Why conservation is pragmatic

Nov 24 2011

Why conservation is pragmatic
by Philip Holden

Having taught and researched Singapore literature for years, I often find myself inadvertently drawn into discussing it. Last Sunday, my doctor told me that he'd been reading Robert Yeo's classic The Adventures of Holden Heng, written twenty-five years ago but just republished. I asked him what he liked about the book. The central character, perhaps, or the plot? Not really, he told me. What he liked was that the novel brought back to life places he'd known so well that have now disappeared.

In the last month, we have heard of two more parts of our contemporary landscape that are in danger of disappearing. The Rochor Centre flats and Bukit Brown Cemetery at first sight have little in common: A modern space for the living, and a much older space for the dead. Yet both are important parts of the lifeworlds of a significant group of Singaporeans, and both are making way for the demands of development, for more roads to cater for Singapore's ever-growing car population.

In both cases, planning decisions seem to have been made before a full process of consultation has started: Consultation has thus largely been an exercise in minimising the negative effects of a course of action already decided upon, rather than exploring alternatives through genuine dialogue.

The reasons advanced in favour of the removal of graves from a section of Bukit Brown and the demolition of the Rochor Centre flats at first seem compelling. Singapore faces constraints on land that few other cities do, and it seems inevitable that heritage sites that make less intensive use of space will make way for contemporary, more space-efficient structures. The old makes way for the new, and administrative expediency trumps consultation.

On reflection, though, this seems very much part of an outdated paradigm. One of the key issues of contention in the general and presidential elections in this year was the desire of Singaporeans for greater participation in the processes of governance.

And Singapore, in the last decade, has made its physical constraints a virtue. Faced with the prospect of water shortage, the Government did not take the easy route of negotiating an extension of the water agreements with Malaysia, or making new water supply treaties with Indonesia. Rather, it encouraged the development of technologies for recycling and desalinating water, providing the basis for the growth of companies such as Hyflux which are now major players internationally.

We could also show similar vision in dealing with conservation issues. Singapore's restricted size and the pace of its development means that we are now working through debates concerning the preservation of heritage that will later be confronted in the rest of developing Asia. If we develop best practices in consultation mechanisms that bring in all members of the community, in sustainable development, and in engineering solutions that preserve heritage landscapes and structures, such expertise will surely be invaluable in the future.

Arguments for heritage frequently stress the intangible: The disorientation we feel at the loss of familiar landscapes, and the erosion of a sense of community that accompanies this. This sense of a connection to the past is certainly important.

My own experience of removal from Hillview Avenue estate under the Selective Enbloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) has taught me that communities take many years to grow, and cannot simply be transplanted from one built environment to another. Yet for Singapore in the present, developing a cutting-edge expertise in the conservation of heritage would also make sound pragmatic economic sense.

Imagine a Singapore in thirty years time where my doctor and I, now both retired, would not have to rely on literature alone to bring the past to life, or to jog our now failing memories. Rather, we would live in a Singapore that had developed as a thriving heritage management hub, where places such as Bukit Brown and the Rochor Centre flats would not have vanished, but rather have become further enriched as spaces of community through the lived experiences of a new generation of Singaporeans.

Philip Holden is a Singapore Permanent Resident with a long history of involvement in heritage-related issues. He teaches at the University Scholars Programme at the National University of Singapore. A shorter version of this appeared in the print paper.