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Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004

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Modernity and Its Discontents
Earnest commitment breathes freshness into postmodernism

By Ng Wei Chian

Alternative (Post)Modernity: An Asian Perspective
William Lim
Select Books (2003) / 183 pages / SGD 34.00

Anyone looking at the title of William Limís most recent publication, Alternative (Post)Modernity: An Asian Perspective, and groaning inwardly at the promise of more obscure mumbo-jumbo and academic name-dropping, will be pleased to find that both are mercifully absent. While talk of post-modernity might strike some as reeking of yesterdayís fish, Limís earnest commitment to his arguments gives them a tinge of freshness that leaves one concluding that this is the work of a man who has whole-heartedly embraced the tenets of post-modernism while seeking its practical application in his architectural practice and musings on the subject.

This slim volume culls together a selection of Limís conference speeches, forum presentations, lectures and essays over the last two years. The thread that binds this collection of pieces is reflected in the title, where Lim uses the term Ďalternative post(modernity)í to describe the state of affairs prevailing in developing countries, with a special focus on the South-East Asian region. Taking cities such as Bangkok, Manila and Singapore as examples, Lim sees them as prime crucibles for this particular brand of post-modernity, for these cities themselves staunchly defy categorisations of what is modern/post-modern. At times one and then the other, the wonder of such places for Lim lies in their liminality and their potential as sites of explosive, novel change.

Taking the concept of modernity as his point of departure, Lim highlights what he feels is its irrelevance to contemporary South-East Asian societies while acknowledging the vice-like, almost insidious grip it still wields over policy-makers and urban planners in the region. Modernity here is understood as a preoccupation with a linear progression of history, with objects and events always moving forward in time, as well a focus on individual rights, freedom, and democracy. The flip-side of this, however, which Lim takes great pains to emphasise, has been a corresponding disregard for history and alternative approaches to social organization.

Modernism has been widely acknowledged elsewhere as the driving force for colonialism, propelled by a faith in its moral rectitude and universal applicability. With virtually the whole of the South-East Asian region under discussion in the book having come under the heavy hand of colonialism (with the exception of Thailand, though it was not spared the machinations of the French and British colonial powers), Lim still sees the scars on the faces of societies that cast off the colonial yoke decades ago. In these countriesí mad rush toward economic progress, Lim perceives states that are politically free but psychologically shackled. The skyscrapers and monumental building projects that are now so much a part of South-East Asian cities are manifestations of an inferiority complex left over from the colonial era, whereby these former vassal states now feel compelled to adopt a degree of exhibitionism to prove to the international community that they have well and truly arrived. The powerful modernist streak inherent in these shows of wealth and progress are deemed by Lim to be merely further evidence of the hold colonialism still exerts over these states.

What redeems these cities from being hollow show-pieces of financial status, however, are the interstices where modernity and its universalising structures collide with the local and the particular. Lim finds charm in areas where the development process has either not completely taken root or has grown to encompass seemingly contradictory spaces and events without smothering their essence (examples for Lim are Khao San in Bangkok and Mohamed Sultan in Singapore). Key to all this is the preservation of local places and modes of living, but here Lim is exacting: not for him the easy solution of heritage sites and theme parks (Ďthemeparkismí in Limís words), a route urban planners have been wont to take when it comes to conservation (various places in Singapore spring easily to mind). The ossified nature of these places is such that history is deadened and relegated to a sphere separate from the everyday, reduced to little more than the status of curios. Sites where the fortuitous blending of the two has occurred are celebrated as sites of Ďalternative post(modernity)í, which, for Lim, are all too few and tend to fall prey to the whims of urban planners and the real-estate market.

The loss of history, then, is also mourned by Lim. The rich past of countries in South-East Asia was given short shrift by the colonialists, and the pace of development that prevails in South-East Asian cities threatens the survival of these histories and, in turn, the identities of the people that inhabit them. Architecture and space operate as sites of social memory, and the manner in which people navigate these sites, physically and psychologically, are an indispensable part of history that remains unspoken and unwritten but, most importantly, lived. This is where he takes special issue with the aspect of modernity that demands amnesia and forgetting. While a complete break with history was an exhilarating prospect at the advent of the modern era in the early twentieth century, the enthusiasm with which it has been carried out has resulted in the obliteration of cultures and ways of life regarded as other, irrational, unkempt and not in keeping with modernityís civilising project.

