Saving old S'pore means balancing past, present and future

The No.73 bus trundles along Yio Chu Kang Road for what seems like ages.

My sister and I look out the windows for cues on when to alight. The little side road turning off to Jalan Kayu is the clearest sign that we should ring the bell, and hop off.

Our family used to make regular trips to visit our relatives who lived in Seletar Hills in the early 1980s. I grew to love the area and its attractions, from the old market to the famous roti prata joints, which is perhaps why I gravitated to it when I began house-hunting many years later.

Serangoon Gardens was another childhood haunt of mine. My Uncle Victor used to run a well-patronised general practice and nursing home along Serangoon Garden Way. We would visit from time to time, whenever someone was ill or just to seek some advice from the good doctor, travelling again on the No.73 bus.

For a period, I even thought this was where I would spend much of my working life, as everyone assumed I would follow in my uncle's footsteps. But life has a funny way of throwing curve balls. I eventually opted instead to pursue the humanities, and now write news reports and commentaries rather than medical prescriptions.

Over the years, many bars and cafes, bank branches and even a mall have sprung up, replacing the popular second-hand bookshops and food havens. It is hard to say if residents regard it all as "progress".

So I read with considerable interest the proposals in the draft master plan unveiled by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last Wednesday to designate Jalan Kayu and Serangoon Gardens as "identity nodes", joining 15 others on its list of sites to be conserved for their unique "character and charm". The plan revealed only in passing how these areas would see new walkways, greenery and links to transport facilities.

Like many Singaporeans, I welcome the URA's efforts to preserve these familiar places, which help anchor us to a country many have lamented is changing too fast for comfort.

Yet, if truth be told, how many of us are willing to pass up on modernity and all its trappings, from new and bigger homes, to better infrastructure and facilities? Given the natural limits of our little island, we know we simply can't save every cinema where we had our first dates or patch of green which used to be our old stomping ground.

So, it comes down to the age-old challenge of making choices.

Take, for example, Jalan Kayu.

My recollections of the area from the 1970s and 1980s are vastly different from those of an older generation, when the place was first developed in the 1920s and 1930s, or those who came to know it much more recently. Who's to say which of these identities is more valid, or precious, and worthy of being preserved?

Today, the flower gardens and fish farms in the area are gone, new Housing Board flats are springing up all round, bringing traffic and congestion to the once-sleepy hollow.

For all its charm, the higgledy- piggledy row of shophouses that is left along Jalan Kayu is crying out for a bit of a spruce-up. Some of the buildings are run-down, some eateries look like they could do with an upgrade in hygiene standards, the uneven walkways can be a hazard, as is the narrow road with cars double-parked.

Yet, the ambivalence remains: Would sprucing-up be progress? Or might such an effort leach the area of its character?

Clearly, any work to foster identity nodes will have to be a delicate balancing act of keeping some of the past, enhancing the present, while also leaving open possibilities for the future. Getting it right will not be easy, but doing so will make a critical difference to our collective sense of identity and social well-being.

In this regard, some lessons might be drawn from conservation clangers of the past.

Chief among these must surely be the tearing down of the old National Library, which just about everyone now laments. The grievous loss of heritage in exchange for a vehicular tunnel that shaved a few minutes in travel time for motorists now seems like folly indeed.

Similarly unsuccessful are half-baked conservation attempts, such as saving just a sliver of the old Cathay cinema, which goes largely unnoticed and unloved amid the new developments that engulf the old.

Contrast that with rather more successful efforts like the tasteful transformation of the old St Joseph's Institution building in Bras Basah into an art museum (as an old boy, I say thank goodness for that) or the Raffles Hotel and Old General Post Office (now the Fullerton Hotel) which are now inviting venues which Singaporeans and visitors alike continue to enjoy.

Meanwhile, work is progressing apace on the Capitol and Stamford House buildings (left dormant for far too long), as well as the conversion of the former Supreme Court and City Hall into a new art museum. Many have hailed these efforts, but I have to say they leave me a little cold, and I await to see how they turn out.

Given Singapore's relatively shallow roots, I cannot but feel that turning over the old Parliament building, Supreme Court and City Hall to commercial use all at once was a setback in conservation terms, and undermines the notion of the area as a Civic District. The transformation now under way will turn the district into more of an arts hub, with new galleries and performing venues, welcome though these might be.

The URA's plans to provide more pedestrian links and improve connectivity in the area are well and good. But much more will need to be done to reflect the district's significance as the place where the events, ideas and practice of self-government in Singapore first played out.

Here's a suggestion: Why not go beyond the URA's somewhat tentative proposal for partial or temporary road closures and bite the bullet to close off Connaught Drive and St Andrew's Road?

That would see the Padang stretch all the way from the banks of the Singapore River to the steps of the old City Hall. Traffic could then flow from Fullerton Road down Parliament Lane and on to North Bridge Road.

This would create a beautiful and expansive green lung in the heart of the city. Unveiling such a Jubilee Park at the Padang in 2015, when the Republic marks its 50th anniversary, would be a grand tribute to the founding generation of Singaporeans who built this nation, with memorials commissioned to recount the story of their arrival on these shores from 1819 to the setting up of their own government at City Hall in 1965.

It would also be a lasting legacy to future generations, much more meaningful than any passing commemorative event. And it would reinforce the historical essence of the old Civic District.

As I see it, the URA's plans, and call for feedback, make plain that Singapore remains very much a work in progress. We are neither done nor at the limits of what can be achieved, or even imagined, to make this precious little island feel like the best home for Singaporeans. Doing so will call for a proper balance between cherishing our past, enhancing the present and embracing the possibilities of our future.

warren@sph.com.sg

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