Preserving the memories – Pulau Ubin

By Ghui

The issue of forging a national identity is something that has plagued my mind for a while now. Many of our struggles seem (at least to me) to stem from this rather complex minefield. From our concerns and reactions towards “foreign talent” to our increased vigour in the defence of our rights on the Internet sphere, the search for something that collectively defines us as a country is ubiquitous.

This question of national identity or lack thereof is not new. However, we seem more able to point out what’s not Singaporean as opposed to what is Singaporean – a case of dealing with the effects as opposed to searching for a cure?

The contributory factors to a dearth of “Singaporeaness” are manifold but I do believe a chief culprit to be an absence of places whereby common memories are shared and held. Our mantra of “out with the old and in with the new” has led to a demolition of many locations where ties of “Singaporeaness” have been built.

I will not be the first person nor will I be the last to remark that the skyline of Singapore is ever changing. In our state of rapid development, you cannot walk by a street without seeing some form of construction or other going on. In itself, this is not a bane but the price is that Singaporeans lose a sense of belonging and togetherness when shared places are replaced by the unfamiliar new. That is not to say that rejuvenation is not welcomed but renewal has to be balanced with ensuring that people do not feel unnecessarily displaced.

The latest example of what possibly causes such needless isolation was the supposed eviction of the residents of Pulau Ubin to make way for a proposed adventure park. While the authorities have belatedly clarified that Pulau Ubin was to be preserved, the rather callous way that our government handles urban development gives a rather unsettling feeling that any form of conservation is at best transient and temporary, waiting for the moment when push comes to shove.

Why should another overly commercialised and unnatural theme park even be in the plans? Surely, there are more cultural benefits in retaining Singapore’s last enclave of Kampongs? Apart from Pulau Ubin standing testament to a bygone but integral part of Singapore’s social and historical landscape, it is also home to a wide array of wildlife. In a country that has been labelled “concrete jungle”, shouldn’t this sanctuary for biodiversity be preserved in its own right, rather than left to fight for scraps against our relentless urbanisation needs?

This Pulau Ubin saga is but one of many examples of how redevelopment could close the curtains of memory lane for many Singaporeans. There was Clifford Pier, the National Library and Bukit Brown cemetery just to name a few. I do not wish to sound overly sentimental but I do believe that bonds between Singaporeans need to be maintained. This is especially so for a new country like Singapore where citizens have hailed from all over the world. Certain places are therefore sacrosanct in that process.

There have been some success at preserving some notable landmarks but others have sadly fallen by the wayside.

Pulau Ubin is one of the last vestiges of the “kampong spirit” which was an indelible and undeniable part of Singapore. Many Singaporeans still have memories of that lifestyle and would hope to be able to share that experience with their children.

What we share together as a people is what makes us Singaporean. Taking pride in some of these places that have bore witness to our common heritage is what builds the Singapore identity much more than catch phrases like “Uniquely Singapore” or “Your Singapore”. Without memories, what do these phrases even mean?

Perhaps we need to rethink our concept of equating new buildings with progress. As CS Lewis once said:

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

To build a country, you first need to build a united people. One way to achieve that end is to protect the places where the ties of friendship have been formed.