National Gallery logo should have a dome on the taller box

From various letters, 12 April 2014, ST Life! Mailbag

(Chia Ai Tong, William):…My main complaint is that the new logo looks odd and incongruous. Having tried my best to look for beauty, I’m afraid all I can see is a long row made up of two rectangles of different sizes and proportions standing side by side. And why have two logos of the same design, one in grey and the other in red?

(YG Yap): The National Gallery logo is simple. It is the two buildings it is housed in. Good. But it is a little too simple. How about adding a dome on top of the taller box? That will make it look like the former Supreme Court building.

Add an artistic and nostalgic touch by making the lower edge of the dome slightly embedded in the top of the box. That should fix it.

(Lim Fang Kiat):…As if to pre-empt the anticipated slew of brickbats the renaming of the the art gallery will likely engender, National Gallery director Eugene Tan has said: “We want to be known simply as the National Gallery. Gallery itself implies the word art.

This renaming comes after several names had been bandied about in the past two years or so. These names included National Art Gallery of Singapore (NAGS), The National Art Gallery (TNAG) and National Art Gallery (NAG). These acronyms have been the butt of jokes, but at least the word “art” tells us what the gallery is about.

To have the word “art” removed from this new name when all the proposals in the past have included it is a surprising turnaround and I wonder how much of this decision is due to the need to avoid the negative connotations of the acronym.

It may seem a matter of semantics, but some of us feel that having “art” in the name will provide some semblance of identity for this new gallery, especially when we already have a National Museum, until such time as the name of the National Gallery can stand on its own for the visual arts.


Where Art thou?

Below is my interpretation of how a domed taller box for the much maligned logo would look like, with it overlaying the current facade of the former City Hall and Supreme Court buildings.


The NG Singapore

Now it looks like 2 Duplo blocks or a man with a big nose lying on his back, making it harder for the layperson to, according to the logo description, interpret the design in ‘every imaginable way’. There’s a limit to what you can do with 2 rectangles, really. Corrie Tan of ST thinks the use of boxes smacks of our ‘baggage of over-pragmatism’, and ironically, this ‘geometric abstraction’ of two boxes befits our reputation for being ‘square’. If this were the eighties, we’d have no shame because, as Huey Lewis and the News once sang: It’s HIP to be square. To most people who don’t over-analyse simple geometrtic shapes, it’s just two bloody rectangles.

Asylum lead for the logo project Chris Lee was actually flattered when critics cried ‘My child could do that!’ (‘it speaks of a young child’s purity’, he says, which is really an excuse for ‘lack of imagination’). He also explained that its ‘reductionism reflects the museum’s dynamism and confidence in its vision….It could also represent two platforms, two dialog boxes etc… Art should be a two way conversation’. With a child’s purity. That’s the thing with art, you can explain away rubbish with snappy buzzwords like ‘dynamism’. I could come up with a National Gallery logo in less than 3 minutes, not to mention 3 months as the designers did, using nothing but the letters and symbols on my keyboard and say the following without the slightest hint of satire:


The parentheses symbolise the ‘implicitness’ that defines modern art, the brackets and embracing periods melding the disciplines of art and language into one seamless, universal dynamic whole – an ironic, playful dualism of words being bounded, yet at the same time designed without boundaries in all its emoticonesque, symmetrical simplicity.

Surprisingly, most of our current museum logos don’t consist of anything beyond some fancy fonts. The National Museum has its acronyms floating in mid air like it were suspended in alphabet soup (NMS also stands for Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome.)

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 2.41.29 PM

The Peranakan Museum has a bold, flowery typeface that wouldn’t look out of place in a Jurong Bird Park logo. If I had to suggest an acronym for this, I’d go with PAM.

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 2.45.54 PM

And there’s SAM, which is an exercise in stark black-and-white minimalism, which you can also replicate using Microsoft Word. Yes, you don’t even need WORDART for this.

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 2.49.23 PM

The only one with a graphic is the Asian Civilisations Museum, which depicts the Empress Place building’s facade casting a shadow. Nothing Asian about its ‘neo Palladian’ style at all. Its acronym ACM sounds like an insurance company by the way.


Those who look beyond the logo complain about the dropping of ‘Art’ from the former NAG, or more bizarrely, NAGA (The additional A is part of the word ‘GAllery’). Naga is also the name of a serpent deity in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, one that would resonate with anyone who plays World of Warcraft. TNAG or TNAGS look like a typo horror dying for the autocorrect treatment to TANGS (the shopping centre). I’m not sure if the new acronym NG is any better, which not only spells out a common Singaporean surname, but can be an abbreviation of ‘No Good’, in reference to bad takes when shooting a film, while NGS resembles an acronym for a government hospital or a convent girls’ school. Personally I’d prefer NAG to TNAG any day, the latter sounding like an annoying adolescent rapper.

