Benchmarking Singapore

By Jobers R. Bersales July 31,2014

Setting aside the half-million peso cost, the idea of sending a team of city councilors and other officials of Cebu City to Singapore to study its hosing program is very laudable. It is also timely.

As Cebu City and its other neighboring cities are now developing rapidly and bursting at the seams, it is high time that we look at our tiny neighbor and see how they succeeded in conserving space and providing cheap high-rise housing surrounded by endless greenery and parks for its urban poor.

This planned trip, apparently now being shelved, would have fallen right smack in the period when ten students together with museum curators and heritage advocates will also be in Singapore to meet with counterparts there led by the Singapore National Heritage Board.

But unlike the city’s aborted plan, we will be paying our way. Some three years ago, I had already promised other students in the cultural heritage courses I taught at the University of San Carlos that I would inquire and then organize a team that would spend a week in Singapore to network with museum curators and learn from the experiences of heritage advocates and conservation experts there.

And then also hopefully return the favor by inviting them over to Cebu.

But why Singapore? Well, for starters, students of heritage conservation know full well that had it not been for a small but loud heritage advocacy movement in the early 1980s, all the old shop houses that are now well-preserved and adaptively reused in Chinatown as well as in Joo Chiat district in Singapore would have been bulldozed and replaced with high rise public as well as private housing.

In the massive drive to make Singapore a First World country, the Lee Kuan Yew government almost forgot that every city has to look back into its past and have something to show for it; that modernity without a soul and conscience, was nothing but progress amid a bleak and drab landscape of abstract uniformity.

Nowhere is the dehumanization that accompanies modernity and ultra-modernity more apparent that when one travels from one international airport to another; they all look the same: cold and dry, made of glass and steel, full of tired and weary passengers eager to go home.

This is why, for example, Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport boasts of exhibitions of museum-quality artifacts in between departure gates or why every afternoon actors and actresses dressed in traditional costumes march as part of a Royal Imperial Procession at the second floor of South Korea’s Incheon International Airport.

These things give these otherwise similar-looking buildings a soul, as it were, forcing travelers to stop and be awed.

Singapore almost lost its cultural and historical uniqueness in the drive to success. Because such a drive tends to forget that people are human beings with feelings and with desires. Al these tend to be swept aside when one gets rich.

Thus, while Cebu is still at the stage where we face many paths to the future, many avenues for the kind of development we want, I think it’s best to look at Singapore and learn from its successes and its mistakes.

Bringing our city government officials to see the high rise public housing in Singapore surrounded by lush green parks and plenty of public cultural centers and public village libraries would have been a superb opportunity because Cebu City still lacks, for example, its own comprehensive cultural map and still needs so much work in terms of identifying its historic edifices and providing interpretive signages to explain to tourist and locals alike what happened here or there.

Which makes me wonder how the tableaus at the humongous and ill-placed Cebu Heritage Monument in Parian are explained by tour guides, knowing that there is still not a single explanatory panel board there– -costing perhaps no more than a few thousand pesos to put up–-that would provide the correct heritage interpretation of Cebu’s history as rendered by the Manila-based artist Edgardo Castrillo.

Cebu is, without doubt, well-poised to do all these because it has a mayor who is heritage-aware and is himself a long-term advocate of cultural preservation. But it is also good to learn from others. And the best time is now.

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