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Founders Memorial: Reminder of the huge vacuum left behind by 1G leaders

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah




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As the speech-impaired 4G leaders continue to get themselves exposed as less than worthy successors to the giants of yesteryear, the Founders Memorial, which will remind us of the huge vacuum left behind, is taking shape.  It’s down to a shortlist of five designs, with the winning design to be announced next year. I just want to offer my humble thoughts on the whole exercise.

The five designs are outstanding and world-class. The competing teams  – 8DGE + RSP Architects, Cox Architecture + architects61, DP Architects, Johnson Pilton Walker + RDC Architects and Kengo Kuma & Associates + K2LD Architects – have done themselves proud. Every one of the designs would capture well the concept of commemorating  the founding fathers’ contributions and the values that shaped the country. My personal choice is the Cox Architecture + architects61 design. It is bold and striking – encapsulating the spirit of the 1G pioneers.

Even at this stage, however, it should not be too late to tell the people in charge of the project that there are certain things they should consider when executing Exercise Founders Memorial.

The memorial should:

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Celebrate and educate

Please do not let it be yet another ugly effort to push through a particular narrative and ignore the part played by others along the road to Merdeka. The People’s Action Party 1G leaders were not the only ones involved in the fight for independence. Even the last British governors helped usher the island into self-government.  Robert Black and William Goode (who in fact was the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara before Yusof Ishak who later became Singapore’s first President) did not leave the state in chaos during the transition. Thankfully.

All the highly motivated and capable adversaries of Lee Kuan Yew were fighting for a common cause – the end of colonial rule. They should not be ignored or forgotten. They were anti-colonial compatriots within the PAP before they exiled themselves, got detained or split up to form the Barisan Sosialis. Ong Lian Teng, father of Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Barisan MP for Bukit Panjang, was one of them, together with Lim Chin Siong and Lee Siew Choh.  Dominic Puthucheary, father of Senior  Minister of State (Communications and Information) Janil Puthucheary, was another.

And whatever is planned for the story projection within the memorial should include the part played by David Marshall and Lim Yew Hock (the first two Chief Ministers when Singapore attained self-government) and Ong Eng Guan, the first Mayor, who was effectively the most senior PAP government leader until LKY came into the picture.

The FM planners should not be arbitrary and one-sided in their interpretation of Singapore’s history. If they are, they will be performing a great disservice to history and the country.

Have emotional impact

The memorial must connect strongly with whoever visits it. The visitor must be able to feel and share the spirit and motivation of the leaders in their moments of uncertainty and decision. And it must go beyond being just a paean. It has to be a sharing experience.  And this sharing is simply not possible with rah-rah cardboard and Disneyland-like narratives. Dig deep for the right approach.

Be an oasis for reflection

The memorial is not a shrine where people have to genuflect and do their rituals. It is more a triumph but it should also be a place to reflect. So the final plans should bear in mind not to allow visitors (or operators) to turn the memorial into a noisy pasar malam.

Allow a rejection vote

It would be useful to gauge to what extent ordinary Singaporeans identify with or even support the memorial.  In the online feedback on the designs, give Singaporeans an option 6 – to say NO to the shortlisted designs – and/or option 7 – to totally reject the idea of a founders memorial.

Get their feedback as part of the process of embedding the Founders Memorial in the psyche of a still new and evolving nation. Putting up a physical structure is only the beginning and not an end in itself.

Fifty years from now, it should be an organic part of the Singapore identity, that they can be intimately familiar with these pioneers as, for example, Americans are with theirs.  If not, the memorial would have been an expensive failure and nothing more than a piece of vanity.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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