Saturday, December 28, 2019

Why we need to keep our memories of familiar Singapore places alive

By Prakash Nair

20 December, 2019

My full name — Prakash Kuttickattu House Ramanpillai Gokkallan Nair — is 47 letters long.

[Must be a joy filling up forms requiring full name as in NRIC. See below "About the Author" for a hint as to why he put his full name out.]

Most people know me as Prakash, and most people would consider Nair to be my surname. Gokkallan and Ramanpillai are my father’s and grandfather’s names respectively.

On the other hand, Kuttickattu (roughly meaning “small forest” in my mother tongue, Malayalam), is actually the name of my ancestral home in Kerala, India.

And it is from Kuttickattu that I write this piece.

[If I were writing a piece like this, and I did not want to reveal my full name (inadvisable with the ease by which identity theft occurs), I could just start by saying my parents were from Kerala, and I visit our ancestral home regularly. Revealing his full name was cute and vulnerable, and that may be an attempt to gain trust. But ultimately, the information is not germane to the point of the article. BUT, one might say the same for this comment.]

My parents were born in India and emigrated to Singapore in the 1950s (my father was in the British Army); my siblings and I were all born and bred in Singapore.

While Singapore is and will always be home, I do feel a strong connection with Kerala, where most of my parents’ siblings and their offspring still live.

[Singapore will always be home to me. I have never been to Fujian where my ancestor (great grandfather) was from. I have no inclination to go visit.]

I try to visit at least once every couple of years or so, trips which have always given me much joy and happiness in that I am able to spend time with my relatives.

But the Kuttickattu house is special for other reasons, not all of which I can fully explain or comprehend.

The house itself is at least 300 years’ old. While renovations and additions have been done over the years, the original portion — made of wooden slats, with apparently no metal screws or bolts to keep them in place — is still very much intact.

Whenever I’m here, there is a sense of the past, that I am somehow part of a larger family with a long history. The fact that Kuttickattu is part of my name — it is part of who I am, literally and metaphorically — makes it all the more special.

I share this about Kuttickattu to highlight the important connection many of us feel with the physical world.

As Singapore celebrates multiple milestones this year, and we erect new statues and even plan a Founders’ Memorial, I cannot help but wonder: Do many Singaporeans feel such personal connections to the country, or even to some places within the country?

Or, have our personal and collective memories been somewhat erased over the years as the physical landscape around us has changed so dramatically?

As a child, I remember performing at the iconic National Theatre, a fleeting memory now since the building was torn down.

Similarly, the old National Library building at Stamford Road is a place of memory for many people. For me, it was the place (specifically on the steps leading to the main entrance) where I first kissed a girl, and also where I first got slapped by a girl (both events happened within five seconds of each other).

And it’s not just the major landmarks; the same applies for the less grand but no doubt significant structures and spaces where we grew up and spent time.

I have lived in Toa Payoh since 1968; whenever the older blocks and structures in the estate are “upgraded” and replaced by newer structures, at least some portion of our personal and collective memories gets replaced too.

The numerous sites and groups on social media, where members reminisce with photographs of the people, places and locations around Singapore, lamenting the loss of many of our physical spaces like homes, schools, shopping centres and the like, are perhaps evidence that I am not alone in feeling the way I do.

Don’t get me wrong. I accept and understand all the arguments about our physical limitations, and about the need for continual progress and development.

I also don’t want to discount the considerable conservation efforts that have taken place. But particularly over the last few years, I fear we have lost more than we have gained.

When, for example, we make decisions whether to conserve a particular building, aesthetic or architectural value and historical significance are often the main criteria used.

But when a school building is torn down — and sometimes the school itself “disappears” due to mergers or closures — the memories of thousands of students and staff of the school also get “torn down”.

[Hyperbole. Really? Suddenly thousands of people have selective or idiopathic amnesia? They forget they attended school there? Oh wait, "torn down" is in quotes. So what does he mean?]

I remember visiting the old building of Westlake Secondary School, the first school I taught at,  before it was torn down for redevelopment.

As I walked through the old school, I remembered various nooks and crannies where I had counselled students, gave extra lessons to those who needed it just before exams, sat with other members of the staff preparing worksheets or marking scripts, or conducting rehearsals for the various musicals and performances by the school’s Drama Club.

