Bring history alive in the old heart of the city

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

New arts and cultural facilities should also reflect momentous events that unfolded in the area

Lovingly, the old Civic District in the historic heart of the city by the Singapore River is being revitalised to mark the Republic's Golden Jubilee.

Grand old buildings like the former Supreme Court and City Hall are being retrofitted, streets are being pedestrianised to form a "walkable park" in Empress Place, with 40-year-old trees being transplanted there.

As National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan noted in a recent blog: "We are putting a lot of thought and passion into the rejuvenation of the Civic District. We want an integrated art, culture and lifestyle precinct set in a lush, green environment."

The highlight of this $740 million effort will be an 8km Jubilee Walk, to be opened in November, which will form a trail linking key historic sites from Fort Canning to the Marina Bay.

Over at the other end of the historic district, in Bras Basah Road, the Singapore Management University (SMU) has its own $20 million plan to add more buzz to its city campus, which includes green spaces and an amphitheatre for students and the public to enjoy.

Excited by these plans, I took a walk down memory lane last Thursday. Having spent my schoolboy years growing up in the area, I have watched the ebbs and flows of developments there with considerable interest.

What did I find? Well, lots of hoarding and construction going on, with the refurbishing being very much a work in progress.

As I wandered around, I was heartened by the pains being taken to liven up and beautify the district, which seem long overdue.

But a nagging feeling lingered in my mind. I could not help but worry if enough was being done to ensure that the area keeps its sense of history and does not become just another shiny lifestyle precinct.

Take a virtual walk with me and hear me out.

Let's start at the Arts House at the old Parliament Building, just by the Singapore River. Built in 1827 as a private residence, the stately building was acquired by the Government in 1841 for the princely sum of $15,600. Over the decades, it housed the Supreme Court, the Attorney-General's Chambers, and later became the Legislative Assembly in 1954, before being renamed Parliament House in 1965.

This was the scene of many critical parliamentary battles, some of which turned on a knife-edge, in the fledgling years of this country.

Much history was made here by Mr Lee Kuan Yew, his colleagues and their adversaries.

So, it does seem a little incongruous to see these hallowed halls being used today for irreverent plays and private parties, with hardly any homage paid to the significant moments that played out there.

My suggestion? The old Parliament building would be an ideal setting for the proposed Lee Kuan Yew memorial, now being studied by a committee led by Mr Lee Tzu Yang, former chairman of Shell Singapore.

It could house a museum with interactive audio-visual displays showcasing key speeches by Mr Lee and other founding fathers in the charged battles for Singapore's soul.

It might also be a suitable setting to recreate the spartan basement of 38 Oxley Road where Mr Lee and his colleagues founded the People's Action Party and hatched plans to contest elections and push for self-government.

Having such a memorial would take some of the heat out of discussions on Mr Lee's wish that his old home be torn down, so as to prevent it from falling into disrepair.

Much as I would like to see his wishes respected, I also think that tearing down the house will be much lamented by generations to come. So, it would be wise not to proceed with haste, but to allow some time for a way to be worked out that safeguards the site and building, while also abiding by Mr Lee's desire to keep once-private areas away from prying eyes.

Besides, the old Parliament House now looks rather worse for wear. Sprucing it up as a founding fathers' memorial within the civic district would help rebalance the present heavy focus on arts and cultural facilities that are now taking shape in what was once the administrative heart of the city.

A short hop away, the new National Gallery is taking shape splendidly and will be a hallmark of Singapore's arts scene. But it is worth remembering too that it was here, on the steps of City Hall, that Mr Lee and his colleagues once faced the crowds gathered on the Padang to proclaim Singapore's independence.

This was also the scene of the first national day parade. A sculpture or memorial of sorts placed on the steps of City Hall to capture those moments would be a striking way to ensure that the place continues to bear testimony to the history that was made there.

A little further afield and we get to Capitol Theatre, Capitol Building and Stamford House, built in 1930, 1933 and 1904 respectively. These ornate buildings have been left neglected for way too long, as plans changed and officials seemed to dither over what to do with them. Thankfully, they have now reopened, bringing a little bustle back to the area.

Yet, look across Stamford Road and what do you see? The drab, rather beleaguered-looking headquarters of SMRT, which sits on a site that once housed well-loved convent girls' schools.

Not only does the dull grey structure seem out of place architecturally, it also appears closed off and dead most of the time, sucking life out of what might otherwise be an exciting extension of the buzz from the nearby Raffles City complex.

Imagine if the SMRT building could be opened up and returned to commercial use, with shops, restaurants or a hotel, with street-side dining and entertainment on both sides of Stamford Road.

This would gel well with SMU's plans to enliven the public areas around its campus and expand its student facilities. Fittingly, the old red-and-white brick MPH building, built in 1908, has been turned over to the university for use by its students, just as it once served as a popular bookstore hang-out for generations of those who went to schools in the area.

Here's an idea: To maximise the impact of SMU's public grounds, why not pedestrianise the short stretch of Stamford Road that runs in front of the National Museum, and which now splices SMU's campus into two.

This narrow, curved limb of Stamford Road now seems superfluous given the rather under-utilised tunnel that was built behind the museum at great cost - not just financially, but especially in terms of heritage, with the demolition of the much-loved old National Library.

Many rue that decision.

But it could at least be mitigated if a lush lawn fronting the museum could be reclaimed for public enjoyment, extending through the SMU grounds to those twin gems along Bras Basah Road - the Good Shepherd Cathedral and the former St Joseph's Institution, my alma mater.

To some, these suggestions might seem extravagant, given the shortage of space in the city centre. Yet, as Singapore turns 50, it is well worth taking some pains to shape its historic civic centre into a lovely and lasting legacy for generations to come.

warren@sph.com.sg

Follow Warren Fernandez on Twitter @theSTeditor