Collaborating to preserve the Singapore story

Dec 19, 2013

Collaborating to preserve the Singapore story

Balancing heritage with development, especially on a little island with global-city aspirations, is never easy even in the best of times.
By Terence Chong

Balancing heritage with development, especially on a little island with global-city aspirations, is never easy even in the best of times.

But the Singapore Story, if nothing else, has always been about maximising whatever the fates have left us and forging new pathways. It is a story that we tell ourselves, our students, our citizens, and stories are important because they give meaning to our lives.

The recent release of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Draft Master Plan 2013 is yet another hint of how the Singapore Story will unfold.

Unlike the Concept Plan, which is a long-term vision of the country’s urban and physical development as well as land allocation, the Master Plan is a more detailed imagination of zoning and density areas. It is a statutory document, which means it has to pass through Parliament and can be revised.

The current Draft Master Plan focuses on green townships as well as shortening the distance between work and home. And while narrowing the distance between workplace and home is generally positive and cost-effective, it is a phenomenon that should invite social researchers to interrogate the socio-cultural impact this may have on our life patterns and everyday culture.


One positive turn has been the launch of the My Conservation Portal by the URA in October. The portal brings together heritage maps, photographs and write-ups, and invites public submissions on the more than 7,000 conserved buildings around the island. This innovative use of technology will allow not only local but also global users to familiarise themselves with our heritage sites and buildings.

Similarly, we should also applaud the decision to make public the list of 75 buildings proposed for conservation gazette in the launch of the Our Future, Our Home — Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition. The Singapore Heritage Society has long kept an eye on any development to these buildings and championed the gazetting of some, such as the five Singapore Improvement Trust housing blocks at Kampong Silat. It is indeed a pleasant surprise that the Government intends to gazette them.

The publication of this list is significant because the last time such a list was included in the Master Plan was in 1958. One could speculate why such a list was not published between then and now — perhaps for fear of real estate speculation or the destruction of buildings by owners who do not want to bear the onerous burden and obligations that sometimes come with gazetting.

As such, both the introduction of the My Conservation Portal and the publication of this list bode well for the increasingly consultative and transparent approach of state agencies.


There could, nonetheless, be clearer and better defined evaluation criteria for building conservation.

The current criteria that buildings should possess “special architectural, historical, traditional or aesthetic interest” (Planning Act) is just too broadly worded.

Indeed, how is this different from the Preservation of Monuments Act, which calls for the protection of buildings that possess “historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance and national importance”? This is not a question of semantics, but one that has real consequences on the way we decide what to keep and what to demolish. It is a matter of what we want to include in our Singapore Story and what we want to expunge.

The difference between the conservation of buildings and national monuments used to be clear. Now, it is getting less so. For example, could Leong San See Temple (which is on the list of 75 buildings) qualify as a national monument when, say, the Hong San See Temple does? Why is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (another on the list of 75) not considered a national monument when the Sri Mariamman Temple is included as one?

The writing of the Singapore Story is a collective effort. With the Draft Master Plan 2013, the URA has made small but positive steps towards co-authorship with civil society, academics and ordinary citizens.

This is not to say that co-authorship will always be smooth. Indeed, as the Bukit Brown saga has shown, tensions and disagreements continue to linger. It is thus important for civil society and the state to set aside differences of opinion over issues where there is no reconciliation in sight, and move on to other challenges and issues where collaborative effort will bear fruit.


Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua are Vice-President and Executive Committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society, respectively.