The Straits Times says

Build a Founders' Memorial to last

The 15-member Founders' Memorial Committee convened for the first time in a 2-1/2-hour meeting at The Pod at National Library on June 30, 2015.
The 15-member Founders' Memorial Committee convened for the first time in a 2-1/2-hour meeting at The Pod at National Library on June 30, 2015. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF CULTURE, COMMUNITY AND YOUTH

Singapore's first-generation political leaders were so outstanding in their vision, dedication and achievement that the idea to erect a Founders' Memorial to inscribe their life's work for posterity, on a suitably large scale, seems to have found near universal support.

Indeed, some say Singapore at large might be considered a memorial to the nurturing and incessant care of the founding generation. However, given the need to demarcate a symbolic space to stand alongside other memorials, the difficulty lies in identifying and highlighting those aspects of the first generation's leadership which deserve special remembrance. The medium of representation must do justice to the legacy of greatness.

These are the challenges that face the committee tasked with conceptualising the memorial. In stagnant systems, memorialising foundational moments means no more than apotheosing a single figure whose qualities straddle the past, present and future. Hence the singularity attached to a national leader in Stalinist Russia, Maoist China or Titoist Yugoslavia.

Here, the memorial committee's mandate is to celebrate founders and not a founder - a distinction that automatically would have gone to Mr Lee Kuan Yew had the mandate been draped exclusively around him.

Hence, the memorial would need to capture Mr Lee's unique and overarching contributions to this country while commemorating as well the indispensable efforts of stalwarts such as Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr Lim Kim San, Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Othman Wok, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr E.W. Barker, Mr Ong Pang Boon and Mr C.V. Devan Nair, among others.

The memorial would have to be as expansive in its historical gaze as it is pluralistic in its national intent. Women should be honoured in it, too. The committee would have its hands full in seeking to fit the vast transformative energies of iconic minds into the spatial dimensions of a compact memorial. Perhaps the way to do that would be to visualise the memorial not as a single space but as an arena of overlapping mediums: the traditional museum, set in a meaningful location, with interactive exhibitions to bring alive the history and culture of the founding years and online opportunities for appreciating Singapore's greats.

Ultimately, what will matter is the quality of the story-telling with which the memorial can invoke the past. Fifty years down the road, it should make, say, a nine-year-old girl look up to the leaders and people that it features and see their lives of hope and daring reflected in her own - pointing her to a new future from their perch in a valued past. The times and the people will change, but the values of the land must not. The committee should take its time to consult Singaporeans widely to build a memorial that endures.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2015, with the headline 'Build a Founders' Memorial to last'. Print Edition | Subscribe