By Uditha Devapriya
There are two senses in which one “becomes” a book collector. The first is that of a hoarder, an undiscriminating bibliomaniac who empties shelf after shelf before the dust begins to settle. He indulges in a very few literary tastes, yet craves for more titles to add to his collection; as his library picks up in weight and the books overflow, he turns his other rooms into libraries.
Not for one moment does he consider why he hoards much, while reading little. Perhaps, in some strange way, he gets his cue from Anatole France; when an admirer pored over his collection and asked whether he read all that he owned, the latter replied rather irately, “Not one-tenth of them”, adding, “I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?”
The second is that of a reader, a discriminating bibliophile whose interests spread so far and wide that his library keeps on growing. To such a collector, the pleasures of discovering old titles tend to exceed his interest in latest editions. Perhaps the most delightful among such pleasures would be the prospect of bending over unpacked crates, and glancing through dusty shelves, at second hand stores. There’s no method to selection, no prior appointment possible: one goes through the catalogue, live, in the moment, and one selects what one sees; because of this, those who collect for the love of reading frequent bargain sales more than they do book fairs.
At least since the 15th century, book fairs have been gathering points for various pastimes, and not just reading; the Frankfurt Book Fair, for instance, included in this period such diversions as musical contests, roper dancers, side shows, gambling, and prostitution. Second-hand stores, on the other hand, leave little room for anything else: one comes to buy, and goes through the entire itinerary before making up one’s mind. There’s no time for prattle.
Now I realise I’ve drawn a line between these two, when in fact there’s a continuum between the collector who hoards and the collector who reads. There are, for instance, hoarders who read, and readers who hoard; conversely, there are readers who warn against hoarding, and hoarders who dismiss the tedious prospect of reading everything they own.
Let me extend this argument further: there are writers who, while collecting books, caution readers not to collect books. Friedrich Nietzsche is a case in point here: the man who wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra tells us in Ecce Homo that “to read a book – I call it vicious!” and adds that his eyes (for he was going blind) “put an end to all bookwormishness.” Not that it put an end to his own reading habits: we know from sources that, in the last four years of his life, he bought more than a hundred books, “about one every two weeks.” What he despised, however, wasn’t so much the idea of reading as the idea of collecting for its own sake: “[t]he scholar who really does nothing but ‘trundle’ books… finally loses altogether the ability to think for himself.”
We need not, of course, take Nietzsche’s word for it. Yet beneath these vituperative utterances, we can sense an iconoclastic intellect rebelling against the passion for trundling that epitomised the times he lived through. For, as Jürgen Osterhammel observes in his sweeping overview of the 19th century (The Transformation of the World), in the two preceding centuries libraries “made the first great advances” in Europe. These “treasuries of memory” gathered knowledge from all over, contributing to the spread of interest in the East.
At a lower level, municipal libraries were turned into public institutions, their bills footed by the taxpayer. Linked to academic institutions, they bolstered a thriving trade in books: according to Osterhammel, they also “served a public eager for education and were a mark of civic pride.” Little wonder that the idea of civic nationalism developed rapidly in these years.
While libraries in the East precede by centuries those of the West, it was in Europe that their role as a public educational space and an instrument of learning took root. What that contributed to was an almost obsessive passion for collecting. In 1809, the Reverend Thomas Dibdin breathed new life to an old term to describe this trend: “bibliomania”, literally book madness.
It would be wrong to view bibliomania as a trend exclusive to the 19th century, though. As can be inferred from Dibdin’s polemic, bibliomania did, admittedly, peak during his time. Yet it also continued a process that had been set in motion about 50 years earlier. What the 19th century did to the book market was to turn it from its old, feudal fetters into a market proper, dominated by monetary exchange and exchange relations. Moreover, as with wine, books age well. This led to a trade in literary antiquities; a book sold eight years after its first printing, for instance, fetched more than £15 in 1840 – around £1,565, or three and a half Sri Lankan lakhs, today.
Dibdin didn’t so much deplore these trends as he did the passions to which they gave license: passions he himself did not shy away from, as he makes it clear in his polemic.
The first private collection in the world may have been the cuneiform tablets and text collections of Ancient Sumer. These did not, of course, survive the passing of the years: built from clay and piled on wooden shelves, they collapsed and rotted away in the event of fire, flood, or invasion. Except for the few that survived, we don’t know what they contained; hardly a testament to the cataloguing abilities of the Sumerians, who, we are told, collected texts and archives “in willow baskets, leather sacks, or wooden boxes indexed with labels.”
