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Online 14 Sep 07
Losing sites of our past
THE recent news report on the honourable mention that the old St Andrew's School received at this year's United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards set my heart fluttering with sentimentality.
Unesco praised its conservation project for maintaining the character of the missionary school. Friends who know I am not an old boy of St Andrew's will wonder why I was so affected.
The breakneck pace at which many buildings in Singapore — some of them exceedingly younger — are razed to the ground is reason enough.
Ten years ago, when my daughter started school at CHIJ Katong Primary, I was impressed by its reasonably new facilities and the continuous upgrading in ensuing years.
Generally, I am impressed by how schools in Singapore are so generously equipped. Their architectural grandeur makes many schools, even the eminent ones we see in the developed West, pale in comparison.
Every year after Primary 6, my daughter would visit the school to chat with the teachers. Even at her age, I believe there was a feeling of endearment rooted in the fond memories of the nurturing years she spent there.
Last year, she was asked if she would buy a brick of the old school, which was heading for a complete facelift. This year, when we rode by the heap of rubble, my daughter did not want to look at it.
Singapore is a country that changes its landscape fast and furious, almost without second thought.
Modernity may be a sign of progress, but complete eradication of the past comes at an emotional price. It destroys our roots.
I do not think a symbolic piece of brick can sufficiently evoke the sentiment of our link with the past the same way familiarity of the place stirs our hearts and minds.
The old school ground may be retained for a new school building. But even if it comes complete with pictures and perhaps some relics of the past, the sentiment is not likely to be the same.
Standing in a completely new location of my alma mater, which had moved from Bras Basah Road to Malcolm Road, I found it difficult to reconnect with a past I remember fondly, especially since the teachers and others I used to know were gone. I missed the school chapel, the courtyard and the foyer where I had followed the gaze of our patron saint as he pointed the way ahead.
Fortunately, the old St Joseph's Institution building (picture) has been retained as a heritage site and it is there, more than its new home, that I continue to feel my roots.
What and how much to preserve is not an easy decision in land scarce Singapore.
Schools make poor cases from a functional point of view, when they become constrained by the lack of modern equipment and facilities and when the population outgrows the size.
Or, when there are other priorities in the national development plan to make better commercial use of the land where they stand. It is the same with most other buildings.
What is astonishing is their replacement rate, as their lifespan increasingly becomes shorter.
To many, it would appear to be a waste of resources, but that's a moot point in a country whose economy is a picture of robust health.
Economists will vouch that it is this constant renewal that underpins the continuous generation of wealth.
Quite coincidentally, an octogenarian, with whom I had coffee last week, marvelled at how quickly new buildings shot up in Singapore. In the same breath, he lamented how quickly they came down.
I wonder if it's only when we become old that we begin to feel the loss of a treasured past. For many of us, we are more overwhelmed by spanking new architectural marvels than feeling sorry to see a piece of the past slip into oblivion.
I suppose that's life. It may be said that there is no place for sentimental old fools in a changing world, but do not be too hasty to dismiss such sentiments. In them are rooted the pride of belonging to a community or society.
The writer is a management consultant.
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