Culture. It’s a word that keeps popping up everywhere. But what does it mean, and why is it important? Our modern understanding of the word has its roots in classical Latin, meaning to cultivate land. As early as 45BCE, it was used to refer to the development of soul and mind. Today our understanding of the term has been refined to these dual meanings: a unique identity formed through common ethnic, cultural and national characteristics; and the fostering of an emancipated sense of self. While the first definition may seem to apply in the most common applications of “culture”, it is also vital to remember that we form and preserve this identity with a view to discover the best in ourselves.
One of the most effective ways to do this is by renewing our understanding of the things we take for granted. The Enigma of Departure travels to the beating heart of change, unearthing a history and geography that points to the ties that bind people to places. The June closure of the KTM Tanjong Pagar Railway Station elicited a surge of nostalgia from citizens and visitors, and it is not without a curious symmetry that impending farewell to the station took many on new journeys. Many made the trek to say goodbye to KTM Tanjong Pagar itself, and yet others were taken back to memories of childhood train-rides, while younger Singaporeans were given the occasion to indulge their imagination of a romantic past.
This issue of BiblioAsia offers you such passages to “Culture, Then and Now”. We examine the trappings and legacy of The Indian Business Communities in Colonial Singapore and The Civilising Mission and Mui Tsai in British Malaya, research analyses which hint at the persistent influence of conventions and practices which one might have assumed to be, as they say, history.
In other parts of Southeast Asia as well, culture informs even contemporary interactions. A study of the challenges faced by Buddhists in Indonesia is discussed in Negotiating the Cultural and the Religious. And as Part 2 of our Malayan Cookery Books series can attest to, even the familiar, homely world of the edible does not go unscathed by prominent cultural shifts. The “Mems” Own Cookery Book, a popular volume for the immigrant homemaker from the West, is interesting both as an object in its own right and as a documentation of how a generation of uprooted young wives coped with their new, somewhat unexpected life in Malaya in the roaring twenties.
All in all, due to the grand hustle and bustle of our modern lives, it’s easy to forget what Singapore was before buildings and the masses of people that fill them dominated what springs to mind when we even think of the word “Singapore”. Our news articles offer some insight into the natural world that surrounds us every day, but which has become more and more unfamiliar due to the changing nature of the landscape. It seems pertinent to draw a parallel between nature and culture here, as both are sustained and nurtured by constant dialogue, and through being “lived in”.
A work in progress then, much like tilling the soil.
Ms Ngian Lek Choh
Director, National Library