The Great Divide between the creative and the conservative

asterix great divide

Here’s a letter in today’s Straits Times which demonstrates the huge gulf  between the creative class and the conservative class.

For me, home must be wholesome, clean

I REFER to last Wednesday’s report, ‘Loosen up and let the energy in’, on architect William Lim’s personal opinion. As he felt that Singapore lacks vibrancy, he clamoured for:

  • A less clean-slate approach and less rigid state control of the streetscape;
  • More spaces of indeterminacy, for example, allowing leftover spaces for creative people to use;
  • Acceptance of untidiness because it helps generate energy;
  • Ground-up vibrancy because Mr Lim is not sure if one can create a hub deliberately;
  • Less efficiency because it has stifled innovation; and
  • Better bureaucratic appreciation and hence better choice of iconic buildings. For example, Mr Lim felt that architect Frank Gehry’s proposal for the Sentosa integrated resort was a much better choice than Genting’s design.

    I disagree for the following reasons:

  • I much prefer a clean Singapore to the messy and perennially clogged streets of Bangkok.
  • I would rather have determinant space for anything and everything, than run-down disused haunted graffiti-filled spaces in many First- and Third-World cities.
  • If the Toyota factory floor had been untidy, would the company have beaten the American big three car makers?
  • I wonder if Singapore would have been world class if it had left its thriving entrepot trade to be built from the ‘ground up’.

    Looking around, be it in the physical environment or people’s heartware, I feel we are at a tipping point of many aberrations that are fast eroding Singapore’s reputation, built painstakingly over the years.

    Some examples were given in last Wednesday’s Forum, such as not giving up priority seats to the elderly on public transport, extreme rudeness to cab passengers, slowness to react to feedback, and unabated littering, despite our best endeavours.

    If we start to accept aberrations, as suggested by Mr Lim, let us imagine what we would have to accept after we are used to littering, such as spitting on the pavement and urinating on the grass. What about a din in a quiet neighbourhood, or bicycles and motorcycles on the pavement, which is against the law?

    Given a choice, I much prefer a quiet, serene and wholesome Singapore to din, dirt and excitement-just-for-excitement’s-

    sake places. Ultimately, Mr Lim’s value is different from mine merely because I believe home must be wholesome and clean.

    Cheang Peng Wah

  • An assumption by the forum writer was that William Lim was asking for Singapore to turn into a messy capital city, which is not true. If you had read the original interview with Mr Lim (see below), he was lamenting more about how strict government control had prevented areas from developing their own character (not debris, mind you). The conservative always read the words of the creative through a tinted glass.

    The government wants to foster a creative class and arts buzz in the city, but is filled with the mindset much like the letter writer’s. The Singaporean is brought up to believe strictly in law and order, but on the PAP’s terms. The conservative class wants to impose control on everything, but wants their cake and eat it too when it comes to the arts.

    During my journalism days, it was a daily struggle to balance the power of the pen and the actual newsprint space allocated to you. Journalists have to jostle with advertisements for space, and pagination is a fine balance between making money and expressing opinion.


    BUT it doesn’t mean that artists reject order – the very canvasses, digital image sensors, music score sheets, and writing pads that they create on are always limited in size and shape AND that’s a good thing. The canvas contains the Idea, prevents chaos from spilling over and losing control. With boundaries, ideas are tested to a limit so that the boundaries can be stretched again the next time around. Art, for many, is the pursuit of perfection, and that requires refinement over countless tries. Singaporeans, generally, reject the whole idea of “trying again” because failure is taboo, and want instant noodle results.  

    Those that walk the fine line between chaos and order are very few indeed.

    That’s why we often cannot imagine what life would be like without the sterility that permeates our streets. We go to other countries and cringe at the homeless squalor. We complain about anything that is not in a certain order, and expect our noodles to be cooked like every other plate of noodles. Our streets (save Geylang) have long been drained of their color – whenever I drive past Balestier Road, it is but a shadow of its former self as condominiums loom over a historical district. The Gahmen clamped down on neon lights and billboard advertising, and look how clean and beautiful our country is!

    Pity it’s Dullsville. I look at the quality of graffiti at the Somerset Youth Park and lament at their low quality. Artists need space, a lot of space, to practice their craft and get it right without breaking the law. Recently, I walked past our Braddell Road flyover and was thrilled to see some graffiti along a wall – it’s probably been scrubbed clean by now.

    For everyone’s sake, here’s the William Lim article in its entirety. It’s pretty long, but it’s a good read. At least someone agrees with me that the new Supreme Court building is plain ugly.


    Architect feels there should be more ‘chaotic order’ as in Geylang and Little India to bring vibrancy to Singapore

    By Tan Hui Yee

    WILLIAM Lim thinks that Singapore stands out from other Asian cities because it lacks vibrancy. “In the upscale, high-rise Tokyo district of Ginza, you need only walk 50 yards to see traditional Japanese low-density streets off the main road.”