Contrary to director Eugene Tan’s assertion, not all ‘Galleries’ imply art. The Singapore Maritime Gallery exhibits stuff that allows you to play a Captain or a ‘Matey’ for a day. The Sustainable Singapore Gallery shows you how the Marina Barrage works. The HDB Gallery shows you how living space has shrunk over time (probably also the LEAST visited gallery ever). There’s a KINDNESS Gallery devoted to Singa the Courtesy Lion. You can even have a gallery of ICE CREAM. In our context, a ‘gallery’ is just a general space to showcase stuff, whether it’s artifacts, toys, photography, paintings, food or campaign paraphernalia. So don’t be surprised if you invite someone for a trip to the National Gallery, the response you get is ‘Gallery of WHAT?’ To which you’ll reply ‘Erm, ART?’. And then you’ve already wasted 1 second of your life explaining as such.

If naming and logos aren’t problematic enough, some have even opposed the use of the existing building facade to house a modern art gallery, that the stuffy English ‘neo-classic style’ just isn’t ‘shocking enough’ for an institution like NAG. The building needs to be ‘dynamic, contemporary and confident’ like its logo and ‘Akzidenz-Grotesk’ typeface. It needs to ‘push boundaries’, something which the logo has failed to do, and rival the Art Science Museum’s lotus dome in terms of instant iconic recognisability. If it weren’t already too late, they could have come up with an architectural style that shouts ‘playful’ and ‘geometric abstraction’ at the same time.

Something like this, perhaps.

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 3.20.01 PM

The National Gallery logo is simple. It is the two buildings it is housed in. Good. But it is a little too simple.

How about adding a dome on top of the taller box? That will make it look like the former Supreme Court building.

Add an artistic and nostalgic touch by making the lower edge of the dome slightly embedded in the top of the box. That should fix it.

- See more at:

My main complaint is that the new logo looks odd and incongruous. Having tried my best to look for beauty, I’m afraid all I can see is a long row made up of two rectangles of different sizes and proportions standing side by side. And why have two logos of the same design, one in grey and the other in red? – See more at:
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$1.47 billion Project Jewel a vanity showpiece

From ‘Who is Project Jewel’s target customer?’, 27 Dec 2013, ST Forum

(Kelvin Quek): I WAS surprised and concerned to read about the high cost for Project Jewel (“Project Jewel at Changi Airport to cost $1.47b”; last Saturday). It is unclear how this expensive complex, 70 per cent of which will be retail space, will give our airport an edge over other competing air hubs.

It is also unclear who it is targeting – visitors, residents, airport staff, or all three. When travellers arrive at their destination, they want to get out of the airport as quickly as possible.

Similarly, departing visitors are unlikely to make it a priority to visit shops, eateries or leisure attractions located outside the departure gates of the airport. If the project is primarily aimed at attracting residents to Changi Airport, the question then is: Why is that necessary?

Why use up valuable land at Changi to build another shopping mall? Why not have an aviation museum or something related to the airport?

…We should also stop building iconic projects which may just end up as vanity showpieces that bring little tangible benefits to Singaporeans. The money saved can be put to better use to meet more pressing needs in areas such as health care, education, transport and housing.

Jewel of Changi

The 1 billion dollar price tag has drawn comparisons to another iconic ‘vanity project’, the Gardens by the Bay. PM Lee himself referred to the Airport’s Jewel, semi-jokingly, as the ‘Gardens by the Airport’ during his National Day Rally this year, unwittingly hinting at the cost of this glorified mall. Visibly gushing over this new addition like a first-time father, he mentioned that the Jewel was not just for visitors, but for Singaporeans too, including ‘families on Sunday outings, students studying for exams and even newlyweds taking bridal photos’, which answers the writer’s question about who the target customers are. Don’t we already have the 3 terminals, and Kinetic Rain for that?

Designed by the same brain behind MBS, Moshe Safdie, Project Jewel appears to nothing more than a posh cousin of the existing T3 mall, a mash-up of our new National Stadium’s dome, Safdie’s LV island maison and the Gardens by the Bay which will draw locals from all over the island for the same reason that people flock to novelties like Jem in Jurong. In 2007, there was similar fanfare over the retail arm of T3, with the promise of top brands like the first Ferrari shop and luxury cellphone manufacturer Vertu. I don’t think these are around anymore. Instead you have ‘Speciality Stores’ like Poh Kim Video and 24 hour light-bite cafes like ‘Heavenly Wang’. If you want to spend some final precious moments with your child before his departure for overseas study, you’d have to jostle for parking space with families going to the airport just to buy stuff from some upmarket grocer, and not see a single plane landing or taking off, as what normal people would do if they’re going to the airport, well, FOR FUN.