Hammurabi may very well have been the first book hoarder in history: during his reign, said to have begun in 1792 BC, he raided neighbouring city-states in search of inscriptions and text collections. The other comparable figure we have after him would be Ashurbanipal, Senacherib’s son-in-law; crowned in 669 BC, he sent scribes to every corner to collect material for what the French historian Lucien Polastron calls “one of the largest libraries ever gathered.” That writing remained an ineffable art to the people of his time is made clear by the words he committed to one of his tablets: “I have solved the old mystery of division and multiplication… I have read the elegant texts of Sumer and the obscure words of the Akkadians.” Whatever his faults might have been, Ashurbanipal certainly seems to have valued the art of trundling books.
The concept of libraries meant a great deal to the earliest civilisations. Religious texts did not necessarily view book learning negatively, as Polastron points out; for instance, the Talmud says explicitly that “there was a vast library before the creation of the world”, the Quran that “such a library does exist and will continue to exist for all eternity”, and, closer to home, the Vedas that it existed “before the Creator created himself.” Book knowledge was of course hardly open or for that matter democratised in the early days. In Europe, for instance, literacy remained for a long time the preserve of a Latin speaking clergy. What Guttenberg’s revolution did was to spread the reading habit beyond the church, giving a voice to other linguistic communities.
In other words, bookshops, book fairs, and libraries divided as much as they unified: by making alphabets and scripts available in print to those who wrote and thought in them, they diffused knowledge of languages beyond borders, unifying communities across different countries on the one hand and dividing them in the same countries on the other, on linguistic lines. By the 19th century, consequently, print had become “nationalised” everywhere.
Libraries became a part of Western civilisation through the Renaissance, but this is not to say it democratised book learning or made such learning more accessible. What should be noted here is how reading empowered revolution, and reform, on all sides: as Peter Burke observes in his fine study Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, when Protestant reformists began to win their wars of faith through the written word against the Catholic Church, the latter picked a leaf from their book and embarked on its own literary revolution, promoting literacy in the fight against the heathens and the heretics. This at first cut the Catholic hierarchy from European popular culture, leading it to rationalise its practices to a certain degree (including witch burnings, a practice that ended in France when magistrates stopped taking accusations in 1640), and giving it an impetus to launch its own Counter-Reformation in the 17th century.
In the European colonies of Asia and Africa, this process was amplified at another level. When colonial officials began to concentrate on education reforms in the late 19th century, mainly if not only on account of insurrectionist liberation movements propping up in such societies, they felt that the expansion of literacy ought to involve the establishment of libraries, across city and village. This was prima facie a benign endeavour on the part of such officials, but it was linked intricately to the colonial project: at best, it was a case of imperial paternalism, a case of colonial authorities considering it their duty to educate and “enlighten” their subjects.
That explains why they framed the setting up of libraries as a response to what they considered to be inferior reading habits among the native population. Hence in Dutch Indonesia, officials set up a commission called “Balai Pustaka” in 1917 to remove natives from a “wild stew of [local] literature”, which had promoted such “negative tendencies” as “nationalism” and “ethnic pride”, to reading habits more in line with the colonial project.
Incredibly, and ironically, nationalists hardly, if at all, objected to this state of affairs. If they did not condone the colonial government’s efforts at curbing illiteracy via a network of vernacular schools and rural libraries, they seized the moment and came up with their own initiatives. In this they shared colonial prejudices against cultural practices considered “backward” and “negative.” This did not mean they agreed on how those habits should be combated, but it did put them in the same league as far as the need to get rid of such practices was concerned.
Partha Chatterjee has written on the pitfalls of viewing the colonial project as a “modernising” enterprise, and of associating modernisation with Western education and thought. For me, this debate begins as much with the education system established by colonisers as it does with their efforts at spreading the written word in colonial society: through not just schools and colleges, but also, more pivotally perhaps, libraries and reading rooms.
From Hammurabi to Nietzsche, from manuscripts to Balai Pustaka, book-collecting has linked itself to social processes, be it empire-building in Ancient Sumer or empire-validation in Dutch Indonesia. This represents an exciting field of study for the anthropologist and the historian – a field that remains an open grey area, even today.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
Colonial bourgeoisie and Sinhala cultural revival
The Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama
By Uditha Devapriya
The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka did not form a monolithic class. They were divided horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally on the basis of income and inheritance, and vertically on the basis of primordial attachments, such as caste ideology. Various factors, mainly economic, conspired as much to unify the bourgeoisie as they did to divide them, distinguishing them by their homogeneity as much as by their heterogeneity.
Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not really accurate to say that prior to British rule the country, especially parts of the Kandyan kingdom, remained cut off from monetary exchange (a thesis that has been questioned by S. B. D. de Silva in his work on colonial underdevelopment), the British sped up the consolidation of a plantation colony, dominated by import-export trade. The creation of a new economy facilitated the formation of a new elite that found ways of building up wealth and prestige from road toll and arrack rents, plantation profits, investments in urban property, and entry into the civil service and the professions.
This bourgeoisie differed in degree and substance from the traditional elite that hailed from the apex of the social hierarchy in the Kandyan kingdom. A two-way process followed: while the bourgeoisie gained wealth and prestige over the traditional elite, the latter either found themselves reduced to a semi-dependent elite, or adapted to a changing world.
While differences between these two elites had become pronounced by the middle of the 19th century, by the time of the Buddhist revival they were fading away. The bourgeoisie, for their part, did not completely reject the customs and habits of the old elite, as witnessed by nouveau riche govigama families marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy.
Given the all too fine distinctions which cropped up among the bourgeoisie as it grew and evolved in the 19th century, the Buddhist revival evolved in spurts and stages rather than in one giant leap. The question as to which class gave an impetus to the revival, then, is linked to the question of which class interests prevailed in the unfolding of that revival.
Different scholars have approached these issues from different, if only vaguely similar, vantage points. Thus Gananath Obeyesekere ascribes the revival to the dissemination of “Protestant Buddhist” values among the Sinhala bourgeoisie, Kumari Jayawardena to the ideology of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, and Michael Roberts to the adoption of Western notions of nationalism and forms of propaganda. These are important perspectives, and they shed light on the role of class interests in the unfolding of nationalist revivals in colonial society. Yet different as they may be, they are all premised on assumptions of one milieu’s (petty bourgeoisie) dependence on a dominating elite (comprador bourgeoisie), and of that dominating elite’s dependence on a colonial economic framework.
For perfectly plausible reasons, these hypotheses deny ideological autonomy on the part of both dependent and dominating classes. Thus Kumari Jayawardena distinguishes between the plantation bourgeoisie and the semi-industrial bourgeoisie, in relation to their response to the revival, on the basis of the relations between their methods of acquiring wealth and colonial economic constraints, so that elite families subscribe to a conservative reading of Buddhism moulded by their ties to plantation capital, while Anagarika Dharmapala, whose family was involved in industries “not totally dependent on colonial patronage”, espouses a more “reformist” reading in keeping with a radical approach to politics.
Simply put, to the extent that the bourgeoisie was locked into an economy dominated by colonial interests, it viewed the revival as an expression of its own ideology. The use of the plural is instructive here, in that the bourgeoisie, as Roberts notes, did not share a unifying ideology, and were in fact “more differentiated” than traditional elites.
This interpretation of the revival helps us glean the intricate links between the economic base of colonial society and the ideological superstructure of revivalist movements, avoiding the pitfalls of rationalising such movements on purely cultural grounds, as nationalists are wont to do. It also presents colonial history as a series of successive periods in which one set of class ideologies prevailed over others: a plantation bourgeois at the tail-end of the 19th century, and a petty bourgeois at the turn of the 20th.
Yet, despite the validity of these perspectives, they omit three factors pertinent to the triad of colonialism, cultural modernity, and nationalist revival: ideological agency on the part of the contending milieus (intra-class, between sections of the elite, and inter-class, between different elites), the contribution of “unrepresented” classes, most prominently the working class and peasantry, to that triad, and the part played by different artists and art forms with respect to the revival and its unfolding in the 20th century.
The latter point merits much consideration. In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the early 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In Jayawardena’s view, artistes like Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of cultural values while paradoxically presenting a colonial reinterpretation of local history.
A good example of this would be de Silva’s Sri Wickrema. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, it presents the last king of Kandy as a rapacious tyrant, a drunkard laggard: ironically, in line with propaganda about the monarch disseminated by colonial officials, in particular the Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly.