    Singapore, however, cleared out the back lanes and side streets along with main arteries of old districts during its many urban renewal programmes over the years. The clean-slate approach and rigid state control drained the streets of colour that characterised traditional activities in these areas.

    Mr Lim should know. The 76-year-old urban theorist and retired architect was one of the brains behind Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex, which were hailed regionally as cutting- edge projects when built in the 1970s.

    He was president of the Singapore Heritage Society from 1988 to 1997, and currently heads Architectural Association (AA) Asia, a regional forum for architectural discourse.

    When he turned 70, a group of friends, colleagues and family put together a series of essays to celebrate the man, termed by Australia’s RMIT University as “the social conscience of architecture in the region”.

    Contributors to the book No Limits: Articulating William Lim included architectural academic Robert Powell, art critic T. K. Sabapathy and diplomat Tommy Koh.

    Mr Lim himself has written more than 10 books on urban Asia. His latest is Asian Alterity, which argues, among other things, for Asians to be more critical about the kind of Western-centric modernity being touted as contemporary design.

    Dullness, he says, is still something that hobbles Singapore despite the more varied housing, shopping and entertainment projects pushed out in recent years. In this aspect, he feels the Government could take a leaf out of the underrated districts of Geylang and Little India.

    He notes that these areas – crammed with old-style eateries, independent shops, red light zones and housing projects in side streets – are still vibrant because “they have not been substantially disturbed by road widening and clearances”.

    Their charm, he adds, is “chaotic order”.

    “In this apparent chaos, there is a very unstructured order. Even though goods sold spill over onto the pavement, they don’t spill over onto the street. There is still space that allows people to walk through the area.”

    The unpredictability of these areas generates creative energy that easily trumps the carefully planned glitz of Orchard Road.

    Singapore needs more of such unpredictable areas which he calls “spaces of indeterminacy”. This refers to “leftover spaces” like void decks or land under flyovers, which he says should be used for anything as long as it is not harmful.

    He also thinks the Government should set aside buildings earmarked for demolition – such as first-generation Housing Board flats – for use by the grassroots and arts communities in any way they deem fit.

    Such a low-rental environment will give artists enough breathing space to mingle, explore and create works they would not otherwise do because they cannot afford the high rental for art studios.

    “Art is vibrancy for the community,” he declares, citing the example of 798 Art District in Beijing, an artist enclave that grew out of decommissioned factories, now being compared to New York’s Greenwich Village.

    “It can be music, photography, writing, poetry. It’s a criss-cross of these ideas that generate energy,” he says. For it to work, there needs to be enough buzz from not just successful artists but struggling ones too.

    “It’s very untidy and you have got to accept the untidiness,” he points out.
    Mr Lim, who is partial to experimental art, recalls meeting Andy Warhol in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1970s through a mutual friend.

    “He was very down and out. He had all his Coca-Cola paintings but he couldn’t sell them. If I had asked him, he would have given me some of his paintings… Who would have known that he would become so famous and so important? So we don’t know. We don’t know.”

    Asked about plans for the Bras Basah and Bugis district to be turned into an arts, entertainment and education hub, he says: “I’m not sure you can do an arts hub deliberately. These things have to grow on their own energy. You can’t push all the art schools into one area and then think, all these arts schools are there, and so it becomes a vibrant place.”

    Vibrancy, he maintains, is a ground- up, not top-down process. Nightlife is an indication of vibrancy and Singapore needs a greater variety of it. He dismisses Singapore’s version of night markets or pasar malam in suburban areas, which he says sell cheap “discarded products”.

    “If you go to Taipei and Taichung in Taiwan, you find that the night market is one of the major centre points of contact. People will go there, drink coffee through the night and argue about politics and anything else…We’ve forgotten that there is another side of the coin, there are other activities that can go on.”

    The financial district of Shenton Way and Robinson Road – currently dead at night and on weekends, can be used for night markets with a difference, that allow new artists to sell original works, he suggests.

    But in order for that to work, the authorities have to ease up on their obsession with squeaky clean streets.

    For example, making Shenton Way 100 per cent efficient would come at the expense of night life.

    “If you want Shenton Way to not have a single piece of waste paper in the morning when the businessmen go to work, then you are making the cleanliness of the city the priority, at the expense of allowing other people to use that space.”

    “Singapore,” he says, “is perhaps too efficient. It has crossed its limits at the expense of innovation.”

    Turning to the state of architecture in Singapore, he laments the lack of meaningful designs here, despite a host of world-renowned architects like Daniel Libeskind and Norman Foster leaving their mark on the landscape.

    Their projects, like the sculpture-like condominium Reflections at Keppel Bay and the spaceship-shaped Supreme Court, have been pronounced “iconic”.

