Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Lianhe Zaobao: "Is there no history in Singapore?"

Yesterday (5/1/2009), there was an opinion piece published in 《联合早报》/Lianhe Zaobao entitled “新加坡没有历史吗?” ("Is there no history in Singapore?") that looked at how although Singapore can lay claim to a historical lineage stretching back to centuries ago, government policies have resulted in the situation in which most people are of the impression that there is no history in Singapore.

Translated, the opinion piece says (sub-headings mine)...

Disparity between Australia and Singapore

Five centuries before Raffles "discovered" Singapore (i.e. at around 1320CE), there was already "history" in Singapore. For those interested, a visit to the Singapore History Museum would allow one to see the relevant archaeological artifacts and documents.

Even if we are to only start from 1819, the year in which Raffles came to Singapore and established a trading colony here, Singapore's history is already quite significant. This history is at least longer than those Australian cities which most of us are familiar with.

For example, Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, was founded in 1835; Perth, capital of Western Australia, was founded in 1829; Adelaide, capital of South Australia, was founded in 1836; Brisbane, capital of Queensland, was founded in 1824. All these cities are younger than Singapore.

Yet, those who have visited Australia would usually be of the impression that Australia is a country which has a greater historical lineage, more traditions and a deeper cultural foundation than Singapore. In contrast, Singapore, despite its relatively longer history, gives people the impression of being a new "rising city" which, although having a bustling atmosphere, is sorely lacking in history and cultural ballast.

Why the disparity? I once saw an old photograph of Raffles Place in the early 20th century and visiting the Raffles Place of today, most of us would find it most difficult to recognise any resemblance between the two, albeit them being the same place.

Compared to Melbourne which was founded in 1835, Singapore can be considered as an "elder brother". However, those who have been to Melbourne would surely know that in Melbourne, there are rows of buildings, built during the Victorian age, which have been preserved; that there is a electric tramway which is developed a hundred years ago; that interspersed across the city are various sculptures and statues of different historical periods. Today, contrasted with the classic elegance of Melbourne, Singapore would appear to be a "little/younger brother".

Singapore's "re-developed" history

The consciousness of local history by Singaporeans is so weak that it is little wonder that they would readily say to those they meet that Singapore is a young country with no history and no roots. Yet, the problem is that our history is no shorter than that of Melbourne's. Why has our history gone to?

Singapore's history has been sent into museums and placed into specially established "corners" while many pieces of "living history" have too easily been "re-developed".

Just as how Raffles Place has been completely re-developed and how the Old National Library had to made way to road construction, a significant number of places and sites which had certain historical value to them have been, before they are able to develop a sense of antiquity, "re-developed".

Young Singapore has and is, with amazing efficiency, maintaining its eternal "youthfulness". However, is there really no place for history in Singapore?

Actually, with limited land space to develop in, it is thus imperative that Singapore, its government and people alike, apply greater wisdom and a greater sense of historical and cultural consciousness to, while working to develop its economy, re-newing its physical landscape and build itself into a modern city-state, concurrently preserve its significant and valuable historical and cultural heritage in a systematic and logical manner. And this would include preserving its statues of historical figures.

About Lim Nee Soon's statue

Note by LCC: For those of you all who are not aware, there was recent news coverage about the disappearance of a statue of Lim Nee Soon from Yishun Town Park. If I remember correctly, it was explained by the relevant authorities that the statue has been removed because it does not fit with the overall theme of ongoing re-development works happening in the area; the statue is in storage and there are no confirmed plans about its eventual fate. Hmm... I wonder if the same would happen to the statue of Raffles outside Victoria Theatre if it was decided that it does not fit with the overall theme of a soon-to-be-refurbished Victoria Theatre.

To discuss the incident of Lim Nee Soon's statue is not to oppose upgrading, development/progress and/or the plans, proposed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to re-make our heartlands. I believe that the Prime Minister himself would agree that even as Singapore re-makes its heartlands, there is also a need to preserve and protect valuable historical and cultural heritage sites. This is in light of the fact that such sites are the spiritual wealth of the country, the collective memories of the people and also the emotional/spiritual anchors of our descendants.

With regards to the removal of Lim Nee Soon's statue, the reply by the relevant authorities is most unsatisfactory. I cannot comprehend the reason why they must move the statue. Does not fit with the overall theme? Overseas, do we not see statues of historical figures interspersed in modern and bustling areas? Were there any problems with the overall theme in these areas?

Why is it that in Singapore, statues of historical figures cannot co-exist along with fitness corners and children's playgrounds? If there is a problem with the statue fitting in with the overall theme, can we not just ask the designer to make adjustments to the plans? Even if this is not possible, why can we not find another site where the statue would fit in with the overall theme and re-erect it there?

I think that most people would be understanding enough to allow for the moving of statues to other sites to accommodate the upgrading of the heartlands. However, the problem is that the relevant authorities are yet to have confirmed plans about the eventual fate of the statue. Is this the sort of responsible attitude necessary in dealing with "history"?

And even more unbelievable is the announcement by those removed the statue and avoid talking about its eventual fate that they will be setting up a new cultural/historical heritage corner to display the rich cultural/historical heritage of Yishun.

Is not a statue of an important historical figure which has been standing for 20 years the most valuable form of cultural/historical heritage? Why must we demolish "living history" and then set up new "corners" to display history?

What are we doing? Are we trying to write a tale of Singapore's ever-lasting "youth"?

Relevant/recommended readings:

i) "Singapore's urban identity: Creating islands of history in a sea of change"

ii) "A piece of a disappearing past: Singapore's last rural village"

iii) "Singapore expunged - bit by bit"

iv) "Post No. 68: Contemplating Change"

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