It seemed … a little strange, even to my little Singaporean mind.
(We have such a tendency to label ourselves “little”, as if by sheer geographical size we could define our entire personalities. That being in a small country meant your mind was small. Yet such small minds breed a heavy air of self-deception, conning us into believing we have smaller egos. But we don’t, and the auntie walking through the wet market in the early morning who gets brushed aside by some maid buying vegetables before her will tell you exactly what I mean. We do not think we are little at all.)
When I went to Europe I was awed, as I always am whenever faced with a pile of history. The weight of years was never something I could ever comprehend, or perhaps it just had something to do with astronomical numbers. It puzzled me, whenever I looked at a church, a square, (yet) another church, (yet) another palace, how old it all was. How similar it all was, bound by age and neglect. People respected their buildings, and were proud of them. Centuries of use did not diminish a place’s value, nor did anyone mind the black-streaked stone, the dusty marble floors. The statues and paintings are painstakingly restored, the light darting through the stained-glass windows, casting shadows when there should be none. In those hidden corners somebody is praying, whispering quietly, admiring something or another, taking a picture or four hundred.
How can something last so long? The concept was as foreign to me as it was to my other friends, and for more than once in my life I wished my country had a history. Not a short, measly, self-made one, but a long incomprehensible history, filled with bloodied wars and revolutions and teeming with ideals I did not have to fight for to have. Where liberty was earned by my ancestors and not thrown away the moment it was retrieved. Not somewhere where the national anthem rings out pointlessly every morning, 7.20am sharp, as every school-going child will tell you. I wanted to see it for myself, the weight of our past, even if it hung over the sky like a bomb waiting to explode. The past is a bomb waiting to explode. Only — someone must want to drop it. My foreign-placed self wanted a place where the past rang out, where it was embraced. It was so much easier to see when you were outside of Singapore. I wanted a place where the past was not whitewashed.
Did you ever notice it? How every old building in Singapore is painted white, like the ancient sculptures. Painted to look new, austere, clean. “Old” is a dirty word in Singapore. “Old” means obsolete, useless, good for irrelevant things, like the old aunties and uncles who totter up and down the fast food aisles and the hawker centres serving food, cleaning plates, wiping tables. Things young people should be doing. Not things one should do after a lifetime of back-breaking work. Not after a lifetime of youth, where life is fast and always in the fast lane. “Old” means slow. But people don’t die young these days, and what is “old” must become new. The shophouses are repainted. The concert halls are repainted. The hawker centres, the markets, those little pockets of life, are hauled up and renovated. The “old” Parliament House does not look old at all, just as the new Parliament House is nowhere near “new”. You are not an old person, as you should rightly be; you are not elderly. You are a “senior citizen”, made instantly relevant by a conspicuous lack of reference to your age.
It was the reverse reaction, when my Austrian friends came to Singapore. They were awed by how developed this country was, and how it could have been done in such a short time. She asked how old Singapore was. My nationally-educated mind told her that we were forty-five. “In Europe,” Sandra said, “forty-five years is nothing.” And of course it was, once I thought about it. How else should it have been? In a continent where wars last a hundred years, and universities have been standing for a thousand, our independence is a short blip in the annals of time. A footnote in their history books, or maybe not even then. Yet I was amazed that they were amazed, for I had been so in awe of the idea of history that it had never occurred to me that someone else might find it mind-blowing for an entire country to be built to proportion in the length of time it took to fight a war. For a history to form. It is true. “Old” does indeed mean slow. When you have been around for so long, there is no need to rush. There are no more battles to win, no more dreams to conquer. It seems like a simple revelation now, that someone could be stunned by speed just as I was awed by time. But as I was walking along Boat Quay looking at the Fullerton Hotel telling them that it used to be the Post Office, the epiphany blew my mind.
Yet underneath all this the past is lurking. Where is our history? It must be hidden somewhere, in all the old people, in the old buildings. In the five-foot ways of Chinatown and the metal plaques along Orchard Road, which predictably are no longer there, that nostalgic mark of our history, replaced with lighted glass montrosities that will not last even five years. New things spring up too quickly even as we forget the old things. Perhaps it will get better, after a century or two, or five. Where the rush to make things new will calm down and life rolls on slower and statelier, when people realise that things must last long for others to remember. The Fullerton was a post office. Why don’t post offices look like that anymore? Why don’t churches give us something to visit or remember? Instead they are made of glass, which will be clouded by time and easily knocked down with a wrecking ball. Our highest court sits in a spaceship; extraterrestrial, a different world altogether. The dome is also made of glass. Every shopping centre in Singapore has a glass facade with blinking lights. There is so much damn glass in this country we could rival Murano.
It hurts me, sometimes. That it is not reinvention, but erasure. Things are built to be easily erasable. Where mistakes are easily rectified, and so it is so much easier to build mistakes. You would spend your lifetime designing a building if you wanted it to stand for a few hundred years. In our country even stone bridges collapse because they are built too quickly. It hurts too, sometimes, to think of how it must also have been like, for those long incomprehensible histories. It must have been the same, with the same pointless impermanent architecture, with the same indignant protests. Because what you know is what you remember, and who knows what else has already been forgotten.