ISSUE THREE / OCTOBER 2012
MNEMOZINE THE NUS HISTORY MAGAZINE
A STUDENT PUBLICATION OF THE NUS HISTORY SOCIETY
THE SOCIAL MEMORY ISSUE FEATURING / THE DIRECTORS OF OLD PLACES THE NATIONAL MUSEUM’S PROGRAMMES MANAGER BISHAN CEMETERIES COMMEMORATIVE STAMPS
EDITOR’S NOTE I CANNOT REMEMBER what Singapore looked like ten years ago. I cannot remember what my housing estate in Toa Payoh looked like before the Main Upgrading Programme. What Orchard and Somerset MRTs looked like before Ion and 313. What Marina South looked like before Gardens by the Bay. What I do remember, though, is what it was like. I had to climb the stairs before a lift was installed. I had to walk through the carpark outside of Somerset MRT to get to Centrepoint (where we had lunch, at MacDonald’s). I could spend an entire day at Marina South flying kites or bowling before stuffing myself at the nearby steamboat restaurants. Yet, as I race towards the future, I fear that these memories will invariably be lost. This issue, we look at social and personal memory, and how the tension between then and now persists. We talk to Royston Tan and Eva Tang, the directors of Old Places, about their efforts to document places and faces (p. 6). The blogger of RememberSG joins us in lamenting the loss of “forgotten” places in Singapore (p. 14). Our very own editor of the RIDGE shows how our identity is lost together with our memory (p. 26). These are but a sprinkling of the articles we received from our own students, and the response excites us here at Mnemozine. This publication was conceived as a platform for any student to share their thoughts about the history in Singapore, and we continue to welcome contributions from all disciplines. Drop us an email anytime to share your thoughts! I would also like to thank the previous editor, Yong Chun Yuan, for his undying effort and contribution to the publication. He has left me enormous shoes to fill, and Mnemozine would not be where it is today without him. My promise to him is that it will continue to soar to even greater heights. We hope that this issue will strike up nostalgic images of bygone times for our readers. In time to come, we will forget what Bukit Brown, the Rochor area, and Pearls Centre looked like. For now, though, our efforts at documentation can and will go a long way in preserving these memories for reminiscence. After all, that is what Mnemozine stands for. Chief Editor, Ngiam Xing Yi
MNEMOZINE ISSUE 3 / OCTOBER 2012
Romancing Old Places / 6
Remembering the Good Old Days / 14
Programming a Museum / 10
Building Sandcastles / 24
We talk to Royston and Eva, the directors of Old Places
An interview with the blogger of Remembering Singapore
EDITORIAL TEAM Chief Editor: Ngiam Xing Yi Deputy Editor: Andy Chong CONTRIBUTORS Christopher Chok Chew An Ee Rayner Teo Lai Jun Wei Gowri Rajaratnam Dhwani Shashank Dholakia Gerilynn Yee Jared Choo Augustin Chiam PHOTOGRAPHY Lai Jun Wei Andy Chong PUBLIC RELATIONS Tan Sock Keng DESIGN Wu Zhuoyi Past issues at http://issuu.com/mnemozine Mnemozine is published by the NUS History Society and is distributed to all current students, staff, friends and benefactors of the society. A non-profit entity, we welcome donations and other in-kind support. For more information, please email us at email@example.com Sponsors
Vicky Wong, Programmes Manager at NMS, tells us a bit about what she does
Reviewing Boo Jun Fengâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Sandcastles
CONTENTS Welcome, Dr. Masuda / 2 A Life Transforming Year / 4 Romancing Old Places / 6 Programming a Museum / 10 Remembering the Good Old Days / 14 History through Commemorative Stamps / 16 The Former Cemeteries of Bishan / 18 Afternoon with the Andayas / 20 Personal Voices Within Collective Narratives / 22 Building Sandcastles / 24 Relationship Minus Memory / 25 Death of the Singapore Story / 26
WELCOME, DR. MASUDA SITTING NONDESCRIPTLY AT a prata house enjoying his meal, one would deem him the average Joe simply from his appearance. Yet Dr. Masuda Hajimu (family name Masuda) exemplifies non-conformity: cycling through the Middle East at the age of 19, pursuing journalism in Aomori, and incurring public opposition in Wyoming are some of the many ways that he goes against the grain. Mnemozineâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Ngiam Xing Yi meets with the newest addition to the NUS History Teaching Staff, and finds out just how different he is. Could you tell us more about yourself, particularly the milestones in your life? I was born in Osaka and studied International Relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. The first major milestone in my life was my bicycle trip to the Middle East in 1995. The Palestinian-Israeli Peace Treaty had just been signed at the end of 1993, and I optimistically decided to find out personally about how peace would arrive in the Middle East. I cycled for two months in Syria, Jordan, and Israel, and what I learned was vastly different from what was reported in the media. I felt deep-seated distrust on both sides and realized that, despite the achievements of diplomacy at higher levels, feelings on the ground did not change so much. The assassination of Israelâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Prime Minister two months after I returned home was met with surprise by the Japanese media, but I was not
surprised because I had been already convinced of the difficulty with the peace process. This was a truly eye-opening experience that led me to focus on popular movements behind politics in societies. This led me to pursue journalism in Japan as a career. Is there any particular incident from this trip that you would like to recount for us? I was sleeping under a bridge in my tent when four Israeli soldiers woke me at 4 am. They held me at gunpoint and demanded to know what I was doing there. I later learned that they had suspected me of being a terrorist, and was surprised at the manner of distrust felt towards a tourist like me. This incident allowed me to witness for myself the lingering suspicions due to the perpetual war situation. Did journalism change your perspective of global affairs? I chose to work in Aomori despite having lived in Osaka and Kyoto, as I was interested in issues concerning unpopular institutions in such rural areas, specifically a storage facility for spent nuclear fuel and its reprocessing plant, as well as the US Misawa Air Base. I explored how the state addressed these through promises of financial stability to local governments. Reporting on such local matters connected me to greater global issues, and this was when my interest in International Relations grew stronger. However, I began to be afraid of reporting on such a wide range of issues without proper knowledge of their historical contexts. This eventually led me to develop a keen interest in history, foreign languages, and photography. I decided to move to the United States, where I deliberately enrolled in a small community college in rural Wyoming in 2002. This was yet another milestone for me. Following the US war in Iraq in 2003, I attended several anti-war demonstrations in San Francisco and Washington DC, and eventually penned similar sentiments in my collegeâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s publication. This met with great backlash from the local community, due to their conservative support of the war. Rumours
NGIAM XING YI PUBLICATIONS@NUSHISSOC.ORG PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAI JUN WEI even circulated that I was organizing an anti-war demonstration during a soldier’s funeral. The local community suppressed and ostracized me; some even wrote that I should return to Japan. I thus became increasingly interested in how the creation of social orders by the majority could suppress minorities. I eventually left for Cornell, for my post-graduate studies in history. Why History? How do you think the study of History benefits the individual? To be little bit provocative, sometimes I wonder if it’s actually harmful to study history. This is because studying history often convinces people to see the present as the necessary consequence of the past, and to imagine the future in the light of the past. This leads to the dangerous possibility of stifling creativity and limiting the ability to create the future. However, one cannot grow up in modern society without learning history. Like it or not, everyone is exposed to history through the media, school, and popular culture, with particular lenses in society. If there is no escape, then, I think it’s more beneficial for individuals to critically study history, to overcome the trap of history. Studying history allows you to notice that you are wearing the glasses, and this cognition enables you to counterbalance your own biases, and to challenge dominant narratives. Everyone should be a historian. You need to historicize history by yourself.
