A right way to remember

WHEN epochal leaders die, countries turn to memorials to keep their legacies alive. These grand works of architecture and design then become spiritual centres for a mourning nation, reminders of the values upon which it was built.

Be it the contemplative Abraham Lincoln gazing out onto an American nation "conceived in liberty", or the candle in New Delhi that burns unceasingly for Mahatma Gandhi's ideals of peace and non-violence, the most beloved memorials around the world are seen as the better angels of a nation's nature.

In the wake of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's death on March 23, a clamour has emerged for a public marker to keep alive his life and legacy, both for the Singaporeans who laboured with him in the trenches of nation-building, and the later generations who were born blithe into the fruits of their hard work.

This week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced the appointment of Esplanade chairman Lee Tzu Yang to head a committee to conceptualise a Founders' Memorial. It will honour not just the late Mr Lee, but also others in his core team.

But coming up with a concept that resonates with all Singaporeans will be arduous. Public support for the idea is likely to be the only point of unanimity in the journey towards its realisation, as architects, heritage experts and political watchers tell Insight.

If past experience - both here and elsewhere- is any indication, everything from the location and the design to the politics of the memorial will come under intense public debate.

For instance, the iconic Lincoln memorial in Washington DC was erected 57 years after Abraham Lincoln's death - after decades of objection to its location, then a backwater swamp, and its Grecian-style columns, which some saw as unpatriotic.

Expectations for Singapore's proposed Founders' Memorial are high, even before Mr Lee Tzu Yang has assembled his committee. Tampines GRC MP Irene Ng, who wrote a biography of founding Deputy Prime Minister S. Rajaratnam, says: "For centuries to come, this memorial should be viewed as a symbol for who we are as a people."

Design dilemmas

BUT it may be an impossible task to please everyone. The where, what and who of memorials have always bitterly divided their publics.

In Singapore, some have already cast their vote for locations to house the Founders' Memorial, such as Marina Bay - the game-changing plot of reclaimed land Mr Lee Kuan Yew had envisioned since the 1980s - or his lifelong ward of Tanjong Pagar.

Others, like architect Chang Yong Ter, feel that Mr Lee's home at 38, Oxley Road is the most fitting site for the memorial - despite Mr Lee's desire to have the house demolished, rather than have it become a "shabby" relic.

The modestly furnished pre-war bungalow was the site of many a decision that determined Singapore's very existence, including the formation of the People's Action Party.

"Preserving it would let future generations have a sense of how (Mr Lee) had lived simply despite his extraordinary vision for Singapore," says Mr Chang, the principal architect of CHANG Architects. "Even if the house is demolished, keeping 38, Oxley Road as a monument (site) has more value socially and economically than if it were to become just another condominium site."

But that location would constrain the size of the memorial. A sprawling space like a park to "trace the making of a nation (and) capture its trials and tribulations" has already received the public endorsement of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

A related idea to rename the Gardens by the Bay after Mr Lee, most recently advocated by journalism don Cherian George, has received the backing of Gardens chief executive Tan Wee Kiat.

Some experts like the idea of a park because the memorial can then be added to or evolved through the generations, unlike a more static creation of Mr Lee and his colleagues in statue form.

Indeed, a successful memorial is one that brings to life - and keeps alive - a person's ideals and work, says architect Randy Chan of Zarch Collaboratives, citing the Jacob Ballas Children's Garden in the Botanic Gardens, which Mr Chan worked on.

Mr Ballas, a Jewish-Singaporean philanthropist, valued nature and education. The Children's Garden, the first of its kind in Asia, embodies those beliefs in a way that continues to be meaningful to new generations.

But the manifold contributions of Mr Lee and his team defy easy categorisation. They, too, prized nature and envisioned Singapore as a Garden City, but were equally renowned for their governing principles of meritocracy, multiracialism and non-corruptibility.

PM Lee summed up this difficulty in Parliament on Monday, in his response to MP Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC), who had argued that renaming Changi Airport after Mr Lee would be a fitting reminder of how his expensive but farsighted decision to relocate the airport from Paya Lebar showed his determination to take on short-term pain for long-term gain over others' objections

As PM Lee put it, the late Mr Lee "had a lot to do with (so) many things (that) if we want to name things after him, there's no shortage of things which are suited".

As individuals, each of Singapore's founding fathers was also multi-faceted. Mr Lee, for instance, was a tough-as-nails leader who did not shy from the use of methods like detention without trial against opponents. But he was also a devoted and loving husband of 63 years - a softer side of him that touched many Singaporeans.

Emphasising one aspect over another in a memorial is a sure way to court controversy.

