Firstly, kudos to the speakers on the Opposition for their very valid points and arguments in today’s debates; it was quite obvious who the more experienced debaters are. Not that the Proposition did not take the topic of the debate seriously; we just didn’t take the debate format seriously. Between that and my minimal preparation (I can’t speak for the other speakers on the Proposition on their preparation.), clearly I could have done better getting my point across. So, if you’re interested, here are some notes as to where I was going with my speech and some thoughts on the debate, after the fact.
When discussing our strategy for the debate, I believe all the speakers on the Proposition were in agreement that the preservation of cultural heritage and progress – and we were banking on the Opposition taking this term to mean economic, financial progress, or development – are not mutually exclusive. Thus, my argument, had I made a better go at it, would have been that we would not sacrifice cultural heritage for progress simply because there is no need to do so; that cultural heritage and progress can co-exist, something that even the Opposition seem to have alluded to when they mentioned how in an ideal situation, we should be able to have both culture and progress.
My argument thus hinged on showing examples where cultural heritage and progress co-exist; both tangible and intangible cultural heritage. I especially liked the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s definition of the intangible cultural heritage in the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage [Emphasis mine.]:
[T]he practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.
What was important in the definition, I would have argued, would have been that cultural heritage is not simply vestiges of the past, that cultural heritage is not immutable and that groups and communities get to define what is cultural heritage for themselves (‘communal consensus’, as raised by Then Ai Ping). Basically, cultural heritage is not solely of the past, but is a part of the present, contemporary culture, even of everyday life. Something as ingrained as batik is to the Indonesians surely should not be so easily sacrificed for progress. I don’t see China, the world’s fastest growing major economy, the world’s second-largest economy after the United States of America and the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer of goods doing away with opera or acupuncture, for example.
The other reason I like UNESCO’s definition is it takes into account “existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.” Which is why it does not have on its list things like foot-binding (raised by Ng Yi-Sheng) or female genital mutilation. International human rights itself, along with egalitarianism and democracy, among others, are examples of cultural heritage in their own right; these are systems and beliefs that did not develop ahistorically; they are cultural because we inherited them from earlier cultures and traditions and made them our own.
I also bring up examples of tangible cultural heritage that are being preserved and even integrated into the contemporary, everyday life of their host communities; Westminster Palace being one such monument, while Moscow’s Red Square and the Kremlin would have been another example. One point I did not manage to make was the amount of tourist dollars that having such monuments could draw; one reason why so many cities maintain and preserve a historical quarter or district is because not all tourists or visitors to these cities go simply for the shopping malls, skyscrapers and casinos contained therein. For sure, the Greek economy is not in trouble because too much money was being spent on preserving the Acropolis, but rather due to bad financial decisions. And poor urban planning, more than the presence of culturally-significant architecture, has caused Singapore’s recent drainage woes. Amsterdam is not about to pave over all of its canals, but I don’t hear them talking about “ponding” too often.
An argument could be made that these other countries can afford to preserve cultural heritage because they have had a head-start economically, they have a large land area, a large hinterland; bascally, they have resources which our little island does not. Well, if progress is going to be measured simply by how much money we can generate, or how large our coffers are, we will always be playing catch-up to these larger economies. How about measuring progress in the form of innovation and creativity; doing more with limited resources, and reinventing and integrating the old into the new?
That’s how we’re dealing with our water situation, for example; despite the threat of a water shortage looming large, with one water agreement with Malaysia having expired and another one expiring in 2061, the government has decided to focus on increasing self-sufficiency, encouraging the development of technologies for recycling and desalinating water, instead of negotiating an extension of the water agreements, or signing new treaties with Indonesia. Using science and technological advancements to get around our limitations? That is progress. Having companies such as Hyflux become major international players? That is progress. So why can’t we challenge the best minds of our generation to factor in the preservation of cultural heritage into our pursuit of progress; to integrate cultural heritage, modify, if need be, using advances in the sciences, technology, engineering, and architecture, among others, into our modern, cosmopolitan landscape? That, to me, is as good a measure of progress as any and that there is nothing wrong with aspiring for the ideal co-existence of progress with the preservation of cultural heritage.
I must emphasise here that the Proposition and I, personally, do not agree that cultural heritage is immutable, that we should not touch it at any cost, as Adrian Tan claims we said. Modifying what has been passed on to us from our forbears to suit our own needs and circumstances is, to me, culture evolving organically. If a practice or tradition or art form dies out because it is obsolete, outdated and not in line with contemporary cultural norms and ethics, that is a natural evolution of culture, which is different from uprooting our cultural heritage or bulldozing its physical manifestations in order to build one more shopping mall, one more highway, or one more integrated resort.
Hirzi Zulkiflie, of Munah & Hirzi fame, asked, when the discussion was opened to the floor, why, if we were so interested in preserving cultural heritage, weren’t we in traditional costume? Adrian Tan, in saying he did not like arguing with conservatives and traditionalists, implied that that was the position we were taking. Problem is, I don’t think anybody on the Proposition even claimed to be taking that stand. Just as I avoid essentialist notions of culture where I can, so, too, do I avoid the purists’ definition of heritage as unchangeable and immutable and that which must be preserved as is. If anything, this stubborn clinging on to things as they should have been in the past makes it all the easier to consign them to the dustbins of history.
I was being deliberately vague on the question of whose culture and whose cultural heritage; why restrict ourselves to just Chinese culture, Malay culture, Indian culture, Eurasian culture, Peranakan culture, etc.? Just as I am for the freedom of individuals to choose which aspects of culture to identify with or by which to define themselves, so, too, do I feel that people should be free to draw from whichever culture they so choose and decide what is heritage for them. The fact is, we do more to further the cultural heritage of others than we do our own. Take the American Broadway musical, for example. It traces its roots back to the early 1900s, if not earlier, and if anybody doubts how cultural heritage can also generate money, Broadway shows still sell more than $1 billion worth of tickets every year. The same goes for London’s West End theatres, with more than 13 million attendees each year. In Singapore, we pay steep ticket prices to watch versions of these musicals performed by an Australian touring cast. We also pay a substantial amount to watch Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet perform. Shakespeare and his works remain some of the world’s most marketable cultural commodities; we speak of his universal appeal, our children study his works in school and we will pay hundreds of dollars to watch Ian McKellen or Kevin Spacey perform one of his characters. Opera and classical music still retain a significant level of prestige and, in turn, still command fairly high ticket prices.
We appreciate and consume the heritage of other cultures, so why can we not do accord the same privilege to our own? It makes me wonder if at the heart of the matter lays our own inferiority complex: that our cultural heritage is never good enough, beautiful enough, attractive enough, indeed, substantial enough to warrant preserving. The argument was made that Singapore is far too young to have the luxury of having cultural heritage worth preserving, but if the powers that be cannot leave anything to stand well alone for very long, what will we be left with when we finally decide we are old enough? The triple towers of the Marina Bay Sands resort? Resorts World Sentosa? Or will these, too, go the way of the old National Library and the old National Theatre when the government decides to move on to another money-making brainchild?
Again, the Proposition is not against progress, but surely there must be a limit to the indiscriminate tearing down and rebuilding; this Etch-a-Sketch approach to development. Asking us to sacrifice cultural heritage for progress is akin to asking a person to sell off her/his home and everything in it, so he can permanently move into her/his workplace and get more things done. Progress, perhaps, but at what cost?
I’d like to end by thanking Jerome Chee and the ROOTS team for organising the debate and to commend them for taking on the topic. Don’t forget to catch their exhibition, 3-8 March, 11 A.M. to 10 P.M. daily at Old School@Mount Sophia!