Singaporeans can be more critical, not just of the state, but of the majority and of themselves, as well, as they are often, unconsciously, the actual agents of suppression.
What have your impressions of Singapore been so far, especially with regard to our social history and the manner in which locals engage it? Singapore is interesting as it is a cosmopolitan mix of minorities. If I were a journalist here, there would be a lot to write about, particularly concerning issues of inequality, race, and gender. I find that local people could be more critical of their own society, especially in regard to issues of social engineering and inequality. It is easy to place blame on the government, but there is a need to look more at other agents in controlling the social order. This can be said anywhere in the world, like Japan or the US, but Singaporeans can be more critical, not just of the state, but of the majority and of themselves, as well, as they are often, unconsciously, the actual agents of suppression. Perhaps this is similar to Japan, but it is quite a conservative society. Investigations into social history might be a good window to self-reflexively examine how the national history of Singapore has been created and maintained. You define your passion to be the outdoor life. Could you tell us more about that and your other hobbies? From a young age, I was very interested in bicycling, and my parents even thought I would end up getting a job in a bike shop! I chose to work in Aomori, in part, because I could go cycling and skiing there,
and, when I was in the US, I enjoyed camping and kayaking trips in Vermont and upper New York, as well. I enjoy learning languages as it has allowed me to realize the impossibility of complete translation. Such recognition of inevitable miscommunication—an awareness that we cannot completely understand others—makes us more modest and deliberate. While we often hear the noble dream of mutual understanding in our world, there is a need to be more careful about this myth, because such optimism easily makes us inattentive to others. Any parting words for us? I strongly recommend that students pick up new languages. They should also travel and get out of their comfort zone in society. Most importantly, you should be honest with yourself, rather than following the expectations of others or society. College is the best time to find out what you really want to do in life, and you can do much more than you can imagine.
A LIFETRANS FORM ING YEAR
Christopher Chok shares his experiences on his exchange to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
APART FROM BEING able to learn and experience different pedagogical practices from two renowned institutions, living independently abroad has been quite a life-changing experience. Learning and living at UNC has widened my perspective in so many ways. Most notably, the opportunity to interact with students of varied backgrounds, which exposed me to a myriad of different cultures, gave me life-skills that transcend the traditional academic setting. Similarly, the academic requirement of the JDP allowed me to study my major, History, in depth and also have a broad base of knowledge across other disciplines. In my time abroad, classes I have taken include those from Comparative Literature, Geological Sciences, Mathematics, Philosophy and even Religious Studies. Living independently has also taught me lessons that made me better appreciate the many things I used to take for granted. For one, I have learnt to cook more interesting (and nutritious) dishes apart from instant noodles. I realised that â&#x20AC;&#x153;Downyâ&#x20AC;? does wonders to my clothes, and fabric softeners are an important component in drying my clothes. Shopping for groceries became my monthly affair, and simple things like a reduction in price for toiletries made me extremely happy. Aside from menial details, I have also grown to enjoy this newfound freedom. Being away from familiarity and being outside my comfort zone has challenged me to grow and develop; it has given me a deeper sense of ownership in my life.
CHRISTOPHER CHOK CHRISTOPHERCHOK@GMAIL.COM
The NUS-UNC Joint Degree Program (JDP) has transformed my life.
Over the course of the semester, I was privileged to experience numerous festivals and seasonal holidays in America. Thanksgiving was one such celebration. Before coming to America, Thanksgiving didn’t mean much to me; it was distant and apathetic. Luckily for me, I was fortunate enough to have a friend, Lindsey, invite me over to her home for Thanksgiving last year. In retrospect, I could not have asked for a better way to spend my first ever Thanksgiving in America. The few days spent with the Luxon family were incredible, and really made Thanksgiving a more tangible and meaningful experience. Preparation was really fun, particularly since I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Lindsey’s mother to prepare food (I made the turkey stuffing and had a hand in stuffing the turkey!). The actual Thanksgiving lunch was the highlight of my stay. The array of dishes on the dining table was everything I had imagined it to be, and more. But it was the familial love and warmth so evident at that moment that formed the very essence of Thanksgiving – a simple tableaux that deserves thanksgiving. That moment made me very grateful for my very own parents back home. Apart from Thanksgiving, I was also able to experience my first ever Halloween in Chapel Hill. Dressed up as a Jedi (or a Friar, depending on the availability of my light-sabre), I found myself parading around Franklin Street together with the other students. It was a very intriguing sight: I saw numerous Angry Birds, a few Mario Brothers and even a couple of Barack Obamas! I realised Halloween in America meant an occasion for the student population to embark on innovative ideas and creative expression, all in the name of joviality and fun. Fall Break was spent volunteering at a mentally handicapped facility in Chesterfield, Virginia and Spring Break in Montego Bay, Jamaica, helping out at an orphanage. Together with the Newman Catholic Center, we collected necessities and raised money for this orphanage. Universal values such as humility and empathy were reinforced in me; experiences like these allowed me to give back to
society, exploit the full potential of my JDP and enriched my overall experience. Such activities have allowed me to see that no matter where I am in the world, there will always be occasions in which I can lend help. I can go to places to volunteer my time and energy and opportunities to make a difference and live a life of service for others. A very special thing about UNC is its school spirit. From the many various school cheers to the huge array of Carolina merchandise at the student store, school spirit here is incredibly infectious. During sport competitions, you’ll see masses of students donning Carolina Blue cheering for the college athletes. My first experience of an American football game here reminded me of Singapore’s National Day Parade – yes, there were that many people in the stadium. Similarly, Basketball here is like a religion! One cannot help but feel a certain sense of solidarity, camaraderie and affinity for UNC; you feel like you’re one with the community. In sum, my time spent at UNC has been really awesome. The amazing friends that I’ve made here, coupled with the invaluable life experiences that I’ve gained have changed my life completely. The NUS-UNC JDP truly allows one to experience the best of both worlds and I am eternally grateful to both institutions for this incredible and wonderful opportunity.
