.
But this only means that Koh has a reason to bring in fresh decorations, he says with a smile.
"It's ok for them to take away! If they take, then I got new ones what."
He also takes it as a compliment that people would want to have a piece of the action.
"Because it looks nice what. If not nice, who want to take?" he says, smiling.
As we bid each other farewell, Koh shares that he has already been receiving suggestions on what to do for the mid-autumn festival in October.
One neighbour has even raised the possibility of setting up a table at the void deck where mooncakes could be served.
While Koh says that he is reluctant to commit to the idea, it doesn't seem hard to imagine that it might actually happen.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top photo by Nigel Chua