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Monday, July 09, 2012

Academic masturbation about Gardens on the Bay

"There are two ways to slide easily through life: Namely, to believe everything, or to doubt everything; both ways save us from thinking. The majority take the line of least resistance, preferring to have their thinking done for them; they accept ready-made individual, private doctrines as their own and follow them more or less blindly. Every generation looks upon its own creeds as true and permanent and has a mingled smile of pity and contempt for the prejudices of the past. For two hundred or more generations of our historical past this attitude has been repeated two hundred or more times, and unless we are very careful our children will have the same attitude toward us...

It is the counsel of wisdom to discover the laws of nature, including the laws of human nature, and then to live in accordance with them. The opposite is folly"

--- Manhood of Humanity: The Science and Art of Human Engineering / Alfred Korzybski

(his hardline insistence on "rigour" and being "mathematical", and consequent condemning of "the pseudo sciences of ethics and jurisprudence and economics and politics and government" is mistaken, though)

This quote comes to mind sometimes when academics mention that they are going to take a "critical" view of an issue.

Yet, being "critical" when it is unwarranted is worse than not being "critical" at all. This is because "critical" in academic circles does not mean the same thing as what laymen mean when they use the word "critical": most people understand "critical" in the sense of "critical thinking", i.e. "Characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment".

Yet in academic contexts "critical" refers to Critical Theory, a neo-Marxist theory that "is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”". In other words, proponents of Critical Theory are instead enslaved by the chains of Critical Theory.

"Your theory is critical!"
"Your criticism is theoretical!"
"Your humanities departments are de-funded!"

L'article du jour - an academic article by Joanne Leow on Gardens by the Bay (GBTB) which I was quite annoyed by: On Supertrees, neo-colonialism and globalisation, which purports to be a "critical" look at GBTB.

Let me briefly summarise the points of the "critical" analysis that turn out to be not so critical (in the first sense) after all:

1) Botanic Gardens are colonialist inventions where plant samples are "classified and categorized", and nature is mastered and manicured. GBTB is a triumph of the logic of Modernity over nature.

It is indeed true that Botanic Gardens are colonialist in origin and character, but just because something was done by the colonialists does not make it wrong or undesirable. For example, Adolf Hitler was anti-tobacco but that does not mean we should reflexively and petulantly smoke just to spite his memory and to commit ourselves against what he did and stood for. Indeed, Critical Theory itself is colonial in origin (Germany, while coming late to the Colonialism game, was a colonial power nonetheless).

What would a green space where plant samples are not classified and categorised, and where nature is not mastered and manicured look like?

We have a word in English for such an idyllic green space.

It is called "wilderness".

A Trip to Jungles by the Bay goes wrong for Mowgli

The reason why we have human intervention in GBTB (and other Botanic Gardens and indeed most green spaces which humans visit) is so we can visit the place in relative comfort and safety: sprained ankles and snake bites are not most people's idea of a good day. And unless you are David Attenborough, you are not going to be able to make sense of samples that are not "classified and categorized".

Me, I'm glad I live in a society which is ordered according to the norms of Modernity.

2) The racially-themed gardens "reinforce disturbing racial and cultural stereotypes" of the Lazy Native and Urbane Chinese. The Colonial Garden does not mention the injustices of colonialism.

Here we are confronted with the endless question: should we represent society as it is or society as it should be?

The art of the Chinese Garden dates back to the Shang Dynasty (before 1000 BC), and it is an exquisite and complicated art with rules, principles and many extant examples.

The Great Wave Pavilion (沧浪亭), built in 1044 AD and a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Meanwhile, the people who we know of today as Malays (the Deutero Malays) only arrived in what we think of as their homeland around 300 BC, and while there is a tradition of the Malay Garden, it was very much a Royal-Religious phenomenon.

