APRIL 21 — A building in Paris burned down and the whole world seems to be sad.
On one hand, it seems like an over-reaction. No one died, the building was old (700 years old), the fire was contained to the one building.
But, of course, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is not any building: It is a defining symbol of the city of Paris (along with the much newer Eiffel Tower), an ancient bastion of the Catholic faith in Europe, the setting of novels, an inspiration for artists and poets.
It was also extremely beautiful, housing priceless works of art — so perhaps the outpouring of grief and shock over a pile old bricks has some justification.
But seeing the scale of the global response to the fire did make me wonder.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged by wealthy individuals and companies for the building’s restoration — but is this really proportionate?
There are thousands, if not millions, suffering in Syria. In Myanmar, an entire community is close to being extirpated, the nation of Libya has basically collapsed but we haven’t really seen the same sort of outpouring of grief — internationally at least.
No Louis Vuitton billionaire is offering millions for South Sudan.
It is complicated and to an extent I suppose it’s a matter of symbols. Notre-Dame evokes such sympathy because it’s a symbol for France and for Paris.
Humans respond to symbols. sometimes a single photograph moves people — more than the facts and news of a major event.
But who chooses the symbols? Western media and its lens have too much control in terms of defining global symbols.
And as a nation, what are our symbols? Is there any single monument we would cry over, that we would donate millions to.
For me, I will cry over demise of the coffee shop under my block but for a serious discussion, I would say it would be the National Gallery or The Fullerton. Both beautiful and iconic for the skyline.
Or maybe our symbols are different. Singapore is an Asian boom town, a trading post; our identity is in our Singlish, in the food which persists even as physical buildings are replaced by developers or planners.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.