Singapore Botanic Gardens clinches prestigious Unesco World Heritage site status

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong (standing behind the placard Singapore), and chairman of the Singapore National Commission for Unesco, with his team at the 39th World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany on July 4, 2015
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong (standing behind the placard Singapore), and chairman of the Singapore National Commission for Unesco, with his team at the 39th World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany on July 4, 2015.PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD AND NATIONAL PARKS BOARD
The Bandstand within the Botanic Gardens.
The Bandstand within the Botanic Gardens.ST PHOTO: BASIL EDWARD TEO
(from right) The Singapore delegation at the Unesco World Heritage Site meeting in Bonn, Germany, includes Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, Singapore Ambassador to Germany Jai S. Sohan and National Heritage Board chief executiv
(from right) The Singapore delegation at the Unesco World Heritage Site meeting in Bonn, Germany, includes Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, Singapore Ambassador to Germany Jai S. Sohan and National Heritage Board chief executive Rosa Daniel.PHOTO: MCCY
Dr Nigel Taylor (left), director of the Gardens, and Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments of the National Heritage Board, were roped in by the Government to lead the country's first bid for a World Heritage Site.
Dr Nigel Taylor (left), director of the Gardens, and Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments of the National Heritage Board, were roped in by the Government to lead the country's first bid for a World Heritage Site.ST PHOTO: MELODY ZACCHEUS

BONN, GERMANY - The nation has its first Unesco World Heritage Site in the bag. The 156-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens was awarded the coveted status at the 39th World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany on Saturday.

The listing was announced at the International Conference Centre of Bonn by the chair of the session Ruchira Kamboj, a delegate of India to Unesco.

All 21 members of the World Heritage Committee elected to speak on the Gardens nomination. They lauded its various qualities, and gave it a resounding "yes".

The Gardens is valued for having two outstanding universal qualities - its role in the rubber trade which transformed the region in the 1900s and its unique tropical colonial gardens landscape.

Croatia called the Gardens a "perfect example" of how a nomination should be presented, and said it has outstanding universal values and exceptional beauty.

Turkey said Singapore would inspire all other interested parties and stakeholders with similar properties that they could be considering for nomination.

Addressing the delegates at the meeting, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said the Gardens has "always been well loved and cherished by all Singaporeans".

"We are very proud to have it recognised as a site worthy of exceptional value for humanity," he added. "This inscription is especially meaningful for us, as we celebrate our 50th year as an independent nation. So it is a wonderful golden jubilee present for the whole nation.

"It is also an accolade that will resonate deeply with Singaporeans as we come together this year to reflect on our heritage, our identity and our place in the world."

In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the prestigious accolade is "a great Jubilee year gift to Singaporeans".

PM Lee added that the Gardens played an important part in making Singapore a Garden City. "We all have happy memories visiting the Gardens, soaking in the greenery and tranquillity, and enjoying the company of family and friends," he wrote.

He congratulated the National Heritage Board, National Parks Board and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, noting that they have worked very hard for the successful inscription.

The long-anticipated announcement comes after a five-year journey to assemble a pitch for the Gardens to join a prestigious international league of more than 1,000 global treasures such as Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Indonesia's Borobudur temple compounds.

In 2010, the Government conducted a feasibility study involving the public on possible sites that could be put up for the bid. Among the suggestions were Tiong Bahru estate, Chek Jawa, Little India and the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

These suggestions were carefully evaluated before the Botanic Gardens was deemed the best candidate to meet Unesco's criteria.

The next step was to have Singapore sign the 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which enabled the Republic to become a state party with Unesco and nominate the Gardens.

Subsequently, a 700-page dossier that outlined the gardens' outstanding universal values for its role in the region's rubber trade and for its tropical colonial garden landscape was put together.

Groups such as the Nature Society Singapore, the Singapore Heritage Society and the Rubber Trade Association of Singapore were consulted in putting together the dossier, which was submitted to Unesco last January.

This May, a Unesco-appointed panel called the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) recommended the gardens for the coveted status.

It said the gardens played a pivotal role in the rubber trade in the region, and added that compared to other such gardens in places such as Hong Kong, Penang and India, Singapore has kept its original features intact and is relatively well-resourced as well.

The gardens now joins two others - the 1759 Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, and the 1545 Orto botanico di Padova in Padua, Italy, on the Unesco list.

Tourism experts such as the Association of Singapore Attractions' chairman Kevin Cheong said a Unesco World Heritage Site title could change the perspective tourists have of Singapore as a built-up city with modern marvels to one with something universally historical in its midst.

Law professor Kevin Tan, the president of Icomos Singapore, said it is a time for celebration.

He said: "It is rare for such a small country like Singapore to have an inscribed World Heritage Site. What we should celebrate is the diversity and heritage that has made Singapore and a place like the Botanic Gardens possible.

"We should certainly honour those who created the gardens and tended them, those who used them and forged its heritage."

melodyz@sph.com.sg