Imagine you’re a tourist in Singapore, taking a ride atop a Hippo tour bus when the guide announces while you drive past, And here we have the Padang, a field dating back to colonial times. And it’s all good and you don’t pay much attention to it besides noting that it’s a big flat expanse of manicured lawn.
Well, as with most things, there’s a story behind this that’s not at all random but rather interesting.
It all starts more than five hundred years ago in the fabled city of Isfahan, just as it was emerging as the center of Iran’s first Shi’ite dynasty. Shah Abbas the First ordered his men to clear a large field, a maidan in Persian, four hundred and forty by hundred and sixty yards. The task took more than thirty years, but when it was done, it was a magnificent sight. It was surrounded by a canal, rows of neatly planted trees, shops and mosques, with the Shah’s palace presiding over the space.
The maidan was the site of various imperial spectacles like games of polo, military parades and fireworks, and whosoever beheld it in its entirety could not help but feel overawed by the immensity of the Shah’s power.
This feature of Islamic architecture was adopted by the British in Calcutta, following the notorious incident of the Black Hole. The construction of a maidan was imperative for two reasons: first, to clear the line of sight from the British redoubt to the banks of the river Hooghly, creating an open area where potential attackers could not hide. The second reason was of course to demonstrate British order and progress to all men. Neo-classical government buildings stood on the edges, their stolid edifices recalling eternity.
In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore, events in Calcutta were very much on his mind. Starting from the hilltop at Fort Canning, all the way down to the waterfront (a much shorter distance then than it is today), a long strip of land was cleared, ending in an open, manicured square.
Between this maidan, now called a padang, and the defensive arrangements atop the hill was another symbol of the colonialists’ power to order, the old botanic gardens. The padang was used both for military drills and for sport, displaying both bellicose and benevolent aspects of the colonial rulers to the natives.
As an empty field, the maidan/ padang is a blank slate on which rulers can telegraph whatever message they want to. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, the British wanted to demonstrate their sympathies with the local Malay sultans, whose support was crucial to their mining enterprise in that land.
And so, while on one end of the padang they constructed Tudor and neo-classical buildings, on the other, they constructed Indo-Islamic buildings (which ironically had nothing to do with Malay architecture, but that’s another story).
Today, tour buses don’t deign to stop at the padangs. Now, the imperial spectacles are the skyscrapers: the Petronas Towers or Marina Bay Sands. Horizontal vastness has been replaced in our imaginations by a vertical one.
We’ve conquered the earth, and now we must conquer the skies.