I'm quoted in the paper today

I was interviewed by David Ee, whom I got to know when we were both working at POSKOD.SG and who's now with the Straits Times, for his story today, "Buangkok villagers charge 'entrance fees'" (subscription required). We had a long phone conversation about tourism, heritage, cultural consumption and capitalist exploitation, but I knew that for a news piece like this, I'd be lucky to get a five-word quote in.

As it turns out, he gave me three concluding paragraphs:
Writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, 38, who covers heritage issues, said nostalgia for a fast-fading heritage may result in Singaporeans "loving a place to death".

She felt that charging people "entrance fees" was the residents' right. She also said that visitors should not see the kampung as a tourist attraction but as a place where people live.

"Some visitors just go there to take a few nice snapshots on a Sunday afternoon. They're not interested in getting to know the residents and their way of life."
(Thanks to G-man for sending me the article.)

Do I sound too stern? I wasn't trying to be, but there's a fine line between appreciating something and consuming it (see also Chek Jawa, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and any number of "ethnic" "tourist villages" in Southeast Asia).

In Singapore, there's a further desperation to heritage and conservation matters: If not enough people visit (as with Bukit Brown cemetery before it was threatened by urban redevelopment, and Bidadari cemetery before it), the authorities can use it as an excuse to take it away. If the place is deluged by visitors, whatever qualities it had that gave it cultural value in the first place might be changed beyond recognition.

Which brings the issue back to some of the problems underlying tourism or travel-as-consumption (which I know I'm complicit in as a travel writer and museum researcher). What drives the compulsion to see and touch places with our own eyes, be it a kampung or Angkor Wat? What makes us look at people as exhibits of the culture(s) they supposedly represent, instead of as human beings with some of the same impulses and yearnings we-the-visitor have? What makes it easy to objectify people and cultures, and why do we keep falling into that mode of seeing?

Now you know how much David had to condense to get those three short paragraphs.

I like questions rather than answers. Questions keep us thinking.



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