Nationally Speaking: Going Places

By Bay Jia Wei (17S06R)

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All HDB flats look alike. Cookie-cutter homes clustered together, it is easy to lose yourself in a neighbourhood of buildings plastered by the same shade of rectangular splotches. Perhaps the only thing that differentiates the tall columns are the block numbers attached to them. Yet, a few days ago, when I visited the HDB flat that I used to live in, a wave of nostalgia followed. Every flat around me was similar, but returning home felt different.

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Going home

And it is often so. When we leave the spaces that we have grown attached to, there is a desire to return to these places. Looking at its setting, we recall what took place there and then, no matter what may have changed in the interim. In a Geographer’s language, space refers to a location as it is, void of emotional investment. A place, however, is more than a space, somewhere where we feel a sense of attachment to.

We see these terms in everyday life. Some spaces are merely transactional, while others transcend pragmatism. Places that mean something to us could be anything, not necessarily a building of unique architecture. After all, there is no criteria in humanising a space – human agency takes charge. It could be a particular room in school, a certain shop in the neighbourhood, or a corridor leading back home.

But the sense of attachment we experience to these places only becomes more apparent after we have left them. This is probably the result of the nostalgia that we experience, the longing to remember our past.

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Childhood hopscotch era

This longing is somewhat relieved when we have the chance to revisit the places that house our memories. But Singapore’s landscape is ever-changing, and development of spaces is part and parcel of nation building. So what happens when the places we hold dear are transformed into something beyond recognition?

The removal of places marks the end of an era, and signifies that a certain timeframe has disappeared from our lives entirely. Memories of people and events close to our hearts contribute to a sense of belonging to our country. Where these take place is often evocative of these sentiments.  When we speak of “disappearing”, we speak of how these places are relocated or reconstructed. However, in these situations, the unique sense of place is likely to have been lost. Like any other relationship, the relationship with places requires time and a sense of personal, individual history. If our environment keeps evolving, we may end up living in more spaces than places.

The concept of a changing environment is not foreign to Singapore. Witnessing old buildings being demolished to make way for new ones has become commonplace. The Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme, for instance, tears down older estates and uses the land for other purposes. While existing flat owners receive compensation, rehousing benefits, and are assured to continue living with their old neighbours, the sense of attachment is nevertheless likely to be lost in transition.

A few years ago, the old National Library Building was razed, and attempts at constructing some semblance of a palimpsest at the new building was weak. 5,000 red bricks from the old building were preserved and used to build a commemorative wall at the current site. It is located in a desolate and obscure Bamboo Garden, possessing little significance in comparison to the grand new National Library building.

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5,000 red bricks

For those who have spent their childhood in the old National Library, the brick structure is probably poor compensation for the library of their memories. There is little to reminisce about in bricks. For us, who have never stepped foot into the old building, it is difficult to visualise what the place meant to those whose memories belong there.

When our parents or our grandparents tell us stories of their past experiences, it is so much easier to capture the essence of their tales when we have a place to link it to. Places add a real dimension to our stories, and differentiate these stories from myths or fables. Places allow us to connect with our history, and serve as an anchor for our memories.

How do we feel? How do we remember? In Singapore, pragmatism seems to be the governing principle – places are quickly lost to the forces of renewal, development, and progress. But it is likely that some places will remain unscathed. They may be of less significance, but at least we can hold on to what is left. And if all were to be erased, then it is up to us to immortalise the places that we will lose, be it through a photo or a piece of writing.

Perhaps a part of national identity is clinging on to the past, to know that there is a place in your country worth feeling for and remembering, and to have a home to return to.

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