Mapping borders


Mapping Singapore: 'Inside Outside' by Charles Lim (2005)


In dealing with boundaries, Charles Lim begins at Singapore’s costal line. Indeed the sea is clearly important to the island state, whose earlier name was Temasek (Sea Town). The sea has been a potent source of inspiration for myths, folklore and imaginary inventions, from Sang Nila Utama’s serendipitous discovery of Singapura to the much more recent creation of the Merlion, a sea-creature that’s gone on to become a national icon. Inside Outside is essentially a collection of images of sea markers, framed into pairs. One shot captured from within Singapore’s borders and the other taken from the outside, looking in. Simultaneously unified and yet segregated. An echo of the fact that Singapore is made up of the union of 63 individual islands.

The momentous occasion that defined our shores was the founding of modern Singapore as a trading port of the East India Company by 1819, which eventually led to the British obtaining full sovereignty over the island in 1824, and becoming a British Straits Settlement in 1826. Suddenly our national boundaries seemed to stretch towards Europe, and our reach was greatly expanded as a crown colony of the Commonwealth. This was Singapore’s first union, and inhabitants of that time firmly believed in the fortitude of the British Empire. However in 1942, the very boundaries that were assumed protected and cradled within, fell to the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. And after three years of occupation, the British repossessed Singapore once more. But ideals were now changed, and Singapore placed its faith in new borders.



Water markers as physical borders

In between the frames of these paired photographs, there are apparently spaces and distances that disrupt the view in totality, but also attempt to align their arrangements to the contours of geographical Singapore. In considering our geographical shape, let us also study our geographical location. Relatively near the equator, Singapore is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to the north, and from Indonesia’s Riau Islands by the Singapore Straits to the south. Despite the relative proximity, I am reminded of the difficult relationships Singapore has had with both countries, more so with Malaysia. Singapore’s ties with Malaysia while diplomatic, have not always been civil, and at the core of the tension is the differentiation of our boundaries.

But this was not always the case, we were once one country undivided despite the river motes that travelled between us. There was no need for passports, Singapore declared independence from the British and joined with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to form the new Federation of Malaysia, following the 1962 Merger Referendum. But differences soon surfaced, and the union was not to be, like vengeful divorcees, Singapore and Malaysia fought and bickered over everything they once shared. One such things was the ownership of Pedra Branca, just another off-shore island, that had to be refereed by the International Court of Justice in 2008. But in matters of land, there is a vested interest pertaining to the emotions of national pride. Or perhaps was this an effort of redemption by Singapore to make up for the sale of Christmas Island in 1957, transferring its sovereignty to Australia. Which begs the question, when did Singapore realise the value of her own land?


The official map of Singapore issued by the Port Authority of Singapore (PSA)

Accompanying the artwork itself is the official geographical map of Singapore issued by the Port Authority of Singapore (PSA). Particularly significant, given the port is the portal of transmission between boundaries. There is a rhythm in its task of regulating imports and exports into and out of Singapore that resonates with ‘Inside Outside’. PSA controls all seaports in Singapore, which still contribute to a large part of the local economy. The role of the port in Singapore has always had its place in local history, with a port installed, early Singapore brought to it shores groups of migrants mainly from India, China and the Malay Archipelago, the exchange of regional and Western goods and new knowledge. Christian missionaries came and set up schools, many of which are now some of Singapore’s oldest and most esteemed schools, our education system and judiciary systems are evidence of the significance of the influence of our ever-changing borders.


Looking back to the display of the Singapore map. It can’t get more official than this. Then we realise that the map itself has in fact been carefully cut up and separated into two display frames. One map shows the surrounding borders of the map with labels, legends and a scale measurement, complete with a large hole in the middle, while the contents of this missing space are displayed in the frame next to it. It is the geographical shape of contemporary Singapore.  This specimen is particularly revealing when one studies the contours of Singapore closely, lines of nature are awkwardly met with rigid and geometrical lines. It is clear where the reclaimed areas are in Singapore, and that in itself describes the constantly changing physical boundaries of Singapore.

An instant reminder of Marine Parade in the 1970s. The first housing estate to be built on reclaimed land. It was understood that Singaporeans at that time were apprehensive about living on artificial land, and it was not a popular idea. But this notion has since been revised, as Marine Parade is now one of the most expensive HDB estates in Singapore, despite being an old estate itself. This shift in mentality could easily be translated into boundaries; people once limited themselves to a line they would not cross. But as Charles Lim defines in his artist statement,

“Because these spatial constraints are so much part of their lives, Singaporeans have become very conscious of boundaries and distinctions; perhaps too much so.”

This mirrors a common belief that Singaporeans are too overtly pragmatic. Every aspect of the Singaporean lifestyle is embedded with alignments and molds that one has to abide to or fit into. While this has created an efficient way to classify different genres of society, it has also unfortunately, made divisions among Singaporeans evident, ranging from distinctions in race, gender, class and mentality. Even out of our special territories, we live in borders constructed by society that affect the way we make decisions. It is not difficult to realize how we are constrained though our interactions and behaviour.

In following Lim’s conversation about the issue of land scarcity in Singapore, as quoted,

“To deal with this shortage of space, it (Singapore) constructs its living and working spaces high above ground and more recently, even below ground.”

Impossible not to consider the Housing Development Board (HDB) in Singapore. It’s common sight for urban settings to develop vertical cities for work, but for homes in the suburbs? When the HDB was first set up, it was tasked to solve the issue of over-crowding and to provide affordable and available homes for all Singaporeans, however this initiative has also been said to be the cause for the “loss of the Kampong sprit”. Kampong communities were home to many Singaporeans in the 1940s up to the 1960s, places of mainly agricultural and farming activities. But most of all Singaporeans lived together amongst each other, where no doors were ever shut. A characteristic that no amount of public campaigns for integration can possibly realistically and genuinely achieve.  There is a sense of melancholy as we realise that while 80% of the population inhabit a singular space of a HDB flat, we remain divided in our actuality.

The HDB flats (to follow a British term) have now become an iconic symbol for our authoritarian mode of government, as Singaporeans are sometimes described as digits to be mobilised according to the society’s will. We are used to living in small and strict spaces, but I suspect that in the above quote Lim is really questioning whether this typical Singaporean space has an effect on the average Singaporean. This is not a difficult notion to consider, after all we are all users of space, we interact with spaces for work and leisure, and what’s not to say that these dimensions are manipulating us.

Although originally created seven years ago, Inside Outside in name and construct now seems to chime with issues arising from Singapore’s liberal migration policies, designed to solve the problem of a declining and aging population. Although in place for over a decade, the effects of this have become apparent in recent years. Singapore’s population stands at a dense estimate of 5.2 million of whom 3 million are Singapore citizens, including those whom have gained residency in recent years.

As the title suggests Singapore is a country consisting of a population who are arguably both ‘Insiders’ and ‘Outsiders’. Although these terms are as arbitrary and significant as the way a buoy in the sea looks when photographed from one direction, and then another. It’s understood that Singapore has always been a place for migrants to come.

Inside Outside denotes several nuances and possibilities for interpretation, but at the heart of the work is the idea of spatial borders and its implications for Singapore. Like the water markers out at sea, is it possible that we ourselves have forged these boundaries on our own? Or perhaps like the constructed grids on the map, are there divisions in the society that are unnoticed or invisible? In matters of the constriction or the expansion of space, Singapore may perhaps never fully be able to take responsibility for the way this effects society.