Singapore’s public transport has been praised time and time again for its efficiency and ease of use. It’s something that many of us take for granted until we head overseas and find ourselves lamenting over infrequent buses, delayed trains, and limited station stops.
However, Singapore’s public transport systems didn’t always consist of the 245.3km of slick rail networks and over 5,000 convenient bus stops that we know today.
Back in the first half of the 20th century, fragmentation fraught Singapore’s public transport system, with numerous (and sometimes unlicensed!) private companies controlling their own territories and setting their own routes, regulations, timetables and fares. But we have come a long way since then, with all our travels chalking up to an average of 3.4 million daily bus rides and 2.7 million daily MRT commutes in 2022.
Seeing how we owe so many of our day-to-day commutes and conveniences to Singapore’s public transport systems, we decided to dive deep into the infrastructure’s heritage to consider how intrinsic it is to the country’s past, present, and future.
Tracing our tracks
Living Legacies III: One For The Road is Plural Art Mag’s latest digital collaboration with the National Heritage Board for Singapore Heritage Fest 2023, in which we explore the intersection of Singapore’s history, heritage and contemporary visual arts. This year, we’re shining the spotlight on how local contemporary artists consider Singapore’s public transport system alongside the issues of national development, travel, class, mobility, and accessibility.
Three artists—Lavender Chang, Yeo Tze Yang, and Ezzam Rahman—have joined us to bring those themes to life with a combination of experiential artworks, hands-on workshops, online engagements, and panel discussions.
Documenting time and travels
For this edition of Living Legacies, visual artist Lavender Chang expands on her photography series Floating Rays of a Wanderer by inviting members of the public to join her for an artist talk on a rare decommissioned bus at APSN Chaoyang School.
Here, the artist will speak about how she captured her images from a public bus using long-exposure photography. This technique allowed her to compress scenes from her travels into a single poetic frame filled with soft luminescent streaks, dark portal-like roads, and ghostly impressions of familiar buildings—effectively becoming ethereal composite images that record journeys across Singapore.
Chang will also share fun facts about the neighbourhood, where she created some of her works, while encouraging participants to pay attention to their surroundings and consider their relationship with time, travel, and memory. Chang’s workshop is bound to be a unique, inspiring experience that will open your eyes to how you might turn your journeys on public transport into contemplative, art-making moments.
To sign up for the tour, and find out more about the programme, click here.
Public transport and class consciousness
With rapidly rising costs of Certificates of Entitlement (COE)—documents that allow individuals the right to own and use a car in Singapore—car ownership in Singapore has swiftly become a marker of socio-economic class and wealth. Notwithstanding this, concerns about the environment have driven many Singaporeans to reconsider their needs for private cars
These sentiments of exclusivity, accessibility, classism and sustainability feed into the series One Day, I Hope I Don’t Need To Take The MRT Anymore by Yeo Tze Yang. His thick, expressive brushstrokes boldly depict commuters on public transport going about their daily lives, as they wait on MRT platforms, gaze out windows on double-decker buses, and have time pass them by on their way to their destinations.
Yeo’s works have become collectors’ favourites in recent years with their sharp and incisive observations about Singapore and regional societies. His portrayals of everyday scenes are not only sensitively rendered, but full of nuance and hidden Easter eggs that seem to speak directly to the Southeast Asian soul. He’s exhibited extensively around the region and perhaps most excitingly at the recently-concluded Art Basel Hong Kong.
If this has piqued your interest in how public transport is intertwined with daily life, then Yeo’s art-making workshop is just for you. You’re invited to consider your personal memories and histories with public transport as Yeo guides you to create an artwork based on your experiences.
To sign up for the tour and find out more, click here.
Between inclusivity and access
Bringing to life what it means to navigate public transport as someone with reduced mobility is multidisciplinary artist Ezzam Rahman. In One For The Road, Rahman draws on his own experiences as a caregiver for his ageing mother, who has lost 70% of her mobility after undergoing a major operation. As someone who does not own a vehicle, Rahman has to constantly rely on public transportation to get his mother around.
These lived experiences culminate in a performance the little differences you made for me, where Rahman pushes a wheelchair while navigating the MRT. This prompts us to consider the extent to which public transportation facilities are functional for the disabled, and what it means to provide care to the aged. It also highlights the importance of inclusive access in public transportation systems.
You can get a glimpse of Rahman’s enlightening work online on our microsite. This will be accompanied by a series of prompts for you to consider on your next train commute, ranging from noting directional signs for the wheelchair-bound, and putting yourself in the artist’s shoes by mirroring the route he took in his performance.
While public transport is intrinsic to the lives of many Singaporeans, it clearly has various meanings to different members and classes of society. Some view the system as a means of convenience and inspiration, while others navigate it with difficulty and perceive it as a challenge to overcome.
Living Legacies III: One For The Road strives to showcase these nuanced perceptions and invites you to engage with these manifold realities with a variety of online and offline activities.
Mark your calendars as we will also be running a panel discussion for all three artists, where they will discuss their relationships with public transport. Details for signing up can be found here.
And if you can’t join us for our in-person artist workshops, don’t worry, as our microsite shares more about the three practitioners and includes prompts that will encourage you to engage with their artworks in depth. This means that you can take part from home, or even read more about this year’s project on your next commute!
This article is produced in collaboration with the National Heritage Board for Singapore HeritageFest 2023. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.
Feature image: Singapore Stock Photos on Unsplash