Perhaps the money could have been put into better use, like providing proper resting areas for all those in transit treating the airport like a ‘refugee camp’. If Project Jewel fails to take off and goes the way of the Singapore Flyer, one might as well have installed a 4-storey tall, world-record breaking Kinetic Rain display instead, with round the clock security to prevent crazy people from tampering with it. Or an actual jewel-encrusted giant statue of Lee Kuan Yew. Don’t forget to bring in the feng shui masters though.

JEM mall using Feng Shui to reverse misfortune

From ‘Jem to reopen only when mall is risk-free’, 21 Sept 2013, article by Jessica Lim, ST

The boss of the development firm behind the Jem mall yesterday promised that it would reopen only when there is “no risk” of incidents like a burst pipe occurring again. It came as a team of experts flew in from Australia to assess damage at the beleaguered shopping centre – which is even considering hiring a fengshui master to revive its flagging fortunes.

Mr Steve McCann, group chief executive officer of Australian firm Land Lease, also refuted an accusation from MP Ang Wei Neng that his company may have taken short cuts in a rush to finish the mall, which was eventually opened four days late in June.

Calling the MP’s comment “unfortunate”, Mr McCann told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview: “We certainly do not put revenue ahead of safety.”

…Last month, the mall also made the news when three employees suffered burns in a deep fat fryer accident and a car went up in flames in its carpark.

He added: “It goes without saying that, (it is) unfortunate, but totally unrelated to the centre and quality of the asset.”

Following the collapse, MP Ang said he was ‘concerned that there was some rush to open the mall’ and that the builders ‘may have taken some short cuts’ (Collapse of ceiling: Jem closure worries shoppers, 20 Sept, ST). Though Lend Lease denies any accusation of doing a rushed job, the management should be faulted for bad planning from the very beginning, getting off to a shoddy start with a 4-day delay back in June due to ‘administrative issues’. In a 2011 MND press release on JEM’s website, the country’s third largest suburban mall was scheduled for completion in 2014.  But JEM isn’t the only building being erected in a jiffy these days. Condos, BTOs, offices and every other cookie-cutter mall are sprouting across the city like a mold infestation, and nobody notices when something catches fire, or walls collapse within them because they don’t name themselves after hard, precious stones.

I’ve passed through JEM just once, the self-proclaimed ‘CROWN JEWEL of the WEST’, and the recent incident would make any wary future shopper brace for broken slabs of concrete falling on their own crowns instead of window shopping. Designed to bring the retail buzz of Orchard Road to Jurong, it was built according to meet the requirements of the BCA Greenmark Platinum award, the country’s highest accolade for SUSTAINABILITY. Whatever that means. To most people who are unfamiliar with eco-jargon, a ‘sustainable’ design is something that doesn’t topple on your head. JEM Park consists of ‘green space and sky gardens’ across 3 levels, as part of a ’100% green replacement strategy’. In air-conditioned comfort. If you want a true ‘green’ design, you’d build a much cheaper attap longhouse on stilts instead, with the same risk of things falling on your face.

So what good can geomancy do for what seems to be a cursed shopping mall? In 2008, feng shui masters advised that the Singapore Flyer spin in the opposite direction to wheel in fresh prosperity and blow the ‘qi’ towards the financial heart rather than sucking it away. In December the same year, the icon was hit by an electrical fire, followed by a lightning strike in 2010. It’s also technically out of business as we speak. Of course the fengshui experts may explain away these mishaps as a price to pay for what the direction change really intended to do, which is fan fortune our way at its own expense.

The prime example of fengshui-focused design is none other than Suntec City Mall, which has its Fountain of Wealth and towers arranged like a human hand. Business started to suffer since 2010 because of collateral events like the NDP and YOG, and has just reopened recently after a $410 million facelift. Another national icon the Marina Bay Sands also invested in feng shui on the selection of opening dates, which could have explained the phenomenal success of the casinos to date, but apparently didn’t ward off people plummeting to their deaths from over 50 storeys.

MM Lee once famously derided Feng Shui as ‘utter rubbish’, and anyone with a skeptical, rational mind can understand why, yet both bigwigs at Lend Lease and MBS are First World Westerners who subscribe to such magical thinking. Flailing revenues and accidents are part and parcel of the natural progression of any retail structure, but I guess a little superstition wouldn’t hurt. I’m not an expert in the ancient pseudoscience, but I question how effective geomancy is compared to say, getting religious leaders from every faith down to pray for JEM’s structural integrity and the safety of its tenants and shoppers. It seemed to have brought down the spate of Bedok Reservoir drownings.