One cannot help but feel a certain sense of solidarity, camaraderie and affinity for UNC; you feel like you’re one with the community.
ROMANCING OLD PLACES
Andy and Audrey chat with the directors of Old Places, Royston and Eva about their personal motivations and experiences while making this documentary and its sequel.
ANDY CHONG A0072101@NUS.EDU.SG ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JASON SENG PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDY CHONG
FORMER DPM S RAJARATNAM once wrote that old buildings are a record of our history- our ancestors’ aspirations and achievements. As the directors of Old Places found out, Singaporeans do have rich personal connections to the local histories of their favourite places in Singapore. Old Places was a documentary featured on National Day in 2010, and was critically acclaimed by the general public. For our intrepid local directors Royston Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng, it was a personal journey documenting these old places and the voices of people.
When these little things are remembered, it becomes a collective memory.
Hi Royston and Eva, can you tell us some of your personal motivations for directing Old Places? What are some of your personal memories of directing Old Places? ROYSTON I want to remember things that I have already forgotten. For example, when we were filming the rainbow flat at Hougang, then I remember that the bus number 328 once existed! I think we need to treasure both the little and big memories. When these little things are remembered, it becomes a collective memory. We told ourselves that we did not want to regret not filming these old places before they are gone. Personally, I was quite sad that I was one day late and missed filming a wooden overhead bridge in Bukit Timah, one of the oldest in Singapore. When I felt that loss, I really felt the urgency for our project. EVA We started this off as a personal project, but we did not expect that it would have that much of an impact with the audience. For us, we see this sharing aspect with the audience as a unique connection. Among
the audience present for the autograph session, someone even brought their grandma along. A particular lady was quite emotional and broke down in tears. When I asked her whether there was any particular place that we could film for her, she just shook her head and said: “It’s gone.” Royston, you said that the history found in the textbooks is different from what we experience in everyday life, such as the Old Places. Do you think the younger generation are as attached to these places and find it as part of their history? ROYSTON I am afraid that the younger generation will start to forget things – the memories that are special to us. I also think Singaporeans generally as a whole are suffering from “amnesia” and cannot remember places that were dear to them. Preserving our languages and heritage is important for this generation. It is sad if our young people are not able to see these beautiful old buildings and appreciate its architecture and forms. I also hope that our next generation will not forget our dialects and just know English or even Korean. As film-makers, what kind of role do you think you play in Singapore’s society? Do you see yourself as educators or artists? ROYSTON Primarily, I think we are “documentators”. It is as if we are forming a memory bank of sorts. At first, it was a personal project for the three directors. We had a really “heart-breaking” experience and we learnt that the society is very merciless. Places are renovated at neckbreaking speed and we are always racing against time to capture the memories of these Old Places. Development was not our main enemy but instead, it was the lack of time. EVA We want to use audio and images to “immortalise” them so that it is a “living witness” to the younger generation, like you guys. It’s something that they haven’t seen, from the time of their parents and grandparents. (Laughs) For myself, I’d like to think that our film will be able capture beau-
ty in old things, old architecture and even old people. Old is an important value, but the younger generation may not agree. We are happy to be able to generate the enthusiasm for these young people. Memory is a very powerful tool that binds us together. It is also about disappearing languages. We want to preserve languages such as dialects as they are a unique and authentic feature of our society. It is our intention to let people express themselves in the language they are We hear that the sequel to Old Places, Old Romances is most comfortable in. Chinese dialects featured in Old coming out soon. Can you tell us more about it? Romances include Hainanese, Teochew and others. ROYSTON The sequel Old Romances took two years in the making and it was an overwhelming project to underCan you tell us some of the challenges you face in get- take. It will be released sometime in July this year. ting support and funding for such a project? The inspiration for the title is derived from the perROYSTON One challenge that we faced was to convince ceived relationship between people and old places. People the owners of these places to allow us to film. Sometimes are actually lovers in their own right, and they are in we find that they do not realise the value of these old love with the places that are dear to them. places. We wanted to instil a confidence in them that There would not be a part three to the series. The jourwhat they own is already valuable and it is not judged by ney has been very tough for us. We do not know whether economic value. our hearts are strong enough to witness yet another place disappear. After filming, we do actually fall in love In Old Places, we observed that you employed a differ- with these places. ent cinematic take to the documentary – such as the EVA By the time Old Romances started filming, 40 to screen shots and the voice-overs. What is the motiva- 50 percent of the places were already gone. It’s sometion behind that? thing that makes us wonder, “Are we not quick enough?” ROYSTON We recognised that people have personal con- Sometimes we would plan to shoot a location only to nections to these public spaces. That is why we chose to discover that these places were already torn down for interview them informally over the phone so that they redevelopment or renovation. will be more comfortable sharing about their personal We have plans to screen Old Romances at historical memories. Most of the time, they spoke so well even places such as Tanjong Pagar Train Station and even at though it was not scripted. the Balestier Tua Pek Kong. We also hope to screen it at I find that when people speak in dialects, it becomes a the heartlands and make it a meaningful communal charming way of expressing themselves. It is no longer event for the families. just about them talking about old places, but you can know a little about their lives too. Old Places is available at Kinokuniya, Objectif Films and other stores. Old Romances will be released in October 2012.
Memory is a very powerful tool that binds us together.
PEOPLE ARE ACTUALLY LOVERS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT, AND THEY ARE IN LOVE WITH THE PLACES THAT ARE DEAR TO THEM
PROGRAMMING A MUSEUM
Chew An Ee speaks to Ms Vicky Wong from the National Museum of Singapore to find out what she does as the Programmes Manager as well as what she thinks of our past.