    But Mr Lim calls them “disasters”. Reflections is “an obscenity”, while the Supreme Court is “a very bad building by a very good architect”.

    Reflecting concern among many Singapore architects about the high-budget designs that look like they could fit anywhere in the world, he says: “All these guys are flogging images with no historic or social relevance to the place. These designs are debunked all over the world now. Only Singapore and Dubai are buying them.”

    The recent global appetite for “instant icons” can be traced back to the success of Bilbao, a former industrial city in Spain that was regenerated with the addition of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum designed by award-winning American architect Frank Gehry. The randomly curved building thrust the little-known city into the global spotlight, making it a tourist attraction, and fired the imagination of cities with similar ambitions.

    But real icons, he maintains, “have to be people-inspired” and get the right amount of support from the government.

    “The cultural and creative environment by the people and policy-makers must be there. Otherwise, even if you commission the best architect, they are unable to perform as you want them to.”

    And often, the best design does not make it past the bureaucrats. “The authorities are generally not good at identifying and accepting avant garde and ‘out of the box’ designs,” he laments.

    He cites the case of Frank Gehry’s eye-popping glass-and-steel design for the Sentosa integrated resort, part of the proposal for Kerzner-CapitaLand in the 2006 request for proposal to develop the project. The bid was passed over in favour of the one by Genting International, on the basis that the latter bid had a broad mix of attractions to draw the millions of visitors that Singapore was seeking.

    “Not accepting one of Frank Gehry’s greatest works is a ludicrous aesthetic decision,” he declares. The avant garde building had glass sculptures encasing fibre optics that would beam images of sea creatures. This, he says, is a more forward-looking concept than the tropical stone-and-wood combination of Genting’s bid.

    Ultimately, he says architects in Asia need to be more critical and have better understanding of what it means to be “modern”, instead of taking on mainstream and Western-originated designs wholesale.

    There is always room for “non-generic architecture that is rooted in local cultures” like the Beijing National Stadium, now more popularly known as the “Bird’s Nest”. This need not always come from local architects, as long as the architect concerned stays true to the spirit of the place.

    A more pressing need, however, is for architects to think up more solutions for the urban poor, like low-cost homes.

    He writes in his book Asian Alterity: “Half the world population of 6.5 billion lack the basic needs of food, drinking water and shelter. Yet, much of the research on current environmental and design products is directed towards the better- off, especially the privileged minority.”

    This, he pronounces, will be the direction he will take this year, through lectures which focus on the new economy, sustainable development and social justice.

    “The urban poor are citizens of the city too, they have to be treated with respect.”

    9 Replies to “The Great Divide between the creative and the conservative”

    1. Thanks for this post. I totally missed reading the forum page letter – that was sent and published in response to the article on William Lim.

      That letter writer totally missed the point of the William Lim feature. How annoying that an important discourse like this is reduced to such myopic conclusions. In making his case against Lim’s comments, he has ironically validated Lim’s arguments even more. A pity, he just didn’t get it.

    2. “If the Toyota factory floor had been untidy, would the company have beaten the American big three car makers?”

      This says it all. The letter writer thinks that a city should be like a factory floor.

    3. Hello Mr Tan,

      I kinda like the out-of-this-world design of the Supreme Court.

      Gort forbid, it’s one of those iconic vehicles for dramatic lines such as “Take Me To Your Leader”.

      Or was that the NLB HQ?

      But, yes, I do like these Space Invaders in the heart of our crowded city, because of their sci-fi feel.

    4. The culture in Singapore isn’t really conducive for that sort of creativity. The culture is one where you pitch an idea, you see people rolling their eyes, saying “no”, or replying with reasons on why things won’t work.

      It will help a bit if top authority support the cause. But if the downline don’t follow or empowered to do what it takes to succeed, nothing’s going to happen. In this case, they are saying one thing and doing another — traits of a hypocrite.

    5. I’m afraid I have to disagree with you about grafitti, Ian.

      I hate the sight of it. I hate seeing walls, traffic signs or anything that remote resembles a blank canvas being defaced by a squiggle in black or silver spray paint.

      It makes me angry because it’s angry and it’s sheer disrespect for public property. And think of the poor chap who will subsequently have to spend a couple of hours cleaning up the mess.

      Every time I see grafitti, I wish for the culprit to be caught and be given a couple of strokes of the cane.

      I’m not against creativity but not when it defaces public property.

    6. Gerard, it’s just the rebel in me. Always looking for a way to deface the system :D. To me, too much graffiti is awful, but we don’t even see a hint of it – Singaporeans are all so cookie cutter, nobody dares to rebel and spray something a silly colour. Back in ACJC, our tables were graffitied to death and had great words of wisdom etched onto it. There was one guy who was on both “Top Ten Hated Guys” and “Top Ten Hated Women” lists.

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