Balancing past, present and future

RUSTIC AIR: Old shophouses and informal eateries in Jalan Kayu. The Urban Redevelopment Authority proposes to designate Jalan Kayu and Serangoon Gardens as "identity nodes".


    Nov 26, 2013

    Balancing past, present and future


    The Straits Times

    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.

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

    Take, for example, Jalan Kayu. For all its charm, the higgledy-piggledy row of shophouses that is left 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.

    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, to the setting up of their own government at City Hall.

    It would also be a lasting legacy to future generations, much more meaningful than any passing commemorative event.

    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.