A long time ago, I used to attend dance classes at the National Theatre. Each time my father drove me there he would point out the red-brick facade of the building, and say that he owned part of it. Even though I already knew the answer, this conversation was a routine performance that each somehow felt the other expected, and so I would dutifully ask why he said that.
“Because,” he would reply triumphantly, “I paid for one of those bricks.”
I played around the front steps of the National Theatre while waiting for my father to pick me up after class each Saturday, loving the way the pointed sharpness of the brick structures contrasted with the roundness of the fountain in front of it, and the garden that to my little girl’s eyes seemed to stretch away infinitely into the distance.
The National Theatre was supposed to be a symbol of the nation, with its design incorporating references to the Singapore flag. It was also one of the places where the construction of Singapore as a multiracial nation was first enacted, through ethnic cultural performances.
They tore down the National Theatre in 1986.
The National Library at Stamford Road was a place where I spent many happy hours browsing among books that smelled like they had a history behind them. Starting out with the Children’s Section and then progressing to the General Section on the first floor, I eventually visited the Reference Section most frequently when I was in secondary school and junior college. The building was beautifully placed, made of warm red brick, and visited by a steady stream of people who loved to read. I don’t know if my father ‘owned’ part of that building too, but I associate that building with my budding independence. No one drove me there in the years of my most intensive use of the resources it contained. I went by bus or train.
They tore down the National Library in 2004.
The Bukit Brown cemetery is slated to be cleared for a new dual four-lane road. People in the Rochor area are losing their homes for a new expressway. There has been much unhappiness expressed over these issues. The government line, faithfully reported in and backed up by the mainstream media, is that we must be pragmatic. No one likes change. But we are a land-scarce country, and it is not as though there are no solutions. The cemetery is going to gain a new lease of life in the virtual world. Rochor residents are getting new flats in Kallang. What, our efficient but clueless technocrats are wondering, is everyone whining about?
One letter writer in TODAY puts it very well when he says that “communities take many years to grow, and cannot simply be transplanted from one built environment to another”. Philip Holden suggests a refreshing new framework that the government can use, one in which heritage conservation does not have to clash with efficient land use.
It is hard to call a place home when every square inch you invested your memories into gets swept away in the rhetoric of zoning policies and national development. How do you create an identity of citizenship that is rooted in a nation when there is no physical part of the nation to root it to? I have often thought of Singapore as Legoland. Buildings are easily erected, and just as easily dismantled. Citizens are like those little Lego people whom you can fix in place so that they seem rooted. But then with just a little force you can tug them out of the positions you assigned them and plant them somewhere else.
Real people don’t go so easily. Real people need a sense of community. We are social beings who need to build connections with each other. In so many years of civic and citizenship education, National Day Rally speeches, articles by local journalists in the mainstream media and other platforms for the dissemination of national messages, we are told that we must build a sense of loyalty to the nation. This is our home, we are told. We must build communities that are multiracial.
Yet the moment we go past the carefully crafted performances of citizenship represented by events such as Chingay and Racial Harmony Day, and actually start putting down roots in our physical spaces that intertwine with the roots of those around us, we are told that in the name of progress, it is time to uproot and move. Apparently the only sense of citizen identity we are allowed is one that is modular.
We are home-hungry. Community-hungry. And dare I say – dialogue-hungry. It’s not just about the decisions that are made, but the way in which they are made. In my next blog post, I have a story to tell about a group of people who tried to save their community, lost the fight, but emerged from the experience with new insights about the need to change the way in which citizens and the state engage each other.