What future for our past?

ST News, Jun 21, 2014

Not just grand colonial buildings, but places whose merit lies in their role in the national story - such as warehouses and schools - are coming under the conservation umbrella. Insight looks at what makes a place "sacred", and what heritage challenges lie ahead.

THE overgrown graves stretching for 200ha bang amid the city bustle make for a restful, peaceful spot rare in urban Singapore.

But when Bukit Brown Cemetery was slated for redevelopment for roads and residential buildings, it was more than its lush beauty that resulted in that rarity in Singapore – vocal protests to preserve it.
The site tugged at Singaporeans’ heartstrings, being the resting place of many forefathers of the country, a living repository of the Chinese diaspora’s tomb culture and design, and where descendants today visit for traditional rituals such as tomb sweeping.
Two civil societies – the Singapore Heritage Society and heritage enthusiasts who dub themselves “the Brownies” – organised petitions and embarked on efforts to document tombs.
No substantial concessions were made by the Government, however, to save the site from an eight-lane road running across it. It is also slated for residential development beginning with its southern portion.

Yet, it’s among the top three sites that Singaporeans deemed as “sacred” places in a recent Straits Times poll.

The poll itself followed a call by academic Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, for a list of sacred spaces and places to foster a love for Singapore, to help it fully become a true city.
Singapore already has essential aspects such as “busyness” and being “safe”, he said in a commentary in The Straits Times, citing American urban geographer Joel Kotkin. However, it lacks the sacred, he said, which Kotkin defines as any unique institution or spot “that (makes) one feel an irrational commitment to a place”.
Certainly, pockets of the population saw the Bukit Brown protests as verging on irrational, given the need for more roads in congested Singapore.

Still, Professor Kishore’s commentary comes amid increasing efforts to make more of Singapore’s heritage, such as the conservation bid by Pearl Bank Apartments’ owners in April.
And it puts the spotlight on the approach to heritage preservation. Insight looks at the challenges and what more might need to be done.

Blunders of the past

IN 2004, Singapore’s red-brick National Library building was unceremoniously razed to the ground to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel.

Built in 1959, it was considered by some as architecturally undignified compared with its grander neighbour, the National Museum of Singapore.

Despite extensive efforts by the community to save the space – with a normally passive public penning angry forum letters in the media, and architects such as Mr Tay Kheng Soon proposing alternatives, including re-routing the tunnel – the dissent was swept under the carpet.
Experts say this marked a turning point as it sparked a rise in civic activism and was when Singapore’s conservation movement took root.
It crystallised the idea that heritage conservation and preservation goes beyond protecting splendid colonial buildings to encompass our social and cultural soul.

Retired shipping manager Yeo Hock Yew, 65, says the library had been part of his life since he was a schoolboy studying at nearby St Joseph’s Institution.
“In my university years, I headed there to do research and, as a father, I brought my children there every Saturday morning.
“It was part of the whole landscape of bookshops from the Bras Basah row and the MPH building in Stamford Road. If you couldn’t afford buying from these places, you headed to the library.”
During Singapore’s early years as a new nation in the 1960s and 1970s, swathes of the country fell victim to the wrecking ball. The Government’s main priority, understandably, was to improve living conditions and build up the economy.

Still, awareness of the need to save heritage sites began to emerge. In 1971, the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB), which last year became the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), was set up to provide legal protection for national monuments. The division now falls under the wing of the National Heritage Board (NHB) and its role includes offering monument owners guidance and regulatory support.
The board itself is the big daddy of Singapore’s heritage custodianship, promoting heritage appreciation through managing its national museums, documentation and outreach efforts.

Then there is the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), established in 1974 and charged with studying old buildings for possible conservation as part of land use planning.
On the private scene,the Singapore Heritage Society, a non-governmental organisation, was established in 1987.

Academics note that people are talking more avidly about heritage than they did 10 to 15 years ago. “People have grown more expressive about protecting their heritage. It has become part of public discourse,” says Professor Johannes Widodo.
This has also given rise to the recognition that there are new categories of heritage which deserve protection.

As to what might be considered “sacred” to Singaporeans, heritage academics and experts find it difficult to answer.

Heritage blogger Jerome Lim, for instance, says it implies treasuring and cherishing places beyond religious, historic and architectural sites.
Mr Lim says: “But what is sacred to one might not be sacred to another. It’s important that we take into account how a place might be important to the individual, different groups and stakeholders and the community at large.”

On the right track

THE URA has so far conserved close to 7,200 buildings and the PSM has preserved 65 national monuments. “Going by the numbers, we are certainly on the right track,” says Dr Yeo Kang Shua, secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society and an assistant professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

In the latest URA gazette, 75 buildings, including warehouses, public housing flats, a former market, health-care facilities and places of worship, made the list, signalling a growing awareness about the importance of saving buildings that hold collective social memories.

It marks a shift from the conservation of large numbers of shophouses and black and white colonial bungalows to a more diverse mix of “built” heritage.

