In Asia’s relentless march towards economic prosperity and its bid to catch up with the developing world, many fundamental values important for evolution of the human condition and wellbeing are often cast by the wayside. This includes (amongst others) the arts, preservation of natural capital (the world’s stock of natural assets, which makes life possible), culture and heritage. Asian parents – pushier than their western counterparts – besiege their children to eschew the liberal arts and social sciences in favour of the hard sciences. Assigning monetary value to the former is difficult but not impossible. Their exclusion from the gross domestic product in measuring economic development is a serious shortcoming. In this article, my focus is on just one small part of this broad spectrum of fundamental values – maritime heritage. It is a subject I am familiar with, given my background in the maritime space, and the fact that I live in Singapore – a modern bustling port city that grew from a sleepy fishing village when the British came here and claimed it as a colony some 200 years ago. While our journey of economic progress is often envied by others, our record on retaining our culture and heritage has been wanting.
The ideology and relevance of heritage in the search and articulation of identity is not new. The noted eighteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was quoted to have said “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. In the case of Singapore, it explains the genesis of our multicultural past and forms the cornerstone of a multiracial identity which engenders social responsibility, inclusiveness and a common sense of place. Weaving our maritime heritage into other cultural and economic aspects of our society enables us to resonate with our past and gives us a compass for moving forward as a community.
One would have expected that with maritime trade so firmly entrenched in Singapore’s economic lifeblood from ancient times until today – Singapore remains the world’s busiest port when measured by shipping tonnage – that some sense of maritime or seafaring ethos would become embedded into our cultural DNA. Sadly, this is not the case. While the body of knowledge and public policy involving heritage and conservation on terra firma is generally healthy, thanks to agencies such as the Singapore National Heritage Board, the state of its maritime cultural landscape is in desperate need of a makeover.
Our maritime heritage warrants effective management at a national level. Industry laments young people aren’t interested to come into the maritime workforce which is in dire need of manpower. To be sure this isn’t the kind of cushy industry typical Singaporeans yearn to be in, but the lack of strategic overview and public policy surrounding the maritime cultural landscape certainly does not help. This lack of a maritime identity in the Singaporean cultural psyche is a stumbling block to its stated goal of becoming an international maritime centre.
Witness the other end of the spectrum, where Scandinavians (Norwegians & Danes in particular) have a clearly engendered maritime cultural identity rooted in their Viking past, which they proudly articulate. That these great seafaring nations can maintain a dominant position in global shipping up to today is due in no small measure to the link with their maritime cultural heritage.
Singapore’s predicament of getting young people into the maritime workforce can be neatly summarised in the following quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea”.
YP Loke | GMBA- Singapore
+65 9736 1819
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