It would be interesting to see how JEM incorporates feng shui in its remedial action plan, though the consultation fees could be better spent on securing water pipes. A name change would be awkward at this juncture, even though JEM rhymes with ‘(caught in a ) JAM’. Maybe all the sharp pointy leaves as part of their green replacement strategy has something to do with it.

Postscript: Jem reopened on 2 Oct 2013, after the BCA certified it safe for humans and a fengshui consultant instructed that a trolley bay be removed at the Jurong Gateway entrance because it was ‘blocking the flow of energy through the entrance’ (Jem mall reopens after 2 week closure, 3 Oct 2013, ST). Take note, future mall builders, that your interiors must be flushed with energy to prevent walls from falling down.

Vertical kampung to be built in Woodlands

From ‘Woodlands to get vertical kampung’, 4 Aug 2013, article by Salma Khalik, Sunday Times

Residents in Woodlands will be the first in Singapore to experience the community feel of an integrated building with public facilities such as housing, health care and hawker centres all under one roof.

Planned, built and run by multiple government agencies – a first – this vertical “urban kampung”, as National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan calls it, will bring together the young and old to live, eat and play together.

At the bottom of the building will be a massive “town square” or community plaza, and at the top, 100 studio apartments for elderly singles or couples.

In between will be a medical centre with about 35 consultation rooms and options for day surgery, senior activity and childcare facilities, shops and watering holes, as well as roof-top decks that residents can turn into community gardens.

In land scarce Singapore, architects have long dreamed of building the city upwards and this idea of vertical ‘strata zoning’ isn’t new at all. Urban planners have fantasised of residents working and playing within the same ‘self-sufficient’ complex, a soaring monolith that combines community services like schools and medical centres interspersed with commercial zones and open spaces for interaction and line-dancing. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to step out of the building or take public transport at all. The kampung kids of the future may not even know what the ground smells like if this thing takes off.

Proponents of skyline living have christened vertical city models with names such as ‘Babel’ and ‘Arcosanti’. Jakarta may even be ahead of us in terms of embracing the vertical city concept, with their Peruri 88 project, which looks like badly stacked real-life Tetris. In a world where overcrowded megacities are building modern microcosms of themselves, Khaw Boon Wan’s description of future living as ‘vertical kampungs’ is like calling Spotify an ‘online jukebox’. My impression of such a ‘kampung’ is something similar to the Ewok village on the Forest Moon of Endor. How apt that it’s to be located in WOODLANDS, of all places.

Not the artist’s impression

Like the Woodlands project, concentrating the community was the main concept driver behind one ‘progressive’ housing/shopping design in the late 1960′s. This $16 million, 30-storey landmark building was to be the highest in Asia at the time. Even its name embodied the spirit of the design, though today it’s viewed more as an endearing ‘grand dame’ kind of relic known more for its traditional eateries and grimy massage parlours than the archetype of vertical housing. It’s name? People’s Park Complex.

Jump ahead 40 years and we started thinking again of the ‘future of public housing’. Completed in 2009, this award-winning structure has interlinked sky gardens, bridges that allowed residents to ‘sky-walk’ , flexible interiors and remains the tallest public housing project in Singapore at 48 stories high. I’m talking about the iconic Pinnacle@Duxton, of course, basically the yuppie cousin of what Khaw Boon Wan has in mind for Woodlands.

I’m not sure about living in the same complex as a hawker centre or a hospital, where one may be exposed to deep-fry odours one moment and the smell of death the next. Or knowing that it’s not just your karaoke-blaring neighbour from upstairs annoying you but a band performing in one of these ‘watering holes’. I’m already having trouble dealing with void deck weddings and funerals as it is. I don’t want an iMax theatre round the corner shaking my walls before I sleep. I want to have an address that the average taxi driver recognises and I can pronounce, unlike Compassvale Ancilla. I want a HOME, not a 40-storey sardine can, which is likely the case if the designers commissioned for this project honed their skills playing Tiny Tower on their handphones.

Meanwhile, one can only hope that a ‘vertical kampung’ would fetch ‘kampung prices’. At the rate that property prices are climbing, one might as well apply for a space colony on board a mothership than live in someone’s SimTower fantasy come true.

MBS like a space-age surfboard

From ‘The world’s ugliest hotels’, 3 Dec 2012, article in Relax, asiaone.

British newspaper The Telegraph has named the world’s top 20 ugliest hotels and Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands (MBS) has found its way into the list. It ranked the 55-storey hotel at No. 5 and said that the views from the hotel’s observation deck may be awesome, but not the other way round when others look at it.

