PICTURES

This could be Singapore's first World Heritage Site

Singapore is making a pitch for its first Unesco World Heritage Site - the 154-year-old Botanic Gardens.

It has sent its initial application for the coveted status to the global body, formally known as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

The historic gardens was founded at its present site in 1859 by an agri-horticultural society. Its director, Dr Nigel Taylor, said an application to Unesco was made last December.

But more work needs to be done before the gardens can be considered for official listing as a World Heritage Site.

"The Singapore Botanic Gardens fulfils the criteria for World Heritage Site assessment, and is a well-loved outdoor area for Singaporeans from all walks of life," he said.

"It is also significant for its interesting history that parallels Singapore's development."

Unesco World Heritage Sites are cultural or natural sites that have been deemed to have outstanding universal value. There are 962 in the world, with 33 in South-east Asia such as Angkor in Cambodia, and Malacca and George Town in Malaysia. Singapore ratified the World Heritage Convention last year, which means it is bound to protect its national heritage.

In describing the gardens to Unesco, the Republic pointed out that it was the oldest surviving example of its kind in the Straits Settlements, and a "living testament to the foresight of the early pioneering spirit of Singapore".

The 74ha park, which draws more than four million visitors a year, was instrumental in pioneering rubber cultivation and tapping techniques, and orchid breeding. Its botanical research and conservation have also put it on the international map.

The other botanic gardens that have made the Unesco list are the Royal Botanic Gardens in London and Orto Botanico in Padua, Italy.

Historians and heritage buffs say the gardens is an obvious choice for Singapore's first stab at gaining Unesco status.

Dr Chua Ai Lin, an historian and one-time member of the former Singapore Sub-Commission on Culture and Information for Unesco, said the idea of backing the Botanic Gardens for the listing had been discussed for a few years.

"It was quite clear the Botanic Gardens was a low-hanging fruit," she said. Getting the Unesco stamp "will show that it is not a history that is just meaningful to us here in a small way, but meaningful in a universal way".

University lecturer Tan Wee Cheng, who started a Facebook page in 2009 to campaign for Singapore to get itself on the list, said the gardens was a "fitting choice" to be the country's first official site.

"But instead of just celebrating if and when we do get on the list, we should consider issues of identity and conservation - if there are other sites we should conserve and further build on our national identity."

Gaining the recognition would be good for national pride, he said. "From a tourism perspective, they can then put the Unesco logo on their brochures."

The country will now have to put together a nomination file.

More details will be shared at a later date, said Dr Taylor, but The Straits Times understands that there will be a series of public engagement exercises running till the end of this year, before the documents are submitted officially.

dawntan@sph.com.sg