What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of the objets d’art they exhibited, and that this ideology prevented these art forms from undergoing a modernist revolution which could question colonial rule without subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of culture. I posit three reasons for why the nurthi plays of John de Silva, among other objets, failed to make that important leap: their mass appeal, the high levels of capital investment they required, and the conflicting attitude of their patrons, some of whom hailed from the bourgeoisie, to colonial rule.
At the turn of the 20th century, with the bifurcation of nationalism into radical politics and cultural revival, it was possible for patrons of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it,
“The cultural awakening and the recoil against the Western world, then, took many forms. It was influenced and permeated by romanticism, populism, indigenism, and anti-Western sentiments. Its conceptual forms were more traditionalist than tradition; and more revivalist than traditionalist. It did not possess the solipsist complacency and self-confidence of those who rely on the traditional… Neither was it wholly traditionalist and restorative. Its principal activists were selective in the traditions they picked up.”
Roberts has noted elsewhere that, while calling for the end of British rule, nationalist elites resorted to Western modes of protest; thus, while nationalist liberators who sprang up in the Kandyan regions after their annexation by the British decried the Kandyan Convention as a betrayal of the Sinhala kingdom, nationalist agitators in the 20th century rationalised the Convention as a legal document which British officials had honoured more in the breach than the observation. Benedict Anderson has analysed these paradoxes in his study of what he calls the “last wave of nationalism”, which unfolded in the European colonies of Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century. His thesis explains the paradoxical response to their own history by Sinhala nationalists; even in the act of decrying a lost pre-colonial heritage, these same nationalists subscribed to values promoted by colonisers. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial “modernity”, yet it is also an indictment of a key figure associated with that heritage.
Dependent as these objets were on “colonial capital”, for a more meaningful analysis, they should be compared with art forms that were not no dependent on such capital.
In the decorative arts, breaks with the past transpired more rapidly, and thoroughly, than they did in the realm of literature and theatre. As Sunil Goonesekara has observed, by the time of the revival in the early 20th century important debates had sprung up about which mode of painting best suited the country. On the one hand, there was the studio painter, who looked up to styles established in European art academies; on the other hand, there were the traditional Kandyan painters, a vanishing group even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers reproducing Buddhist parables, whose figurehead, Sarlis, exuded a style that was, as Goonasekera puts it, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature was that it did not fit the three criteria applicable to the latter two art forms: it lacked a mass audience, it did not require high levels of capital investment, and it did not need the patronage of elites tied to colonialism.
Underscoring this was the even simpler fact that painting was a visual art, and that unlike theatre and literature it could dispense with the written word. If John Berger’s dictum that we see before we speak is indeed true, and what we see establishes our place in the world more quickly than can the printed word, modernism in art swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism; simply put, it was easier to defy canons of taste in painting, because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalists and revivalists had been innovating on from the tail-end of the 19th century. He did not need a “text.” He had frescoes, lithographs, and murals to work from. The revival may have thrived on the polemic, but it breathed through the canvas. This is, perhaps, a point seldom appreciated, if at all. Yet it is true.
Anne Blackburn has cautioned against viewing the Buddhist revival solely as a response to colonialism by nationalists. In painting, we come across a new way of viewing the revival: neither a collective rejection of the West, nor a total acceptance of colonial canons of taste and propriety, but rather a break from both. This obviously opens up new lines of discussion and interpretation as regards colonialism in Sri Lanka, a topic that for far too long has been viewed through a class, caste, or elite lens by scholars and students.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Enblish Experiment: Bold or Barmy?
London comes alive after the easing of lockdown
By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
Only time will tell whether the ‘English Experiment’, which started as 19 July dawned, would be a success or a failure. There were count-down clocks in many a place, mostly in night clubs, as they could open for business after a break that looked like eternity. Jubilant young, sans face masks, hugged and danced, physical distancing already being a distant memory. A carnival atmosphere erupted right across England as ‘Freedom Day’ dawned. It was only in England, not right across the UK, which is made up of four countries, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with devolved administrations, health being one of those devolved functions and the Secretary of Health of Her Majesty’s government looking after health issues only in England. It is these oddities that I love about Britain!
‘Freedom Day’, already postponed once from 21 June, could not have come at a worse time and already the Opposition is holding the knife to the government’s throat. Failure is likely to result in a disaster. The Secretary of Health, who was largely responsible for introducing the regulations 16 months ago, was caught breaking his own rules by smooching with a female aide in his office! Like one of our politicians, he tried to remain in office but was forced to resign. His successor tested positive two days before ‘Freedom Day’. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who were in close contact, attempted to avoid isolation by trying to take part in a trial but public opinion forced them to isolate from the day before freedom!
