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Desmond Lim
Monday, Aug 11, 2014

Singapore

Take a look at Singapore, then and now

The Straits Times | Desmond Lim | Monday, Aug 11, 2014

SINGAPORE - I have a book that is very dear to me.

Each time I flip through its yellowed pages, I catch a whiff of the musty old teak cabinet where it has rested for decades. Called The Best Of Times, it contains old press photos shot between 1940 and 1980 by photographers of The Straits Times and the now-defunct New Nation. It belongs to my dad, and his initials in blue ink are scrawled inside the cover, dated March 21, 1980.

At first glance, it does not look like much. The glossy but creased black cover has a run-of-the-mill photo of Singapore's financial district in the 1970s. But open it up and Singapore's history leaps out from its 220 pages. The images tell stories of lives lived, tragedies suffered, victories won.

As a child, I spent hours poring over photos of local street life. The smiling malt candy seller, steely-eyed samsui woman and leathery-skinned fisherman were people I had never met, but felt I knew intimately. I remember chuckling at the photo of a boy relieving himself during a National Day march past, and grimacing at the gritty images of the charred victims of the 1978 Spyros tanker explosion. I peeked through my fingers at the Disaster and Crime section like a child watching a horror movie - afraid to look but wanting to see.

The black-and-white images stuck with me long after the book was closed and, in subtle ways, nudged me into my current career as a photojournalist.

Old photos feed our love for nostalgia. When friends post them on social media, we "like" them, we comment on them, we share them, and then slap filters on our current family shots to give them the same washed-out vintage feel.

But it is also the past which helps us make sense of the present. The photos in this National Day Special were chosen for that very reason.

The old shot - seen on page 14 - of Kampong Loyang, a ramshackle collection of attap huts in the early 1980s, reminds us how simple life can be, and how far we have come. Despite the gleaming glass and concrete buildings that have sprung up in their place, that "gotong royong (Malay for community spirit)" that made friends of neighbours whatever their colour or creed remains the glue that holds modern day Singapore together.

In a 1955 image, a staggering police detective, his head and torso stained black with burning petrol, became an indelible reminder of the importance of peace. He lost his life during the Hock Lee bus riots.

The photographers, with their pictures in my father's book, taught me more about my home country than any social studies class, and inspired me to continue cataloguing Singapore's story.

Some day, I hope, the then-and-now pictures on the pages of this special will do the same for another wide-eyed child.

deslim@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Aug 9, 2014.
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