Experts also believe that the Government is listening and no longer as rigid as before, citing the growing number of public consultations over the past decade.

Dr Yeo says the release of a list of 75 buildings proposed for conservation, alongside the Draft Master Plan last year that went on to be gazetted this month, further signals a shift towards greater transparency.
Typically, the names of conserved buildings are made known to the public only when they are gazetted.
The last time such a list was published was in 1958, when the colonial government published its own master plan listing 19th century places with architectural and historical merit.
More funds have also been allocated to heritage bodies here. In 2012, the Government disbursed $109.7 million to the NHB and PMB compared with $47.1 million in 2005.
And in the wake of rising civic activism, the NHB formed an impact assessment and mitigation division last year to study the effect that development has on the country’s heritage.

Operational weaknesses

WHILE Singapore has made progress at the policy level, operational issues have reared their head. Singapore should make the conservation process easier for building owners, say heritage experts.
The PSM, for instance, has been roundly criticised by both monument owners and heritage groups for not providing enough technical and financial help.

The grants paid out for the structural repair and restoration of national monuments are but a fraction of what is needed. It disbursed about $1.5 million of the $35 million that the 1840s Cathedral of the Good Shepherd
budgeted for its restoration efforts.

Things also fall through the cracks. Singapore lacks a single body that coordinates and consolidates the maintenance of heritage sites and structures, say some heritage groups.
Take Singapore’s heritage bridges from the 19th century. The grand old dames along the Singapore River were conserved by the URA in 2008 but have been neglected by their respective caretakers in recent years.
Long cracks have emerged on the walls of some, such as Read Bridge, which falls under the care of the Land Transport Authority. The lights on the Singapore Tourism Board-managed Cavenagh Bridge do not work either, despite the structure’s prime location next to The Fullerton hotel.

Heritage groups suggest a central body be set up to help coordinate efforts.

Founder of civic group My Community Kwek Li Yong says that as the nation progresses, it is crucial that the state establishes a specialised agency. This would assess the historical importance of a building or site, consult the public on which buildings are worthy of conservation, document the social memory and history of each landmark, and oversee maintenance.

What it’s like elsewhere

THERE are lessons to be learnt from places such as Hong Kong where the public has an active role in the conservation process, say heritage experts.
People can, for instance, submit historic buildings for grading. A panel from the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) will assess these sites. Results are publicly available. AAB meetings, where buildings are also identified for conservation, are open to the public.
Conversely, URA’s selection process of these places is kept under wraps and comes under the Official Secrets Act.
Mr Kwek says: “The public must factor into the decision-making process even in the early stages of planning – not after our master plans are put together.
“After all, it is the local community that knows the different localities the best and what is significant to them.”

Moving forward

WITH the new surge of interest in Singapore’s past, people are demanding better curation of it. However, they are still confused by the fragmented approach.

The Singapore Heritage Society, for one, believes in a more holistic approach that takes into account the entire ecosystem of a place.

There is also the issue of how impact assessments can help to protect sites like Pulau Ubin – currently, there is no legal framework in place to protect it from development.

Urban historian and architect Lai Chee Kien says that there must be scope and flexibility to address rural spaces like this which do not fit the typical urban mould.

The Singapore Heritage Society also stresses the importance of building up heritage expertise. It suggests that the URA and PSM share their know-how by introducing training courses – for instance, on the maintenance of heritage structures – to other government agencies, the private sector and the public.
But they say the responsibility of educating the public must be shared by the community as well – civic groups, schools and other institutions should play a part in championing Singapore’s history.

For now, the tension between the desire to preserve Singapore’s heritage and the need for urban development – as seen in the Bukit Brown Cemetery tussle – can only increase.

But this tension also drives home the need to expand understanding of what is held sacred. It is also a catalyst pushing the community to protect the sites it holds dear.

Conservation must be a democratic process, says Prof Widodo, as a top-down approach would be paternalistic and oppressive, while a bottom-up one would be too chaotic.

But even with the right channels and structures in place, Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin notes: “We should not write off our sentiments, which we often cast aside in favour of pragmatism and practicality. These very feelings guide us towards the higher aspiration of preserving a sense of home and familiarity in the spaces around us.”


Top buildings and sites voted by Singaporeans as 'sacred'

HDB's first public housing developments in Queenstown, specifically Blocks 45, 48 and 49; the 1970 Queenstown Sports Complex; the former Queenstown polyclinic; Blocks 57, 61 and 67 to 73 in Commonwealth Drive; the first terrace houses in Stirling Road; Shuang Long Shan Wu Shu Ancestral Hall; the octagon-shaped Queensway Shopping Centre
Early housing developments in Redhill Close and Dakota Crescent estates
Changi Airport Control Tower
Pearl Bank Apartments
Golden Mile Complex

Pulau Ubin
Singapore Botanic Gardens
What's left of Bukit Brown Cemetery
The Padang
Wessex Estate off Portsdown Road, with its black-and-white colonial buildings