When a nation is just 45 years old then some of the oddest pieces of real estate become national treasures. Singaporeans have been indulging in some heated debate about whether several existing wet markets should be preserved or demolished to make way for air conditioned supermarket type markets.
A wet market is an open air market where fresh produce, including vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and even livestock are sold. The floors are regularly hosed down with water. Hence the term 'wet market.'
The debate to turn the traditional markets into modern air conditioned centres is often couched in terms of progress and jobs. After all, the newer style of market fits in well with Singapore's ultra-modern image, the home of electronic road pricing and e-government. Arguments have also been made about family businesses losing their livelihood to 'Wal-Mart' style progress.
In 2004, Singapore sacrificed it old National Library building in the name of progress. That caused an outcry, rare in the city-state at the time. The dissent was unable to affect the outcome. The red brick national library building is no longer standing. Policy makers and urban planners won the day.
Fast forward to 2009 and the wet markets story has a similar plot – on the surface.
Dig deeper and there are two crucial differences. The land is not required for 'rezoning' by the state to make way for projects of 'national importance.' Secondly, the popular discontent seems to be louder in this instance. (A tad ironical as the National Library building is conceivably more important national heritage.)
The real issue at stake in the controversy is not the loss of jobs. At its heart, the matter is about Singapore's heritage and an attempt to define Singaporean history. Do we want the next generation of Singaporeans to have the 'wet market' experience or is it passé in ultra-chic Singapore?
History is preserved not only in museums but also in the streets
As such, the wet market controversy brings to light the conflict between modernity and tradition. What constitutes modern Singapore's heritage and how is that heritage protected? Of course, there is no definitive answer but some 'top down' protection of historic cultural traditions will help until a greater national consciousness develops a consensus answer.
As for the wet markets, maybe it is time the government designate a particular market as a protected site and ensure that it is not broken down to make way for progress. At the very least, we may give future students the chance to get out of school for a day under the pretext of visiting an important symbol of Singapore's history!
Wet markets: love 'em or hate 'em, they're an undeniably pungent part of Singapore's heritage. They're exactly as they sound – open-air markets that have perpetually wet floors for a variety of ice-melting, fish-cleaning, vegetable-washing reasons. They kind of smell, and they're not for everyone.
Alexis Ong, Time Out, Singapore Aug 2009