History Doesn’t Belong to the Dead

Where the obelisks of glass and steel soar into the sky, there had once been redbrick buildings barely five stories tall. As the original housing site for the first few residents of public housing, Duxton is the perfect setting for the 50th HDB Anniversary Project, the Pinnacle @ Duxton. Though nothing remains of the original buildings, 50 years of history and memories are seeped into the foundations of this modern technological feat.

Just as the Pinnacle is built on the rubble of old HDB blocks, so Singapore’s landscape has been and continues to be constantly transformed, renovated, renewed. No surprise then that the late MM Lee requested his old 38 Oxley Road residence demolished, as is customary in Singapore. In the ever-pragmatic mind of the MM, the home was merely a cog in the Singaporean machine, a part that could and should be replaced with a newer, more functional component. No exceptions. And whilst the publicly unfolding Lee saga has made for much popcorn munching and parliamentary discussion, key questions are being ignored. Questions of a man’s will against a nation’s, questions on why ‘Save Bukit Brown – Save our Stories’ was never a movement?

What is 38 Oxley Road?

But first a little background into the saga (if by virtue of some rock, you’ve missed out on the drama). A public statement released by Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang a few weeks prior called into question the integrity of Mr Lee Hsien Loong and his wielding of power. More specifically, they claimed Mr Lee was having second thoughts about demolishing the house and was using the state as a means to personal ends. While most of public concern surrounds the late MM Lee’s will and its legitimacy, there is a more pertinent discussion to be had on how this incident reflects the way Singapore has come to preserve and construct our history.

Historical Preservation in Singapore

At the heart of Singapore’s preservation efforts is the National Heritage Board, the agency tasked with infusing Singapore with the cultural flavor, the quaintness, the je ne sais quoi that tourists so love. Far from being rooted in any instinctual need to preserve set pieces of our childhood, the NHB has always taken a practical approach to history. It is not hard to see a certain ruthless pragmatism in converting the original CHIJ into a restaurant cum bar or running train lines through the Central Catchment Area.

Undoubtedly, public opinion was sought and compiled dutifully in each of these instances as required by the Preservation of Monuments Act. Yet when it comes to the weight pegged to these public opinions, it would be questionable at best.

When it comes to 38 Oxley Road, there were multiple options raised by committees and the public such as curating or recreating important venues from the house elsewhere. In the presence of a range of options, here’s why public opinion matters when deciding how to proceed. History and its preservation is a collective effort. Our shared stories of the past are not the government’s to write, it is that of the people. When I walk through the Dragon Playground of Toa Payoh with my children a decade later, I would reminisce the times spent with childhood friends chasing bubbles and creatures of make-belief. I’ll remember the value of such shared spaces as more than mere relics of the past, incapable of affecting the present or future. These spaces underpin our understanding of our predecessors and give context to present attitudes. If we were to choose the option of relocation or recreating the house there are certain implications we need to be aware of. Relocating historical spaces to synthetic pockets of ‘culture’ irreversibly alter the records of history, for the act of dusting off a specimen, peering at a specimen and placing it in a glass case with a label and plaque, that ends discussion, closes minds to alternative interpretations. That means, if the house were to recreated elsewhere, we might unintentionally alter the way future generations of Singaporeans perceive the beliefs and values of our pioneers.

That being said, it is just as fair to question why preserving physical evidence has anything to do with our memory of the past. It is stifling to insist that physical preservation is the only way in which our past can be remembered or recorded. Whether we’re willing to make the trade-off and place significant value on a monument’s role in history, the decision should ultimately reflect the sentiments of the society most. And this is where Singapore’s form of cultural preservation is rather problematic.

Why should the people matter?

When we assume an ‘experts know best’ attitude, we shift the focus and control of history away from the people it impacts the most. Similarly, we cannot assert that as forward thinking as the late MM Lee was, his preference is the best for the nation and its memory. Understanding that Oxley Road involves both private and national interests, no personal position, even that of the late MM Lee, can be used to assert that demolition is our only option. Old shop houses and other sites of heritage reclaimed by the government regarded the interests of owners juxtaposed against the sites’ heritage value and this case should be no different. This is why it’s all the more important that decisions on Oxley Road be given time to ensure a proper reflection of the likely legacy it would leave in society. What’s missing is that this process should be replicated for all other relevant sites of heritage value as well, albeit on a scale proportional to its significance in our history. We should have seen similar processes when considering Bukit Brown or the countless spaces being constantly remodeled. In the case of Bukit Brown, a total of 3,442 graves had to be exhumed to make way for roadworks but in contrast we hardly looked into how the artefacts were being preserved or how consent was ascertained when it came to uprooting the dead. Would seeing the manner in which burial was done significantly add to our understanding of our ancestor’s way of life? Would it matter? We’ll never know.

How much should the words of the dead matter?

On a deeper level, this controversy also brings into question the value of respecting the wishes of the dead when considering matters of the future. Granted, the original shop house owners of Chinatown may not have mentioned much in their will about how they wished their homes to be preserved. Yet the logic holds that if we are to give inordinate priority to the wishes of the Late MM Lee as per his will, we should do so for most other properties in a similar dilemma. Revisionism, i.e. the possibility of MM Lee’s legacy being interpreted differently by future generations, should not be a cause for fear or apprehension when it comes to legacy building. Yet this seems to be one of the gripes against preservation of any sort of the Oxley Road site. In fact this possibility is all the more reason to preserve aspects of such sites – to enable revisionism to occur. Revisionism is simply a reflection of how future societies wish to interpret our past and present decisions and primarily affects these future societies. Claiming that an individual’s present wishes should be followed unquestioningly and should dictate the worldview of future generations seems unnecessarily restrictive.

How do we proceed?

With plenty, and some would say more than necessary, parliamentary debate and discussion over the matter, the entire nation would appreciate a smooth resolution to the conflict. Yet, the questions that apply here apply to our overall attitude towards heritage building as well. The ramifications of our historical records will never fully be understood or appreciated in the present but that isn’t reason for society to treat preservation with aloofness. If we want to be understood accurately, the records should be under the charge of society at large and it’s our duty to act upon it. This is precisely why having a committee to put together a proposal accurately reflecting the nation’s sentiments is necessary for any monument of historical significance. Ensuring the validity of such a committee to represent the views of Singapore is equally important.

Ultimately, how we remember our past is not for the dead and buried but for the future that has yet to emerge.

-Ethxre

*a/n this piece was largely co-written with a friend of mine so a short thanks to him too!

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