On average, over 40,000 cases are diagnosed daily, almost all being due to the more infectious Delta variant. However, hospital admissions remain low and the NHS is able to manage comfortably unlike in the previous waves, as there are only around 4000 patients with Covid, in hospitals throughout UK. But this comes at a cost; millions remaining on waiting lists for elective procedures that had to be cancelled to accommodate the emergency admissions. More importantly, death rates remain very low, averaging around 40 per day, which is almost certainly due to the commendable vaccination programme. Already almost 90% of the adult population has had one dose and 70% both doses of the vaccine.
The major problem at the moment is the large number of cases diagnosed daily with a significant number of contacts being instructed to isolate at home, being identified mostly through the ‘NHS app’. One of the reasons for the increased number of cases is, no doubt, due to allowing large crowds at sporting events, like the just concluded Euro 2000. Even the most optimistic of experts agree that with the relaxation of preventive measures like face masks and physical distancing, the number of cases is bound to increase further, at least in the short term. Although no longer mandatory, the government is requesting the public to adhere to physical distancing and wearing face masks in enclosed spaces. In short, the government has shifted the responsibility to the public in the hope that there would be satisfactory compliance.
On the other hand, if most people behave irresponsibly, there is the real risk of another wave, which may be difficult to control. Although working from home is no longer the norm, if significant numbers are made to isolate, normal work would not resume. Due to staff isolation, already there have been some supermarket closures and cancellation of public transport. During the weekend Preceding the ‘Freedom Day’, a few lines of the world-famous London Underground were not functioning. Therefore, success is not guaranteed and failure would make it look like the government decision being barmy!
However, the Rubicon had to be crossed sometime and we cannot be dictated by a virus forever. A new normal has to be established but whether this is the right time is the question asked by many. Perhaps, doing this at a time when things are not optimal is barmy. On the other hand, it can be construed as a bold step by a government determined to get the country back to normal again. It is pretty obvious that the whole world is watching, with bated breath, whether the ‘English Experiment’ will be a success.
It is entirely possible that with the continuing energetic campaign of vaccination, which is reducing morbidity and the mortality rates considerably, and the rapid spread of the virus which too would lead to the production of antibodies, a wall of immunity would develop soon, ‘taming’ the virus. The hope is that after a temporary phase of worsening, Covid-19 would be ‘tamed’ to be like seasonal flu. In the winter months, there are around 200 deaths daily due to the flu virus in spite of the vaccination of vulnerable people, but the country is not shut down. The hope is that a similar equilibrium would be established.
The UK has the infrastructure to conduct surveys and gather very accurate information. As the four countries of the UK are moving at different paces, comparisons can be made and lessons learnt. Also, the issue of vaccine hesitancy and resultant harm could be established. London, unfortunately, has the lowest level of vaccination, standing around 65% for the first dose and 45% for the second. Ethnicity also seems to play an important part. In those over 50 years, 95% of Whites have had the vaccine compared to only 75% of Blacks. The percentage for South Asians is around 87%. It is well known that most of the deaths occur in those not vaccinated. As no vaccine gives 100% protection, unfortunately, a few get Covid even after full vaccination but the disease tends to be milder and deaths rare. It is regrettable that there is a tiny number of deaths due to the vaccines as well.
It is expected that the entire adult population of the UK as well as vulnerable children will be fully vaccinated by the end of September. It is very likely that we will know which direction the epidemic is heading and whether the ‘English Experiment’ is a success by the end of October. I hope that it be a success for the sake of Sri Lanka, too.
After having overcome many difficulties, the vaccination campaign in Sri Lanka seems to be gathering momentum, at last, and it is very likely that the vast majority of the adult population would be fully vaccinated by September or October. If the ‘English Experiment’ is proved to be a success, then Sri Lanka will be in a position to open the country to tourism; many in the West are itching to get out to sunnier climes, to escape the drab winter. This would, no doubt, help Sri Lanka to get out of the economic quagmire.
Let us hope that the ‘English Experiment’ is bold, not barmy!
Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’
By B. Nimal Veerasingham
Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.
The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.
In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.
The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.
Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?
The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.
The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.
The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.
LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.
In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.
Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.
Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.
The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.
The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.
For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.
But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.
As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.
Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.
What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.
Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.
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