Friday, 22 March 2013

Untidy memories for a loveable Singapore

By Liew Kai Khiun, Published TODAY, 21 Mar 2013

Coming after a fortnight dominated by heavily-charged debates on immigration, cost of living and transportation, the announcement in Parliament last Friday that Singaporeans and permanent residents will get year-round free entry to all national museums and heritage institutions from May 18 must have been a pleasant breath of fresh air.

Aside from the lifting of these already heavily-subsidised charges, other heritage-related measures rolled out by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth last week are not entirely unprecedented — they are part of the continuous commitment of the Government to strengthen its heritage infrastructure.

But there has been greater change in recent years, and it is more than just an increased public interest in Singapore’s past. Discussions on heritage issues are also gaining greater complexity, be it over physical historical markers such as monuments and museum exhibits, or the intangibles of memory and reminiscence linked to the core questions of identity and belonging.

When I started my involvement with the Singapore Heritage Society more than a decade ago, the discussions of such themes were mainly confined to academic and literary circles and were thought to be too abstract for the larger public.

Today, with constant references to a more ciphered past in official speeches and Singaporeans’ personal Facebook pages and blogs — in the form of words, pictures, maps, specific places and even traditional hawker foods — Singapore is indeed witnessing a heritage turn.

Giving free access to museums is perhaps the most visible indication of the Government’s response to this trend.


As he listed the new measures, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong took the opportunity to share about what it was like growing up in Marine Parade and East Coast Parkway.

The now-frequent conjuring of personal memories about “old-time Singapore” by even relatively young ministers suggests the keenness of the political leadership to identify themselves as sharing the same histories and memories with ordinary Singaporeans.

Acknowledging Singaporeans’ fears over the dilution of their sense of place and history, Mr Wong noted: “We are a young nation ... The fast pace of development and the rapid changes in our society make it difficult to develop strong cultural anchors for our national identity. So it is easy to feel disoriented, especially with the increase in population and new immigrants in recent years.”

It seems to me that feeling materially squeezed and displaced in an increasingly congested city, Singaporeans have begun to take solace in what they feel was a quieter, simpler, more rustic past — the first two to three decades of nation-building, during which the sense of collective identity was forged.

A longing for the past is generated when disquiet over the present and anxiety over the future looms.

And so, they dredge up, digitalise and circulate on social media old photos and videos of places and events in Singapore — images of old bus tickets, family snapshots at the long-ago National Theatre. In doing so, they are claiming their own micro-histories and memories within the official national narratives and markers.

The Government is aware of such trends — indeed, the Singapore Memory Project, which set out in 2011 to collect and preserve stories related to Singapore — specifically “five million personal memories” by 2015 — speaks to this groundswell.


One notes changes in the Government’s approach over the years.

In the 1960s, a somewhat impatient National Development Minister Lim Kim San asked petitioners objecting to the clearance of graves at Tiong Bahru: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents, or do you want to look after your grandchildren?”

Four decades later, he was echoed by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin on the redevelopment of Bukit Brown Cemetery — only, the Senior Minister of State (National Development) put it across in a more sensitive, patient way to a significantly more informed audience.

On the one hand, it is commendable that the State tries to work with various groups in dredging the seabed of Singapore’s memory. On the other hand, it has to be careful not to give Singaporeans the impression that efforts to capture and celebrate memories are merely a consolation, a sop for the loss of physical heritage and established ways of life. Photographs and virtual-reality digital renderings are no replacement for demolished buildings and cleared lands.

In addition, politicians need to be cautious with the increasing frequency at which personal memories of the past are being shared; it can too easily go overboard into seeming opportunistic and rhetorical.

With a different generation of Singaporeans, the Government today has to “accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing which is part of normal politics”, noted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in an interview with the Washington Post recently.

Indeed, heritage and memory projects also, being difficult to quantify and measure, can be rather untidy affairs. But, rather than the order of history, it is in such untidiness of memories that will make Singapore what Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh calls a “loveable city”.

Liew Kai Khiun was involved in conservation issues with the Singapore Heritage Society from 2000 to 2009. In a personal capacity, he championed the conservation of the rail corridor of the former Malayan Railway and Bukit Brown Cemetery.

No comments:

Post a Comment