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A home I can defend

There is this piece in ST’s Opinion pages today, by a German journalist and urban design expert, that resonated with me. He talks about creating meeting places for Singaporeans, a place for the growing community spirit. No, I don’t think he was talking about Hong Lim Park at the time of writing…

He talked about our fantastic CBD skyline, the Marina Bay area, Gardens by the Park – you know those things that we pass by along the East Coast Parkway and which can still take this Singaporean’s breath away. He said that the “philosophy’’ behind such projects as is the case in Hong Kong and Sydney “steers our aspirations in the wrong direction, with casinos, glamour and international luxury lifestyles’’.

This is an excerpt: “Visible structures throughout town have to offer different characteristics where you can generate a “home” feeling and identify yourself as well as with your neighbourhood and Singapore in general.
“At stake is much more than “green, clean and safe” – it is social cohesion.
“Every environment, especially a town, forms its inhabitants. It is like a didactic tool; it gives you orientation and tells you with thousands of images and signs what kind of game is on and who will be among the winners. We should not underestimate strong messages that come from the visual landscape. The main zeitgeist-philosophy of a glamorous illuminated city is like a permanent brainwash, weakening our relationship with traditional values. The impressive CBD skyline and exciting Marina Bay are icons defining Singapore’s main messages.
“Urban designers have to change priorities, as Singapore needs “Our Singapore plaza”, a new central location like a Greek agora or a civic forum in the heart of the city.’’

He wants some kind of meeting place which says “We in Singapore’’. I don’t know about the meeting place idea, but I do agree that those images along the ECP are something which I am really proud of – but which I don’t belong to. Singaporeans have to pay leh to get into these places which look like they cater for the world at large, especially the rich and famous, and not us common folk. Yet we are proud of it because of what it says of us as a collective: Look how far we have come!

The writer thinks there should be a public square which is distinctively Singaporean for important festivals and communications, where people do not get told what they have to do but where they can feel at home.

You know, I feel at home in HDB neighbourhood centres, hawker centres and coffeeshops. I see no need to dress to impress. My family took my mother to a Bedok coffeeshop for her birthday dinner which was just a week before CNY. There were plenty of families there, extended families, enjoying an early reunion dinner. Food was cheap and good. Ambience was noisy, but familiar. The majority looked to be Singaporeans. I go to Orchard Road or a drinking place in town, and I can count the number of Singaporeans I see.

I don’t suppose the writer is talking about meeting places in the heartland, although that is where the heart of Singapore is. He says no city has ever developed the model meeting place which he suggested and that Singapore could be the first with its civic plaza (and I don’t think he meant the Ngee Ann City one).

It is an interesting idea but what I took away from the piece is this: “Visible structures throughout town have to offer different characteristics where you can generate a “home’ feeling and identify yourself as well as with your neighbourhood and Singapore in general’’.

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I read that Minister Chan Chun Sing agrees with the importance of balance in pursuing redevelopment and preserving heritage. Wonderful. Sometimes though we shouldn’t be thinking of preservation only in terms of big iconic areas and historical landmarks. We should be thinking about the little things that matter and that will keep Singapore households rooted in one place instead of upgrading all the time in pursuit of more dollars.

Home ownership as a concept that we can defend as Mr Lee Kuan Yew had hoped? Homes, for some, are more like investment opportunities than a “my house is my castle’’ which I will defend to the death. As for that magnificent skyline and Marina Bay etc, are those some things we will defend? Places that we don’t always step in? And looks so out of reach for most of us?

As I said, I don’t know where this people’s square should be (Hong Lim Park?) but I agree that signs of “home’’ should be everywhere, to remind us of who we are and the values we hold. That say We in Singapore.

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© 2022 Bertha Henson

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