By Richard Hartung
Imagine a school outing for a history class not far in the future. The teacher points to a condo and explains this was built after tearing down the home of the founding father of Singapore. “We did what former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew told us to do,” the teacher says.
He explains that when Lee talked to the writers of Hard Truths, he said “I’ve told the Cabinet, when I’m dead, demolish it. Demolish my house and change the planning rules …the land value will go up. I don’t think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it, will bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past.”
That house has been at the heart of the development of modern Singapore for more than half a century. In the 1950s, founders of the PAP like Toh Chin Chye and Goh Keng Swee gathered with Lee to discuss and argue about whether to set up a new political party.
After independence, meetings there — both formal and informal — helped determine Singapore’s future. The current prime minister grew up there as well, of course, and he and his family have returned there for lunch and discussions every Sunday for many years.
It will be a shame if his son and the government were to listen to Lee Kuan Yew and allow the house at 38, Oxley Road to be demolished.
There are hundreds of bungalows, schools, government offices and other buildings that have already been demolished to make way for new buildings and more continue to be torn down
Even when buildings are still standing, many bear little resemblance to their past. The former residence of the US ambassador on Grange Road, for example, houses a canteen and has largely lost the elegance of its past. What used to be a quiet and cloistered convent for nuns is now an entertainment complex at Chijmes full of restaurants and nightclubs.
The situation in Singapore is vastly different from what happens in other places. At Mt. Vernon or Monticello in the United States, for example, visitors feel a connection to the country’s founding fathers when they see where George Washington or Thomas Jefferson lived and made momentous decisions. Visitors to William Shakespeare’s home in the UK can tour his house to understand how the place where he grew up shaped his writing.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) does say that a variety of buildings, from shophouses to bungalows and local landmarks, “have been conserved to retain the different memories of Singaporeans from all walks of life.” Walk along someplace like Wilkie Terrace, however, and it can be hard to understand what is important. Buildings on the right are retained while buildings on the left are being torn down.
While some historical sites will undoubtedly continue to exist, it would be hard for the students to understand Singapore’s history fully by looking at places like a condo or an expressway that replaced truly historic sites. Perhaps even more importantly, they and their parents will have far fewer places that keep them connected to Singapore.
Indeed, pulling down historic buildings tears at the social fabric of society. As consultant Phil Rabinowitz wrote in Community Toolbox, historical buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes “embody the intentions, assumptions, and lives of those who built or lived or worked in them. They have stories to tell about what the community was and how it became what it is, and that helps us understand who we are.”
Only by preserving the buildings and neighborhoods at the heart of our community can we truly understand where Singapore came from and feel attached to it..
Three changes may help to preserve history better and maintain connections to the country.
One is to listen to people’s input about their connections with the past and use them to decide what to do for the future. It’s fine to engage experts to consider the architectural significance of a place. It is perhaps equally, or more important, to listen to the people who live here to figure out what matters most and what to save.
As the recent Our Singapore Conversation survey found, “Singaporeans looked for heritage spaces to be preserved as far as possible.”
The second is to preserve the buildings and as much of their interiors as possible rather than just the shell, and make them come alive for people. At Chijmes, for example, showing what life was actually like for the sisters who lived there would have been a valuable lesson. The Old Parliament House could recreate history and show how the success story that is Singapore today actually happened.
Most important, of course, is actually saving the places where history happened, like Lee’s house, churches in the center of town that are crumbling or historic bungalows. Only by doing so may we really retain the soul that makes Singapore home.
Yes, it will take some funding. Yet places like Mt. Vernon in the US have relied on donations and not used government money for over a century. And the Brookings Institution in the US concluded that nearly any way the effects are measured,” historic preservation tends to yield significant benefits to the economy”.
If nothing else, that is good enough a reason to keep important parts of our past alive.
The writer is a consultant