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PERSONAL ESSAY

Gonaranao B. Musor

The Happy Bridge

“Bridges shape and explain much of history: from bridges like this

closing a narrow divide making it easier for the same community to get around; to long bridges across chasms created by geography; to the symbolic ones linking nations and the one connecting our present to

our past and both to the future. These are bridges of memory and heart,

of commitment and aspiration; They endure longer than physical bridges

if we but wish them to. It depends only on how strongly we want to keep

those connections.” 

—Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. 

Honestly, it was my last choice.


I was working on my transfer from Cairo in 2008 and I really wanted a Southeast Asian post for the geographical proximity and cultural familiarity. As a Muslim who grew up in the urban jungles of Manila, I’ve always fancied living in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. Bangkok would also surely be expat-friendly. Grudgingly, I put Singapore last as I was required to indicate four choices in the order of preference. 


Fast-forward to November 2016, I found myself in Singapore after a two-year stint in Doha, Qatar. I crossed the causeway twice to visit Singapore during my Kuala Lumpur posting (yes, I got my first choice after Cairo) and the modern, clean, and orderly city certainly impressed me. But then, Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world. With my meagre allowances (by international standards) as a government employee, living in Singapore is not practical.


However, life in the foreign service is unpredictable. You never really know where the exigencies of the service will take you and it took me to Singapore. 


In my more than 15 years as a diplomat that has taken me already to 4 countries, who would have thought that Singapore would be my longest posting so far—4 years and counting. But Singapore would always be memorable beyond the reason for my length of stay there.


Diplomats are often associated by ordinary Filipinos with passports and visas. But at the very heart of diplomacy is establishing connections. Ever since diplomats were “invented” at the height of the great civilizations in the Middle East, China and India, they were sent as envoys to negotiate peace treaties and forge alliances.


After many years of practicing what may be considered as the “second oldest profession,” diplomacy has branched out into so many forms including the use of soft power. Soft power is a more positive and persuasive approach to international relations typically involving the use of culture, among others. Hence, the term “cultural diplomacy.”


While social media assures us of instant yet oftentimes fleeting connections, cultural diplomacy with its “slow and steady” approach focuses on building long-term relationships.


As a diplomat tasked with fostering relations between the Philippines and Singapore using culture as a tool, I’ve had the daunting yet very fulfilling challenge of achieving that in various mediums (i.e., visual arts, literature, music/performing arts, cuisine, film and textiles) in 2019 as part of the year-long celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Philippines-Singapore relations.


If diplomacy is all about establishing connections, there was one particular metal bridge in Robertson Quay that did more than just physically connect two points across the Singapore River.


The Alkaff Bridge had a unique shape, like a tongkang or the small boat that used to ply the Singapore River. But it wasn’t your ordinary bridge. With 55 hues and shades from 900 litres of paint, it became an unusual canvas for a Filipina artist, Pacita Abad, who was already on the last vestiges of her life fighting lung cancer. This so-called art bridge became Abad’s gift to the people of Singapore.


Due to the passage of time since it was painted in 2004 and exposure to the elements, the sustainability and feasibility of restoring Abad’s artwork became a problem.


But thank God for symbolisms in diplomacy! It would have been a travesty to let such a public art go to waste at a time when the Philippines and Singapore celebrate a milestone in their relations—50 years. 


Abad’s artwork and the Alkaff Bridge together became a symbol of the friendship between the Philippines and Singapore, and it mobilized the two countries and the private sector to work together and raise funds to save the painting.


But more than restoring it to its former glory, bringing the significance of the bridge and the art to the consciousness of every Filipino and Singaporean made it even more worthwhile. The attention of passers-by, I’m sure, were captured by the explosion of colors eliciting a happy feeling. That’s why Secretary Locsin called it a “happy bridge.” But not everybody knows about the Philippines-Singapore connection behind the bridge.


Many people then took ownership in saving the artwork. It wasn’t just Abad’s painting anymore. It wasn’t just some ordinary bridge anymore.  


It transcended from simply being a physical to a metaphorical bridge that connected two peoples, two countries.


It also connected me to a country that was initially my last choice. Now I have one more reason to visit Singapore—checking up on the bridge and Abad’s art.


Having established all those connections at so many levels, I guess I can say I was able to do my job.

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