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Melody Zaccheus
Monday, Jun 23, 2014

Singapore

What future of our past?

The Straits Times | Melody Zaccheus | Monday, Jun 23, 2014

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."

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