Singaporeans are “rightly” proud of Jewel, according to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. “It resonates with Singaporeans, because it reminds us that when we dream big and apply ourselves, nothing is impossible,” the PM said at the opening of what he described as one of Singapore’s “instantly recognisable icons”. The first issue is: Why are we so obsessed with creating instant icons? The bigger picture issue is: Are we still stuck in the same no one else does things better than us, only us, syndrome or, to put it crudely another way, a psychotic Ownself Praise Ownself disorder.
Those who have not yet joined the 40 million people who have visited Jewel since April are probably still unsure what the $1.7 billion complex is. Readers of our local mainstream media have been finding themselves buried by an overkill of charts and diagrams which have cluttered our visuals. All you really need to know is that Jewel is not a terminal, it is an entertainment and retail complex which has come up where the former open carpark in front of Terminal 1 was. It is linked to all the current terminals – 1, 2, 3 and 4. And when Terminal 5 starts running, there will obviously be trains to the super terminal.
In praising Jewel – and by extension, the government – PM Lee mentioned how we have come a long way from Paya Lebar to Changi. He is wrong. There was Kallang. Chief Minister David Marshall and his all-party delegation flew in and out of Kallang Airport in 1956 for their self-government talks in London. Lee Kuan Yew then was just a minor player in the talks. Kallang was our first airport – hence Kallang Airport Estate. Perhaps, Kallang was skimmed over because the PAP narrative did not quite start with David Marshall or Kallang where a massive post-self-government Expo celebration was once held which had nothing whatsoever to do with the current government.
What the PAP can take credit for is the good decision to move the airport from Paya Lebar with its limited space and a fast-growing air travel industry to Changi which was built on reclaimed land. Since not a word was muttered about the role of the late President Ong Teng Cheong in PM Lee’s speech, we can hope some praise would come eventually about the contribution of the then Transport Minister, the one who, as President “just doing his job”, was told to his face by some gurang ajar (boh tua boh suay) or rice bowl guarding civil servants that it would take 56-man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the country’s immovable assets.
Talking about icons, Ong, an architect by profession, helped design the airport’s control tower. He suggested that the tower be positioned away from the terminal for maximum visual impact. The tower has since become a Singapore icon after Changi was opened in 1981, 38 years ago. The organic process took years. Was his name mentioned in the Jewel opening speech? A resounding No.
In the rush to conjure up “instantly recognisable icons” from the magic hat of progress and future planning, we should not get into the trap of building white elephants or deluding ourselves that ordinary Singaporeans will somehow automatically benefit from these projects.
Just how many Singaporeans can enjoy all the attractions of the White Elephant Gardens by the Bay? Which lucky residents from Toa Payoh, Eunos, Yew Tee or Boon Lay have been to the top of Marina Bay Sands or shop at its swanky designer gallery or shops? Is the disruptive rich man’s hobby called F1 an activity that Singaporeans look forward to every year? And what has happened to the great Sports Hub whose goings-on now seem alien to many Singaporeans, it is like something located on Mars or the moon unlike Kallang stadium which was a genuinely recognisable icon, its Roar included. It was torn down to make way for the over budget Sports Hub. By the way, another important icon – the National Theatre – was demolished and replaced by nothing of significance.
Any self-described icon is no icon if no one cares about it. An icon becomes one if it becomes a landmark for an era, a community, a natural or human asset or a location. I would say the Merlion is iconic, like Copenhagen’s mermaid, the Niagara Falls, New York’s Times Square or Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. I am at a loss to place Jewel.
The jury is out on Jewel – whether it will be iconic or whether the businesses there are sustainable. There have been some reports of some outlets struggling with business. It is too early to tell whether it will be successful. Is its presumably high-maintenance indoor waterfall an unnecessary cosmetic, acting as a stage prop with no real purpose except to create an artificial forest atmosphere? Will Jewel be just another shopping centre, of which we have far too many?
Why are we so obsessed with creating instant icons? Are we suffering from a massive sense of insecurity or, taking the flip side of the coin, a national narcissistic disorder, characterised by an excessive need for admiration?
One of the biggest turnoffs in living in Singapore is having to endure all the noises emanating from a ceaseless Netflix-like streaming of self-praise. If you listen more closely to the noises, you will realise that the self-praise and self-endorsement have taken on questionable proportions island-wide. For example, the mainstream media concoct awards to give to their own staff in the name of industry recognition, when the industry has long ceased to be independent or professional! In the arts, there seem to be so many awards being dished out that you will be forgiven for thinking that Singapore has a vibrant and thriving world-class arts scene. Or that our talents are making themselves truly felt around the region or the world. Who has heard of our musicians or composers? Where are our over-achieving world stage icons?
Where are our Jimmy Choos or Michelle Yeohs? Where are our scientists or pioneering doctors?
We should be getting the following deep recognition more often. It just went to a Malaysian: “The Dr Josef Steiner Cancer Foundation is awarding the Dr. Josef Steiner Cancer Research Award 2019 to Prof Serena Nik-Zainal, who is a Malaysian. The bioinformatician from the Department of Medical Genetics and the MRC cancer unit at the University of Cambridge is receiving the award in recognition of her ground-breaking research in developing new methods in the field of bioinformatics for the clinically-relevant classification of tumours.”
The biennial award, which was donated in the 1980s by Dr. Josef Steiner, a pharmacist from Biel/Bienne, comes with a cash prize of one million Swiss francs (Sing$1.37million). Kudos to Prof Serena.
Forget about creating instant icons. Just do great things that the world or your fellow men or women will remember.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.