Saturday, May 27, 2006

Post No. 68: Contemplating Change

“Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis” – Harrison, 1577

Times change and we change with them

Change is the only constant. Or as Heraclitus had perceptively put it so long ago: “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Simply put, almost nothing remains unchanged forever. Things change. Ideas change. We change. What does not change in the short run may well perhaps change in the long run. Of course, there are those who would argue that change does not exist but we are misled by our senses to think otherwise (this argument, while I find it somewhat intellectually interesting, is, I believe, ultimately ludicrous). In addition, it seems that, as noticed by many others beside me, the rate at which change is happening is rapidly increasing and shows no signs of slowing down.

Don’t be mistaken. I am neither going to argue for change nor against it in this essay. Instead, what I am interested in doing is to examine change and its impact on us. What kinds of reaction do we adopt when faced with change? What challenges does change bring? Specifically, what challenges does Singapore face, considering that our political leaders constantly reminds us that constant change is perhaps a sine qua non for our nation’s continued prosperity & survival, as both a nation and a society when dealing with rapid change?

I shall focus my attention firstly on the possible reactions that people may perhaps have when faced with change. In my opinion, there are perhaps, in general, 3 possible types of reaction to change that people can have. They are, in short, pro-change, anti-change and ambivalence. I shall be looking at each of these 3 possible types of reaction in greater detail in the next few following paragraphs.

Firstly, there are those who welcome and embrace change. In other words, these are the people who see change as something positive. They recognise the improvements which change will bring and the new opportunities it will create. They see change as an agent to curb stagnation, bring about renewal and to invigorate things. Don’t be mistaken, while it is possible that these people who are pro-change are dissatisfied with the status quo, it is not necessarily so that they are. They may well perhaps be satisfied but feel that things can be even better. In fact, these people may be so fervent in their for change that they may decide to be the ones bringing it about if they do not see any change coming. Thus, in political terms, these champions of change are usually labeled as radicals, revolutionaries or reformists.

On the other hand, there are also those who detest and resist change. In contrast to those discussed in the earlier paragraph, these resisters of change do not see change as being for the better, instead they perceive it as being for the worst. They see it as a threat. A threat to their interests, identity, values, lifestyles and/or livelihood; a threat which should not be allowed to happen. Also, these resisters of change may perhaps hold the viewpoint that while the status quo may not be perfect, it is already the best situation possible and any attempt to change the status quo would most likely result in great turmoil. Thus, while the champions of change may be labeled as radicals, these resisters of change are most of the time seen by others as being conservatives. If I may, I would like to like to say that the efforts by these people to resist change may perhaps be futile because while they may delay change in the short run, it is almost impossible to prevent it forever.

In addition to the 2 groups discussed above, there are also those who are ambivalent towards change. To put it in simpler terms, these are the people who neither support nor oppose change. They do not oppose change because they recognise the necessity of it, the benefits it would bring and that to resist it is perhaps, in the long run, futile. Yet, they also do not support change because, similar to the resisters of change, they recognise the impact that change would have on their lives and that while change may bring about improvements, these improvements do not come free-of-charge. Also, they recognise that to deal with the effects of change, they have to adapt to it. In other words, to deal with change, they also have to change to a lesser or greater extent and they prefer to remain the same. Furthermore, they understand that change is never an easy or smooth process, instead it may sometimes require those affected by it to undergo a difficult process to come to terms with it. In the end, those who are ambivalent towards change are most likely to grudgingly accept it, just as most of us did with the breaking voices (for males) and blossoming curves (for females) that puberty brought about.

And now, after having looked at the 3 general possible reactions that people may adopt towards change, I would move on to discuss the challenges that may be posed by change towards Singapore. However, allow me first to make 2 general observations of mine.

Firstly, it is my proposition that there exists a limit for all of us as to how much change we are willing and ready to accept. I mean, even the most fervent of the supporters of change will not be able to accept the total & absolute change of everything they are familiar with. Just imagine: who of us would be able to accept it if the Sun started to rise out from the west, instead of from the east or if the Sun is to die (something which scientists predict will eventually happen but I suppose that none of us will be around to witness this)? Hence, no matter how much we welcome change, there remains in us the desire for continuity in change.

Secondly, it is my opinion that, amongst other factors, it is our familiarity with a place that roots us to it, for this familiarity is based on a reservoir of memories, memories which we hold dear. It is not without a reason that the Chinese have the proverb of: “触景生情” (which roughly means “having emotions evoked by familiar surroundings”). Conversely, if a person finds himself in surroundings which were once familiar to him but are now changed, he will most likely feel a sense of alienation, even though he or she may have grown up in those surroundings.

