By Nicholas Yong | Yahoo Newsroom – Wed, Jul 8, 2015
Now that the Singapore Botanic Gardens have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with all the attendant plaudits and financial benefits, it is perhaps time to revisit the old question: What is worth preserving in Singapore?
On the fact of it, heritage and history enthusiasts have much to cheer. After all, the authorities seem to be paying a lot of attention to Singapore’s heritage - the UNESCO award itself was the result of a five-year campaign. There have even been official promises that the award will spur the Government on to do more for conservation efforts.
In a recent interview with Channel News Asia, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong was quoted as saying: “It will motivate us to do even more to strengthen our conservation efforts in the gardens and elsewhere in Singapore and to invest even more in heritage development in Singapore.”
But this leads directly to the issue that invariably turns contentious: Which sites should be preserved, and which should go?
It’s worth noting that the Gardens themselves were chosen from other possible sites such as Chek Jawa and Little India, to be put up for UNESCO’s consideration. They were ultimately nominated because, according to The Straits Times, they had “outstanding universal value” and met two of UNESCO’s 10 criteria - having a historical landscape, and playing a role in the interchange of human values.
It might be argued that the 233-hectare Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is more than a century old, would have been a worthy candidate too. It houses Singapore’s oldest graves, including those of entrepreneur Ong Sam Leong and his sons, whose tomb is reportedly the largest in Singapore. Thanks to extensive media coverage, Bukit Brown has also gained popularity as a weekend destination.
Several years ago, word of plans to build a new highway through the cemetery spurred civil society activists such as the Singapore Heritage Society to lobby authorities to preserve the cemetery.
Yet, thousands of graves there have already been unearthed to make way for the new road. Back in 2013, Bukit Brown was even put on the 2014 World Monuments Watch (WMW), an international list of cultural heritage sites which are being threatened by nature or development.
In a letter to The Straits Times Forum last year, activists Dr Chua Ai Lin and Claire Leow said that despite their best efforts, there had been no “consultation or protracted engagement” by the authorities on Bukit Brown. They added that there had also been no consultation about the zoning of the greater Bukit Brown area in its entirety for residential use in the 2013 Draft Land Use Master Plan.
There was a similar furor over the Old National Library Building, which was knocked down in 2005 to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel. The building traced its roots to before the Second World War.
Back in 2000, efforts to have it preserved culminated in a proposal by architect Tay Kheng Soon to have the tunnel re-routed, in order to save the old library. All this was to no avail. Today, all that remains of the Old National Library Building is two red-bricked entrance pillars, which stand near the Fort Canning Tunnel.
Perhaps this spare, unsentimental approach to conservation had something to do with the late Lee Kuan Yew's practical approach to all matters. Asked by The Straits Times in 2011 what should be done with his house at Oxley Road after his passing, the former Prime Minister's answer was simple: "I've told the Cabinet, when I'm dead, demolish it."
When asked why, his reason was practicality itself: "Because of my house the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up. You know the cost of preserving it? It's an old house built over a hundred years ago. No foundation."
Today, it seems that practical philosophy has found room for adjustment. Let's hope that Minister Wong's words ring true in the years to come.