From’ Do we really want a casino as our icon?’ 20 April 2011, Voices, Today
(Tong Jee Cheng): IT is disappointing that the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort is fast becoming an iconic representation of Singapore. We see it in the background in local television dramas, we see it in tourist leaflets. It seems to appear often as backdrops in the various advertising media.
The first I heard of such sentiment was at a talk held at the National Museum – the speaker, whose name I cannot recall, was a local historical researcher. And in another local newspaper, a retired architect and urban theorist echoed this sentiment and said he would rather that the Botanic Gardens be the iconic landmark for Singapore.
Which other country in the world has a casino as its most famous icon?
I don’t think any country has a park as its icon either. Besides, the Botanical Gardens isn’t exactly postcard-pretty or instantly recognizable from the inside. Whether natural or man-made, one of the main criteria of a national icon, other than its uniqueness, scale, history and architecture, is that it must be well adored, even revered to myth-like proportions, by its people and not just manufactured for tourists. The MBS not only fails in that most basic aspect, but also lacks any kind of meaningful history, regardless of its function as a casino or a spiritual temple housing homeless orphans. There’s nothing teeming or rich about it, no stories to tell other than appalling service standards, and serves to draw only a certain kind of tourist; the rich ones.
Perhaps our Singaporean identity is simply this; that we have nothing special to commemorate as a nation or decorate our bills with besides the faces of dead presidents, we have no national costume, no national dish, we don’t have a decent tagline in our tourism posters, and we can’t decide on what monument to officiate as a national treasure without proceeding to tear it down to make way for something glitzier. We seem to have forgotten why we’re called ‘The Lion City’, and other than a spouting lion-fish to remind us, it seems that as a country we’ve developed a collective amnesia of what’s worth conserving, epitomising the Dubai-esque ‘futurepolis’ and every archaeologist’s nightmare in sci-fi lore. Some may argue that we’re just too small a nation to have many candidates to choose from, but even 8.5 sq mile island nation Nauru has an icon in the form of a champion boxer named DJ Maaki, not to mention what’s inside 0.2 square miles of Vatican City.
Not that we haven’t tried looking for one. Singapore’s elusive icon could have been a person, a plant, or even an orang utan, as suggested from a past list of potential national icons as follows:
Animals: Ah Meng (Why Ah Meng is a national icon, 24 June 2006, Today), Sunbird (This sunbird fits image, 31 May 1986, ST)
Flowers: Vanda Miss Joachim
Buildings: National Stadium, National Library at Stamford, Raffles Hotel, Changi Airport, Esplanade, Zoo, Parliament House
Language: Singlish (Beng is cool, Singlish a Signal, 20 March 2006, Today)
People: MM Lee
Sadly there’s nothing that triggers swelling pride from the slim pickings above, with traditional icons like the Merlion being exploited as part of a hotel installation, and the Raffles Hotel’s Singapore Sling being compared to cough syrup. If we idolise politicians we risk being branded as the North Korea of South East Asia, and advocates of Singlish will realise that we share bits and pieces of it with our Malaysian neighbours. Even if the MBS were granted the dubious honour of being representative of the Singaporean identity, history tells us that it’ll go the way of the National Stadium or Vanda Miss Joachim sooner or later. Ultimately, whats the point of a national icon even if we had one, when our people itself, a mishmash of migrants with their hearts and roots elsewhere, are unlikely to stay long enough, develop a community around it, and tell stories about it to their children in the end? But for now, the question Singaporeans should ask themselves is this; 100 years from now, what’s the one thing we want to see still exist, to grace the pages of National Geographic, appear on the History Channel, to be the first item on every tourist’s itinerary, or printed on our 50 dollar notes? Looking at the list above, my bets are on the Merlion, kitschy today but the icon most likely to really go the distance while megaliths like the MBS fade forgotten into the shade of an inevitable ever- ascending skyline.