The preservation of history is both a civic and moral endeavour. Lim acknowledges that attempts at preservation have been made in South-East Asian cities, but the objects of these conservation projects are conventional, all-too-predictable targets of preservation: religious landmarks and national monuments, relics of the establishment. Lim calls for a greater sensitivity and awareness of the city as palimpsest, and not the grand narrative inscribed in large-scale civic buildings that are often deemed most worthy of preservation and maintenance. In doing so, he sets forth a formidable task for urban planners and architects alike, for such awareness that is required demands an intimate knowledge of the city beyond what is inscribed on maps, and sympathy for the marginalised and oppressed who eke out an existence away from public scrutiny. This is no job for the ivory-towered academic or theorist. Rather, it is a job for an individual who feels him/herself part of the city, and possesses a sense of responsibility towards the diverse sites that make up the city and those who populate it.

Responsibility and ethics are keywords for Lim, and his post-modernism, while appreciating the imperative for play and diversity, gives ethics a firm place among aesthetics. It is inextricably linked to justiceónamely social, spatial and economic justice. A post-modernism which finds its application solely in aesthetics and the play of surfaces is essentially empty of meaning. Limís post-modernism strives to create new meanings in a world where accelerated flows of information and commerce have led to many finding themselves on shaky moral ground. While some might find this reading of post-modernism antithetical to its basic precepts, Lim puts forth his proposal with no small amount of conviction. Hence the rise in NGO (non-government organization) activity, from the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle to the most recent WTO meeting in Cancķn, are signs of a swelling movement that is guided both by post-modernity and a strong sense of ethics. The holistic nature of Limís thought is evident in the care he gives not just to issues of urbanism, but also to matters political, cultural, social and environmental. Sustainability surfaces as a main concern in the latter half of the book, where Lim turns his attention to matters of population, consumption and environmental use and degradation. All these are seen as intertwined with urban development and ultimately with an ethics that is inclusive of all the above.

The only fault with the book lies in the repetitiveness of the material, as it was drawn from work and writings that were done close to each other in a relatively short period of time. Thus one might find oneself reading lines repeated verbatim in a few chapters, and then reiterated again a few more chapters ahead. Perhaps more could have been done to ensure that the speeches and lectures that were included were not too similar in content, and the scope of the inclusions could also have been widened to create a map of sorts to trace the development of Limís thought leading up to his formulation of post-modernity. That aside, the nature of the material presented in the book is such that it is a readable, accessible collection that sharply tackles issues at a global level with a sound regional perspective and, most importantly for local readers, gives them an opportunity to view Singapore, with its own peculiarities and commonalities in relation to South-East Asia, through the wider lens of urban and global development. Readers not necessarily familiar with theories close to Limís heart (namely Fredric Jamesonís and Jean-FranÁois Lyotardís readings of post-modernism, among others) might well find this book a useful platform from which to start their exploration of post-modernist thought. Those more conversant with the theorists and their writings will find its application to the local and regional context a valuable addition to the discourse on post-modernism and urbanism.

QLRS Vol. 3 No. 2 Jan 2004


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  Other Criticism in this Issue

A Dark Contemporary Eye
Neil Murphy reviews The Gunpowder Trail and Other Stories.

Slippery Disconnect
Alvin Pang reviews The Ocean of Ambition.

No Holiday From The Self
Leonard Ng reviews Losing Oneself in Remote Asia.

Related Links

Review of Postmodern Singapore

William Lim profile
External link to RMIT.

Another William Lim profile
External link.

Space of Indeterminacy
External link.

Alternative (Post)Modernity: An Asian Perspective
External link to Select Books.

Nolimits: Articulating William Lim
External link to Select Books.


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