Singapore's rapid development over the last 50 years has challenged the different ways people bind themselves to the nation. A state of flux can leave precious few things that yield sufficient attachment and endearing familiarity to people. Also missing is the long sense of time associated with century and millenial-scale histories. Continuous change has the opposite effect of telescoping time, making decades slide into themselves as traces of the past vanish inexorably. The familiar and sacred help to create a sense of place to root people to the nation. In a small island, this extends to both neighbourhoods where people live, work and play as well as islandwide spots that they frequent for a variety of reasons. Efforts to preserve designated heritage sites in an exhibition-like state are helpful but insufficient. The spots that connect more with people are those intimately linked to their everyday experiences. These might hold no architectural or cultural merit to bureaucrats. The areas might be messy, inefficient and chaotic to planners. Yet what should also matter is the emotions and memories that a well-used spot engenders. Tiong Bahru trails, Little India shopping, Lau Pa Sat, Arab Street flavours, Geylang eateries, Queenstown. Love and let live.
A sense of place and a sense of history help to foster a sense of identity. This goes to the heart of the unending project of creating an endearing home, highlighted by President Tony Tan Keng Yam in opening the new session of Parliament. Alongside the old and familiar, there is also place for the new to refresh the senses and pique the imagination. In this respect, the young certainly have a part to play, too, and ought to be given a free hand.
One might shape spaces for oneself, for art's sake or for common utility. A clean environment, greenery, ease of movement, economics and aesthetics all matter, of course. But ultimately, it is the heart that binds.
This article was first published on May 25, 2014.
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