Together Again

Text by Yishan Lam
Illustration by Amaris Chen

Beautiful failure

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending broken ceramics with golden resin, rendering them even more beautiful than before. It’s also a lovely metaphor for healing: like pottery, people too can be broken and made whole. At the level of society, however, it’s much harder to heal the cracks, like how all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. Restoration requires a mass effort.

Trashing too soon

Singapore is a bit like Humpty Dumpty, especially the dump-ty part. Many of us were bred on the ‘new’ and ‘now’, trading up for the next big thing. We are discarders, not recyclers; taking things apart and putting them back together again wasn’t a compulsory subject growing up.

Our culture of disposal has unwittingly encouraged short-term thinking. As our country grows, and new cracks are surfacing, from transportation breakdowns to public scandals, social media has made it easy to equate sounding off online for having a real stake. Our rants and reposts feed instant gratification, fanning our human tendency to divide the world into heroes and villains. Yet ‘opinion’ itself is a false finishing line. Citizenship is not only about what you think, feel or say, but what you do.

Which is easier, to cast stones, or to build? In times of trouble, staying in the echo chamber of learned helplessness and cynicism gets nothing done. When a young lady got stuck in the train platform gap in Tokyo this summer, passengers did not just stare or point their camera phones at the situation, nor staff wait upon protocol. Everyone got off the train, and together, they pushed.

A little housekeeping

“Sunlight is known to be the best of disinfectants,” is a favourite quote from former US Chief Justice Louis Brandeis on transparency. Globally, the call for public accountability is growing louder, and happening online, as in the extreme cases of Arab Spring and Occupy. But for where we are in Singapore, disinfectants alone only go so far—what we really need is glue.

The desire for what binds us grows. It’s in our increasing nostalgia and quest for authentic expressions. Our homing instincts are kicking in, which is why we cherish disappearing hawker legends and mosaic tile playgrounds, why we mourn Bukit Brown, flinch as Queenstown cinema is demolished, and balk at unsingable National Day songs. We want not just to coexist, but to cohere.

What is our next stage? How do we harness looking back to move forward, turning our nostalgia into optimism? Can we go from making noise, to making things happen?

Piece by piece

Three young New Yorkers are experiencing the radical potential of putting their ideas out in public. In 2010, inspired by summer heat and their lack of a clean river to swim in, designers Dong, Archie and Jeff hatched a plan to drop a ‘giant strainer’ into the polluted East River, forming a plus-shaped pool. They launched a Kickstarter campaign to float the idea, and surpassed their goal in just six days.

What happens next is waves of people get involved: researchers at Columbia, engineers at Arup, swimmers, civic groups and the media. Even Jay-Z and Sydney’s mayor tweet about it. What started off as a crazy idea gathers real momentum. They study technical feasibility, seek permits and city government’s buy-in. Armed with $250,000 more from the Kickstarter community, they will soon fabricate a floating prototype—their next step to realizing +Pool by 2016.

Rather than venting their frustration, or blaming ‘the system’, they did what designers do and embraced the constraints. They used entrepreneurial thinking and told great stories. They started small and scaled up as more people got involved, whether party-ers or planners. To us, ‘public-private-partnership’ may feel like a tired buzzword, but truth is, bottom-up and top-down efforts are simply more powerful when combined.

A groundswell of goodwill is spreading in Singapore, with self-organizing citizens starting to model the changes they want to see: showing grace on public transport (StandUpforSG), caring for others in a crisis (SG Haze Rescue), and even keeping our sense of humour during system breakdowns (Minions take over MRT announcements). What would happen if we were to amplify and connect the disparate efforts of these optimistic, creative citizens with formal networks and public infrastructure? What if we were to overwhelm the noise with positive ideas? What sort of Singapore would we begin to see, and, how beautiful would it look, from up close and afar?

From The U Press N˚3 (Singapore edition).