The logic of heritage conservation in Singapore

1. "Respond" to public sentiment (as measured by a Straits Times poll with 1,103 respondents) by declaring that a bus stop dating from the 1970s will be conserved.

2. On the same day, announce that there will be construction of a new Bugis MRT station. By the way:
Due to engineering constraints which cannot be avoided , the land currently occupied by the New Seventh Storey Hotel (NSSH) and part of the adjacent State land fronting Rochor Road, is required for the construction of the station box and the at-grade station structures, such as the station's entrance and lift facility. The NSSH will have to be demolished to allow for the construction of the station.
Never mind that the New Seventh Storery Hotel is a cultural landmark, the only building in Singapore that still has a classic manually operated "caged" elevator, not to mention the only place in that part of the city where you can sit outside and have a great steamboat meal.

Also, because the government (in this case, the Land Transport Authority) is clearly a great believer in doing things by the book, it decided that it couldn't in good conscience inform the hotel ahead of time that its time was up.

Even though the hotel has to vacate the land by the end of this year. Because six months is a fair lead time for any hotel business, as we all know.

3. For those of you who enjoy an extra dose of Singapore-style irony, note that this is all decided on the same day that the Cabinet minister in charge of the civil service, Teo Chee Hean, tells an audience at the Global Behavioural Economics Forum that:
"policymakers are changing the way they deliver their messages - instead of the usual carrot-and-stick approach, they are favouring a softer method to help shape public attitudes."
(I'm quoting the Channel NewsAsia report, not the Minister's words verbatim, because I can't find a copy of the speech online.)

Oh, I totally agree, Mr Minister. Very soft sell on this one. That's why everyone I've spoken to who feels the same way I do, can only swear in response. Popular reactions:
  • "ARGH"
  • "Cheebye" (repeated several times)
  • "should enbloc Istana" (this seems to be gaining ground)
budak, being more creatively inclined than I am right now, has a more eloquent haiku to offer:
singapore storeys
oft find themselves caught well-short
by new trains of thought
I have to stop thinking. It hurts too much.

Related posts: Photograph it before it's gone, I love Singapore, In memoriam



At 6/27/2008 7:19 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note to self: go to NSSH for steam boat during visit home. You coming? ;^)

At 6/27/2008 10:51 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does "enbloc" in "enbloc Istana" mean? And did you miss a quotation mark in front of gaining in the same line? Were those ironic quotation marks?

I know those kinds of things suck but, just to play devil's advocate, cities are not static. Granted it's a cultural landmark to most Singaporeans, but do people live next to the future Bugis station feel the same way? Maybe they're tired of taking the bus? I dunno...

Btw, brilliant haiku find.

At 6/28/2008 7:19 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's true that cities are not static. But Singapore has made many sacrifices of old buildings in the name of progress. You see, for most us Singaporeans in our 30s (or more), the memories of our past has been erased. The classrooms where we studied, the playgrounds we hung out during recess time, the cinemas we went out for dates... I can go on and on. We don't have tangible places our memories can hold on to. Our past has been erased, they only exist in books.

The government has been trying to find out for years why citizens are leaving Singapore for good to settle in other countries. The reason is simple... perhaps Singaporeans don't have anything to hold on to. This is a quote I remember from a movie.

“Because when you love something,
every time a bit of it goes,
you lose a piece of yourself.”
From The Brave One


At 7/04/2008 12:35 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the levelling of these sites of memory can be quite disheartening. However, I hesitate to think is a purely Singaporean phenomenon. I come from Canada, and my highschool no longer looks the way it used to. It was completely rebuilt. The downtown area has changed drastically with the increased wealth of the city, and the outlying farms have been swallowed up by the suburbs.

I don't believe that nostalgia is a valid argument in most cases. If the site demonstrates a reasonable amount of historical significance, cultural worth, or architectural singularity, I'd be all for keeping it. But, nothing stays the same.

For example, the city I currently live in, Paris, is a like a walking museum. In comparison with younger cities like Singapore, there is an embarassment of wealth of culturally significant sites. However, every year, there is new development, a once famous restaurant changes hands, a once famous cinema becomes a discotheque, and on and on and on.

