Saturday, July 14, 2012

Musings on heritage preservation in Singapore

Earlier today (14 Jul 2012), I attended "Past Forward: A Heritage Blogging and Social Media Workshop" (and the Chinatown tour after the workshop) which was organised as part of Singapore Heritage Festival 2012. In this post, I would not be giving a blow by blow account of what happened during the workshop sessions and the Chinatown tour I went on. Instead, I would like to just put down in words some of the common and key ideas that were brought up; I would also be providing some of my own personal and general thoughts about heritage preservation in Singapore.

Evidently, in light of the nature of the workshop, both the speakers and audience at the workshop were in agreement that it is important to preserve Singapore's historical and socio-cultural heritage. The need to do so in Singapore is perhaps more urgent in other countries, in view of the (very) fast pace of change and (re)development in Singapore. As I have quoted in a previous post, “新加坡,建得快,拆得也快。” ("In Singapore, buildings are constructed fast and also demolished fast"). Indeed, as some have pointed out during today's workshop and tour, Singaporeans can feel lost, if not a sense of alienation/dislocation, and as though they are "tourists" in their own country because of this fast pace of change and (re)development.

And it is not only the heritage which is momentous or significant on the socio-political level, for example: founding of Singapore, merger and separation/independence of Singapore, that needs to preserved. Even the day-to-day socio-cultural practices and memories of ordinary people, for example: food/cuisine and leisure/entertainment activities, should be preserved as part of Singapore's heritage.

On that note, a difficulty in recording down and preserving of elderly Singaporeans' memories would be the language barrier. As it is, the recording of information in Singapore is usually done either in English or Mandarin but Singaporeans of the elder generation tend to know neither of these languages; their language are either one of the various Chinese dialects, Malay or Tamil. With them soon passing from the scene, their memories will most likely be lost to us. Hence, there is an urgent need to document their memories before they are gone. But then again, even if we managed to translate and document their memories into English or Mandarin, I suppose there will still be nuances which will be lost in translation.

However, the preservation of heritage, as Dan Koh of Poskod pointed out, needs to go beyond mere documentation and preservation in museums. Heritage needs to be lived and experienced, not only read and seen.

Moving on, I would like to offer some of my own thoughts on the issue of heritage preservation in Singapore.

In my opinion, there are perhaps three key differences behind why there is a recent visible surge in interest in heritage preservation in Singapore. By this, I mean although heritage preservation has perhaps long been an issue of importance on many Singaporeans' minds, it did not however gain much public visibility, in comparison with the recent attention on the preservation of railway land in Singapore and the Bukit Brown issue.

One possible reason behind this increased visibility would, in my opinion, be that, as alluded above, the "dominant" languages in Singapore tend to be English and Mandarin, with the former perhaps the more "dominant" of the two. Hence, imagine you in the past were trying to make a case to preserve traditional Teochew opera and you knew neither English nor Mandarin, you would have likely find it difficult to reach out to an audience or at least an audience that had the power to effect changes. But now, more and more Singaporeans have gained mastery of at least one of these "dominant" languages, making it perhaps easier for them to reach out to an influential audience.

Another possible reason would be Singaporeans' increased unwillingness to "sacrifice" their heritage in the name of (re)development. I may be wrong but I suppose while many in the past may have not welcomed the closing down or demolition of landmarks such as the Van Kleef Aquarium or National Theatre, they were likely more willing to accept the argument that such landmarks have to make way in the name of (re)development. Now, having achieved and experienced a certain level of material prosperity, Singaporeans have become more inclined to look for and desire for something beyond material development and prosperity. No longer are they willing to just accept that places significant to them should quietly make way for (re)development.

Lastly, I suppose, related to the first reason mentioned above, the emergence of online social media/networking sites (which I think is qualitatively different from "new media") have added to Singaporeans' capability to reach out to and mobilise other Singaporeans also interested in heritage preservation. As a lady on the Chinatown tour off-handedly said in relation to the Bidahari Cemetery: "Back then there was no social media". Indeed, although Malcolm Gladwell has his doubts on the power of social media to effect real change on the ground, social media has allowed Singaporeans interested in heritage preservation to spread awareness and enhance awareness in others and to mobilise them. This, of course, significantly increase the public visibility of the issue.

In the end, I just want to say: heritage is important and if we do not do anything, it will disappear; once it disappear, it will be too late for us to do anything.


pr said...

I'm all for preserving heritage; not just the 'tangible' type that looks good when you train some spotlights on it, but also the intangible type, like memories. however, in our zealousness to make up for all the heritage we have destroyed in the name of progress in S'pore, some of us 'heritage lovers' have taken the very hardline, uncompromising stand that ALL heritage must be preserved. this stand is best stated by your last para: "heritage is important and if we do not do anything, it will disappear; once it disappear, it will be late for us to do anything."

But let me throw a spanner in the works: if ALL heritage is important and therefore MUST be preserved, our culture - or any culture for that matter - will remain stagnant. Think about it: if all buildings are important, then no buildings will be demolished to make way for new ones. If all cultural practices are important, then no new cultural practices will arise because nothing old will be given up to make way for the new. cultures by definition are not static; they evolve, constantly. who we are today is not just a simple aggregation of our past, but also how our pasts are merged with the now and the future. like an academic has pointed out so clearly, the 'invention of tradition' is part and parcel of human nature.

the pressing issue here is not IF heritage must be preserved, but how we, as a nation awakening to our pasts (while reckoning with our futures) should balance the need for 'preservation' and 'progress'. When I say 'we', i don't just the government, or academics, or civil society each acting in its own interests; i mean 'we' collectively as a nation acting in the interest of the 'whole'. right now, the realm of heritage preservation seems to lie with the 'powerful' (i.e. policy makers with the means), while the not-so-powerful appear to be the underdogs barking up the tree filled with politicians and civil servants. i think there needs to be serious rethink of what we are doing in terms of 'heritage' and for 'whom' we are doing it for. Is heritage preservation for tourist dollars? for preserving monuments that make our nationhood tangible? for visitorship numbers to justify museums' funding? for nature lovers who are hell bent on land for birdwatching in land scarce S'pore? There are so divergent many interest groups out there, and yet the power to 'change' lies in the hands of so few. but again, to throw yet another screwdriver in the works, where can we meet in the middle??

LCC said...

PR, thank you for your comment.

I agree that change/progress/development is perhaps inevitable (and is not a bad thing in itself) and that a balance between preservation & development needs to be found.

But I guess, as you have alluded to in your comment, because for a long time and on many occasions development have been "preferred" over preservation, those espousing preservation have become more vocal and, as you put it, "hardline".

As it is, the balance seems to be skewed towards development, hence the stronger calls to bring the balance nearer to preservation. It does not help that Singapore has a very fast pace of change and development.

What will be a good balance and how to achieve such a balance are not questions that can be easily answered. To me, the perception appears to be that it is a zero sum relationship between development and preservation - more of one will result in less of the other. Perhaps we really cannot both have our cake and still eat it but I suppose we still need to explore whether it is possible to, on some level, achieve both preservation and development.

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