If ‘heritage’ is composed of nothing but memories, Singaporeans can now deposit any random old photos and childhood anecdotes in the Singapore Memory online portal, and then pat themselves on the back for accumulating ‘virtual heritage’. But that’s not even collecting history. If we all decide to collect oral history from our parents or grandparents, we should collect not only sound bites of them speaking in their authentic language or dialect, but also their perspectives on social changes through the decades, we need to ask them how things were like and how things could have been. If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.
Standards for Heritage Protection
And in case anyone comes away with a wrong impression after the recent parliamentary debate (the speech “Celebrating and Co-Creating a Rooted Community” by Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin dated 5 March specifically), let us be clear: Heritage protection is not about us indulging in personal nostalgia, for that would mean any place in our country from Toa Payoh to Sengkang can be equally valuable and equally dispensable too, for there are no criteria then. Heritage protection involves scientific and technical studies in order to assess the historical, aesthetic, spiritual and other values of a site, and to counteract any threat against the physical site.
Perhaps Singapore just does not believe in any global standard or any international convention. Never mind the 2003 Intangible Heritage Convention. Singapore has not even ratified the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, for which Bukit Brown might qualify as a cultural landscape (and of course Kampong Glam and Little India must also be protected to complete the Singapore story, like how Melaka and George Town are now world heritage sites in Malaysia).
Singapore has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, but when it submitted its 2010 national report, it failed to mention Bukit Brown, which is not only important in its vegetation for the City Biodiversity Index, but also home to a quarter of bird species in Singapore, including 13 threatened species as the Nature Society has pointed out. Perhaps guarding a legacy of Mother Nature is just not as prestigious as building some man-made Gardens by the Bay next to a casino resort for its well-heeled visitors.
I wonder if I’m the only one feeling this way last week, as I read the news of our minister for national development insisting that a highway through the heart of Bukit Brown is necessary, and that such plans for road-building or housing cannot be shared with the public beforehand due to ‘market sensitivity’, or as I read that another building in Geylang Serai will be making way for a condo. I was thinking, at some point in time, people will just have to build condos in Johore instead, or those people who can no longer afford to live in Singapore may soon have to retire there. And I was asking myself, after all that NS, if ever war breaks out in Singapore, what should the soldiers of our country be defending? Vaults of gold in the IR?
Heritage and Harmony
There are people who may ask: Why this sudden interest in Bukit Brown? Why not, say, Bidadari Cemetery which was cleared away the last decade? Indeed, I ask myself: Why didn’t we have better heritage awareness back then at least? Why didn’t have something like Facebook to connect like-minded individuals as a heritage community? And surely a common respect for cultural heritage should bind us as Singaporeans, not segregate us?
I am sorry to say but I think people who describe cemeteries as nothing but ‘eerie’ in the newspaper are plain ignorant or just intolerant of whatever they do not identify with. I grew up living near Bidadari by the way, and till now, I consider that as one of the biggest blessings in my life. The word ‘Bidadari’ means ‘fairy’, for those who do not know; and for people who maintain that Singapore’s history did not begin with Stamford Raffles, they would be glad to know there was actually a school named after Sang Nila Utama, along that serene Upper Aljunied Road. And I remember seeing Gurkha soldiers jogging in the vicinity – tanned, stout and stoic-looking men who were supposed to protect us Singaporeans as a young nation, I was told as a boy.
To me personally, that was the most beautiful road one could ever find in Singapore, and it was not just about the green canopy of rain trees providing shade to whoever travelled up the road. What left an indelible mark on my mind was the fact that the area was meant to be a final resting place for people of different cultural and religious backgrounds – there was a Muslim section on one side, and a Christian section on the other, not to mention a Chinese columbarium with a towering pagoda on a far end, as well as a crematorium for people of any faith. It was a perfect place for one to learn respect for life before and after death. Every time one passed by, one could feel a mystic and radiant sense of wonder, what with rays of sunlight shining through and the soft whispers of time amidst the quiet tombstones and the greenery, and it left me with the conviction that there is only one heaven, where all souls will go as long as they are at peace.