If one goes to Google Images and searches "traditional Chinese garden" (sans quotes), one finds many examples of Chinese gardens. Contrawise, searching "traditional Malay garden" (sans quotes again), you get... kampung buildings. Curiously enough, this is similar to the "disturbing racial and cultural stereotypes" that Leow fingers in her essay.

What I get when I Google Image "traditional Malay garden"

Of course one can rightly question why there is a need to even mention the usual CMI framework in GBTB, but this is a separate question from the "stereotypes" portrayed by GBTB.

As for the injustices of colonialism, that is all very well, but do we need to mention that in GBTB? What is wrong with mentioning "lucrative crops, spices and plants that formed important trade routes between the East and the West"? Must Injustice be highlighted at every interval?

Consider the following:

i) On the back of a sack of rice, the note: "the man who harvested this earns as much in an hour as you do in a day"
ii) In the footnotes of every book about Turkey (even Turkish cooking books): "the 20th century Armenian Genocide killed more than a million Armenians. Turkey has not apologised for it"
iii) At the back of each academic paper: "the woman who wrote this has tenure and can't be fired. If you just got laid off, tough!"

Any book on his contribution to Independence must add "he slept with pre-teens"

The Colonial Garden does not seem to glorify Colonialism. Why, then, should we be upset that it does not condemn it?

3) There are large human and environmental costs (e.g. carbon footprint) to the project.

I'm not sure what the issue is here. All projects have costs. We do not condemn the SMRT Circle Line because of the Nicoll Highway collapse, why should we condemn GBTB because workers got injured in building it?

The alleged poor conditions of the workers are more of a concern here, but no alternatives to "relying and exploiting foreign labour" (sic) are given. I highly doubt that Leow would volunteer to be labour for a construction project, much less one as large as GBTB. Likewise, other Singaporeans are not jumping at the chance to be Construction Workers. Foreign Labour is not just not unsustainable - there is simply no alternative to it.

As for exploitation, the working conditions for the workers could certainly have been improved. Doubtless, costs would have skyrocketed and schedules been delayed, and Leow might very well have been among the critics bemoaning the cost to the taxpayer, the unacceptable delays and the lack of accountability.

Of course, we all know that to Neo-Marxists, the very idea of using low-skilled foreign labour is anathema as it is "exploitation". More practical issues (see above) aside, one can question the basis of why "exploitation" is wrong - foreign labour is choosing to come to Singapore because presumably in the vast majority of cases they will earn more than what they could get at home. Their Singaporean working package, taken holistically, is thus better than what they could get at home. Even if we are "exploiting" them, then, we are actually helping them; we risk consigning the vulnerable person to an even worse fate than being exploited. For example, a Bangladeshi worker might have been picking through a garbage heap back home if he were not working on GBTB. So by "exploiting" him here, we are helping him to suffer less than he otherwise would.

Queuing up to be exploited

As for the environmental impact, I don't know why that is even an issue - if the land space taken up by GBTB were filled by skyscrapers, the environmental impact would be much, much higher. The perfect is the enemy of the good, apparently. Also Leow questions "the costs in terms of the carbon footprint to carefully ship all these plants to Singapore". I will just note that transportation is a favourite bugbear of those who profess to be concerned about the environment, but freighting goods doesn't actually account for that much carbon emissions.

4) GBTB is too much about the rest of the world, and not enough about Singapore.

This is yet another puzzling objection. Somehow "creating other worlds and other globalized spaces in Singapore" is supposed to a bad thing.

Doubt is cast on whether "a UK-based team really [has] the local knowledge and feel to create something that is unmistakably Singaporean as opposed to an idea of what a tropical garden should be".

This parochial fetish for the local is linked to the inherent narrow-mindedness of Identity Politics. Is there any specific reason why GBTB should be Singaporean in character? The flipside of a fetish for the local is a fear of the foreign, which can be contextualised as an unconscionable form of xenophobia.

From a practical point of view, looking at the website of Grant Associates, one can see that apart from GBTB, they have done many projects in the realm of Parks & Public Spaces alone, with the largest being 33 hectares (presumably their online portfolio is only a selection of the projects that they've done).

