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Mar 18, 2020

Making Memories Count

Emotional connections:  A photograph of Mr Gene Tan, director of the Singapore Memory Project, with his mother and three older siblings growing up in a one-room flat in Circuit Road.

By Jennani Durai

The Singapore Memory Project shifts its focus to quality instead of quantity of memories.

I started with big dreams of collecting five million memories before Singapore's 50th birthday, but the Singapore Memory Project now wants quality, over quantity.

Mr Gene Tan, director of the Singapore Memory Project, says the project is "beyond numbers now".  "We feel that Singaporeans can feel something for the project and people are responding more to the emotions behind the memories," he says.  "So we are moving towards memories that are able to connect with other people."

He elaborates:  "Once, we put up a picture of a Singer sewing machine on our Facebook page, and the memories came flooding in.  People talked about how they got their clothes sewn by their mother or grandmother.  That sparked off more memories of the people they love.  The most powerful memories people connect to have to do with relationships."

Heritage experts here say the project's change in focus is for the better.

Dr Chua Ai Lin, historian and vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society, agrees with the move, saying that the richness of the contributions is more important than the number.  She says:  "People could submit just one line, and it might not even be meaningful.  The things that will speak to people who look at these contributions are rich descriptions that evoke textures and memories of the past, that create emotional connections."

Similarly, Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies says memories can revolve around just recollections of everyday life.  He says:  "Memories are important not because we have many of them, but because some of them are meaningful to us and define who we are."

The project, initiated by the National Library Board in 2010, was envisioned to hit its target of five million memories by 2015.  However, in the last three years, it has garnered over 800,000 contributions - a far cry from its original lofty aim.

But Mr Tan adds that the shift away from numbers does not mean they are no longer important.  "For any project, 800,000 members are sufficient to build a story.  Now we must try to figure out whether there are any areas of the Singapore experience which we may not have memories yet," he says.

Anyone can submit memories through the project's online portal (, or through its various roadshows at libraries, community centres and housing estates.  There are also more than 180  volunteers in the Memory Corps, says Mr Tan, who help collect and document the contributions at the project's outreach events.

Writer Justin Zhuang, 29, who contributed an e-book on retro playgrounds to the project, feels strongly that the project's success should not be discounted.  "Although the Singapore Memory Project may look like it's lacking in numbers at the moment, I think it has created an awareness of the values of our past and a platform for people to explore historeis," he says.

He adds that the project is important in that it "signals the state's recognition that every Singaporean is part of its history, not just great men or women".

Mr Alvin Tan, director of the National Heritage Board, says the project could consider highlighting particularly evocative memories that have been submitted and leveraging on them to generate more memories.

Historian Dr Chua adds that collecting any oral history can take a lot of effort.  "It takes a long time for people to warm up and share in the vivid way that the project is looking for.  You may have to meet someone four or five times before they really begin to talk," she says.

She adds:  "It may not be as straightforward as just telling people to come forward and share."

Civil servant Jacky Tan submitted this photograph of his late father selling kueh tu tu from a tricycle stall in Chinatown in the 1970s.

Human resources coordinator Petrina Edema submitted this 1975 shot of her with her mother and brother outside the National Theatre after a visit to the Van Kleef Aquarium.


One S'pore, many pasts?

As the nation turns 50, does its history matters to Singaporeans?
The debate continued in the post-live show segment of Thursday's VoicesTODAY

[Source:  TODAY, 22 February 2014]

Gary Gan:  History must be taken in context.  If it is being used to educate and help people shape their decisions that would dictate their future, then it is an important tool and we can learn from the lessons the pioneer generation taught us in building this nation.

If history is used as a crutch because we want to hark back to the good old days and do not want to let go, then it is difficult for Singapore to progress.

We hear (talk) that buses were not so crowded, there were not so many foreigners, cars were cheaper and roads were less busy ... People should ralise this is progress.

Chua Ai Lin:  There aree different aspects of history and Gary is referring to the sense of nostalgia.  Earlier, another caller talked about the past being something traumatic.
As an academic, I see history as being about learning information.  So, there are different ways to thinak about the past and, as Gary said, they have different outcomes.

Philip Chew:  Everybody has a story to tell.  In my case, it happens to be Chew Joo Chiat and I want his descendents to know his humble beginnings.  He kept such a low profile that hardly anybody knows he was one of Singapore's pioneers.

Gene Tan:  The collective sentiment that comes from all these stories is instructive, I think the past is, currently and shockingly, slowing us down in a good way.  We look back at things we used to love and the kampung spirit is cited often.

While we cannot get it back, that talk of inclusivenes and pulling people together has made us now more conscious about those whom we need to pay attention to and include.  So the past can slow us down in powerful ways.

Gary:  I agree.  An image comes to mind:  Looking at pictures in the past of how Mr Lee Kuan Yew sat with his Cabinet colleagues - Malay, Indian and Chinese - and would sup together.  That was the norm.  Nowadays, people have their groups and are going in different directions.  Gene mentioned the kampung spirit so, maybe, such things will help us take a sstep back to say that society should still be "like this" in the 21st century.


Gene:  I feel that people are averse to reducing the Singapore identity or spirit to only a few words or pictures.  If we can make the Singapore identity a little messier, a little more complex, with something that represents all the minutiae that comes with feeling Singaporean, that would sound more authentic.

Ai Lin:  Maybe the mould we have been given so far does not reflect the messiness Gene is talking about and not everybody can find their reflection in that simplified identity.  So, it is about finding ways to connect and, maybe, we need more ways in which people can connect to a sense of self.

Amos Lee:  If there is one way history has helped us, it is to show us the aspects we can incorporate into our identity.  But we are still debating what makes a Singaporean ... For the young, history ties in with our culture and tradition, especially when it comes to food.