Heritage and Sustainable Development
All that is now gone. The tombs have been exhumed, leaving an empty land, and there are hardly signs of housing construction after several years, which goes to show there was no urgency in the first place. Maybe it is just awaiting property development at a good price, but apparently the public is not entitled to know anything, due to ‘market sensitivity’. So, are we left with any logic in our society other than that of money? One felt similar pain as one learnt of how the shrine of Siti Maryam in Kallang was removed in 2010, when one could only find remembrance of the sacred space through the temporary exhibition of “The Sufi and the Bearded Man” at NUS Museum.
Now with Bukit Brown, heritage activists are being dismissed by the same rationality of ‘development’ again. The same old quote referring to exhumation in Tiong Bahru eons again is being resurrected: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” Well that argument might have been valid decades ago when the government was telling people to stop at two in family planning, but not today when it is the government insisting that the population must grow for the sake of economy. Today the question may well be: “Do we want the government to look after the heritage of our forefathers and our pioneers, or do we want them to look after the grandchildren of the projected incoming population of new immigrants?” We need to ask whether such unbridled development is sustainable.
When BG Tan Chuan-Jin was using words like ‘our spirit’ and ‘our soul’ in relation to the Singaporean identity, I supposed the word he was looking for should just be ‘resilience’. It is not helpful to use those words so freely when the actual spiritual values of our heritage sites are clearly not even admitted into the equations of our cold reasoning. So let’s consider the ‘resilience’ of our nation then, in terms of ‘psychological defence’, since our ministers are mostly military men.
Non-racialised Heritage as Psychological Defence
Let’s consider how cultural heritage has sometimes been the unfortunate targets of war in the ugliest chapters of history. Towards the end of World War II, the beautiful German city of Dresden built in baroque and rococo style was bombarded senselessly by British and American air forces and destroyed along with the lives of 25,000 to 40,000 people. The beautiful Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) crumbled and fell. There was no justification for all this, the strategic railway facilities were far away, it was just a display of military might and an attempt to break the spirit or morale of the people. Now surely a nation’s cultural heritage is something to be respected and protected by all, and last of all to be destroyed by the nation itself, or what message would that be sending? Anyway, a church made of stones like Frauenkirche can still be reconstructed decades later, but not a cultural landscape like Bukit Brown.
Perhaps heritage activists in Singapore already know they have lost half the battle here, when it is down to a minister of national development instead of the minister of arts and culture in leading an attempt to document the heritage of Bukit Brown, and when URA, LTA and NLB come before efforts of NHB. But hopefully Singaporeans do not mislead themselves into thinking that heritage is a racialised matter, as if no one should care about a Chinese heritage site unless one is Chinese, and one would also need a Malay minister to protect the oldest Malay cemetery in Singapore, the royal cemetery in Kampong Glam which has also been marked by URA for development. If the Malay minister has no time to deal with it, then other ministers do not need to care either?
As a nation, we need monuments and sites to be protected by law and by reason of historical significance as well as cultural rights, and not just depending on exceptions made by politicians. As a nation, it does not augur well when the Lim Bo Seng Memorial was gazetted as a national monument only in 2010, after so many years of holding him up as a war hero in our National Education, and his tomb is still not protected, which suggests there is little precedence for any burial ground or shrine to be protected. Is there nothing sacred in Singapore, other than our national reserves? No wonder then, that we see the camouflage uniform compared to a clown outfit in a commercial on total defence. A lot of us see no pride as we watch those recent ads, we only feel the pain: Every soldier is a leader? “Sure or not?”
Virtual heritage is a poor ersatz for the historical, aesthetic and spiritual values of a heritage site. Many Singaporeans may choose to be the silent majority as our heritage is being destroyed, because they do not feel any personal affinity, they do not understand the historical significance, or they just feel powerless. But we must walk out of the shadows of a ‘divide and rule’ colonial past, and not walk into a new dark era, where Singaporeans see one another as alien cultures in a mutant world of neo-colonialism, where we are no longer a country, but a place of transit in a network of endless highways.
(Facebook note on 11 March 2012)