I can only imagine the tons of similar memories the other staff members and students were having, walking through the building that day.

While I’m not suggesting that these memories have totally disappeared now that the school building has been torn down, the emotional connection that people feel as they are physically in that building, or even just passing by it, is no longer as strong.

["Emotional connection" is his explanation.]

I think this is why Kuttickattu keeps calling me back, even though I can communicate with my family in many more modern ways these days.

[Logic fail. Kuttickattu was his ancestral home. His memories there were of holidays spent there. He did not live there on a day to day basis. He was not there 300 years ago when the original house of wooden slats was the only structure standing. He was not there when the first addition to the original structure was added. Or the second. Or most if not all of the other renovations. So why is it calling him back? The same way Asahikawa calls me back. Or Melbourne. Okay, maybe not the SAME. I'm not as melodramatic.]

Singapore has always been a pragmatic country, and it was more economics and the prospect of a decent living that both attracted and kept most of our forefathers here.

But now we are a nation. We need to think beyond mere economic development and success, important as these are.

We need our people to feel an emotional connection to one another and to the country as a whole.

One way to do that is to allow more of our physical spaces — not just the major landmarks and structures — to remain more or less intact, to keep alive the memories that these spaces evoke.

[And this is the "thesis" of this article: We are a nation, and we need our people to feel a connection to one another, and to our country, and one way to do this to keep more of our physical spaces intact to keep alive the memories these spaces evoke.]

At the very least, we need to recognise what we are losing when making decisions to rebuild or refresh our environment.

We also need to share our personal memories with one another. Perhaps by hearing more stories associated with different parts of Singapore, we can begin to stitch together a more collective and shared history, enabling us all to strengthen our emotional connection to each other and therefore to our nation.

The stories shared by my father and his siblings, growing up in Kuttickattu, enabled me to feel something for the place, even though I never spent a significant amount of time at the house itself.

[So if your father and his siblings did not share those stories, would you feel anything for the place? If I were dropped into Kuttickattu, would I feel anything for that place? If or when you have children, and you bring them to Kuttickattu, and you told them the stories your father and your uncles and aunts told you, would they start to feel something for that place? ]

That’s truly the power of stories and memories of the places and spaces associated with our lives.

In the same vein, I try to share some of their stories, adding to them my own stories and memories, with my nieces, so that they too can look at the place as more than merely a house they visit occasionally.

[And do they?]

A country is forged by the multitude of memories of its people: About their lives, the spaces and places they grew up and spent time in, the relationships built, the hardships endured and the triumphs enjoyed. Let’s start by telling each other our stories.

Now, who wants to hear about the time I caused my sister to almost drown in the river in front of Kuttickattu?


Prakash Nair is a freelance facilitator, trainer, consultant and coach who works with the public, social and corporate sectors. This piece first appeared in The Birthday Book (2019), a collection of 54 essays on “narratives, undiscovered and underway” in Singapore.

[It is tempting and easy to suggest that places hold memories. In fact, one mnemonic device used by "mentalists" is to use spatial imagery to help them remember lists of things. However, in the essay above, the author conflates and inflates the role of places as stores of memories. 

His memories of Kuttickatta are conflated with the stories of his father and his father's siblings when they lived there. His memories of the National Library is simply the stage on which his memories plays out. The fact that he still remembers his first kiss and the first time he was slapped despite the fact that the National Library has been demolish, puts paid to his theme. 

Would his lips quiver with the memory of the kiss if the National Library is still there? Would his face redden from the memory of the slap if the Library still stands?

But what of his thesis: That we as a people need those familiar places to keep the memories alive and facilitate our connection to the place?

Would he feel more connected to that girl he kissed and the girl who slapped him if the National Library still stood?

The strength of his essay is the Power of Stories, and bond from shared experiences. That changes with every person and every generation and every batch of NS recruits, or school intake.

The ability of places to hold memories, is an ascribed capacity. 

Which is not to say that it is false or inauthentic. I WANT places to be preserved. I want to be convinced that there is an argument for preserving old places. 

Unfortunately, this essay is not that argument.]

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