Preservation has always intrigued me. The whole art of keeping something in its original state, despite it being situated in a fast-moving society that is constantly craving and hungry for new developments. The whole world is facing the continuous dilemma between buildings to keep and buildings to do away with. Especially Singapore.
Marketing ourselves as a multicultural society, with no specific culture to distinguish us from countries around the world, the only thing Singaporeans can do is to acknowledge our diverse tapestry. To embrace it. Physically, some communities have tried to leave their mark in Singapore by setting up different monuments to blotch this small red dot beautifully. The Sri Mariamman temple was built by the Hindi community in order to make their presence felt in the landscape then. (Ironically, in the middle of Chinatown, on a street called Pagoda Street).
However, we cannot simplistically justify the creation of new monuments in order to beautify this country. With the population expected to skyrocket to 6.9 million by 2030, Singapore faces the need to maximise its small land mass and accommodate its citizens. That’s when preservation comes in: the beautiful art of disposing what’s useless, and retaining the essential.
I recently picked up this book called “Resonance: Songs of our Forefathers” (authored by Leng Joo Kwek, G. Uma Devi), a photo-journal that serves to capture whatever that’s left of the monuments in Singapore, and highlights the struggle of the monuments to remain where they are today. Despite the book’s “artsy” nature, some of the descriptions truly drove the message resonantly.
Each monument is a unique symbol, and in Singapore’s context, it serves to “epitomise a bygone era when Singapore started developing as a British colony”. The newcomers who set foot on Singapore made their presence felt within the physical and architectural landscape. This is attributed to the “dense, urban community of different ethnic groups that converge and collide. Such cultural wonders in Singapore’s streets … will reveal to us the history of Singapore”, and that walking down streets in Singapore “is akin to approaching a slice of Singapore history that has withstood the test of time”.
Like what Devi says, monuments are of huge significance to the Singaporean architectural landscape. It provides us with great historical information from the past for all of us to learn from. Not to mention, there is definitely a huge deal of cultural importance as well. The dense and urban community and landscape in Singapore will not be complete without these monuments.
Unfortunately enough, no matter how many times one passes by these monuments, there will only be a small number of people who will stop by and take in the wealth of information that can be obtained from such monuments. This makes us wonder if the true meaning of monuments is appreciated, and whether the whole concept of monuments as bringers of wisdom is just an idealistic concept.
What is more ironic is that we only see their true importance when such monuments are removed. Take the Clifford Pier for example. It ceased operations in 2006, and only then did people start going around spreading the whole “Clifford Pier is important and a part of my life that you should not touch or interfere with” message.
But before that? I don’t recall.
This can probably be attributed to the fact that as a society, Singaporeans get it easy. The new generation of Singaporeans did not live through the same need for survival that previous generations of Singaporeans had experienced, and they expect everything around them to be given, not earned. Singapore as a whole has reached a point of complacency, where we do not appreciate the multicultural tapestry of people that live in harmony around us. And only when it is gone, do we realise its importance.
Preservation is the stroll along the line of beauty and destruction. Cross this line, and the taxi uncles will finally have a new discussion topic over kopi other than the usual “whodunit” gossip.
This commentary was written by Josea Evan (Mr.). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.