Monday, April 14, 2008

Through The Barricades

Song is about Belfast and captures the feelings of a young protestant boy caught between the certain past and an uncertain future.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Building our future on the past

Originally written and published in The Edge Singapore about 5 years ago, this piece still holds a lot of relevance today, given the multitude of changes taking place on our shores. Old, familiar places are having to make way for new constructs that supposedly define the new Singapore.

Can preserving our ‘built’ past provide the social glue to ensure the future

The last few months (this was in early 2003) has seen at least four legacies of our past gazetted as national monuments by the Preservation of Monuments Board. They include a church, a cinema, an office building, and a hospital.

The gazetting of the former Kandang Kerbau Hospital building as a national monument appears to be the latest in the government’s recent efforts at preserving Singapore’s past heritage. The hospital holds fond memories for many of us, as it was probably where most of us were born.

The church, cinema and office building too have their own place in our own personal and collective history.

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Queen Street have probably seen its fair share of Singapore’s history over its 133 years of existence. So too has MacDonald House, which became the target of a terrorist attack during the infancy of Singapore’s independence. And Cathay Building, which used to house Cathay Cinema, will probably be remembered for all the great movies that we grew up with.

At last count, no less than 50 Singapore buildings have been named as monuments by the Preservation of Monuments Board.

Giving value to the past

This renewed interest to preserve our ‘built’ past has come as a surprise for some, especially following the much-publicized saga over the decision to tear down the National Library building.

However, judging by Deputy Prime Minister Dr Tony Tan’s speech at the opening ceremony of the Heritage Festival in March 2003, there appears to have been some rethinking about the value of our ‘built’ past in relation to Singapore’s future.

Dr Tan said: “Buffeted by the forces of globalisation, the information revolution and the new world order, young Singaporeans are continually confronted with questions of values, identity, belonging, and loyalty. They need answers, relevant references and roles models.

“The search for answers to these complex questions must begin with our culture and heritage. History and memories of shared experiences provide valuable lessons for us to tap on to make sense of a world where the only ‘constant’ is ‘change’. To make sense of where we are heading to, we need to know where we came from.”

Besides the gazetting of these four monuments, other efforts at preserving the past include the plan to convert the former Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru into boutique hotels. (Afternote: Two flats have been converted into the said boutique hotels and promises to inject new life into an otherwise quiet enclave in the Tiong Bahru area.)

Sadly, the same cannot be said for another symbolic legacy of Singapore’s past. The Geylang Serai Market flats will have to make way for redevelopment under the Housing and Development Board’s Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS).

Of course, it helps that SERS is so well received in Singapore, as evidenced by reactions from long-time residents of the Geylang Serai Market flats such as Madam Salha Abdullah, a 70-year-old grandmother. Madam Salha hopes to have the opportunity to relocate into a new flat there once the redevelopment is completed.

“I feel sad about leaving this place as I have lived here half my life. But I understand that the redevelopment needs to be done. In any case, it means that we will have a much cleaner and bigger market,” said Madam Salha.

SERS will also help to rejuvenate ‘old towns’ like Geylang Serai by allowing young families to buy a new flat and settle there.

Both plans – the conversion of Tiong Bahru’s flats into hotels and Geylang Serai’s SERS – appear to be an effort at redevelopment to preserve the spirit of the past, one cannot deny the fact that it is driven by a strong economic impetus.

Land squeeze

But given the reality of Singapore’s land squeeze, and the growing scarcity of land for development, it is not surprising that efforts at conservation, preservation, and redevelopment are inextricably tied to economic re-use.

A case in point being the designation of both MacDonald House and Cathay Building as Category 2 monuments. This means that future owners of the buildings would only be required to preserve their facades and have the flexibility to retrofit the buildings for better returns on investment.

The same can be said for the redevelopment of Boat Quay and Clarke Quay into riverside entertainment belts – although both areas appear to be in much need of rejuvenation as a result of the economic slump.

Similar attempts at preserving the past by converting historical buildings into entertainment zones include the recreation of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (Bras Basah) complex into CHIJMES and the use of the former Thong Chai Medical Hall as a pub.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for a number of Singapore’s icons from the past that merit the status of being monuments. These include the National Theatre and Van Kleef Aquarium.

“I remember the Van Kleef Aquarium because I went there during my primary school, and next to it was the National Theatre with its diamond-shaped façade,” said William Lim, a 32-year-old customer service officer.

“We may have the Esplanade in place of the National Theatre and Sentosa’s Underwater World in place of Van Kleef Aquarium today, but it’s just not the same,” added William.

Ironically, the site that both icons used to occupy continues to remain vacant, merging into the foot of Fort Canning Hill.

And the same fate awaits the National Library at Stamford Road, which is due to make way for a road tunnel project.

Memories and meaning

But at the end of the day, can we keep the memories alive and retain meaningfulness for the community by simply preserving a building.

Taking a line from Professor Edwin Thumboo’s poem – to preserve the past, ensure the future – it seems to suggest that the preservation of a building by gazetting it as a monument will keep the memories alive and retain meaningfulness.

However, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan offered a counter-perspective during the height of the National Library debate in 2000. Mr Mah said: “To ‘preserve the past’ and ‘ensure the future’ would be to actually develop the area along the lines that have been proposed, to bring back what was there in the past.”

“That really is something which is wholly in keeping with the sentiments expressed because by doing so, you not just preserve the past but do so in a way that provides an opportunity, provides an environment, provides an institution which will benefit many generations to come.”

It may not take a leap of faith to accept this view, but there still the detractors, especially when you consider the limited success of attempts to transform heritage areas such as Kampong Glam, Chinatown and Little India into living showcases of our heritage.

