Aug 13, 2007
Keeping a piece of our roots alive may be just as important as modernisation
By Tessa Wong
WHILE the crowds at Marina Bay jostled to catch the National Day Parade last Thursday, I watched a different national spectacle in the cinema just across the road.
It was Royston Tan's 881, the colourful getai flick which unabashedly celebrates all things heartlander.
While both were equally imbued with national pride, they couldn't be more different in meaning.
To me, a young Singaporean, they also represented a subtle ongoing war of ideology waged on behalf of our young.
With its fancy military displays and dazzling high-tech special effects, the parade championed our relentless march towards progress set against emblems of the future, the Central Business District skyline and the ongoing construction of the New Downtown at Marina Bay.
The film 881 was, on the other hand, a showcase of our homegrown culture set against a nostalgic view of Singapore, complete with crumbling buildings and retro 70s costumes.
It is, perhaps, an example of the increasing hunger among some young Singaporeans to capture and preserve our heritage against the onslaught of modernisation.
This is not necessarily restricted to professional artists or filmmakers.
Even ordinary youths are doing it, from history students who contribute to the blog Citizen
Historian, to amateur photographers who visit forgotten spaces in Singapore and post pictures on photo-sharing website Flickr.
One notable grassroots example is the Magical Spaces Project by the online magazine Five Foot Way.
Inspired by a column written by Straits Times journalist Hong Xinyi, the project encourages people to submit written or drawn expressions of what they think are 'magical spaces', or ordinary places which are of special significance, in Singapore.
Cynics may find such obsessions a waste of time, or worse, twee and faddish, akin to teens crazy about vintage clothing and 80s indie music because it's the 'in' thing now.
But I think such earnest efforts to defend, or at least preserve, our cultural heritage in small but significant ways, are touching.
Their core message, that Singapore with all its flaws is still worthy of treasuring, runs counter to what our materialistic society preaches - that a shiny modern future ruled by progress is the way forward.
I don't doubt the need for constant innovation to stay competitive.
But there is a price for such efforts, and I'm not sure whether this is really being taught or learnt at all when places of significance, such as Clifford Pier and the National Library, are knocked down for the sake of 'national progress'. Or, when the current en bloc fever demolishes homes left, right and centre.
What is the point of being taught in school that our history is important when your favourite haunt disappears, or when your home has to make way for a spanking new skyscraper?
Showing you care for Singapore goes beyond the nationalistic pomp and pageantry of National Day. It is also about recognising that modernisation inevitably costs us important parts of our heritage.
The generations who come after us need to know this in order to make the right decisions for this country's future. Who better to teach this than youth like ourselves?