Saving icons of Singapore

SundayLife! did a poll to see which local landmarks Singaporeans most want to see conserved and Pulau Ubin topped the list

Bedok Jetty. -- PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER
Bedok Jetty. -- PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER
Singapore’s first atrium.  -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Chomp Chomp. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Changi Village. -- PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

Pulau Ubin, Changi Village and Chomp Chomp Food Centre have emerged as the forerunners of a poll on the local landmarks Singaporeans most want to see conserved.

The poll was commissioned by SundayLife! last week, following the collective wail that greeted King Albert Park's closure for redevelopment last month, taking with it a McDonald's outlet popular with many Singaporeans in their youth.

With many also lamenting the soon-to-be demise of the hawker institution Lavender Food Square and next-door Eminent Plaza later this year, the poll's aim was to find out the most treasured places and spaces not yet designated for conservation.

Voters were given nine options, all well-known, spread out across the map and with some historical or architectural significance. They were allowed to vote for more than one place on the list and were encouraged to suggest other places they felt should remain the way they are. The online poll last week drew 1,621 votes over 36 hours.

The rustic Pulau Ubin took top spot, drawing 21 per cent of the votes. Coastal Changi Village, with its low-rise flats and hawker stalls, came in second with about 16 per cent of the votes. Another hawker institution, Chomp Chomp, was third with 14 per cent.

Coming in fourth and fifth respectively were pioneering shopping mall People's Park Complex and Bedok Jetty, once the longest public jetty here.

In sixth to ninth spots were former granite quarry Little Guilin, Golden Mile Complex - a mixed-use complex and striking, seminal work of home-grown architecture - the old chalets at East Coast which date back to the 1980s, and now-shuttered Yan Kit Swimming Complex, one of the earliest public pools in the Tanjong Pagar area.

Nominated MP Faizah Jamal, who had asked in recent Parliamentary debates for more to be done to conserve Pulau Ubin, says she is not surprised the island off Singapore's north-east coast was the top choice. "It is probably the last bastion of old Singapore," she says.

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin says many are likely to have voted for Pulau Ubin because it "offers something special, that the mainland does not".

"It is rustic, away from urban restrictions and provides people a sense of freedom," she says.

Voter Jollie Ng can attest to that. The 22-year-old Nanyang Technological University student says she first set foot on the island when she was 14, for a school camp. "Pulau Ubin is a shelter from busy Singapore, filled with wonderful camping memories. My friends and I will be going there after we graduate from university, to reminisce and to mark the end of our official student lives," she says.

Architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien suggests that the top three voters' choices point to people liking distinctive areas "outside of their every day and mainly urban experiences".

Agreeing, Ms Faizah notes: "The old world charm of Pulau Ubin, Changi Village and Chomp Chomp, and even the messiness associated with these places are far removed from the sterility of the glass and steel that we are surrounded by."

Other heritage experts say the top three choices are linked to good memories, which also adds to their popularity.

"People go to Pulau Ubin, Changi Village and Chomp Chomp to have a good time, to eat, and for recreational activities. The positive nature of the activities taking place in these landscapes adds to the value of such sites, and people associate positive things with them," says Associate Professor Chang Tou Chuang from the National University of Singapore's department of geography, who researches on urban and tourism geography.

Dr Lai adds that the options in general point to places that are "familiar ballasts in a still rapidly-changing city state", since several of them "have not seen drastic renovations since the 1970s".

SundayLife! also received more than 30 other suggestions on other spaces, and buildings here that the public wanted to see kept as they are.

Several mentioned the long-established food centres at Newton Circus, Adam Road and Tiong Bahru, while others highlighted green spaces such as Bukit Batok Nature Park, Bukit Brown Cemetery, Sembawang Park and MacRitchie Reservoir.

Some also mentioned sports and recreational areas such as the iconic Queenstown Sports Complex in Stirling Road, which was constructed in 1970. It is Singapore's first neighbourhood sports complex. Also mentioned was the "Dragon Playground" at Toa Payoh Lorong 6. The iconic playground, designed with a dragon motif, was built in 1979, and the HDB confirmed earlier this year that it will be preserved, pending future developments.

A handful of voters also suggested entire districts, such as Pasir Ris, Geylang, Holland Village and Dempsey Hill. Others wanted individual buildings or places to be conserved, such as Kampung Lorong Buangkok - Singapore's last kampung near the Institute of Mental Health, which was built in 1956 and does not have conservation status - downtown bookshop haven Bras Basah Complex, which dates back to the 1980s, and Lim Chu Kang Jetty.

