Heritage and the Politics of Culture
Eviction is the word that must not be uttered; not loudly, anyway. Yet, it was the experience of entire communities, a generation ago, that once lived on about a dozen little islands off the southern coast of Singapore. Starting from the late 1970s till 1995, these islanders were relocated to the mainland, leaving behind their sea-based existence for one based in the urban centres. In part, these relocations may be understood as part of the state’s eager embrace of modernization which saw a massive destruction of the vernacular landscape to intensify land usage, encourage industrial development, and rehouse the masses in high-rise public housing. Although it had its critics, the narrative of modernization and development mainly held sway. The voices of those displaced, though not entirely absent, were basically muted – until now. In 2015, there was an explosion of memory-making projects initiated and sponsored by the state to commemorate 50 years of independence. This had the unintended consequence of reanimating some difficult memories such as those of the southern islanders. What was also interesting was how these memories, including those of displacement, were often mediated through the next generation, some of whom had little or none of the experiences of living on the islands. Alternately driven by a desire to give voice to the mediated experiences and a need to manage expectations of the heritage and funding institutions which supported their projects, this often resulted in a palpable tension between nostalgia and reproach. This paper digs into this tension.