In the United States, a bitter battle has been running since 2006 over the memorial for former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who died in 1969. The memorial's architect, Mr Frank Gehry, inspired by Mr Eisenhower's writings about his "barefoot boyhood" full of dreams in Middle America, had planned for a statue of Mr Eisenhower as a boy to take prominence in the structure.

Mr Eisenhower's grandchildren, however, were indignant that such a statue should take centre stage in a memorial for a man who went on to become a fearsome five-star army general and respected president.

"I am not sure if Mr Lee or the founders could be reduced to a central element," said Dr Chang Jiat Hwee, an assistant architecture professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

For this reason, he and other observers prefer a more abstract rendering of the founders' ideals. "A literal statue or sculpture is seldom as evocative or rich," he says.

As an example, Dr Chang pointed to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, which he described as being "rich with so many layers of meanings that it could be read in many different ways by different 'stakeholders'".

It features a V-shaped wall, cut into the ground like a wound, on which the names of more than 58,000 wartime dead are inscribed on a mirrored surface that reflects visitors' visages - a symbolic meeting of past and present.

But literal representations can also be powerful ones, whether the sea of red porcelain poppies - meant to evoke bloodshed - around the Tower of London on the centenary of World War II, or the enormous statue of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping posing triumphantly in Shenzhen, the city where he began his free-market experiment to open up what is now the world's biggest economy.

MP Irene Ng envisions part of the memorial bringing alive what she calls "never again" moments in Singapore's history, "like the race riots, the trauma of separation and being left at the mercy of

bigger neighbours, and the deep insecurity that came from being defenceless".

Dr Yeo Kang Shua of the Singapore University of Technology and Design argues similarly for the memorial to give visitors an "experience", like Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, where visitors encounter three intersecting, slanting corridors which represent the three parts of Jewish life in Germany.

It also has continually changing exhibitions by different artists and curators, which Professor Yeo commends for "providing multiple narratives on the same subject".


Making the shortlist

THERE is also the knotty question of which individuals to honour in the Founders' Memorial.

In Parliament on Monday, PM Lee said that the core team of founders included former finance and defence minister Goh Keng Swee, former culture and foreign affairs minister S. Rajaratnam, former social affairs minister Othman Wok, former finance minister Hon Sui Sen and founding chairman of the Housing Board Lim Kim San.

Some members of the public also want to include Dr Toh Chin Chye, the PAP's founding chairman, and former labour and law minister K. M. Byrne, who was responsible for the groundbreaking Women's Charter.

Both men were in Singapore's first Cabinet headed by Mr Lee, as was former education minister Ong Pang Boon. Former law and national development minister E. W. Barker also drafted the documents for separation in 1965.

Then there is the thorny issue that several of the men who helped fight for Singapore's independence, like former chief minister David Marshall and former trade-union leader Lim Chin Siong, were bitter foes of Mr Lee.

"If we are talking about a Founders' Memorial, the difficulty will be in determining who these founders are," says law professor Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore.

"This gets us into the victor-versus-vanquished territory. It will be a nightmare and no one will be happy."

One possible solution is an "abstract and all-inclusive memorial to include all those who fought for the independence of Singapore, starting with David Marshall," says Dr Tan. Even then, he predicts an "impasse" with those who would prefer to see Mr Lee featured more prominently.

Making the process count

OBSERVERS say the only way to handle the debate over the memorial is to allow a full and unvarnished airing of differences.

"Good conservation of tangible and intangible heritage requires open engagement, debate, disagreement," says NUS heritage expert Johannes Widodo. "It also requires time over which something will crystallise into reality."

Experts were unanimous that the design process should be a blind and open one. Anyone should be able to submit designs to be publicly exhibited, but individual designers should not be identifiedso as to avoid any subconscious prejudices.

A similar process led to Ms Maya Lin, then a 21-year-old Asian-American undergraduate, designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. Her race, gender and age were controversial, and some donors pulled their funding after her identity was revealed. But over two decades later, in 2007, the American Institute of Architects ranked the memorial 10th on its list of America's Favourite Architecture.

"The process of deciding the design of the memorial is as important as, if not more important than, the final outcome," says NUS' Dr Chang. "A memorial is frequently a reflection of not just who it commemorates, but also of the society that built it."

Like PM Lee did in Parliament this week, Dr Widodo urges patience. There should be no hurry to erect the Founders' Memorial in the next few years, he says.

Likening the journey to the public release of classified state documents after 30 years in some other countries, he said the passing of time "ensures a more objective view towards history".

"The iterative process will not only strengthen the final product, but also strengthen the democratic principles of a country."

With a brave and open process, Singapore's Founders' Memorial can join the ranks of beloved national icons everywhere - standing as testament to the nation's best, and a reminder of the greatness that successive generations should strive for.



This article was first published on April 18, 2015.
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