Rhyme And Reason - A Literary Series

Raffles Place reviewed

The writer, who captured the pulse of Singapore at the cusp of change in the 1988 novel Raffles Place Ragtime, reflects on how the plaza - and the nation - has changed.

I have worked in Raffles Place as a lawyer for nearly 30 years and for about half that time have been with a law firm that has been in Raffles Place for 155 years. For almost the entirety of Singapore's modern history, Raffles Place has been its centre, located just where the Singapore river swells and stills, and forms the auspicious belly of the carp. Today it still remains the commercial heart of Singapore, notwithstanding the growth of the new financial centre in Marina Bay and the anticipated third precinct developing in Tanjong Pagar.

Thirty years ago, Raffles Place inspired awe. My young, dreamy protagonist, Ah Leong, in First Loves, approaching Raffles Place for a job interview as an office boy, encountered it as temple mountain, much as a farmer's boy in Cambodia might have seen Angkor Wat or the Bayon in their heyday, carved out of jungle and swamp. Of course, he recognised that it was erected to a different kind of god-king, that of commerce. Its towers soared upwards, a paean to the future.

Singapore in those days sought its identity in a future to which it was hurtling, and was busily and consciously erasing and excising much of its past physical landscape. The messy hawker stalls along both sides of the river (Boat Quay and Empress Place) were scheduled for removal. While the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1988 published its first masterplan for conservation, which mandated conservation of the shophouse areas of Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam, demolition of many old buildings outside those areas continued apace. Looking at the shuttered General Post Office (GPO) in the early 1990s, I recall fearing the worst, that its ugly hulking familiarity would soon enough be replaced by another glass and steel tower. Only later did the mood change.

It was against this rush to the future that Ah Leong, subversively, foresaw the possibility of demise, even at the moment of greatest pre-eminence, of subsidence and return to the jungle, just as had happened to Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

The Khmer Empire diminished for quite simple reasons - an inability to adapt, given its closed system of governance, eclipsed by its more dynamic neighbours, the Thais and the Vietnamese, who crucially were more ready to learn from and embrace foreign influences.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

In my novel, Raffles Place Ragtime, written a year after First Loves, when I myself began working in Raffles Place, I described its rhythm, its magnetic appeal, as a nascent insider, alternately attracted and repelled. I wrote of how the "melodic quickstep of high-heeled shoes" was "syncopated over the lower-pitched rhythmic march of male shoes". It was a fast-paced busy place, but one that inclined to sterility, as roads were straightened, hawkers centred and relocated, all with the aim of getting to the future faster.

Noticeably, those disaffected by the headlong rush of progress either emigrated to slower-paced climes or yearned listlessly for elsewhere. Vincent, in that same novel, after his fall from grace as an over-achieving yuppie, looked wistfully out of his office towards where Marina Bay Sands now dominates, but which was then a windswept and nondescript stretch of reclaimed land, its sands slowly settling and consolidating. He imagined himself elsewhere: "Marina Bay stretched before him, with Benjamin Sheares Bridge leaping from one reclaimed headland to the other. It was raining. With the conifers that crowded the headlands and droplets of rain streaking his window, he could imagine himself in some faraway city, in some faraway clime."

  • PHILIP JEYARETNAM

    Philip Jeyaretnam is a leading senior counsel, and heads Dentons Rodyk. He is the author of widely praised and prize-winning short stories and novels. Young Artist of the Year in 1993, he continues, as a not-so-young artist, to produce occasional new work, and also chairs the annual Singapore Writers Festival. He is a member of the Public Service Commission and the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.


    THREE NOTABLE WORKS
    First Loves (1987)

    The life of its young protagonist, the dreamer Ah Leong, curious about a world he struggles to fit in, is told through a series of interlinked short stories.


    Raffles Place Ragtime (1988)

    A comic novel describing the breakdown of a young couple's engagement under the pressures of worklife and social expectations.


    Abraham's Promise (1995)

    A novel whose protagonist, an elderly teacher, struggles to reconcile his life of political ideals and personal travails.

Today, one might say that Raffles Place has arrived - and with greater confidence in itself offers more room both for the past and for the offerings of other countries and cultures, and their lifestyles, which no longer have to be sought elsewhere.

With the restoration and reinvention of old buildings like the GPO, now the grand and imposing Fullerton Hotel, or Clifford Pier, now a chic dining space within the Fullerton Bay Hotel, the past has become part of our future. Untidiness, if not quite a mess, has become more tolerated.

For someone like me who recalls an empty, arid, sun-baked Raffles Place, where no one dreamed of walking on the grass, it was a shock last year to watch swings and tables being erected, and trees planted, giving it a surreal, retro feel, until we all became used to this new normal. This is a place that is suddenly comfortable with, and at times even celebratory of, its past. Not unhealthily nostalgic, not fearful of the future, but comfortable with remembering the past in the present.

Similarly, the denizens of Raffles Place have grown ever more diverse and cosmopolitan, and the bars and eateries have followed suit. Sky terraces and al fresco dining abound, and around the tall towers, the shophouses have been reinvented - chic offices by day, vibrant or seedy (depending on which stretch one finds oneself in) by night. Our imaginative boundaries have expanded, embracing (a reinvented) past, (a degree of) disorder and (a measure of) the foreign.

For Singapore's Golden Jubilee, I wrote a story that caught the sweep of the past 50 years. It tells the tale of a man imprisoned as a communist just prior to independence, who emerges 50 years later, after a long, searching and exhausting relationship with a woman who might in some way be his jailer, at the top of the extraordinary edifice that is Marina Bay Sands, confronting the lighted windows of a myriad impossibly tall buildings. His dreams at first seem to have no place in this new world: "The land had grown to enfold part of the sea, encased it in concrete. Great steel structures - girders, gantries, cranes - whirred enormous metal boxes from ship to shore and back again, without a coolie or a sack of rice in sight... This was his city no longer, he thought."

Yet he begins to catch "glimpses of something he recognised, heard it too upon the wind. A spirit he knew, of men and women who worked together, who built together." He comes to believe that "His words had not vanished. They had spread across the land, through that narrow slit, finding little echoes here and there, not dying out, but multiplying." And finally he concludes, as the sun rises, "This was still the city he had loved and would love eternally".

Raffles Place remains in flux. Spaces - physical and psychological - remain contested. Two of the bluest chip of international banks, Barclays and JP Morgan, whose names Ah Leong would have considered alien and remote in the 1980s, have in recent years become so much a part of the local scene that they have even sponsored the annual Pink Dot event in neighbouring Hong Lim.

Raffles Place will keep changing, and in changing will ensure its continued relevance to the world, and its centrality to Singapore, and Singaporeans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Raffles Place reviewed'. Print Edition | Subscribe