Saturday, March 5, 2016

Conservation must go beyond face value

5 Mar 2016

Changi Prison is undoubtedly an important historic site ("Parts of Changi Prison gazetted as national monument"; Feb 16).

Hence, it is regrettable that what is to be preserved is just a mere section of its perimeter wall.

The rest of the historic prison complex has been levelled, including key structures, such as its clock tower and blocks containing the prison cells where prisoners of war were incarcerated during World War II.

The wall by itself is merely a superficial representation of the prison's steeped history.

The true significance of Changi Prison lies in what went on behind the walls.

Preserving the prison complex would have been critical in telling a meaningful story of Changi.

Just imagine, for instance, how much less compelling the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland would be today if the Polish authorities had preserved only its main entrance.

Changi Prison's historical significance has long been recognised

["long been recognised" by whom? And how? and what does "historical significance" mean? It was a site mention in history? It was the site of a historical event. If this site did not exist in history, it was likely that events in history would not have turned out the way they did? This site/institution was created by a confluence of historical events that is unlikely to ever occur again, and the institution created had an influence beyond the immediate region? No? Just a vague "historical significance"? A fart in history?]
Instead of wholesale destruction of the complex - leaving just the entrance gate, wall and turrets - to make way for a new prison, the authorities could have tried harder to accommodate the original complex in the new plans.

Preserving the key structures would not have been so great a hindrance to redevelopment.

Of what value is a national monument if the integral parts of it are razed?

[Right! The Clock Tower is an Integral Part of the Historically Significant Changi Prison because historically, the Prisoners of War would look up and know what time it was when they saw the clock on the clock tower.]

This is a disturbing trend.

The iconic Cathay Building was also demolished, leaving just the facade of its three-storey podium block, which is hardly significant by itself to be made a national monument.

Just what are we trying to commemorate and safeguard for future generations with such remnants?

It is unfortunate if this is the approach and attitude to conservation these days.

Loke Hoe Kit

[Comment on Facebook:
We need to stick to the CHIJMES principle -"Commercialising Historical Institutions Just Makes Economic Sense." :-) 
Land scarcity is a known constraint. The problem is, conservation needs to be selective and intelligent. "Universal" conservation is just hoarding on a national scale. Similarly having no consideration for history, historical significance, and historical value of our buildings or institutions suggests the lack of a soul.
This means that the decision for conservation needs to carefully consider significance, value, and possibly even interest. And it would also help to consider commercial value.
So it does not help to speak in terms of general principles. So let's take the specific example of Changi Prison which is the subject of the forum letter.  
The letter mentions the need to "tell a meaningful story of Changi" (Prison), alludes to some "historical significance" (which would not pass Wikipedia's "factuality" test - would be considered "weasel words"), and compares Changi Prison to Auschwitz.
And that is when I decided that this letter was not very objective.
Comparing Changi Prison to Auschwitz? I think not. 
OK. So maybe the letter writer is a demagogue or given to over-enthusiastic writings that give wings to his flights of fancy, we'll ignore his less than objective arguments and consider the historical significance of Changi Prison independent of his letter.
Does it have historical significance? I would say that I am relatively well-read, but not an expert on Changi Prison, or WWII atrocities. But if Changi were significant, that significance would have filtered down to the general population. If only experts can point to the significance, then, I submit, it is not significant.
But "significance" may well be a subjective assessment. So I will only say, "I don't think so." For now. And that is ONLY my opinion. 
So let's say some panel of experts out there disagrees with my uninformed opinion and assesses that the old Changi Prison should be conserved in toto.
Then the next thing we need to ask is, then where do we build the new prison?
Is there another piece of land suitable for a prison complex? And where would it be sited? Serangoon Gardens?
Carve out a site in the Nature Reserve? 
If we subscribe to conserving EVERYTHING, then the only option is to build over green space or reserve land. Or undeveloped land without any buildings on it.
That means nature reserves or parks.
Unless we also want to conserve nature? 
On a small island like Singapore, there will be trade-offs. And so conservation needs to consider the needs of the present and the future. When we preserve the past, it is for the future, not for the past per  se.  
So conserving Changi Prison. How does it serve the present or the future? That should be the question.]

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