Modernity is an endless march. One which is relentless as science, technology and economic progress take the human race further. Yet, it is not all a smooth ride. In its wake, progress (here I mean moving forward rather than the other notion of “positive development”) will leave a trail of questions – about identity, about sense of belonging.
In Singapore, a tiny city where 5.5 million are crammed into, modernity always throws up such questions. In the past, it was the government (and indeed it is still the government) which makes the decision and we move on. Some say this is one reason why Singapore has been able to modernise in such a short period of time. Singaporeans would feel hapless, helpless and fatalistic. Nothing we can do, we would say.
The Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC) issue has again raised questions about Singaporeans’ sense of identity, about its heritage and what these mean. Attached to these questions are ones about how our history should be preserved, and just as important, what it means to have this history in our midst as a living, breathing thing and not just one which is well, just there.
At the heart of the issue is this: how do we progress while at the same time pay due homage and respect to those who have gone before?
As long as Singapore is expected to progress and keep up with the rest of the world – especially economically – there will always be friction whenever an issue like the BBC emerges.
Perhaps what we need is a clear idea of what our heritage means to us. What is it about these “old stuff” which we are suppose to appreciate? And how do these help us forge a sense of identity and belongingness – keeping in mind that we are also exposed to the influence of modernity from present day sources? Or should we adopt a stand where history and heritage should be taught and experienced in different ways, a “uniquely Singapore” way?
How much should we keep? And what consensus should we reach? Should we preserve everything “old”? What are the criterias?
Time is a relentless march and it will, sooner or later, destroy or erase everything we hold dear.
So the question, really, is: how long should we hold on to sites like BBC, and forego developments which may make our lives more convenient?
And should we place a higher value on what our past can teach us, rather than what the present requires?
Questions questions. Perhaps that is the best thing to have come out of this whole BBC episode – that it has given us pause and cause us to reflect on what makes us Singaporeans – and human beings.