A trending topic on social media has recently been this question: What in the world is wrong with Yishun?
“Build a wall around Yishun,” says a popular meme, while a Twitter account has been set up, dedicated to weird happenings in this northern town.
Somehow, Yishun has developed a reputation for bad news. Alongside the everyday events, Yishun is also home to cat abuse, murder, car chases, brothel raids, civilians trying to attack policemen with stun guns, loan sharks, falling concrete slabs, sinkholes, feuding taxi drivers, shopping mall stabbings and more.
Could it be something in the air? Or perhaps the water?
But it turns out that the problem with Yishun is simple, just like what most people won in the Toto draw last week: Nothing.
It is a made-up phenomenon, driven by media coverage and confirmation bias.
Assistant Professor Liew Khai Khiun, from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, said Yishun’s reputation boils down to “public imagination”.
By coincidence, one or two sensational things happen in the estate that draw widespread coverage, some enterprising wags seize upon it and soon the idea that the place is jinxed enters almost mainstream thought.
“For example, Woodlands had that murder case on Chinese New Year, along with the water tank murder in 2013, but the place is not associated with dysfunctionality.”
Emphasising the role of media attention, Mr Louis Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC, said cat killings had been going on since 2012, but most people did not know about them at the time.
Only after a press conference in December 2015 did people begin looking out for such incidents and highlighting them.
Soon, Yishun became synonymous with the phrase “cat killer”.
Mr Ng, who is also head of animal welfare group Acres, said cat abuse happens in other neighbourhoods – most recently in Tampines, Ang Mo Kio and Redhill – but the publicity does not reach the same level.
“There’s a balance of positive and negative news with every estate. But a lot more people read the bad news,” he noted.
There is also an expectation that a public housing estate in the heartland is insulated from problems that beset more worldly areas.
Prof Liew said: “For example, Geylang is not associated with being a family-friendly place like the HDB heartland.”
So if something occurs in Yishun, people sit up and take notice.
These factors combine to create an often darkly funny, dystopian image of the town.
“Perhaps people want to reaffirm their own geographical biases,” said Prof Liew. “For example, people in the east may not like to travel that far, so they pick on this to justify themselves.”
He added that Yishun’s demographics are similar to those of other housing estates and its social problems, such as poverty, are found elsewhere in Singapore as well.
That Yishun’s popular image is firmly tongue-in-cheek is clear in the negligible impact on property values.
R’ST Research director Ong Kah Seng said: “I wouldn’t say the spate of bad news would affect property prices there.”
He added that buyers make decisions based on budget and location and take into account the available amenities and connectivity to the city centre.
Property in Yishun still draws buyers, he pointed out.
He said: “In 2015, a private residential project, Northpark Residences, was launched. Although prices were on the steeper side, averaging $1,300 per sq ft, there was still overwhelming interest.
“This was because the project offered integrated amenities.”
There is also a more sinister side to the misrepresentation of Yishun, said Ms Lee Bee Wah, an MP for Nee Soon GRC.
Though netizens may find it funny to cherry-pick incidents and poke fun at the town, the jokes may hurt the feelings of some.
Ms Lee has received feedback from upset residents, some of whom have been the target of insensitive jokes. “It will affect the morale of the hard-working police and other community partners in Yishun,” she said. “If you work hard every day to make somewhere a peaceful home, but only the negative incidents get blown up, you would be a little discouraged too.”
She urged people to also acknowledge positive events in Yishun.
Vegetable seller Jenny Ong, 47, has lived in Yishun Avenue 6 for almost two decades. She said: “People here are actually nice and normal. My neighbours are friendly and we are all on good terms.”
She regards her regular customers as friends, having served them for years, and does not mind when some make purchases on credit.
“There’s that trust,” she said. “Some people say Yishun is a kampung because it is far from the city, but I find it cosy.”
Mr Muhamad Riduwan, 24, a driver, has lived in Yishun Ring Road for more than a year. He first noticed the jokes on Facebook a few months ago but laughs them off.
The parrot enthusiast said that with developments such as the Seletar West Link, Yishun is not as inaccessible as some make it seem.
“Things like fighting, murder and animal abuse happen everywhere,” he said. “We can’t stop people from saying what they want.”
To put the stereotypes to rest, Prof Liew suggests making relevant statistics public.
“Perhaps it’s time to raise the question of whether Singapore’s police should release figures for crime rates by region,” he said. “If not, such stereotypes might persist.”