CHEW AN EE CHEWANEE@GMAIL.COM PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAI JUN WEI
AS SINGAPORE’S OLDEST museum, the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) houses a vast collection of artifacts which help shed light on the history of Singapore. Without doubt, great efforts had gone into the research and curation of these objects but an empty gallery would mean these efforts would be for naught. The role of a Programmes Manager thus becomes important in bridging the gap between curation and audience. Mnemozine’s Chew An Ee had the privilege to speak to Ms Vicky Wong from NMS to find out more about a career in the museum as a Programmes Manager and her views on Singapore’s history.
working with the exhibition and design team to materialize the exhibition. And there is the administration team, who will look after the budget, visitors’ services, etc. The last group is the programmes team, and people always ask me what we do. I will explain that in the museum, there is the exhibition and there is the audience and our role is to come in and bridge the gap between the exhibition and audience for the exhibition to come alive. I am the programmes manager in charge of education. Educational programming is very broad and we do all sorts of educational programmes for all sorts, all ages, and all types of audiences. Our signature Hi Vicky, could you tell us a little about programme is the interactive tour, which is yourself to begin with? different from the usual tour as we get actors VICKY I did Southeast Asian studies in NUS to dramatize so that visitors can engage and and used to teach in Republic Polytechnic for interact with the actors. An example would four years which I enjoyed a lot. When the be the recently concluded Impressionist art position opened up, I decided to have a career exhibition where we had ‘Vincent Van Gogh’ move as I thought it was a very nice way of come alive for the children who then have to incorporating what I liked which was muhelp him find information and things. seum work, history, heritage and education. My responsibility then, is to make all Before I joined full time I was a volunteer these happen. guide for the Stamford exhibition and I like guiding because it was very interactive. I Any advice for one who wishes to work in a always have very nice visitors with lots of museum in the future? What are some of chatting and people who are interested in the the challenges or difficulties involved? topic. So I wasn’t a stranger to the museum The museum is a very dynamic place and and it was a question of choosing to work full you have to be very open-minded. You have time here. to be a very good team player because every program you run will impact a lot of difCould you tell me ferent people. Also, we have to learn to get more about what you creative and to balance the concepts with do here? the practical. All the programmes need to be The museum staff received and executed and people have to be consists of three kept happy, so one very big part is trying to teams of people – the find that balance. We came to the conclusion first being the curato- that we just cannot please everybody in one rial team with a lot programme as different people have different of them being history needs, so we try to offer different programs graduates– they are to engage different people. in charge of the context, storyline, and So your work experience here must have selection of artifacts been pretty interesting? How would you for display while describe your work experiences here?
Working here is very fun and dynamic, and you are always kept on your toes!
Very unpredictable and dynamic, and you are always kept on your toes! Which is the fun part! The thing about museums is that exhibitions change so we are always kept thinking how to be creative and to bring the content across to the audience. Also, talking to different people can be very enlightening. Sometimes, on my day offs I will come back and volunteer at the front counter because it is amazing when you are there and you see what happens. It is then you realize these people really have challenging jobs.
Par Villa and it triggered all the childhood memories. Sometimes, when I ask my students whether they have been to Haw Par Villa, they will give a blank look. I feel really sad that these historical places are kind of forgotten.
When they tore the old National Library down, I could really feel the sense of loss.
What do you think of the social history of Singapore in general? Thank you Vicky. Perhaps we can end by I think people need to be asking about your views on Singapore’s his- encouraged to see their own tory. Any particular fond memories of the role in social history. It is not past? something that you go someI think everybody does, and I think it is part where and view. It is taking a very personal of growing up. stake in it. When you do not have enough I remember going to Satay Club, where platforms for engagement, people do not feel Esplanade is now. There used to be this open- like telling their story. The museum thus ofair place where you can order satay and I fers such platforms for people to come in and remember very vividly that the kambing soup participate through our events. was the best. Or the old National Library, where I remember I had a project and I was Thank you very much for the interview. going to the library almost every week. When they tore it down, I could really feel the sense The National Museum of Singapore is committed to engagof loss. ing different people to collaborate and help discover the hisI also remember Haw Par Villa (I think tory of Singapore. The recently concluded Hi Stor y My Story a lot of young people don’t). It is one place Filmmaking Competition saw teams of student conducting where as a kid it really stuck with me. This research and oral history interviews on the Bras Basah is partly because the first time I went, I came area. The work of Vicky and her team saw over local history back with mumps, rashes and all. While brought alive to these students. doing research for one of the exhibitions ‘Singapore 1960’ awhile back, I went back to Haw
Inspired by Royston Tan’s documentary Old Places, Remember Singapore is a non-political and non-profit blog that is dedicated to all things Singapore, both past and present.
REMEMBERING THE GOOD OLD DAYS LIVING IN A CITY that is rapidly progressing and constantly reinventing itself, it is often too easy for us to overlook our surroundings in anticipation for what the future holds. Here you will find articles, photographs, and even stories of Singapore’s short but intriguing and interesting history that will not only leave you reminiscing and feeling nostalgic about your childhood days but also developing a deeper appreciation of Singapore’s history, her spirit, and her people. In this issue, we talk memory, heritage and the blog with the author of Remember Singapore via email, as we find out more about the person behind it all. (The blogger has requested anonymity for this article.)
TEO WEI HOW, RAYNER A0072014@NUS.EDU.SG
For the benefit of our readers who have yet to hear or know about your blog, tell us a little bit more about your project, Remember Singapore The objective of this blog is to provide some historical knowledge of the old places, landmarks, buildings and of things in Singapore. It does not need to be of great heritage value or to be conserved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (such as the old Parliament building). Most of the places or buildings listed on the blog are actually closer to the grassroots, and ordinary Singaporeans, such as the 30-year- old Commonwealth Avenue hawker centre or the last pelican playground left on the island. Both have already vanished. These landmarks have relatively insignificant historical values but they have accompanied many of us through our childhood, and provided us with many memories. Thus, when they were eventually demolished, many expressed regret or sadness. Why did you embark on this project? It all started from a hobby – a mixture of heritage learning, photography and urban exploration. I was greatly impressed by our local director Royston Tan’s effort in his 2010 Old Places documentary – it prompted me to go around Singapore and to search for more of these “old places”. Can you tell us more the topics and places you chose to talk about on your website? As long as that particular place or building has a history, no matter how recent or distant, I will try to find out more about them, and later decide whether or not to list them on the blog. The blog actually has two categories. The first comprises old places and their bits of history being introduced to the readers. The other category comprises brief histories on various subjects that are closely related to Singapore, such as kampongs in the old days, how public flats first developed, the things in the 80s, old cinemas, old post offices, and more: things that are part of our everyday life. Why do you feel that these places and subjects are slowly being “forgotten”? Contrary to popular belief, there are many places in Singapore that are “forgotten”. Abandoned camps, vacated schools, empty buildings, and deserted estates are some examples. Most of them have become dilapidated over time due to lack of maintenance. Unless they are privately owned, these places are usually taken over by Singapore Land Authority, who will then try to lease them out to companies who will then renovate them for other purposes. An example of
this is the Old Changi Hospital: several years ago, it was intended to be refurbished into a place for dining, drinking wine and going to a spa. However, the rental was too high and it was left vacated and abandoned again for another couple of years. I do not support the idea of refurbishment (the former Joo Chiat Police Station is now a restaurant), but it still beats the idea of demolishing the building. Do you feel that conservation in Singapore reflects, identifies and ultimately preserves the intangible aspect of cultural heritage? In my opinion, no. In marking things for conservation, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) usually looks at the historical value of that place. Common places like old cinemas or old playgrounds are unlikely to be conserved. But very often, these are the places that are part of our precious memories. We spent our childhood playing in these playgrounds or our youth watching movies in one of those old cinemas. However, to be fair, the URA cannot go around and preserve everything. But Singapore is moving at such a fast pace that sometimes, in just a year or so, particular buildings or landmarks have been torn down to make way for new roads or a new condominium . We have to realise that not everything new is good. Sentiments, memories and sense of belonging are important too. Did you anticipate the popularity and the kind of following Remember Singapore has amassed? Not really. As mentioned, I did this out of interest. But I came to realise many Singaporeans are feeling the loss, or have become disillusioned about this country (perhaps due to the rapid development along with the massive influx of foreigners). Many of them want to remember the “good old days”. Others want to revive the Singapore identity, which seems to be diluting fast. The recent interest in nostalgia definitely helps. Last but not least, what do you hope that your readers, both existing and potential, will take away from your blog? The blog aims to raise a little awareness in preserving our heritage (e.g., the Bukit Brown debate), and perhaps encourage Singaporeans to come together and form a stronger identity. We do have our own heritage, our own unique culture despite being a relatively young nation. http://remembersingapore.wordpress.com
HISTORY THROUGH COMMEMORATIVE STAMPS I GET MANY surprised reactions from people when they find out that I collect stamps. No, I am not the kind who goes for the ‘mint condition’, uncirculated and uncut versions which can fetch thousands of dollars each depending on condition and year of issue. Rather, most of my stamps have been used, circulated and stamped as they passed through the hands of many people at some point in time. Thus I would say my collection is relatively worthless (in cash value), yet priceless (in heritage) at the same time. A huge part of my stamp collection was handed down to me from my mother who used to work in a firm which had a high degree of interaction with firms in foreign countries. I never thought much about my collection as I always believed that it contained merely stamps from places like Singapore, United States, Australia and Southeast Asia. I later realised that I had stamps from exotic far flung places like Kenya, Afghanistan and Iran, and this ignited a sudden interest in stamps. To date, some of my most precious stamps include those from the Third Reich, former Soviet Union, and Japanese controlled Malaya. These stamps were arduously collected, bought from collectors or sometimes from the individual who doesn’t see the historical value in them. Why a stamp? A stamp is actually a window to society. It can shape the impres-
sion of people within and without a state’s boundaries. They are an example of a state’s iconography, and, just like maps and official documents, are issued by an official body. Often, they may depict someone or something which deserves honour, commemoration or advertisement. As philatelists Leon and Maurice Williams put it, “Stamps have proved themselves to be tokens and signposts of modern civilization. They reflect the colours of history through their designs, inscriptions, values, and colours.” Most importantly, it allows one to see what was important at that time. Social memory is about the connection between social identity and historical memory. It is how and why a diverse population can come to think of themselves as a group with a shared past. A stamp’s omnipresence within a state’s boundaries means it has the possibility of serving as a tool of nationalism. Looking back at stamps from the past, I would thus argue that the illustrations on stamps – particularly commemorative stamps – inevitably provide people of that time with a shared sense of experience whether or not it was the intentions of the issuing authority. Issuing bodies have numerous choices on themes and topics to illustrate on stamps. Common categories include events in history, key political personalities (e.g. the Queen in
LAI JUN WEI JUNWEI189@GMAIL.COM
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT 1. CCCP Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin 2. Sputnik 3. CCCP Red Army Voluntary Society Navy Air Force 4. CCCP Communist Youth Congress 5. Weimar Republic stamp 2 million mark overprint 6. This stamp was minted in 1942 by Slovakia to show loyalty and allegiance to the Axis Powers Alliance 7. Hitler  8. Four stamps showing Soviet warships
British stamps), monuments, folk culture, nature… The choices are endless. Commemorative stamps inevitably construct a sense of historic memory, with what is illustrated on these stamps likely to be seen as of higher importance. Looking at stamps from the British Commonwealth, I would certainly feel that the Queen was an important figure for she was featured in every single denomination of stamps. It only makes logical sense that people, or things of importance are featured on stamps (see Soviet Union stamp of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin). When people look back on a country’s stamps, they learn something about the state and how it wished to be seen and remembered. The state’s successes or prowess or successes may be illustrated with military equipment (see CCCP stamp with Soviet warships; Soviet Space Programme). Or else commemorate a historical event (see French stamps commemorating 30th anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy; and commemorating defeat of Nazi Germany and liberation of France). Sometimes, the importance of a particular group might be played up on purpose (see CCCP stamps on Red Army Voluntary Society Navy Air Force and Communist Youth Congress). Stamps have sometimes been used by despotic states as propaganda or avenues to construct their own form of social history. There has been evidence that a state has actively dictated the stamp issuing body to portray something in a particular light. Frederick Lauritzen in his writing “Propaganda Art in the Postage Stamps of the Third Reich” commented on how commemorative postage stamps of the Third Reich often reflected high artistic standards and portrayed life in Germany in a view heavily coloured by Nazi propaganda. These stamps scarcely hint at the darker side of the story and instead bathed Hitler in a glorious light (see German stamp of Hitler). In this case, there is a conscious attempt by the state to portray Nazi Germany in a good light. Also, as it believed that it would be a thousand year Reich, it was possibly trying to alter the future generation’s perception of the state into a positive one, with Hitler trumpeted as the charismatic founding father. History can be seen beyond a stamp’s design. Stamps are akin to a state’s symbol of sovereignty. And what better way for one state to exert its dominance over another by literally “stamping” over the former’s stamps? Malayan stamps during the Japanese Occupation had the words ‘Dai Nippon’ or ‘大日本郵便’ emblazoned over it.
Stamps can influence a person to shape his identity based on history. Every time such a stamp was used, it was a constant reminder that Malaya was under Japanese rule. Looking at these stamps might evoke painful memories, especially to people who suffered under the Japanese Occupation. Regardless of race, nationality, language or religion, these people are inevitably bounded together by this sense of a shared experience. What all of this means is that stamps can influence a person to shape his identity based on history. A citizen in the Commonwealth group of countries might shape his/ her identity towards a British one as the Queen increasingly becomes an omnipresent figure. Singaporeans might feel a heightened sense of connectedness to each other via the historical event of the nation’s independence when they are exposed to National Day commemorative stamps. The topic chosen to be showcased on a stamp would certainly warrant further research. It would be useful to examine designs from major powers pre- and post-Cold War; first issues from new countries; the politics of the designers, artists and printers of the stamps; and even the rejected designs. This study of the commemorative stamp can, and will likely be a useful tool in understanding the history of a society.
THE FORMER CEMETERIES OF BISHAN In our first issue, Mnemozine interviewed Mr. Lam Chun See, author of the blog Good Morning Yesterday, which features memories, photos, and thoughts of how we deal with the past. This issue, he shares his memories of the cemeteries in Bishan in his youth with our readers.
CHUN SEE LAM GOODMORNINGYESTERDAY.BLOGSPOT.SG
YOUNGER READERS MAY be surprised to know that fifty years ago, there were many cemeteries scattered all over our little island. Most of them have been cleared to give way to the living in land-scarce Singapore. For example, along Bukit Timah Road, near the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, there is a small park called Kampong Java Park. Did you know that this park used to be a cemetery? Do you know where the Woodleigh MRT Station along Upper Serangoon Road is? Did you know that the land on which this station sits was part of a huge cemetery known at the Bidadari Christian and Muslim cemetery? There were also some small cemeteries in the Bukit Timah area. One was along Sixth Avenue, near Laurel Woods Avenue, and another was at the junction of Victoria Park Road and Coronation Road West. The largest of these cemeteries was at what is today Bishan New Town. At that time, it was known by its Cantonese name, Pek San Teng (碧山亭) or Kampong San Teng. Every year, during the Qing Ming (清明) period, hordes of Chinese families made their way to the numerous Chinese cemeteries at Pek San Teng. There would be traffic jams along the roads leading to these cemeteries; the worst being at upper Thomson Road near Jalan Pemimpin. Growing up in a kampong near Lorong Chuan, my father used to bring me and my brothers to Pek San Teng to pay our respects to his dead relatives during Qing Ming. The main route to access these cemeteries was via Kampong San Teng (Road) from Upper Thomson Road. I think part of this road is today’s Bishan Street 21. It led to a Y-junction where there was a huge temple. There was another way to enter Kampong San Teng which was via a dirt track off Braddell Road
known as Lorong Kundang, near Kallang River. I think it has been converted to today’s Bishan St 11. There was one year when we did not drive but rode bicycles instead; and we used this road. I think my father wanted to avoid the traffic jams. This annual ‘grave-sweeping’ exercise, as it had come to be known, was a really tiresome affair. Usually my father would bring the boys whilst my sister and mother would stay at home to prepare a big meal for us when we returned. The weather was usually hot; and it was made worse by the burning of joss sticks and papers and even grass. It was also hard work to locate the graves and cut the over-grown lallang. Many hours were also spent preparing the worshipping paraphernalia and food (for offering) and paint to paint the faded words on the grave stones, sharpen the sickles and so on. The most frustrating part of this annual exercise was to locate the tombstones. Based on what I can remember, the system of organising the cemeteries was really bad. The entire area was divided into a series of ‘hills’ and ‘pavilions’. For example, one of the hills was located at the spot behind the present Braddell-Toa Payoh flyover. So to locate a particular tombstone, you had to know the name of the hill and the pavilion number; for example 黄福山, 第五亭 (Wong Fook Hill, Pavilion Number 5). Then came the difficult part of finding the exact grave in this section. And it did not help that we were not sure of the exact words written on the grave stones. As it was an annual event, my father often had difficulty remembering all these details from a year ago. Oftentimes, the writing on the graves had faded. In fact, finding the hill itself was no simple matter. Anyway, I was too young at that time, and I merely followed where the older ones led. Another thing I remember about this annual exercise was the grass cutters. These people would pester us to let them cut the overgrown lallang at the graves and charged an exorbitant sum. Often they simply would not take no for an answer and occasionally this led to ugly incidents. What they would do was to hop on your car at it crawled along the dirt tracks to get a ride to your destination. And their favourite car was the Volkswagen Beetle because it had an extended stainless steel bumper which provided a convenient standing platform for the bumpy ride. What we usually did was to show them the sickles that we had brought along to signal that we did not need their services. And for all our hard work, we were rewarded with a big makan session when we returned home.
JEREMY WONG U0901719@NUS.EDU.SG PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAI JUN WEI
AFTERNOON WITH THE ANDAYAS INTRODUCING THE PROFESSORS Leonard and Barbara Andaya: Professors at the University of Hawaii, Tan Chin Tuan Visiting Professors at the National University of Singapore, Specialists of Southeast Asian history, and yes, as you probably guessed, man and wife. In this brief article, we inquire into their year-long stint on our fair island; their teaching experiences here at NUS, and into the life of married couples in academia… LIKE THE FLURRY of activity in preparation for the Venus Transit musical performance that enveloped us as we conversed at the U-Town Starbucks, for the Andayas, there was always something of interest going on in the city state. From Tai Chi to performances at the Esplanade, they were always kept busy. But none preoccupied them as much as work. The Andayas spoke of their teaching experiences rather fondly. Both agreed that NUS students were very pleasant to teach. Students tended to work harder and were better prepared for lessons, thus allowing for a more in depth discussions into the subject matter. With regard to the chronic quietness mostly associated with Asian students when asked to air their views in class, it seems students back in Hawaii are somewhat similar in their responses and the Andayas were not overly put off by it. Furthermore, they felt that local tutorial classes allowed for more interaction which facilitated greater familiarity, something that certain other universities don’t subscribe to. However, they did comment on the intensity and brevity of any one semester. As compared to other universities, it seems the semesters here are shorter and the pace of teaching faster. The examinations here also carry a greater weightage, and as such students are more rigorous in their studies especially when nearing the examinations. One interesting comment they made was
that they found students across the board not particularly acquainted with regional issues. This is not to say that they are unaware of things going on in the wider world, but that less attention is paid to affairs of neighbouring countries that might actually have a more direct effect on Singapore. WHEN ASKED ABOUT the marital life of academics, it seems they are quite happy with how theirs turned out. In fact, there are many advantages of a spouse who works in the same field. Both can appreciate the rigours of academia and thus better understand the ups-and-downs of such a profession. It is not easy and one needs to be very single minded when, for example, writing a book; time is often spent away from (or at least not with) your significant other. Furthermore, weekends to some academics are just another day at work, no different from weekdays. Quality time can hence be few and far between. Therefore understanding between both parties, especially when the other doesn’t work within academia, is important. But for the Andayas, working on field research or writing articles can become a mutual activity, a rewarding convergence of work, passion and family time. All in all, the Andayas assure me that they have had a wonderful time here and are somewhat sorry to have to go home, but alas their grandchildren beckon. As for me, I am sure we all wish the Andayas all the best as they return to Hawaii…and perhaps hope their return sometime soon. P.S. I will never forget how Professor Barbara would dress according to the region/topic she would be lecturing on in her Engendering History class (though that took me some time to realise).
