Singapore Is Heading To Space

But it’s not what you think.

It happened when I was watching this year’s new National Day music video. As the 6-piece 53A strummed away, singing about “Tomorrow’s here today”, icons of nostalgia like a plastic stool, formica tables, trishaws and now-celebrated dragon playground were paraded with pride across the screen.

But remembering how that same playground barely survived demolition in 2013, I was starkly reminded that our city planners may not have exhibited the kind of foresight represented in the video, even if nationally-commissioned collaterals seem to celebrate them. Remember the old brick-red National Library? I’m sure many citizens still wonder if the few seconds saved at the Fort Canning tunnel justifies the building’s teardown.

Singapore, being a wee 50 years-old, is a country lacking in many natural resources. What we do have, are our people. And the other only now-emerging – our history. Why is that a resource? Because history (and the places that represent them) hold memories, and in turn, generates ties to nurture a national identity. And this motivational patriotism will come with a lifetime warranty – the sort that goes beyond an annual display of shimmering gunpowder and soot.

This year, from September onwards, we will likely lose another three icons – Rochor Centre and her colourful flats, the four quaint Siglap HDBs, and the time-capsule that is Dakota Estate.

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The colourful Rochor Centre and her flats. Photo: jeremylimdl.com

All three estates have been slated for demolition, to be replaced by a highway, land sale and residential redevelopment respectively. It all bears out well – when you use a calculator. But ask any Singaporean and many will carry the same tune that we are losing too much of their childhood memories to the unforgiving dozer. And as memories get flattened, so do the sprouting culture that is just beginning to evolve.

Even with assurances from national developers promising to “improve” the three estates with high-value projects, perhaps the word value needs to be assigned to something that is less tangible and one that’s a growing challenge in Singapore’s horizon – that of her identity as home to her people.

At least one official at Singapore Heritage Society agrees on the significant cultural contribution. Dr Yeo Kang Shua, conservation architect and SHS secretary said, “Purely from a heritage point of view, I think it certainly has value.” HDB backs this by offering to balance the needs with efforts to “take cognisance of the social memories of the area when redevelopment takes place in the future.”

Coming from another angle, Mountbatten Member of Parliament Lim Biow Chuan pointedly offered that, “those who like the heritage don’t live here (Dakota)”. Pertinent note, except that a quick search of the many documentative videos have residents saying otherwise. Why the disconnect?

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Some of those who are trying to save Dakota. Photo: straitstimes.com

So I realised that Singapore is like an astronaut, all kitted in the best science has to offer. Shiny, powerful and curious, we explore and try to master and make sense of the space around us. But as we venture, we need to remember that we also need to be tethered, and not recklessly jet into the dark, believing we can claim the universe for all it’s worth.

Funnily, it took a New York cultural blog to highlight the Dragon playground in 2012 as one of the “15 best playgrounds in the world” that allegedly saved it from the ball. Are we really so dependent on the voices of others to tell our story? Maybe we need better facilitation of open dialogues between agencies and locals to have a more balanced voice.

The fates of Bukit Brown, Rochor Centre and the Siglap flats might be sealed, but groups are still picketing online for Dakota estate and Macritchie reservoir. Facebook groups, moving video tributes and even artistic movements like the recent [ART] IgnorLAND of its Loss can be said to represent the sentiments of Singaporeans loud and clear.

As we move past SG50, it’s clear that Singapore needs to start maturing her persona to balance her gleaming exterior. What use is that expensive spacesuit if the pilot doesn’t have an ambition, and otherwise only driven by profit? The challenge to build a Singaporean identity can be as simple as our city agencies moving beyond internal advice, listening and trusting the people, as they work on projects to build up the worth of an area in balanced measure of cents and sense. Taking Dakota as an example, a community area can be developed, with existing residential redevelopment focusing on enhancing and expanding some compounds within the spacious estate. Although gentrification is a possibility, that is a lesser evil to complete eradication.

This sort of creative melding needs to happen soon, because the decisions are irreversible when the choice is for demolition. When the shiny buildings come up yet again, do we even feel compelled to belong and protect them anymore? If the governing boards do not even try to propose a different formula, we may end up being a stranded astronaut, floating further, before realising – there’s only that much oxygen left in our tank.

First published: Epoch Times, Singapore print edition (August 2016)
Featured photo: pics-about-space.com

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