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 fa├žade,” 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.

No comments: