By Mallika Naguran
Singapore 10 April. Nearly 50 years after peeling away from British hold and influence, Singapore is still trying to paint its own identity and sculpt its destiny in the arts. It is still experimenting with the right mix of matter and gravitas to capture the hearts of its people with culture.
To appreciate culture, we are often told to go back to our roots and explore the connections to the traditions and customs of the past. For that, we are asked to visit museums.
The Singapore way of administering culture has taken on a sadly cookie-cutter approach: Pick a historical building, call it a museum, bring in interesting relics and monuments, promote the concept, charge a fee and watch the people come in. Visitor and volunteer numbers plus participation in events become the performance indicators of how well-received such museums are.
Not enough numbers? Make entry free, then, for Singapore citizens and permanent residents. No excuses now for Singaporeans to ignore culture and the arts.
The built environment for culture and the arts is growing, with most museums and galleries concentrated in the city. It is also commendable that several heritage buildings are being conserved. And effort is being put into taking these into the heartlands, such as the Museum@Taman Jurong at Taman Jurong Community Club.
LIVING SPACES IN HDB ESTATES
As London compares the number of its museums and galleries with other cultural cities such as Paris, Berlin or Barcelona to benchmark its achievements, Singapore, too, can compete with other leading art and cultural meccas in Asia — but on a different tack.
I would argue that, for culture and the arts to thrive in Singapore, we should usher them to where we are.
Living spaces within housing estates and public spaces are devoid of cultural and artistic merit. The architecture of buildings, such as Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, is mostly modern, non-themed and uninspiring. Apartment walls and void decks, playgrounds, bus stations, pedestrian pavements, canal embankments — these are places frequented by residents, and they provide ready canvasses for artistic elements.
Take the iconic structures along Boat Quay — the sculptures of the kuching, the leaping boys and the bullock cart. Why not have similar figurines in non-touristy areas?
Expose residents to genres ranging from classical European, Indian or Chinese to contemporary or pop art — Ketna Patel’s witty blend of old and modern Asian elements, for instance, could put a smile on Singaporeans’ faces and a surge of pride for their identity in their hearts.
In Kallang, a mature estate, communal spaces have been upgraded. A circular amphitheatre with a lofty, maritime-inspired roof once stood by the meandering Kallang Canal. It drew youths in dance practices, elders in tai-chi moves and ordinary folk yodelling with their instruments.
This iconic structure has now been replaced with a banal flat roof over a rectangular space with a stage, and unsheltered benches on the periphery. This new structure is impractical and uninspiring. It still serves a purpose, but is no longer a draw.
It also sits right in front of my HDB flat, but my neighbours and I were not asked what sort of design we would like, or how we would like to enjoy this public space.
DESIGN AS MEDIUM
Collaborative design of public spaces is important. Art need not always be the product or end-goal; it can be the medium through which culture is introduced, remembered and celebrated with citizen participation.
To this effect, the Government should look at optimising design in townships to popularise heritage and culture. Let design turn bus stops into cultural stops or playgrounds into play heritage. The dragon motif on the playground of Block 28 in Toa Payoh should be commended for bringing to life mythology in a public space, firing children’s imaginations.
More cultural landmarks are welcome, too, such as the Chinese and Japanese gardens and the gripping Haw Par Villa theme park. As a child, I benefited from visiting all these, even monkeying around at Toa Payoh’s playgrounds. Remember our heritage roads, hills, forests, parks and playgrounds, and use design to preserve precious values and identities.
Let us look to Seoul in South Korea, which is banking on design for sustainable urban growth. Since the devastation of the 1950s Korean War, the city has picked itself up with practical efficiency to become a leading Asian powerhouse. But in recent years, the focus has shifted to using design solutions to make the city healthier, more eco-friendly and enjoyable to live and work in — even as it becomes more populated. Seoul’s design strategy is culturally led, and its people are oriented with five principles: Airy, Integrated, Preserving, Collaborative and Sustainable.
Another way for Singapore to bring culture to the people is to open up streets and parks in housing estates to roadshows and festivals. Cultural street festivals need not be tied to special occasions nor be elaborate and expensive, such as the annual Chingay procession. Schools, interest groups and communities can come together to liven up sterile estates with Asian-themed song, dance, theatre, visual arts and food.
As a way of promoting understanding of other cultures, especially that of migrant workers here, we could have Filipino, Thai and Burmese fairs and festivals. This also presents excellent opportunities for interaction between foreign and local communities in Singapore towards greater social cohesion.
There are also natural environments such as rivers, canals, coastlines and mangrove swamps that imbue vestiges of culture. Fishing by the river and in mangrove swamps for shrimp and crab are age-old cultural and recreational activities.
Urban development often eradicates such nature-oriented activities. Even traditional human settlements like kampungs, with open spaces for fowl and foal, have made way for concrete housing developments. Many kampungs along our coasts have been demolished. Kampong Lorong Fatimah, for instance, was among the few northern coastal villages flattened in the early 1990s to make way for the Woodlands Checkpoint extension, but memories linger. Offerings are placed in the now-abandoned grounds to honour the departed.
A former kampung inhabitant, Ms Nurul Munirah Abdul Samad, laments this change, writing in the media: “My father has this saying: A kampung is a society, but living in an HDB flat made us become individuals.” She notes that, in relocating to Marsiling, the family benefited from better sanitation but at the expense of cultural loss and societal exclusion.
The only surviving village in mainland Singapore is Kampong Buangkok in Hougang, which draws nostalgic Singaporeans each week and has inspired the making of films and documentaries.
Singapore needs to hang on to its natural and built environments instead of wiping them out in the name of progress. Traditional human settlements hold heritage and cultural elements and values that no amount of money or re-enactments in museums or showcase villages can replace.
Let us not promote museums, but culture at the heart of living spaces.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mallika Naguran was born in Toa Payoh and lives in Kallang as an independent researcher and sustainability consultant. She is also the founder of Gaia Discovery.