Should I stay or should I go?: Singapore, and our government’s way with physical heritage

I fully agree with our newly-minted Minister Chan Chun Sing; it is indeed a fine balance between the need to ‘preserve’ physical heritage and the never-ending demands on space on our small – and soon-to-be shrinking even more – island (click here for full story). He is paraphrased as saying “But while some places will be preserved, there will be other sites that have to be redeveloped to meet the emerging needs of the younger generation”. Again, this I fully understand.

What the article does not cover is the Minister’s way – which is also the PAP’s way – of dealing with the dilemma. How does our govt take on the heavy task of justifying what to ‘destroy’, forever? I remember many past examples where we can get clues as to how the government reasons what physical heritage they destroy and what they deem important enough to preserve (for a while more at least).

1. The old Raffles Institution at the site where Raffles City now stands. The old school has been there for yonks (as it was founded by the man himself in 1823), and many illustrious people have gone through its gates. Never mind its history and legacies; it was torn down for a mall, a hotel and a train station. I was too young to remember how this building was justified for destruction, but as we know, the govt had its way. If a govt can do what they did to this grand old dame (seemingly to make way for commercial considerations), I think we know how this govt finds “balance between redevelopment and preserving its heritage as it progresses”.

2. National Library at Stamford Road. Some say the building was ugly. But for many (esp those born in the 70s), this was the place where we had our dates with our first loves, before nipping off the Lido for a movie. I understand that this library was sitting on prime land, and it must have always been in the crosshairs of our ever-hungry urban-developers. Perhaps its location would always be the doom of its own posterity, and that I comprehend. But for it to have been destroyed to make way for, of all things, a bypass road-tunnel, I am completely flabbergasted. (And mind you, this does not even seem a necessary bypass, nor is it well-used). And this was done in the face of so much public uproar, mind you. Architects, academics and the person-on-the-street all voiced their opposition in very public forums, but they might as well have cried for mercy in front of a deaf and blind person. From this, I think we know how this govt finds “balance between redevelopment and preserving its heritage as it progresses”.

But I have to say that due to our govt’s need to be seen to be ‘cool’ and ‘considerate’ that it thinks its own heritage is worth preserving, many old buildings have been given new leases of life. Think about the old SJI, National Museum, Empress Place Building, soon-to-be-opened Supreme Court etc, and how they have been been preserved as museums not only housing stimulating exhibits, but also as vestibules for memories that these buildings generated and continue to harbour.

But there’s always a darker flip side. Certain old buildings are still with us today. They are saved from the wrecking ball, however, not because they are ‘important’ enough to be preserved, but because they – their physical shells and their locations – seemingly are worth more as ‘commercial’ entities than as a pile of rubble or as new buildings without histories. These buildings are kept ‘alive’, in short, because in their ‘old’ skins, they are worth more in the rent they generate (or the price they can fetch if sold), than if they are pulled down and new buildings erected. The Fullerton Building, St James Power Station, Raffles Hotel, Boat/Clarke/Robertson Quays, come to mind. We have to thank Singapore’s relentless pursuit of economic-rationality for the survival of these grand buildings. But when they cease to be commercially viable, their fate may be hard for some to swallow.

I can go on. Many old sites had to give way for progress; I understand. Many more old sites will have to give way for progress; I understand. I am a realist; you cannot preserve everything on a small island with an ever-growing population.

That till now, our government spews that they care about our physical heritage, but yet is not transparent with how they decide on the outcomes of whether to preserve/destroy (think Bukit Brown, the social movement to save it, and govt’s firm stubbornness on going on with its initial decision in the face of so much criticisms); this I don’t understand at all. Sometimes, not all of us old sentimental fools are obstinate. We can understand that sometimes the govt has to ‘destroy’ to ‘create’. But we need to know that you WILL, in between making hard decisions, sometimes listen to us and say “I’ve heard you. We admit we may have made a premature decision, and that’s why we will reconsider our decision to destroy XXX”. Until then, such sound bites by such Ministers (like the one made by CCS above), will, remain painful ‘bites’ that leave scars.

1 Comment

February 17, 2013 · 3:12 pm

One response to “Should I stay or should I go?: Singapore, and our government’s way with physical heritage

  1. Michel Foucault

    Yes, yes, conservation is a matter of compromise, of conflicting priorities. Unfortunately virtually all the compromising seems to be done by the conservation-minded.

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