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Apr 5, 2011

Art at MRT Stations in Singapore

Art at MRT stations often reflects Singapore's distinct identity and character. Art at MRT stations often reflects Singapore's distinct identity and character. TODAY FILE PHOTO

Names should tell a (hi)story
by Liew Kai Khiun and Kevin Y L Tan
Source: TODAY Apr 05, 2011
The recent exchange of letters in the media over the selection of Tan Kah Kee as the name of one of the planned MRT stations (DT8) of the Downtown Line reflects the complexities of the Singapore identity. What started as public discomfort over the initially proposed names of "Watten" (with reference to Watten Estate) and "Duchess" by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in 2008, has now been superseded by disagreement over the latest move to name the station "Tan Kah Kee".

For a non-bread-and-butter issue, the volume and intensity of the online discussion is significant. Singaporeans seem to care about how their history and identity are being represented. Such contentions illustrate the maturity and sophistication of Singapore society now grappling with the complexities of its historical and cultural heritage.

The MRT is one of Singapore's most extensive and expensive public works and the public eye is trained on the system whenever each new line and station is opened. There is good reason for this.

Many of our MRT stations are architecturally distinctive, with striking facades complemented by artistically impressive interiors. More importantly, from artwork and murals to historical portraitures and explanations, MRT stations also serve as de-facto museums and art galleries reminding commuters of the sense of place, time and locality.

In this respect, the deployment of "tourist-friendly" names for stations like Chinatown and Little India suggest a lack of historical consciousness and social memory. "Kreta Ayer" and "Tekka" would be more respectful to the vicinities that these stations serve.

Thankfully, the authorities rejected the initial name of "Museum" for the station near the Singapore Art Museum and called it Bras Basah, opting for a name that is more intimate to Singaporeans than tourists.

Similarly, Dhoby Ghaut Station could have ended up being called "Plaza Singapura" or "Istana" but did not. Derived from the Indian laundry trade, the area used to be known for the many dhobis (Indian laundrymen) who used to wash, dry and iron their laundry in the open ground.

Some may see this naming convention as anachronistic but it does pay tribute to the multiracial immigrant communities that have made Singapore history.

Explaining the process of naming new stations, the LTA said it makes its final recommendations to the Street and Building Name Board for approval after conducting a public poll on a list of choices that would reflect either the station's location or the area's heritage.

While public consultation is welcomed, it should not be carried out simply as a casual opinion poll. For the general public to make an informed assessment, the authorities must first highlight the unique historical and social characteristics of the localities involved. They should also make it clear to the public that a better name for a station is one which values long-term historical sensitivity over immediate convenience.

Choosing a name for a new MRT station involves two important and intertwined considerations: Geographical and historical. We need first to ensure that the station's location is adequately reflected in the name which should bear some historical connections with the space.

What, then, of the proposal for "Tan Kah Kee" as a station name? Important as Tan is, his name is not one that is automatically or instinctively related to the Bukit Timah location. "Chinese High" or "Hwa Chong" might be better since the school has occupied that compound since 1925.

Living in a country where we have constant "remaking" and "upgrading" exercises, there is a feeling of insecurity and impermanence in Singapore's changing landscape where most buildings do not last more than three decades. Looking at the passion engendered by the debate on the naming of MRT stations, we can see that by recognising their place past, Singaporeans do feel strongly about their country.

This sense of rootedness and ownership manifests in their wanting a say in the naming of these MRT stations. It is a good thing.

Dr Kevin Y L Tan is president of and Dr Liew Kai Khiun a member of the Singapore Heritage Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Singapore's history, heritage and identity.
Source: The Straits Times, December 5, 1987



Blogger Ipohgal said...

Hi James,

I wished the same could be done for the LRT and monorail stations in KL but unfortunately they gave priorities to commercial signboards over arts.

April 13, 2011 at 8:58 PM  
Blogger lim said...

Tan Kah Kee is in a way very related to the formation of the Chinese High School. He was a philantropist who truly believed in education. The guys at Chinese High have a great admiration for him. Still, Chinese High or Hwa Chong would be a more appropriate name considering the location, but not Watten or whatever, please.

April 14, 2011 at 8:37 PM  
Blogger Lam Chun See said...

To be consistent, I think the MRT station shd be named Duchess. The name of the station should be associated with the place rather than people. Thus we have station names like Sixth Avenue, Beauty World etc. This is for the benefit of the commuters. If we named it Tan Kah Kee, the commuter has first to associate it with the school Hwa Chong, and then connect that to the TKK.

Furthermore, for not many Sporeans are able to automatically link the TKK to Hwa Chong. I myself always associate TKK with ACS becos when I was study in ACS in the 1960's we had a house (sports) name after him.

Besides, there is always the possibility that some years down the road, Hwa Chong may be shifted. For example Whitley SS was shifted to Bishan.

April 15, 2011 at 9:15 PM  

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