“But the Government does not own the Singapore heritage”: From the horse’s mouth

Want to read something intriguing?

“But the Government does not own the Singapore heritage. It does not define the Singapore heritage. Our heritage is a collection of individual memories, woven together into a national story.  It is something that belongs to every Singaporean, and which each one of us can contribute to and help to preserve, individually and collectively.”

This is part of PM Lee’s speech for the opening of 2013’s Heritage Festival (click here for the full speech).

I don’t know where to start. OK, maybe on a conceptual level, PM Lee is correct. A nation’s ‘heritage’ (specifically memories, practices etc) is, after all, intangible and therefore cannot be owned by the government (or anyone for that matter).

But yet, on many levels, a government can (and many have) manipulate ‘heritage’ in oh-so-many ways. Perhaps most obvious is with regard to ‘tangible’ heritage. A government can bulldoze what it wants, or preserve what it wants. A government can set up galleries/museums to cover certain aspects of national culture, but then choose to ignore other aspects in these museums. A government can decide what about ‘heritage’ is written into school textbooks, or what is left out. In short, it is a government’s job to make heritage its ‘business’, but only those aspect that it deems necessary to nation-building or societal progress.

Makes sense doesn’t it? Why would a government want to promote a ‘past’ that is painful or embarrassing, or makes it difficult for a nation to raise its head high amongst other nations? How many governments want to highlight that an ex-President or ex-Prime Minister actually worked for a hostile invader (becoming, technically, ‘running dogs’ or traitors)? How many governments refer to their histories of genocide, racism, sexism, xenophobia etc? Routinely, governments promote a vision of its perceived nationhood that is detrimental to what it chooses to ignore. Will Japan ever print textbooks that talk about its role in WW2 from all angles? Will Malaysia ever promote the idea that the Chinese communists were actually freedom fighters who contributed to her independence? And will Singapore (since we are on the topic of National Heritage Board’s annual Heritage Festival) ever explain why the Malays have a ‘Malay Heritage Centre’, the Indians (will soon) have an ‘Indian Heritage Centre’, the Peranakan a ‘Peranakan Museum, but the Chinese have the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall?

Haha! Of course I am being cheeky here. But I fully understand why a government needs to manipulate heritage (even if I cannot fully agree with some of the reasons why it does so, or some of the actions taken, or not). This is ‘soft’ power that a government wields so as to engineer the society it wants to build. What I cannot understand is PM Lee’s overtly transparent speech mentioned above (i.e. we can all see through it, yes?). This is how I would have worded that segment of the speech:

“It is true that the Government does not own the Singapore heritage. However, with the help of you Singaporeans, it constantly helps to define the Singapore heritage by choosing what to focus on, especially because as a small, young nation, Singapore cannot, and should not, preserve and promote anything and everything that is our heritage. Our heritage is a collection of individual memories, woven together into a national story. It is something that belongs to every Singaporean, and which each one of us can contribute to and help to preserve, individually and collectively. While the government will inevitably take the lead on some large-scale, big-budget heritage projects, it is hoped that other projects are initiated from the ground-up, in the spirit that no one person or institution has a monopoly on this ‘Singapore heritage’ that we all share”.

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1 Comment

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One response to ““But the Government does not own the Singapore heritage”: From the horse’s mouth

  1. Adelina Suemith

    Very well said…

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