In contrast, in the memorable words of S Iswaran, Singaporean architecture is HDB architecture. Perhaps this is an unfavorable characterisation of it, but I have grave doubts about whether any Singaporean architectural firm has the capability to undertake a project on the scale of GBTB, simply because of the size and nature of the market.

5) GBTB will change the relationship Singaporeans have with nature, and is discriminatory.

GBTB is portrayed as giving Singaporeans a Disney-fied view of nature, where we are "always hoping to always be “wowed”".

Yet, if I wanted to experience an "authentic" version of nature, I would go to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Since we already have Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, does it really make sense to replicate it in the middle of the city?

Further, people are not as easily influenced as Leow speculates. The rise of fine dining has not inured Singaporeans to simple hawker food and they are not instead always hoping to have their food always "call out to them" (in the words of ladyironchef). Singaporeans do not now expect desserts made from pastry and chantilly instead of appreciating the reality of the old tao suan stalls that we do have. Similarly, I am skeptical about Leow's claims about social psychology (bear in mind that "Social Psych is worse than either Psych or Sociology")

The capsicum was calling out to him

Also, "the high cost of admission fees to the cooled conservatories and the OCBC Skyway", and GBTB being "in the expensive downtown area" somehow "mean that this space is a fundamentally discriminatory one". This conveniently omits the fact that admission to most of GBTB is free, and that according to it costs only $1.69 to take public transport from Yishun MRT to GBTB (consider that if I live in Pasir Ris and wish to go to some hypothetical attraction in Tuas, it will cost me $1.96, which is 27 cents more).

Presumably the alternative to charging admission fees is to make admission free. Yet, someone always has to pay and in this counter-factual scenario, that person will be the taxpayer. However, we can make the case that GBTB is a good similar to the Arts, and in the Arts:

"The audience for the live performing arts and visitors to museums have above-average income, educational and social status, in the UK and other Western countries... The rich benefit more from these subsidies than the poor: this factor strengthens the political support for such subsidies, but weakens the social case. Those who finance the subsidies through taxes are likely to be different from and poorer than those who benefit from the subsidies"

--- Should the Taxpayer Support the Arts? / DAVID SAWERS (1993)

In other words, Arts subsidies are really the poor subsidising the middle class.

In summary, there are good questions to ask about GBTB, like whether its maintenance costs are justified (apparently it will cost as much each year to maintain as it cost to buy all the plants). Leow's questions, however, aren't the right ones.

Disclaimer: I haven't yet visited Gardens by the Bay

Comments on the original article:

octopi: Yes, there may be something neo-colonial about all that labelling. But isn’t a graveyard also about labelling dead people? Isn’t claiming descendency to prominent people also about power relations, and also about classifying people? Calling yourself Teochew or Hokkien or Cantonese is totally removed from racial categories? A graveyard is not a museum of sorts? Bukit Brown was not cleared jungle land? Conquest of nature takes place across all cultures and people with varying degrees...

we think about the white man as the colonial power. In Singapore, there are four colonial powers: “India” was the first colonial power when we had the Hindu Kingdoms. Remember that the name Singapore derives from Sanskrit. The Arabs were also colonial powers. Zheng He was a coloniser, and only lastly, we had the white man. Chinese people in Singapore usually forget that they are also colonisers...

the idea that we needed colonialism to teach us how to subjugate nature, stick labels on things and build big ugly objects is not quite right. We already had all these tendencies. Chinese people don’t need to be taught that"

Strangely, yawningbread's comment: "my gentle advice :) Stop here. You’re perhaps digging a deeper hole for yourself."

There is hegemony, and there is the hegemony of hegemony...

Anon q242: This is a very insightful piece by Joanne Leow that reveals the hegemonic artificality or I would say the artificality of neo-liberal and neo-colonial hegemony in Singapore.

[Ed: GAH!]
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