Requiem for a Culture
Posted on March 9, 2013
I extend trade-in culture to the broader picture of our home Singapore, based upon the exposure, experiences and formation of behaviors that exist to the unconscious. The culture was first called to attention when I left home for an extended period of time, and with that divorce came a new mode of consciousness to what was playing out back home.
As a nation, we are built on so much fear. We fear our past and how it might come back to haunt us, we fear losing a percentage in GDP growth, we fear so much and so hard that it has become the foundation and basis upon which Singaporeans live. We fear that what we have, and what we are, isn’t enough for the world and isn’t enough for ourselves. We fear, so we trade. We fear we’ll never have enough cash, or people, enough superstructures, or top-ten lists with our nation’s name on it. So, we trade in our souls and our time for more cash, our own people for more people, our buildings for state-of-the-art designer skyscrapers. A couple of decades later and we realize that we’ve been so fearful of being insufficient that we’ve traded all we owned for what others had.
Granted, trade-ins are an inevitable part of life and an exacerbated trend in the global capitalist economy. Those who do not play the card simply get left behind. The mechanics is simple: keep up with the infrastructure, technology, human resources — or be disqualified from the rat race. This is pervasive on all levels of the Singaporean life, from national policy and interests to the small child holding the latest iPhone. Yes, there is too much at stake.
Apart from the default economic comparison with neighboring emerging cities, we face that of tourism and how tourism takes in all aspects, including the economic. When debating ‘Rejuvenation vs. Identity’, Head of Communication for the Singapore Tourism Board Oliver Chong states: “We constantly renew and rejuvenate the Singapore tourism landscape to sustain a pipeline of exciting tourism offerings and to create experiences that add value and resonate with visitors”. What I am gathering from his statement, and from the entire piece above, is that perhaps the approach the policies are taking toward pushing us forward is indeed via trading-in all we have for the trendy. Again, another move propelled by fear. And again, with our people and our familiar milieu as pawns.
While I comprehend the economics of the system in totality, I’ve started to wonder about what exactly we’re trading in and for whom we are doing this. Looking back at the past decade, we’ve traded in many of our local Singaporean SMEs for international MNCs, many local staff for the foreign, and many iconic buildings for skyscrapers. The one that absolutely broke my heart was the replacement of our Old National Library with a tunnel and an ERP gantry. We traded in a beautiful old red brick and the memories that came with it for a few slabs of cement and steel and a couple more microchips.
How much is too much?
As a nation, we aren’t in a time trap like Venice is. We have to recognize the fact that we operate differently due to the myriad of factors; from geography to youth to our cultural composition, and then go on further to probe at the difference.
Nostalgia for us is a different mode of nostalgia, simply because in the name of furtherance, we have traded our past for our future.
In a tiny island ruled by fear, the present is no longer in question. Rather, everything we hold to call our own is thrown into the fire for postulations of what is to be, and not for what is. Trade-in culture on steroids risks eroding all notions of culture we have built as a nation since pre-independent days. And it, unfortunately, seems as though we’re a little too overdosed on it.
National identities and local cultures can’t be built overnight. But what they can be is removed. In a period of a decade, give and take a couple of years, they can be traded in for something foreign, something shielded by a veil of seeming perfection. After all, ‘the grass is greener on the other side’. And it is always easier to uproot than to soil, seed, water, tend and watch it grow.
Perhaps like a pawnshop, we always knew the value of what we traded away, and in the light of our brave new world, we would probably have sufficient wealth. Would we then be comfortable enough in our own skin to redeem and reclaim our tokens? Although by then, perhaps that’s all they will be — mere tokens.∗