Bukit Brown: Will we really remember our cultural identity?

~ By Ng Yi Shu ~

The debate with regards to Bukit Brown had raged for close to a year. With LTA’s and MND’s go-ahead on the eight-lane highway and the call for moratorium on the highway gone unheeded, there is nothing the NGOs can do today to stop the destruction of our heritage. But with all honesty, will we remember the our ancestral heritage and culture?

Will we even care? This is a hard question that no one wants to answer, but still, it beseeches an answer. This is not a question about policy nor governance. This is a question about our society, identity and narrative in general. This is a hard question to answer.

It was only the destruction of the old National Library building that sparked the debate to determine which of the two important matters of urban development and heritage preservation was more important in our society. Personally, I am too young to remember the destruction of the old National Theatre, but I do remember as a young boy reading that the government was intending to destroy the old National Library and that some commemorative red bricks from the building would be sold to heritage enthusiasts. In retrospect, I understand why people chose to pay money to purchase a piece of history about to be destroyed – because a picture of a place, though it speaks a thousand words, cannot compare to the experience of a place humans remember.

That is the same reason I took the chance to visit my great-great grandmother’s grave at Bukit Brown. My family is lucky that the grave is a fair distance from the highway and that it would be preserved.

Until the next development comes along.

Fact is, many of us do not remember the past. Many of us chose to forget the stories we have been taught since young: that of the first pioneers of Singapore, what they had built and the traditions they practiced. I am also guilty of the same thing: my understanding of old Chinatown came from a museum trip and a trail around the area. I would have never visited Bukit Brown if I did not know of the personal connection my family and I had of that area.

In my personal opinion, forgetting is not a sin. The circumstances that made us forget were understandable – we were a young country with dreams – dreams that we would be wealthy enough someday. These same dreams took us overseas – to study, to work, or for some, to sightsee. These same dreams brought back other cultures. Our open nature allowed for a melting pot of cultures to happen. Then, technological advancement came, accelerating this melting pot. We yearned for Western modernity. We worked for it. We became wealthy as a nation. In the end, there was neither time nor interest in our heritage or culture.

Then came the great privatisation of our media and the introduction of cable TV. The transformation of the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation into Mediacorp today was hailed by many back then as a move to increase of broadcasting freedoms. However, a culture of self-censorship ensued. This, coupled with our yearning for other, ‘better’ cultures caused Singaporean media to be overlooked. Affluent viewers purchased alternatives from other countries, which created huge followings – that of JPOP and KPOP.

But, will we remember?

Politically, yes. The Bukit Brown Highway will remain a sore point. Citizens had many concerns – ranging from how the development of Bukit Brown would allow for more foreigners to come here to the environmental and ecological impact. Others took offence to the preservation of SICC and questioned the reasons why the country club for the wealthy was not spared. The decision to build the highway will, to some, represent the indifference the government has towards the people. The controversy will raise into public consciousness the importance of tradition and culture.

But such a negative event should not be the trigger for us Singaporeans to start caring about our roots again. In fact, the onus should be on us to explore, to see and to experience our heritage. Those that have been kept – the Chinatown shophouses, Sri Mariamman Temple, Masjid Jamae… the list goes on. The onus should be on us to maintain the emotional connection we have to our past. It is, after all, our choice to remember; our choice to be rooted; our choice to belong.