Moving on, combining the 2 observations I discussed above with the fact that Singapore is constantly undergoing a process of physical change (i.e. changes in its physical landscape), I suppose it is quite obvious what challenges change would pose to Singapore. For those who are not able to see it yet, allow me to elaborate further.

Well, I suppose it is quite obvious to all of us that the local physical landscape undergoes a constant process of change through regular upgrading (perhaps except opposition-held wards), construction and deconstruction (here, I don’t mean the ideas put forth by Jacques Derrida but rather the tearing down and demolishment of buildings). As 王女燕青 (Wang Yanqing), a former newscaster for Channel U and now the Assistant Chief Editor for 《都会佳人》 (“Citibelle”), astutely pointed out during a radio show:“新加坡,建得快,拆得也快。” (which roughly means: “In Singapore, buildings are built fast and they are also demolished fast”). Thus, bearing in mind that people are rooted to a place because of their familiarity with it, it is quite obvious that this constant change in Singapore’s physical landscape would not aid in the efforts to create a sense of belonging in Singaporeans. I mean, it would not be easy for a person to feel a sense of belonging in a place if the physical appearance of that place is in constant flux, right?

Allow me to use a personal anecdote: back when I was in secondary 3, my primary school classmates and I paid a visit to our alma mater which had then recently moved to a new campus. Although the name of the school was the same, my friends and I all felt that the place was different, not only physically but also emotionally, for this wasn’t the same school campus which we shared so many fond memories. This effect of change felt by my friends & I is especially acute today, considering that the rate of change is increasing rapidly in today’s world.

However, it not possible that Singapore’s physical landscape remains static. For that to happen, it would perhaps mean, as our political leaders remind us, the sidelining of Singapore by the world & a possible drop in living standards. Furthermore, being a small country, it is near impossible for us to keep large chunks of our physical landscape untouched & unchanged while developing the rest of the country (of course, you all would dispute that this is already happening in Potong Pasir & Hougang).

Hence, it is my opinion that the challenge facing Singapore is how to balance this need to create a sense of belonging in Singaporeans through physical familiarity with the need of continued physical development. No easy task it is going to be to maintain such a delicate balance.

In order to maintain such a delicate balance, the local authorities have adopted the policy of preserving selected sites as “heritage sites”. Yet, perhaps I may be exaggerating here but it is my opinion that for every one of these preserved “heritage sites”, there are several other sites which evoke memories for many that are neglected, if not demolished to make way for new developments. Schools such as the old SJI & RGS may be preserved as “heritage sites” (although the old SJI is now more commonly known as the Singapore Art Museum and while what remains of the old RGS is just a information board, cast in the shape of its school gate, about it on the SMU city campus, at least some physical part of them remains), but I seriously doubt that the original site of my primary school will be preserved in the long run (although, for now, it still serves as a temporary holding school for schools undergoing renovation or rebuilding). Thus, we need to be aware that it is inevitable that sites which evoke fond memories in us may one day have to make way for new developments (unless, of course, they have the luck to be gazetted as heritage sites).

However, we must also be aware that even for sites which are preserved, there is a strong likelihood that they will be refurbished in one way or another as a means of injecting new life into them. And it is quite likely that this refurbishment will, to a lesser or greater extent, change the original feel or atmosphere of the place. Take CHIJMES for example, it was originally a school but now it has become a venue for restaurants and the like. The place may still be there physically but the original feel/atmosphere will either be diminished or diluted. Also, there are cases in which certain sites which have been already torn down are rebuilt so as to recreate it. One good example of this would be the recently re-opened Cathay Building in the Dhoby Ghaut area. The developers decided to recreate the art deco façade of this building but, sadly to say, as many of those who have frequented the original Cathay Building have pointed out, the “aura” of the place is just no longer there. In fact, I visited the building recently to watch “Paradise Now” (which was screened only there) and though I have no memory of the original building & despite most of the shops in it not being opened for business yet, my feel of the place was that, in time, it would become just yet another shopping mall with a cineplex in it, much like its neighbouring Plaza Singapura with its GV cineplex.

In the end, I suppose that we all just have to grudgingly accept the painful fact that in a country like Singapore, there is no way we can preserve the physical landscape in exactly the same way as it was forever. Even if we are able to do so, remember that we also change and thus, our perceptions of a place may change even if the place remained 100% the same. Well, I suppose that all that we can hold on to are the memories of places that meant something to us. So let’s all pray that our memories would not fail us.

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