I'd fight for some sites to be held onto, but a hotel famous for steamboat? Perhaps the biggest faux pas was not leaving them enough time to relocate. Otherwise, in forty years, when the Bugis station gets its facelift/replacement, people will be complaining about how their memories of it are being replaced.

I sometimes wonder if the fear of this kind of governmental no-warning development is also some how linked to the idea that the standards of living are dropping, that traditional ways of doing things are disappearing. I would agree that certain traditions are often dependant on the people still around, within contact distance of each other, actively practicing them. Perhaps urbanists should pay more attention towards creating environments favourable for maintaining traditions while renewing city spaces.

At 7/04/2008 11:57 pm , Blogger Tym said...

Oh, it's totally not a "uniquely Singapore" phenomenon. We see similar arguments playing out in Melaka, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing (of course, though the Olympic machine was unstoppable) and I just read something this week on the BBC about Tbilisi going through the same thing.

In Singapore, though, I think nostalgia has a stronger drive and people (including me, depending on what mood you catch me in) cling insistently to nostalgia, precisely because it's sentimental and not, well, practical. Call it a reaction against the much-vaunted pragmatism of the Singapore government. The more the government insists on making policies and decisions based on sheer pragmatism, the more people fret over the little space that is left to the people --- whether that space is physical, intellectual or political.

I think there is a certain sense of resignation if a business goes bust or changes hands: oh well, that's the economy speaking. But when it's a goverment decision to put a hotel (and building) out of business, to tamper with something that was doing just fine on its own --- people resent that. Not to mention, these institutions and spaces take time to grow in a community. Once they're plucked out, it's more than just the physical place that's lost. For example, people are still very sore over what happened with the old National Library (an ugly and little-used tunnel runs through the former site of the much-loved building).

Of course cities must change and develop; of course the same building can't be there forever. But who decides? And what change? And how quickly does the change happen? In Singapore it would be nice if the answer were not, "The goverment will know best and decide."

At 7/06/2008 5:54 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I guess that is the crux of the issue. It seems, from what you are saying, that Singaporeans don't trust their government to make decisions that are good on their behalf. It's true that it would have been nice to have more community level input before the announcement (and I'm not thinking just town hall but actual discussions with local businesses on how to accomodate such a plan). What a shitty paternalistic government you have.

I still can't help though, that there are worst things possible. For example, I recently read in about how garden allotments in and around London were being rased for the Olympics, with no concern for the long-term occupants of these lots. That's something I would fight against. Green spaces in a city should be sacrosanct.

Is there anything being offered to the hotel and its staff by means of compensation? Is it adequate? Are they being given any relocation options? What is the community reaction at this point (from people who will actually benefit from having a new MRT station near them)? Will the MRT station affect the environment negatively, or will it generate new commerce? What kind of commerce will it generate (local entrepreneurs or big business)? Who will handle the development and will it be an eyesore or architectural marvel?

At 7/06/2008 5:55 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

crikey, my writing has gone haywire... blame it on the early Sunday morning work call

At 7/09/2008 6:16 am , Blogger Agagooga said...

Someone pointed out that before the hotel was going to be knocked down, almost no one knew that it existed, and that there are many buildings on the conservation list no one knows about.

Maybe you should organise an outing to eat steamboat before it goes.

At 7/09/2008 10:23 am , Blogger Tym said...

Nah, the hotel's been an icon in its own right for quite some time now. By which I don't mean that everyone necessarily knew about it, but I don't believe that's a requirement either, when it comes to deciding what to conserve.

Besides, the Powers That Be seem to be rational enough to conserve an old bus stop on Old Choa Chu Kang Road. I'm sure not many people were aware of it, either.

At 7/09/2008 10:33 am , Blogger Agagooga said...

I'm sure it'd go if they had an MRT station to build too.

What they do in Hong Kong is rebuild the building elsewhere. Maybe we can move the Hotel to CCK.


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