“It resembles some kind of space-age surfboard,” said the report.

There were five Asian hotel properties in the list, including North Korea’s 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, which recently announced that it will open next year, more than 20 years after its exterior was completed.

Some readers found it hard to believe that the integrated resort – which has been widely hailed an architectural marvel – was in the list. Reacting to the list, one netizen a local online forum said he did not care much for the exterior of the buildings, as long as the hotel delivered good customer service and room interiors are nice.

MBS also happens to be the world’s most expensive surfboard, costing $7.3 billion to build, not to mention a megaproject plagued by delays. Other reviewers of the three-pillared design were less scathing; some referred to the Skypark as ‘Noah’s Ark’. Budget Travel ranked it among the 11 new hotel ‘wonders’, with its ‘cruise ship’ forever suspended in mid-air. Fengshui masters were divided on the design, some reminded of ‘a scholar’s hat‘, while others see death in its trio of ‘ancestral tablets’. Sci-fi fans would describe it as an alien starcraft nestled on top of three buildings, or a gangly tripod invader like a Star Wars Imperial Walker. The most interesting description in my opinion is that MBS resembles a wicket in CRICKET.



I wouldn’t be picky enough to describe MBS as an eyesore, but it does look awkward and appears to be more a smug demonstration of equilibrium in physics than anything remotely Buck Rogers or epic Gladiator. But here are some fun facts about a building that was once touted as a NATIONAL ICON: The headpiece that is the Skypark weighs 7000 tonnes, is longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall and you could even land 4 Jumbo Jets on it. MBS is also the site of a Japanese porno film shoot. If they had the chance they would even shoot a Godzilla movie here, except that Godzilla would be ‘hanging ten’ on our iconic ‘surfboard’ instead of bashing our Airforce down with it.

The brainchild of MBS himself Moshe Safdie drew inspiration not from War of the Worlds or the Bible, but rather from the Roman Cardo Maximus, which sounds like a muscle group involved in aerobic exercise, or the name of a potbellied centurion in the Asterix comic books. The same architect is currently heading the ‘Bishan Residential Development’ project, which from artist’s impression images looks like a clash of Greek island living and something you could build in a handheld 8-bit Tetris game.

Bishan of the Future

Santorini meets Tetris

The Esplanade has its critics as well, but the ‘Durian’ has somehow grown on us. MBS is likely to remain lost in its ‘ugly’ ambiguity, either mocked as an incomplete traffic project (broken flyover), an alien-ship berth or an apparatus used in a sport nobody here ever plays. Perhaps we’d be more forgiving if it weren’t housing a casino.

URA not impressed by Haji Lane shophouse graffiti

From ‘URA sees red over graffiti art on shophouse’, 24 Sept 2012, article by Jermyn Chow, ST

GRAFFITI on the wall of a shophouse in Haji Lane may wow visitors – but building conservationists are not impressed. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has raised a red flag over the paintwork as not meeting the stipulated guidelines for conserved shophouses. The artwork was commissioned by the owner of the neighbouring Blu Jaz Cafe, Ms Aileen Tan, her business associate said.

…The new colour guidelines were released on the URA’s website in January. It also discourages the use of neon paints and murals on shophouses. A URA spokesman said that since the guidelines were released, four owners had been told to remove paint covering the original facade tiles of their shophouses. She declined to say which shophouses these were, but said that all had complied.

URA can impose a fine of up to $200,000, a jail term of up to a year, or both, if the guidelines are breached. Said Mr Kelvin Ang, URA’s deputy director of conservation management: “We do have the power to take enforcement action, but the paint colour on buildings can change over time so we have chosen to approach this matter with a lighter touch.”

He added that the agency will act only when the paint colours are of “great concern” or “downright objectionable”.

According to the Guide on Conserved Shophouses, owners are encouraged to use ‘traditional’ colour schemes in the painting of their houses to retain that distinct ‘heritage character’, traditional meaning a ‘pastel’ hue. The Haji Lane House of Horrors was in fact cited as a negative example with its ‘strong patterns or mural obscuring the architectural features of the building’. Some call it ‘graffiti art’, but to me it looks like the facade was attacked by a berserking mob of spiky-tailed Pokemons, though anyone could still identify it as, well, a shophouse with windows. Except that unlike the ‘cleaner’ houses, you can’t tell if they’re ‘French windows with internal balustrades’ or ‘casement windows with timber shutters’. You’d know if a shophouse is ‘authentic’ when historians of architecture wax lyrical about its intimate window furnishings like how connoisseurs describe the taste of vintage wine, or the gearbox of a vintage car.

