A nationwide heritage survey in Singapore: A good thing (though late) if done right

It was announced in March 2015 that the Singapore National Heritage Board (NHB) “…will commission a nation-wide survey… (covering) Things like the age of these buildings, their architectural merits, the social and cultural value of certain landmarks to the community, and sites where significant historical events happened will be considered.” (click here). It appears to be a wide-ranging ‘baseline’ survey that would be the first in Singapore to extensively cover both tangible and intangible aspects of our heritage.

But this got me thinking. This project sounds like something that ANY heritage board would have done very soon after being set-up. But consider that the NHB was set-up in 1993, and it seems that this new much-needed project is about 20 years late. In April, the Straits Times published an editorial piece about the project (click here). The article praises the project but alluded to the fact that it’s a tad late (possibly because much had been lost and therefore not recorded since NHB was formed in 1993). But more pressing is that several academics and heritage enthusiasts question not the purpose of the project, but its execution. For example, a heritage expert from the Singapore Management University said “We don’t know what happens during the discussion phase (in the selection of what to record/protect) as these tend to be an internal process that is not made clear to the public”. The article cited the example that the criteria for selecting buildings to be conserved comes under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (and not NHB) and is covered by the Official Secrets Acts. Those interviewed all agree that this survey is a good starting point to the collecting of much-needed data, AND that the process should be inclusive (such as involving different interest groups) and be transparent.

I agree. But I am a bit skeptical about how this whole project would pan out. This is mainly because NHB has in the past shown to be lacking in not just the sincerity of its intentions but also in how it takes its tasks seriously. Take the Bukit Brown cemetery example. That is clearly a place of significant national heritage (due to the many prominent pioneers buried there). But NHB was not closely involved in the process of its partial destruction (well, it was not really apparent how much NHB was involved as reported through the local media, with the Land Transport Authority and Singapore Land Authority appearing to the lead decision-makers). I think till today, beyond NHB saying that they would survey the part of the cemetery that would be destroyed by the new road, I don’t recall NHB being a significant part of the decision process prior to the go-ahead for the new road was made. It was as if NHB was contented just watching on the side (even though it should have spoken up for the cemetery, standing on the side of heritage preservation) because it didn’t want to step on the toes of what seem to be ‘more powerful’ government agencies with ‘more important’ national development agendas.

This is not the first time NHB was caught short on the destruction of cemeteries: Another significant one – Bidadari – was completely destroyed years ago and I do not recall that NHB was active seeking views prior to the decision and/or speaking against its destruction. I am also not sure what NHB had done to preserve the tangible aspects of the cemetery, beyond saving a handful of tombstones that will be displayed in the housing estate that would be built there.

Another example: the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ bid for UNSECO World Heritage listing. It appeared in this case that the Gardens took the lead, and the NHB only assisted in lending its name to the bid because it is after all – DUH – in-charge of Singapore’s ‘heritage’ (of which the Gardens would logically fall under).

I agree with those quoted in the article that the public should be more involved in this new survey. This is after all OUR heritage and the things that make it in there should have some of our input. And by ‘input’ I don’t mean that NHB makes a decision FIRST, and then seeks ‘views’ on the fait-accompli after the fact. If this is OUR heritage, sometimes what we the ‘people’ say should triumph over policy considerations. even if the actions impede national development. Think of the destruction of the National Library at Stamford Road (for a new road tunnel for goodness’ sake) despite the public outpourings, and you know what I mean.

Also, I would like to see NHB grow some guts vis-à-vis other government agencies; NHB is the only one with ‘heritage’ in its name, and it should be the one to take the local ‘heritage bull’ by its horns. Don’t let SLA, URA, LTA, NPARKS, NLB etc trample over Singapore’s heritage (or what’s left of it) BECAUSE NHB should be its paramount guardian. If anything, the culture within the government service should change to become one where any agency should be consulting NHB FIRST before any heritage-linked policies are executed.

P.S. On a good note, I think this survey is a good sign that NHB is beginning to see itself not so much as the “Singapore Museum and Heritage Centres Board” but as an overall champion of heritage (covering both museums and heritage outside of museums). With the Singapore Art Museum taken out of NHB and the National Gallery not being placed under the NHB, I hope that the other museums would eventually also get autonomy outside of NHB, leaving it to concentrate NOT on running permanent exhibitions BUT on tangible heritage (old buildings, cemeteries etc) and intangible heritage.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “A nationwide heritage survey in Singapore: A good thing (though late) if done right

  1. It was the Preservation of Sites and Monuments under NHB who did the preparatory activities and the dossier for SBG’s bid.

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