Gene:  It should be mandatory to have many versions of what the past was like and I hope we have many versions of the present, so the future can continue to debate the Singaporean identity.


Gary:  I would hazard a suggestion that, if Singapore history was an examinable subject, people would take keener interest.  That may seem cynical but, if we want to drum it into our youngsters, maybe a bit of force is required, rather than to let them think about it casually.

Ai Lin:  (Learning about history) should be about experiencing the past beyond textbooks and we are getting better at it.  Instead of making it compulsory through the exam route, which turns people off, I am more interested in getting them to see it in a fun way; to connect with it.  I think the landscape is powerful.  For example, to me, Byjut Brown is a story of people who were not terribly interested in history before, but have been so taken by the place that they have educated themselves about various aspects of Singapore history.

*  Gene Tan is Director of the Singapore Memory Project.
*  Chua Ai Lin is President of the Singapore Heritage Society
*  Philip Chew blogs about his great-grandfather Chew Joo Chiat and other memories
*  Amos Lee is a social science student
*  Gary Gan was a caller on the show

In search of Singapore's past

Young Singaporeans are responding to the rapid pace of change by documenting lost places and memories

By Jennani Durai[Source:  Straits Times - 2nd Edition, 14 April 2013

Nostalgia has surged of late in Singapore, if the recent proliferation of heritage projects, stores and eateries harking back to bygone days is anything to go by.

Against a backdrop of the very prominent closure of longstanding landmarks such as the Bukit Brown cemetery and the Tanjong Pagar Railway station, as well as aggressive documentation efforts by the National Heritage Board, a groundswell of nostalgic feelings from Singaporeans has arisen.

Books, films, apps and photo exhibitions documenting the past and chronicling changes in Singapore have flourished.  Film-maker Royston Tan, for example, has released Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), two documentaries recording the sights and recollections of an older time.  Heritage blogger Lam Chun See last year compiled several entries from his blog Good Morning Yesterday into a book of the same title.

Meanwhile, stores that evoke the past with ther merchandise and decor, such as childhood memorabilia store The Damn Good Shop in Maxwell Road and eatery Old School Delights in Upper Thomson Road, have also popped up and proved popular.

Experts suggest the recent surge in interest may be a reflection of the stage Singapore is in as a society, immediately following a phase of accelerated growth and change.

Mr Alvin Tan, 40, director of the National Heritage Board, says:  "Perhaps we have reached a stage of maturity in our national development where we start to feel nostalgic for aspects of our heritage that were eroded or lost during the recent decades."

The recent groundswell of interest in Singapore's heritage could be "attributed to our need for visible and tangible markers, such as landmarks, as well as shared memories and experiences to anchor ourselves in times of change as we attempt to define what makes us Singaporeans", he adds.

Historian Chua Ai Lin agrees, saying that the phenomenon is "a response to the pace of change".

"Much like elderly people who don't want to leave the house anymore because they don't recognise things around them, when things are changing too fast, we want to hang on to a few things we feel comfortable with - and that's what this surge of nostalgia is about," says Dr Chua, who is in her 30s and is vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society.

Dr Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies believes that the recent surge in interest in heritage can be largely atributed to two things.

"Demographically, a generation of Singaporeans who have grown up with Singapore have reached an age where they are more likely to reminisce about the past and feel more keenly the changes that Singapore has undergone," says the academic, who conducts research on cemeteries and Chinese culturazl heritage in Singapore.

He and his team are documenting about 5,000 graves at Bukit Brown Cemetery where a road is slated to cut through.

At the same time, the growth of social media platforms has also allowed a discourse of nostalgia to develop further, he adds.

Dr Chua agrees and adds that the emergence of nostalgia blogs and Facebook groups, and more seniors learning how to share pictures and stories over the Internet, have meant that "people inspire one another to share their memories".

"When people see something they recognise from the past online, they think 'I remember that too!" or 'I have a similar photo!'," she says.  "This platform for interaction is very, very important.  When people share this publicly, they provide an information resource for everyone who didn't live through it."
The proliferation of heritage projects now may also be fuelled by a sense of regret at not having appreciated things that are no longer around, says naval architect and heritage photographer  Jerome Lim, 48.

Mr Lim, who was approached by the National Heritage Board to showcase his photographs of the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station before it closed, and who recently launched a series of photographs on Singapore's five-foot-ways, says he began documenting old places as he regrets "not having captured all the things that have changed".

"I was struck by a sense that a lot of plaes in my memories have vanished," he says.  "So now, I feel an urgency to capture these remaining places."

Cafe owner Olivia Teo, 39, who opened eatery Old School Delights with her brother three years ago, says she has been stunned by the overwhelming reaction from customers to the "old school" interior and details in her cafe.

We certainly didn't expect customers to get so excited about the five stones, erasers and old card games such as Happy Family, Donkey and Old Maid in our toy boxes which we place at every table in our eater," she says.

Such nostalgic memorabilia triggers a universal reaction in customers, she adds.

"I never fail to be amazed by the responses and comments we get on our Facebook page whenever we post nostalgic pictures, from an old-fashioned Toyota cab to old school toys, to our heritage buildings such as the Van Cleef Aquarium or the National Theatre," she says.  "This just shows how much people reminisce about the past and get sentimental about it."

Dr Hui, 40, says the recent surge in nostalgia "bodes well for Singapore", a nation which turns 48 this year.

"As we approach 50 in a couple of years, it is important to ask and know who we are," he says.  "This national soul-searching will strengthen us as a people and help us to stand on the global stage not only as an economic entity, but also as a cultural entity."


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