My Grandfather shophouse

The URA’s guide, however,  is loaded with fuzzy terms, like ‘unique features’, or how a ‘traditional’ design ‘lends character’ to the neighbourhood. Even their spokespeople say they would clamp down on designs that rouse ‘great concerns’. I would consider a concern ‘great’ only when these stark, strong colours induce convulsions in epileptics, or ‘downright objectionable’ if it says ‘Call XXX for a good time’. URA is also rather picky on how one should place a signboard, letterbox or even install the air-con unit. Sometimes, the difference between what’s ‘traditional’ and what’s ‘incompatible’ with heritage is just a matter of hue.

Here’s a quick test, guess which green house is OK and which one is NOT.



Give up yet? The TRADITIONAL house is B, silly. Can’t you tell the difference between Peranakan Pastel and Dreamworks Neon Shrek?

Any proud Singaporean would give credit to URA’s conservation efforts, and sometimes a little nitpicking enforcement is necessary to make sure that cultural artifacts are not bulldozed to make way for gaudy Capitaland Malls. But a HUE and cry over a mural that’s too cool for (old) school? Come now, there is already an impressive list of sites being preserved, from Kampong Glam (which encompasses Haji Lane) to Rochester Park, varying in styles from the Beach Road ‘Art Deco’ to ‘Black and White’ colonial type to the ‘Transitional’ to ‘Late’ Shophouse patterns of Geylang. Though places like Tiong Bahru and Rochester have been raided by dining establishments, Haji Lane is ‘unique’ with its ‘bohemian hipster’ boutique vibe, and with already so many shophouses of the same ‘typology’ being preserved elsewhere, perhaps the authorities could grant some exceptions for this ‘indie fusion’ style incorporating ‘street art’ with ‘rustic charm’, an ‘attitude’ that would blend in rather nicely with its backpacker-cool quaintness.  Haji Lane is far removed from the dingy alley of the past, but at least some skeletons remain to remind us of its humble Arab beginnings, not to mention garner international rave reviews for its off-the-beaten-track trendiness that makes it unmissable. Even superstar Gwen Stefani stopped by during her tour, and if you’ve got the original Hollaback Girl checking you out, you know you’re doing something right.

You only see this when you’re high on shisha

If giving these old fogie shophouses a snappy ‘tattoo’ is what it takes to keep the little curiosity that is Haji Lane abuzz and ALIVE in all its quirky, laid-back hipness without losing too much of its ‘old world charm’, then the URA should afford to ‘close one eye’ to architectural anomalies like the bizarre blue house at the end of the street. So, what, or who resides in this mystery building? Here’s a closer look:

Whatever the outcome, this piece of news will inevitably draw more locals and visitors to the area to capture for posterity the Blu Jaz graffiti while it still lasts, before its slate gets wiped clean by the heritage Nazis from the URA, reverting to the original style that our fathers, grandfathers and tengkus could relate to. Why stop at erasing graffiti off the walls, how about chasing out any tenant who isn’t selling batik, Persian rugs, falafel or oil lamps in line with the cultural ‘theme’ of the street? This is probably an exaggeration, but taking a shot of this shophouse is like bringing home a piece of the Berlin Wall. And I have a craving for Mexican food all of a sudden.

Lee Wei Ling and the elastic band on her father’s shorts

From ‘At Oxley Road, we value the frugal life’, 5 Aug 2012, article by Lee Wei Ling, Think, Sunday Times.

I grew up in a middle-class family. Though they were well-off, my parents trained my brothers and me to be frugal from young. We had to turn off water taps completely. If my parents found a dripping tap, we would get a ticking off. And when we left a room, we had to switch off lights and air-conditioners.

My father’s frugality extends beyond lights and air-conditioners. When he travelled abroad, he would wash his own underwear, or my mother did so when she was alive. He would complain that the cost of laundry at five-star hotels was so high he could buy new underwear for the price of the laundry service.

One day in 2003, the elastic band on my father’s old running shorts gave way. My mother had mended that pair of shorts many times before, so my father asked her to change the band. But my mother had just had a stroke and her vision was impaired. So she told my father: “If you want me to prove my love for you, I will try.” I quickly intervened to say: “My secretary’s mother can sew very well. I will ask her to do it.”

My parents and I prefer things we are used to. For instance, the house we have lived in all my life is more than 100 years old. When we first employed a contractor-cum-housekeeper, Mr Teow Seng Hua, more than 10 years ago, he asked me: “Your father has worked so hard for so many years. Why doesn’t he enjoy some luxuries?” I explained we were perfectly comfortable with our old house and our old furniture. Luxury is not a priority.