But the end of the day, what is important is that we are able to treasure the heritage assets that we have and build on them, weave them into a rich social tapestry that will withstand the onslaught of a more uncertain world.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Cultivating Singapore's Heartbeat

To kick of my series of postings of my past writings, I thought what better way than to review what I had written at the start of the new millennium - 2001. It was interesting to note that the article still holds itself to be generally true.

(First published in Let's Go Singapore in January 2001)

It's a new year and Singapore is well on its way into the 21st century. The economy's doing well and there appears to be a renewed sense of confidence, judging by the ruling party's efforts to get the election machinery rolling again.

At last count, Singapore's population had hit about four million people (with about 800,000 non-residents) and is expected to swell to 5.5 million by 2040. Now that's a lot of people to think about, and thinking must obviously extend beyond housing and employment as Singaporeans grow in affluence and develop higher aspirations.

The current Concept Plan 2001 Review is a good example of how practical concerns (allocating scarce land for residential, industrial and commercial use) need to be balanced against maintaining the quality of life and preserving a sense of identity (building parks and landmarks).

The outcome of the review, which will be completed by the latter part of the year, seems even more important today, given the government's commitment to realize its Singapore 21 vision.

The documentation of this vision serves as a compass to guide Singaporeans through the challenges of this new century as well as strengthens the so-called 'heartware' of Singapore, which includes elements such as social cohesion, political stability and the collective will, values and attitudes of Singaporeans.

I would like to think that this 'heartware' embodies the Singapore identity that we are trying to shape.

Granted, we had nationhood thrust upon us, thus denying us the opportunity to develop an identity that would bind us as one people. But the last 35 years has not made it easy to evolve that one unifying Singaporean identity either. We are still very much tied to our ethnic roots, which keep us apart while being a part of the nation.

Multiracialism has ensured a stable environment where all the communities were given the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. But in multiracialism also lay the obstacles to developing a unique and unifying identity for all Singaporeans.

The need to establish that identity, that sense of belonging to Singapore, has become even more acute now as more and more Singaporeans work and study overseas, often with their families in tow. While this will certainly make Singaporeans more cosmopolitan and plug Singapore into the world, it also presents many concerns.

One concern is that a prolonged absence from Singapore can lead to Singaporeans losing touch with and feeling less attached to the nation, which brings us back to the subject of the Singapore 'heartware' and cultivating a sense of identification with and belonging to the nation.

More than anything else, Singapore's success as a nation is invariably measured in economic terms. And it is often by such terms that we identify ourselves- as evidenced in the 5Cs, the many "best" awards that Singapore wins, and the strong value of the Singapore dollar, just to name a few.

But affluence and prosperity alone cannot and will not serve as the glue to hold Singapore together. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong himself had lamented that if Singaporeans were just economic animals, materialistic with no sense of belonging, they will be like migratory birds, seeking their fortunes in other lands when the season changes.

Taken to an extreme, such individuals will have "no cause to fight for, no community to live for, no country to defend or die for, only the pragmatic desire to get on and get rich." Such a scenario is not all that impossible, given the growing 'me-first' attitude that now permeates the citizenry.

How then do we cultivate the Singapore identity? What do we have to do to ensure that the Singapore heartbeat pounds strongly and loudly?

The government has tried to formulate some form of national identity through its Shared Values initiative, a national ideology blueprint that was adopted in 1993, and later the Singapore 21 project, which was launch in 1999.

However, in taking a top-down approach to developing a national identity, the unintended consequence was to have an artificial identity impose upon the citizenry.

Identities cannot and should not be imposed upon a people, as they would be regarded as artificial constructs. Such frameworks would not necessarily endear themselves to the very people they address or help to engender a sense of rootedness. But ironically, this paternalistic approach seems to have worked here.

Singaporeans choose to stay because of their primordial ties and a sense of belonging to their communities- arising out of the practice of multiracialism here. It is an identity that is borne out the people, through their daily struggles to make ends meet in the thriving city-state.

If anything, I would regard this as the defining character of the Singapore identity. It is our diversity that makes us unique as a nation. We are much like the multi-coloured items of a salad bar, where each item adds a different taste sensation, able to exist on its own and yet contributing to the whole experience.

But does this diversity not lead to tension? Yes and No. Yes, when competing communities are allowed to further their own agendas without any restraint. No, because it is the very restraints that have been put in place by the government that allows our diverse communities to exist harmoniously.

It may very well be that Singapore needs a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches towards cultivating its identity. The bottom-up approach seems to have grown in importance now that the government has committed itself to the Singapore 21 vision.

Getting started....

It's been a while since I had last sat down to do some serious writing, and the inertia is kinda overwhelming.... but that could just be an excuse. But how to get started on the path of the pen? Hmmm?

Well, a brainwave has hit me and I shall begin by posting a collection of my past writings and social commentaries. Re-reading some of them, I have come to the conclusion that they are just as relevant today as when I wrote them a number of years ago.

Googling myself (you may think it vain of me to do so but it brought up some interesting results), I was surprised to note that some of my past writings have actually been referenced by other writers/researchers. It was quite flattering to see my views echoed and debated.

But more importantly, the knowledge that my writings are still being read and re-read has prompted me to collect and collate my works so that they will be accessible to others who may be interested.

So, over a period of the next few weeks, I will be posting my past works here... for the fun of it and maybe for posterity too ;-). Do check them out and comments are most welcome.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Back from oblivion....

Hello World..... and a warm welcome to the New Year of 2008. May it bring better tidings for all of us.

I guess this is an effort on my part to resurrect my blog. It's been a good two years since I last put up a posting, thus effectively sending my previous postings into oblivion. Sigh!

Just wondering how long this will last... hopefully longer than my previous attempt, and more generous with postings.

What to post? Now, that's a very good question. Gonna have to get back to you on that.

See ya soon!