Singaporean Taste of Nostalgia

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The arts have always been a medium for reflection and for learning: the value of plays (the carefully crafted scripts and skillfully practiced deliveries), stories behind exhibitions (the narrative we make of our past) and appreciation for art forms less explored – each offers profound takeaways. With the intention of uncovering more lessons as such, this month sees conscious effort invested into these artistic experiences. A recent visit to the Permanent Galleries at the National Museum of Singapore inspires this piece on the value of nostalgia.

The Permanent Galleries were only reopened to public in recent years after being closed for renovation. The entire re-curation and re-arrangement of the exhibits put together a more human recount of the “Modern Colony 1925-1935” and “Surviving Syonan 1942 -1945” chapters of the Singapore Story. Rather than grouping the exhibits based on aspect of society (i.e. food, fashion), the chronological categorization provided a relatively more holistic display of the lives of Singaporeans then. Consequently, museum-goers (like myself) can take away a nuanced illustration of society in the different time periods – the ‘entertainment avenues’ during the years Singapore was ‘Syonan-to’, the love stories that emerged from the Japanese Occupation or the affluent upper class in the 1920s were perspectives newly introduced into the revamped Permanent Galleries. It is promising that our national narrative continues to evolve along with the public’s growing thirst for historical truths.

My previous piece explored the Rape of Nanking and the lessons this historical atrocity offers for us even in present-day. Similarly, here, I would like to propose that our sense of nostalgia that holds onto the past is just as important as remembering to forget. (I once wrote about “remembering to forget” because of the detrimental effects the weight of the past can possibly have on us.) Offering another piece in the same puzzle, this reflection is uniquely Singaporean for its contextualized observations and experiences:

In a recent W!LD RICE Production as part of the Singapore Theatre Festival, the play titled Geylang told the story of tension between Geylang residents protecting their homes and members of the Ministry hoping to “redevelop” the neighbourhood, uplifting the old buildings completely. This story is relatable for many Singaporeans, regardless of age – given the incredibly rapid pace of (re)development, we would all know a place or two that once was without even a significant fraction of our lives passing. For me, I think of King Albert Park and Jurong Entertainment Centre where I played for a large part of my childhood. For as long as I’ve had to say goodbye to places, I have justified the farewell to these places with the necessity of economic development. “We have to stay relevant, stay competitive,” we were taught. A close friend recently shared her hesitation to reconnect with a teacher who had once influenced her greatly. Reason being, the school in which the teacher had taught her in was being demolished and there was no longer a “common space” for their reconnection to take place. I have attended numerous neighbourhood trails, each emphasizing the importance of our “common spaces” to create meaningful memories and forge friendships. Today, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) runs programs like Our Favourite Place that supports projects that encourage community interaction in “common spaces”. Yet, we are inconsistent in our attempts to value these spaces – ignoring cries against destruction of the old while expecting initiative in new “common spaces”.

Perhaps, we have become afraid of being attached to places we will one day have to bid farewell to.

A subsequent production I had the privilege of watching, titled Hotel, had 10 scenes. Each scene was set a decade apart in the same hotel room. In the play’s final scene, an old man diagnosed with terminal stage cancer had chosen to spend his final months in the hotel room rather than his own house because “it is easier to cope with something temporary instead of something permanent.” It leaves me to question if the ease with which we come to terms with buildings and places being temporary is a symptom of our choice to undermine nostalgia. After all, in Alfian Sa’at’s literature, he proposes that nostalgia has no value; for if it did, then some things will still be around. Here, I recall the futile fight for Bukit Brown Cemetery. The reconnection with the arts in this period has inspired a deep sense of nostalgia as it evokes reflection on the past of not just our nation but in my own life – the relationships once shared, memories once made and the values once valued. It is in nostalgia that we find the deeper lessons: when we start drawing dots, finding patterns, understanding change and continuity.

It is needless to say that the Singapore consensus to pursue economic development deserves much credit for how far and how quickly we have come to where we are today, in the past 50 years of independence. I am reminded, though, of the forward-looking attitude encouraged at a series of SG100 conversations. Just as it is important to celebrate, we have to actively create what would be worth celebrating. First and foremost, for our urban landscape, we have to start considering where nostalgia has a place in all this.

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5 thoughts on “Singaporean Taste of Nostalgia

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