..All the bathrooms in our house have mosaic tiles. It is more practical than marble which can be slippery if wet. But it is now difficult to buy mosaic in Singapore. So again, Mr Teow bought mosaic tiles from Malaysia to keep in reserve in case some of our current tiles broke or were chipped.

…Frugality is a virtue that my parents inculcated in me. In addition to their influence, I try to lead a simple life partly because I have adopted some Buddhist practices and partly because I want to be able to live simply if for some reason I lose all that I have one day.

I’m not sure if Wei Ling’s father would appreciate information on his undergarments or elastic bands being leaked this way, but there’s a fine line between being ‘frugal’ or ‘thrifty’ and, well, simply being a ‘stingy poker’. This isn’t the first time that Lee is harping on about how she wasn’t exactly living in the lap of luxury. In 2009, she emphasised that life ‘wasn’t a bed of roses’, and more recently she waxed lyrical about the joys of sleeping on a cold hard floor. But there are inevitably a few things missing from this account as to how the Lee’s Oxley fort was being run. For example, she didn’t say anything about the ‘maids’ (plural) in the house, as divulged in an eulogy by a Lee relative at Mdm Kwa Geok Choo’s funeral. Granddaughter Li Xiuqi had this to say about the late matriarch:

Before stroke, she was a power woman. She ran the Oxley road household like a tight ship. She paid the maids, bought the fish, quality-checked the cooking, and peeled my grandfather’s fruit and packed his suitcase.

So now we know who peels LKY’s oranges. According to Xiuqi, the Lee family never installed a shower in their bathroom until the matriarch got her stroke, using the ‘old fashioned’ method of scooping from a tub of water. Grandson Li Shengwu talked about how ‘Nai Nai’ provided a ‘well-stocked’ bookshelf next to the children’s table instead of a TV. I suspect there’s not a single TV in the entire Oxley residence. Just look at the basement dining room of 38 Oxley Road below, the WOMB of the PAP. It looks more like an old conference room than anything else (and it was, in fact, the makeshift HQ for the inaugural PAP meeting in 1954). It looks like nothing’s changed since then. Geez, there’s not even a sofa in sight.

The coziest corner in 38 Oxley Road

There is a lingering refrain to use the word ‘BUNGALOW’ in Wei Ling’s trip down memory lane. Someone from the Remembersingapore blog put up a rare exterior shot of 38 Oxley Road. No guard dogs in sight. In 1965, a Malaysian visitor was surprised to discover that LKY stayed in a ‘modern, wooden house’.   Well if the picture below comes across as a humble shack, then what are the rest of we living in? Damp cardboard boxes?

House of the Rising Son

Wei Ling also failed to mention how her house is constantly guarded by Gurkhas like a fortress. In 1972, additional road humps were ordered to be placed for ‘safety reasons’ outside the Oxley house, in addition to convex mirrors a year earlier to give Gurkhas a better view of the road, in case anyone decides to speed dangerously and try anything funny. Security is so tight (like LKY’s elastic bands) that you could get arrested for shouting outside.  Such paranoia is understandable though, especially if you have people who fling bricks at your compound (Brick thrower fined $1000, 8 March 1991, ST). There are some creepy going-ons too surrounding the house. In 1964, a policeman was found mysteriously shot in an unoccupied house which stood ‘back to back’ with the Oxley one. But I doubt the belt-tightening Lees believe in spending money on ghostbusters.

LKY also talked, in typically unsentimental fashion, about demolishing the house when he’s dead and gone. This ‘big, rambling house with five bedrooms’ was also built by a ‘Jewish merchant’ more than a century ago. I wonder if his name happened to be Shylock. You can also forget about using Google street view to see what the birthplace of our government looks like, and none of the Lee kids seem interested, or ALLOWED, to post pics of it on Instagram. The virtue of ‘frugality’ within the Lee family may have been stretched to the point of ‘cheapskate’ depending on whose side you’re on, if you’d recall the 1990′s saga whereby the Lee father and son bought condominiums at Nassim Jade and Scotts 28, at DISCOUNTED prices. In 1996, both promptly donated their property discounts to charity (SM, BG Lee donate discounts on property buys to charity, 4 June 1996, ST). How thoughtful.

