Giving a Future to Our Past*
“Newspaper archives” by leww_pics is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.
Does the past matter? How should we remember moments and things in the past? We spend much effort and time so that we can return to that moment in time when we felt most alive, most comfortable, happier, and when we thought we held the essence of the good life in our being. Those moments may be long gone, but our romanticisation of them leads to certain fixations. We are consumed with ‘authenticity’ – as seen in the way some of us respond to young hawkers experimenting ‘too much’ with recipes: how dare you depart from the ‘original’! We are spent with thinking about ‘the return to normalcy’ in the year of the pandemic – as seen in many lamentations: when shall we return to normal life? Some of us are inspired and fascinated by the idea of conservation – as seen in the way we applaud the proposal to conserve the Golden Mile Complex and grieve about the loss of the old National Library Building.
The truth is that recapturing exact moments in the past may be impossible. Even if buildings, food, and practices can be recreated, times have changed and so have we. While this can be a depressing paradox, giving up on remembering and saving our past is not an option. But how do we remember? The past may be imagined and constructed with rose-tinted memories, and when perceived in that light, it can give ‘feelings’ a bad name. But sentiments are not to be taken lightly – to paraphrase the words of Dr Chua Ai Lin (Executive Director, Singapore Heritage Society), “…the real work of caring for our heritage lies in our sentiments, affection and feelings – dimensions of ourselves we are not usually asked to exercise” (Chua, 2016, p. 49). While the pursuit of the past can be romanticised, even conjectural, it can invoke deep sentiments – hopeful but also grounded in the realities we need to save and to give our past a future.
*This musing was inspired by the vision statement of Singapore Heritage Society “Giving a Future to our Past”
Chua, A.L. (2016). ‘Giving a future to our past’ – Reflections on developing the heritage conservation cause. In G.Koh (ed), Singapore: A democracy of deeds and problem-solving (pp. 38-49), Singapore: The National University of Singapore Society.