Fifty Years Later

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

I

The coming of a new year often brings with it a measure of contemplation. We look back at the year that was, thinking about all the highs and lows that have been. Satisfaction, regret, affirmation, ambivalence—a plethora of emotions emerge. Reflection gives way to resolve; we write lists and cross fingers, we make subtle shifts and major adjustments, we forge ahead into the year that will be.

When the clocks turned to welcome 2015, the watershed moment felt even more profound. Singapore is turning 50; as a nation we’re at the cusp of not only a new year, but a new era. Amplifying the act of reflection to the timescale of a century, at this midpoint in the life of our nation, we ask, how well have we done, and how will we do moving forward?

II

Eighty-five years ago, a man looked back at his life’s work, and deemed our country worthy of the remainder, which he could not take with him.

This was Dutch businessman Karl van Kleef, who bequeathed to the municipal government of Singapore his estate of $160,000 when he died in Haarlem, the rough equivalent of $9 million today. From this sum, the Van Kleef aquarium was built, albeit after the second World War ended. An engineering marvel of its time, the oceanarium stood at its River Valley Road address from 1955 to 1998—by which time, it could no longer compete with the likes of Sentosa’s Underwater World and the city’s more viable attractions. Lost to our landscape, it lives on today only in our historical consciousness.

Van Kleef comes to mind whenever I pass by its original site on my way to work. While I’ve no childhood memories of the place, it is the largesse of the gesture that captures my imagination. Van Kleef was the only person we know of who has left his entire fortune to Singapore. What was the back story? What economic or emotional value did he derive from his years here, that he would leave it all to our tiny island, so far away? I think about the poetic act of giving of oneself to Singapore, be it our native or adoptive home.

The story of Van Kleef, of course, is exceptional. Not many of us will end up as successful businessmen with no direct heirs. Our economic realities in this day and age are vastly different. However, you don’t have to be rich to be giving, or even wait till such and such a time, whenever that might be.

III

Profound things can come from common places.

Last spring, I visited “KOME: The Art of Rice,” an exhibition at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo that was dedicated to the place of rice in our everyday lives. Casting the ordinary in a new light, the show considered rice to be like highly efficient solar cells. It spoke of each grain of rice as a metaphorical package of sunlight, stored by plants through the simple materials of water, sunlight and carbon dioxide, for the sustenance of mankind.

But this rate of return has not stood still: as a result of man’s interplay between the heavens and earth, through the process of farming and adaptation of practices stretched on a scale of generation after generation, farmers have managed to increase the productive capacity of rice planting through the magic of agriculture. As a result, one grain multiplies a thousandfold, and so the others after it.

The exhibition was as much a meditation on rice as it was on creativity; it drew a subconscious parallel between agricultural problem-solving with the practice of design, which is the museum’s focus. Like farmers perfecting the conditions of a bountiful harvest, design takes the challenge at hand and injects it with new values, whilst stewarding the cooperation of many external factors to give rise to an even richer culture than existed before. Dissatisfied and distrustful of the stable state, rethinking original limits, design says ‘more’. More can be done, more value begotten from the same essence and materials, making them more than they were before.

IV

The funny thing about generosity is that it has the uncanny power to transform both the object of the giving, as well as the giver, in a similar way as how you love who or what it is you care for, loving them till they succeed.

Much will be debated about Singapore’s success this year, and the conditions that will enable it to last. Some narratives will focus on our vulnerability, how we cannot take the hard-earned successes of the previous generation for granted, others might celebrate the will and adaptiveness of our people as our only resource, and so forth.

I might suggest taking a different tack by coming from a purely personal perspective, in the spirit of goal-setting for the year.

From The U Press N˚9 (Singapore edition).