DHWANI DHOLAKIA THEFIFTHDOOR@GMAIL.COM GOWRI RAJARATNAM GOWRI_RAJARATNAM@HOTMAIL.COM PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAI JUN WEI HISTORIA SG 2012
PERSONAL VOICES WITHIN COLLECTIVE NARRATIVES “A THOUGHT-PROVOKING DISPLAY of history in a contemporary setting”, said Deva Tolath, one of many members of the public who were present at the Historia SG seminar. The Historia SG programme, in its second year of collaboration with the National Museum of Singapore, has put forth a number of events with the intention to engage both students and members of the public over the course of four months. Held on the 4th August, “Personal Voices within Collective Narratives” was the second seminar session of this programme. The seminar kicked off with a simple question: Who is more accurate in portraying history – a fact-oriented historian or a playwright? The answer seems obvious: the historian, of course. But Chong Tze Chien begs to differ. His lecture educated the audience on the fundamental purpose of his plays: displaying emotional truth. While he has license to exercise his creativity with the facts, the emotional truth or journey of the subject remains untainted in his creations. This is a theme that followed suit with the next speaker, Riri Riza. He uses a similar medium, film, to create historical dramas that are said to be more accurate at reflecting the social climate of the political periods of Indonesia than factual historical records of the nation. The seminar did well at reminding us that outside of the facts, personal voices also offer a creative and alternative glimpse into history.
Historia SG 2012 Part 1 – History & Theatre: Inspirational Sources and Personal Narratives in the Construction of a Play by Chong Tze Chien Part 2 – Using History to Create Film by Riri Riza Part 3 – Prize Presentation for ‘Hi-Story, My Story’ Filmmaking Competition
GERILYNN YEE FILM REVIEW / SANDCASTLES BY BOO JUN FENG
JARROD CHOO JARRODCHOO@GMAIL.COM BOOK REVIEW / THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR BY YOKO OGAWA
BUILDING SANDCASTLES MEMORIES MAKE US – that statement is, I trust, something that any history student will be able to appreciate. We are the sum of our experiences and we use these to anchor our identities. Without a sense of our past it becomes difficult, impossible even, to define who we are in the present – be it as an individual or as a community. The award winning feature film Sandcastle in which writer- director Boo Junfeng explores the nature of memory and remembrance has taken up this theme. A coming-of-age story of a boy named En, the film also dwells into issues of memory and remembrance and the tensions between individual and collective memories. After years of confidence in the knowledge of who his parents are, En discovers his father’s involvement in the Chinese student demonstrations of the 50s. His mother’s reticence and outright denial of her husband’s involvement in such activities despite all the evidence adds another layer of tension to the film – that of forced amnesia; a purposeful forgetting. En’s grandmother’s worsening dementia and memory loss strains the family’s relations even harder and shows the crippling effect of memory loss not only on the individual, but on those around her as well. These events shake En’s sense of identity as he tries to deal with the changes in his life. Sandcastle is a charming and tender story which brings up many thought-provoking questions about the nature of memory and the dynamics between personal and collective memory. In taking up the topic of the Chinese student demonstrations of the 1950s, Boo subtly hints at a relooking of the historical actors involved in that historical period. The tensions between personal and collective memory is everpresent in human societies. Living in collective groups as most individuals do opens the door to one’s experiences being subjected to the tyranny of the collective’s memory. An individual’s experience of an event might be sidelined – or even disregarded - in the collective remembrance if it differs too much or it simply is not a version of events that the group endorses. The impact of this suppression on the individual is something that the film explores through the character of En’s mother. Despite having been fervently passionate about politics (commonly labeled “Communist” but still, debatable) in her youth together with her eventual husband, she is forced to repress those memories to fit into society and become a responsible parent for her child. This chapter of Singapore’s history remains a relatively silent one as yet, suppressed by the national narrative. The film intimates the complex terrain of memory, remembrance and the writing of history and the numerous possibilities for historical enquiry. Much of the terrain is as yet unchartered and significantly, professional historians are not the exclusive explorers. Within the context of Singapore, there has been a steady and growing interest in social histories and individual memories. Besides texts authored by historians, films such as Tan Pin Pin’s Invisible City and Eng Yee Peng’s Diminishing Memories also contribute to the in-
creasing plurality of perspectives in issues in Singapore’s history. Much effort has been made to try and fill in the blanks in our young nation’s history, bringing to light untold stories and imagining a Singapore that could have been. For the silenced voices, being able to speak out about their individual experiences would make for a cathartic healing experience. It is a process that should be encouraged and the existence of various versions of memories need not be seen as a threat to a community’s identity. An enduring sense of affinity and community derives
not from elimination of all dissenting voices but rather, from acknowledgment, open discussion and negotiation between all members of the collective. The impetus to document these silenced voices only grows with time’s passing. To borrow from Boo’s metaphor, just like sandcastles on a beach – how transient, how mutable our memories are against the tides of time.