So, unlike the cosy, obsessive-compulsively spartan image of Oxley Road painted here by Wei Ling, the reality is that this place started out as a secret hideout and remains a secretive, gilded stronghold till today, and one is left only to the imagination as to how many rings of barbed wire, buff Gurkhas with guns, saber-toothed guard dogs and CCTVs surround this building, keeping vigil over the premises like it were an ivory castle in a princess fable. It goes without saying that in spite of Lee’s rose-tinted humility, she was well taken of, never had to beg for food in her life, had an excellent education, and lives in a house 99% of us can never afford. It’s like a queen telling her subjects how she had to eat food with her bare hands because she wanted to spare her servants the arduous task of washing utensils. Yet she’ll ALWAYS have food on the table. This is like a monk preaching out of a window in his temple without noticing the sharks swimming in the moat around his abode, blind to the corpses of peasants who so much as dared to fish from his waters because they had nothing else to eat.

Victoria Theatre like funeral parlour

From ‘Old seats look like coffins’, 23 July 2011, Life!mailbag, ST

(Chua Thian Yee): I would like to share my view on the use of the timber-moulded backs of the Victoria Theatre’s old wooden seats as feature walls….It looks to me like coffins stacked together. Please do not use this design and turn Victoria Theatre into a funeral parlour.

(Bernard Chua): The wall of the timber seats resembles suspended coffins in the illustration that accompanied the article. I hope the real thing looks better than the picture.

This design will raise the dead

Aesthetics aside, the horizontal lining of the old wooden seats is intended to enhance the ‘acoustic feel’ of the theatre, and probably also a functional way of conserving furniture which would otherwise be put to waste. Of course Singaporeans , having an irrational fear of death and baulking at anything that reminds them of impending doom, whether it’s landscaping that looks like tombstones or buildings that look like sinking ships, would be terrified by a nostalgic arts centre having a feature wall looking like a fancy floating drawer of coffins, when they’re in fact just long wooden seats arranged in a space-saving manner. Which probably explains the sterility of our arts scene here, being stifled by the wild imaginings of the superstitious who see taboo and inauspiciousness in anything funereal. A funeral, by the way, is the only social gathering people organise on your behalf which you’ll never attend, and most of us spend a few days occupying a coffin at least once in our lives. So being afraid of a coffin, especially if it’s floating, is like refusing to gaze at a new home which every one of us has to move into eventually.

You can never please everyone when it comes to design, and if the National Arts Council (NAC) thinks stacking seats together in an eco-friendly feature wall design serves its intended purpose, then it should just ignore the naysayers who haven’t any better ideas of what to do with old furniture. Especially those who cry Armageddon at the sight of coffin replicas, but are willing to lie in an actual one in Thailand to ‘cleanse bad karma’.

Bukit Brown waist-high in lallang

From ‘盛港组屋景观设计看上去像坟墓 入夜后居民觉得阴森’, 11 June 2011, article in (SM Daily)




The Anchorvale Horror

Observation Deck of the Dead

Translation: Residents in Anchorvale and Ang Mo Kio are getting spooked by structures in their estates resembling tombs and gravestones, hence inauspicious and portending bad luck.

These are probably the same folk who would lie in coffins to erase their bad karma, or see a sinking Titanic in a building where there is none. Anyone terrorised by the right stimulus, be it a scene from a horror movie or a ghost story, would find even a children’s playground scary. In fact, the one below my flat, which comes with a built in xylophone of sorts, sometimes emits tinkling noises in the middle of the night. Whether it’s an old tree, a creaky school gate or a flickering lamp post, anything can be a work of the devil if we try hard enough to impart a story to it, just that most of us ignore that urge simply because we’re better off occupying our minds with more productive tasks.

It’s ironic that some of us are so terrified of the thought of having a cemetery in our midst, forgetting that we keep memories and symbols of our dead loved ones closer than we think, be it a photograph or an article of clothing.  Most HDB dwellers also have to deal with coffins under their very noses during void deck funerals, and yet we make a fuss over such structures, which to normal perception are nothing like tombs by the wildest stretch of the imagination. It’s also curious how some of us want to whitewash and ‘exhume’ these pseudo-tombs if we see them everyday on the way to work or school, and yet feel uncomfortable, or even saddened by the URA’s decision to build houses over the underwhelming landmark that is Bukit Brown cemetery. I suppose bulldozing off a part of our cultural tapestry is expected, for we have lost our character the moment the casinos came to town, and when we hear the news that Singapore is likely to take over Las Vegas as the second hottest gambling spot in the world, all hope of salvation is lost forever. The community pride in Bukit Brown was evident in the 1940′s, when faithful visitors would protest against the unkempt growth of lallang in the area (See below, 10 Oct 1946). No doubt being decimated by the defiant curmudgeonly fist of progress is nothing short of tragic, but in light of the reverence and significance of the place to our forefathers and their fathers, this move by the government, who seemed to have exchanged their reading glasses for 3-D specs, is myopic to the point of sheer disappointment.

MBS becoming Singapore’s national icon

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

Statues: Merlion

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.


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