Govt makes call on what to gazette as heritage

The tangible heritage of a society includes buildings, historic places and monuments. What constitutes Singapore heritage is decided by our National Heritage Board (NHB).

Unesco describes cultural heritage as "the legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations."

Again from Unesco: "Objects are important to the study of human history because they provide a concrete basis for ideas, and can validate them."

Unesco also talks about the reality of the risks that tangible items of heritage get destroyed "not only by the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions...".

Unesco notes that the "deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world".

This is why the world decried the destruction of the 6th-7th century Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 and the 2015 bombing of Palmyra's Temple of Bel in Syria.

Yes, the actions were made by Islamic militants, but the point is that they acted according to their religious beliefs.

So here are instances of a clash between what an institution decides as heritage that should not be destroyed and personal values of societies who feel that they should decide on monuments that are within their communities.

We are not discussing a World Heritage Site when we consider 38, Oxley Road, but certainly we are discussing Singapore heritage.

In other words, the decision to gazette a monument is the purview of government and is not a personal decision of individuals.

This means, an owner of a property may not resist the gazetting of the site if NHB, guided by the minister of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, deems the site to be part of Singapore's heritage.

This decision considers heritage as belonging to all Singaporeans, extending beyond the lifetimes of individuals who have interest in the property.

I am sure many Singaporeans, including me, will find themselves emotionally pained if the wishes of our founding father as set out in his will are disregarded, however, at the same time, we must respect the decision of NHB with regard to the preservation of Singapore heritage.

Margaret Chan (Assoc Professor)
Singapore Management University

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline 'Govt makes call on what to gazette as heritage'. Print Edition | Subscribe