RELATIONSHIP MINUS MEMORY HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS ARE often built on the foundation of memories; reproducing events involving those around us in our minds help sustain and even nurture the bond we have with loved ones. Is it possible, then, that people can still draw close in the lack of sustained memory? Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, a story of how the relationship between three people develops in the absence of remembrance, hints toward this possibility. The Professor is a brilliant mathematician who lives with only eighty minutes of short-term memory and the Housekeeper is a single mother assigned to look after the aged Professor. Together with her son, Root, named after the flat top of his head that resembles a square root sign, a curious relationship develops between them, even as the Professor has to be repeatedly introduced to both mother and child. Despite his eighty-minute memory, the Professor still vividly recalls mathematical equations and number theories. Using them, he brings significance to anything regarding the Housekeeper or Root, whether it is their birthdates or shoe size – “There’s a sturdy number. It’s the factorial of four”, says the Professor after learning that the Housekeeper’s shoe size is 24 centimeters. Gradually, he also becomes a significant part of their lives as seemingly abstract numbers come to life in even the most mundane things that exist among the trio. Root
and the Professor, in particular, develop an intimate bond over their mutual love for baseball and, of course, baseball statistics. While it seems unfathomable that a relationship can exist on eighty minutes of memory, reading through The Housekeeper and the Professor will give one an inkling that, perhaps, there is something beyond memory that is able to create a link between two (or in this case, three) souls, albeit with a little extra help – the Professor clips small pieces of notes onto his clothes to refer to once his memory “restarts” itself. This novel, however, is not one containing deep philosophies about human relations and memory, nor is it a story with winding twists and turns. Simply, it is a telling of the development of relationships between the three main characters in a remarkable setting. Perhaps, sentiment and attachment can still grow out of genuine compassion and love, even in the void left by the passing of one’s memory; emotions can still be felt even when one fails to recall events when such emotions were displayed. The Housekeeper and the Professor is highly recommended to readers seeking a light read that contains a healthy dose of charm and emotion, lightly peppered with number theorems. The novel has also been made into a movie entitled The Professor’s Beloved Equation.
THE DECISION BY the Government to construct an eight-lane expressway through Bukit Brown has met with much disapproval from various civic groups such as the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS). However, the Bukit Brown incident is merely one in a long heritage of events that perhaps reflects the Government’s inability to understand the importance of memory and landmarks in a nation’s psyche. It happened when they close down the old iconic red-brick National Library, it happened again when they closed Clifford Pier but the official rhetoric is always the same. In the pursuit of progress, these landmarks are merely hindrances, erased from the public consciousness. It is an alluring argument. After all, no one owes us a living and we will be left biting the dust if we do not prioritise progress. What could be better than shiny new buildings à la the new National Library at Victoria Street? The looming towers of Marina Bay Sands stand as a testament to the Government’s faithfulness to the cult of progress.
AUGUSTIN CHIAM THERIDGE.OPINION@NUSSU.EDU.SG PHOTOGRAPHY BY LAI JUN WEI
It is not just the physical landmarks that are being removed; even our historical narratives are constantly being re-shaped, re-written and re-defined. I am not sure how many among us (much less the younger generation) still remember the legend of Sang Nila Utama or the legend of Bukit Merah. These were stories that enthralled me and made me feel right at home, to be Singaporean. These stories might not be completely accurate or even true but they are tales that create memories of the place, memories and narratives unique to Singapore. To share the same historical narratives is a huge part of building a common identity. Nation-building is part story-telling. Without these myths and historical narratives, pray tell, what is so unique about Uniquely Singapore? Instead, we have supplanted these rich historical parables with our own modern “The Singapore Story”, the dominant plot being that of the People’s Action Party (PAP) bringing us from a lowly “third world” status to glorious “first world” status. We are so bad at preserving our collective historical memories that we even have to create fake ones like the “Merlion”. The part-lion, part-fish oddity was created by a certain Mr. Fraser Brunner, who in all likelihood was probably not even Malayan, in 1964 for the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board. That the “Merlion”, an artificial construct that hold little historical value, has become a ubiquitous symbol for Singapore is an indictment of the Government’s failure to capture and preserve our heritage. The contrast is even more acute when one is overseas. As I walk the cobbled streets of Europe, I marvel at some of the grand monuments that have stood the test of time. No, I am not referring to the Eiffel Tower. It is the “Merlion” of Paris but even then, it has lasted a longer time than our old National Library. I am referring to The Colosseum in Italy, the Palace of Versailles in France and the Westminster Abbey in Britain. These monuments are so integral to the national psyche that it would be unimaginable that anyone would destroy them in favour of new roads and shiny new buildings. Some might argue that it is an unfair comparison. Singapore has such a short history, of course we do not have the kind of monuments that Europe has. Aside from the fact that we have been so accustomed to thinking
about Singapore from the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles that we have white-washed the whole history of the place prior 1819, the rate at which we are destroying historical sites such as Bukit Brown should already raise alarm bells and make us question whether the Government is at all serious about creating a national identity. Try a simple thought experiment: think about how many places that existed during your growing up days still look the same or still exist at all? One place that has held precious memories for many families is the McDonald’s at East Coast Park and even that has been shut down because of “redevelopment” plans. In a video commemorating the closure of McDonald’s at East Coast Park, one regular customer said, “this place used to be our second home, so it is like our kitchen being demolished.” These sites and places of our childhood act as anchors to our past, allowing us to have a reference point by which to construct our own historical narrative. Without these physical “memory anchors”, we risk getting lost, without a means to remember what happened. Memory is so central to the idea of identity. Take away memory, physical or otherwise, and our identity is dead. Take the case of Pinochet’s oppressive regime in Chile. Under Pinochet’s regime, several people were kidnapped and killed. Their bodies, dumped or destroyed, never to be seen again. The reason the kidnappers did that was to try and erase the memories of the family members and make people doubt whether those who were kidnapped even exist in the first place. Furthermore, political prisoners are given numbers and forbidden to ever use their names. The reason is that by forcing them to use numbers instead of names, they were effectively given new identities. The moment they forget their name, their old identity is as good as dead. Politicians and historians know this truth, memories, identity, places and history are all intricately connected. The government is definitely not blind to what are the places that are integral to the memories of Singaporeans. In his National Day Rally speech in 2012, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned a few sites that got a few understanding nods from members of the audience, places like Orchard Road Carpark and the old Bras Basah (where the Singapore Management University is situated now). These are places that the Prime Minister considers part of his memory and yet, no efforts were made to preserve them. There is a common criticism that the conservation of certain sites are always motivated by power elites but when the memories of our Prime Minister is deemed secondary to the goal of progress then we know something has gone mightily wrong. We have sacrificed all forms of memory on the altar of the idol of progress. Is our national identity dead? Will our feelings of who we are as Singaporeans survive the onslaught of destruction against the historical landmarks? It is no wonder that so many Singaporeans do not feel at home in Singapore. No, it is not the crowded trains, the flooded streets or the throng of immigrants that have made Singaporeans suffer a crisis and display a seeming lack of national unity. We are lost because our identity is surely being robbed from us. When everything has been sanitised by the construction of modern-looking new things, roads, buildings and what-nots, I fear that we would not be able to answer the question, “What is a Singaporean?”
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