15 June 2010

Old National Library Revisited (2)

Old National Library, circa 1970s

Sad remnants of the old National Library today - 2 red pillars and some fencing

I have blogged about the old National Library here and there.

I am really no authority on the National Library but somehow, I do get enquiries from research students on the subject every now and then. Reproduced below is one such email interview late last month:

1. What was the issue at stake for the public in the demolition of the old National library?

The public could be divided into 3 main groups as described below. What issue was at stake depends on which group the person belonged to:

a. Those who were all for the demolition of the old National Library (NL). They felt that the National Library (NL) stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the modern architecture of the SMU and the neo-classical and elegant National Museum. Built in 1960, they felt that it was not that old and not worthy of preservation. There was also nothing very special about the architecture of a basically red-brick building. Of course, being sited on very expensive land in the city made the reason to have it demolished even stronger. The opportunity cost for retaining the old NL would be very high. LTA obviously fell into this group.

b. Those who were indifferent about the fate of the NL. This group was likely to be the very young who never or seldom visited the old NL or who did not grow up in Singapore. They have no emotional attachment to the old NL. If they remembered it at all, it was just an old red-brick building standing besides a very busy thoroughfare. They did not care whether it was preserved or not - they had nothing to lose if it were to go, neither did they have anything to gain if it were to be preserved.

c. Those who were dead against the demolition of the old NL. This group grew up with the old NL. They visited it often when they were young, before the advent of the Internet completely changed the way traditional research was done. They spent a lot of time in the old NL, i.e. the children and adult sections on the lower level and the air-conditioned reference section on the upper level. They had such fond memories of the old NL that they were emotionally attached to it. This group was also the most vocal - in the print media, on-line forums, blogs and lately, on facebook. Needless to say, I belong to this group.

2. How did the community react to these issues?

The group against the old NL's demolition was vocal and articulated their views passionately. They wrote many letters to the press on why the old NL should be preserved and also suggested alternate uses for this red-brick building. The following passage titled 'Public Dissent' is quoted from this Wikipedia link:
"From March to April 1999, there arose a huge groundswell of public dissent in the media over the National Library building's fate, as well as the drastic physical alterations of its environs. A number of featured columns by journalists touched on gradually disappearing heritage landmarks, as well as shared memories of Singaporeans.

On 24 January 2000, after SMU chaired a technical workshop to obtain feedback on three alternative proposals, a well-known architect named Tay Kheng Soon held a press conference at The Substation to unveil his unofficial SMU masterplan. URA was invited to the presentation but did not show up. His proposal entailed re-routing the tunnel in order to save the National Library building. A week later, Tay wrote to the Prime Minister's Office regarding his proposal which was referred to the MND. Many members of the public wrote in publicly either in support of Tay's plans or argue for heritage conservation in general. A few articles and letters highlighted that the adamant official response to public dissent ran counter to the spirit of the Government's S21 Vision, which expressed a desire to foster civic participation and active citizenry."

3. Could you describe the process/actions the government/stakeholders had taken to address the issues?

The experience or perception of the public is that if the authorities have the intent to carry out a plan or action, a public outcry seldom changes the final outcome. A case in point is the two IRs. The government/stakeholders did not seem to have taken much action in the old NL case except to say that the public feedback had been given due consideration but still, demolition was in the final analysis, the better option. Again quoting from the same Wikipedia link:
"On 7 March 2000, the Minister for National Development, Mah Bow Tan, announced in Parliament that the National Library building would have to go. According to Mah, the authorities had assessed Tay's plans but concluded that the URA's plan was a better proposal for preserving the Civic District's ambience and being more people-friendly. With no choice, the public and activists accepted the final decision to demolish their beloved Library and the debates slowly frizzled off."

4. Have the above actions helped to address the issues?

No. The public experience or perception is still the same. And so will be the likely outcomes for any future issues.

5. What do you think could have been done better?

In my opinion, it is not matter of what could have been done better but rather, would they want to do it or not?

6. Looking back, how do you feel now?

More angry than sad at first. But now, more sad than angry.


Anonymous said...


Is there a reason why the twin red pillars and some fencing have not been demolished?

Icemoon said...

Done on purpose I think. I remember seeing a heritage marker somewhere.

Victor said...

Anonymous, I think the authority would like to "give you enough milk to stop you from crying". Or maybe by leaving the remnants there, they save some costs in demolition work?

Frankly speaking, I would prefer that they remove everything. It is such an eyesore.

Icemoon - Of course it is done on purpose. You think they forgot? :p

Icemoon said...

I'm of the opinion they should not remove everything. Look at the old school gate remnant at Bras Basah (belonging to RGS?). Many years down the road, the new generation will appreciate that was our national library.

Andy Young* said...

A library in Singapore is like most things commercial Victor - replicated and distributed.

26 of them everywhere? Nothing like the great old days huh?

Actually my concern are the books available on the shelves...

Andy Young* said...

Sorry, "concern is".

Lam Chun See said...

Actually the fence continues all the way to the National Museum and since the latter retained the fence, I guess they decided to keep part of this fence as well.

DK said...

Hi Victor

I don't remember anyone who were all for the demolition of the old National Library. If there is, then I guess it is just a very very small group of people.

Most people falls under the don't care of against category. I'm one of those that is under the against category.