Dr Chua says these responses show that people have "a lot of feeling for places that are part of their everyday life".

"Their ideas show us how people in the present connect with things from their past. They are driven by their personal experiences," she says.

Dr Lai adds that the food centres that were highlighted both in the poll and in voters' suggestions are "instructive" to government agencies, which can use these to "find out why hawker centres now have become an identifiable and integral part of Singapore culture, and how to design new ones from now on".

The heritage experts that SundayLife! spoke to gave suggestions of their own too.

Prof Chang called for the distinctive Changi Airport control tower, built in 1981, to be preserved, along with the Merlion. "These are monuments, icons that have carried Singapore's name beyond its shores. The airport's terminals have changed and developed, but the control tower has never really changed its look. It is the first thing that greets you when you return from overseas."

On the Merlion, he says: "We do not go to it for recreation, but it is something unique and distinct. Some will say its a strange creature, but whether you like it or not, it has lasted through decades and it is something that tourists can immediately identify with."

Ms Faizah singled out Kampung Lorong Buangkok as well as several expansive tree-lined roads, such as Neo Tiew and Upper Thomson roads, which she says "are not ugly highways" and give a sense of space.

Dr Chua mentioned the iconic Chinese theme park Haw Par Villa, known for its 10 Courts of Hell, which she says "has no official preservation status" at the moment.

"Its future is uncertain," she says, although she notes the Singapore Tourism Board's efforts to revitalise the place. This month, the grounds will be opened up to arts groups for exhibitions and workshops.

Several voters lamented that the Singapore they know is being taken away from them. Facebook user Natalie Lian wrote: "How can one feel a sense of belonging when bits and pieces of these memories are slowly but surely stripped away?"

The heritage experts say there is plenty that the public can do to highlight the fact that they want certain places preserved. Says Dr Chua: "Singaporeans must come forward to show how much the places mean to them. The Government will be more willing to preserve places that people show a deep sense of attachment to."

Last month, it was announced in Parliament that lovers of Pulau Ubin will be asked to give their ideas on how the popular island can be protected and enhanced. The Government hopes that a wide range of people, from island residents to interest groups and experts, will give their views in an upcoming consultation, to be led by Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

Ms Faizah says this is an opportunity for the public to share to their views. "It is the best chance we have of doing it right this time," she says.

She urges: "Tell your MPs, write to the press, have conversations with your friends in constructive, empowering ways. Brainstorm ideas and solutions."

Dr Chua says people can also join interest groups on Facebook and other social media platforms to connect with other like-minded individuals.

Adds Prof Chang: "When the URA has an exhibition of their Master Plan, you can give feedback during a certain period. Those are opportunities for your opinions to be heard."

The URA's Master Plan, which guides land use, is updated every five years. The latest, the Draft Master Plan 2013, was unveiled last November and will be finalised by June this year.

Which landmarks do you want to see kept the way they are? E-mail


Significance: Pulau Ubin's charm lies in its quiet rural surroundings with kampung houses and wildlife-rich forests, reminding Singaporeans of a simpler past.

Located in the north-eastern coast of Singapore, a 10-minute boat ride from the mainland, the 10 sq km island's name is derived from its original Malay name, Pulau Batu Jubin meaning "Island of Granite Stones".

Granite quarries provided the initial draw for early local settlement, as much of its granite was used for Singapore's early buildings. The island has seen its population dwindle from 2,000 in the early 1950s to just 38 today.

But it still draws more than 300,000 visitors every year.

The Singapore Land Authority has said there are no plans in the near future to develop the state-owned land on Pulau Ubin.

Since 2002, it has been designated as an identity node by the Urban Redevelopment Authority - a locality with a distinctive character and identity, that appeals to a wide spectrum of people.

Why it should stay: "Pulau Ubin should be preserved because it is one of the few places in Singapore which still retains the old rustic, kampung style of living.

"I think it is important that we keep some of that heritage.

"On a personal level, it is also a place where my friends and I have hung out, so there are unique experiences and memories for me there not found anywhere else."

- Ms Penelope Wang, 24, civil servant


Significance: Tucked away in the eastern corner of Singapore, the seaside Changi Village has retained its rustic charm, with its distinctive low-rise housing estate dotted with bars, small restaurants and coffee shops.

It used to be a kampung made up of attap houses in the 1950s and 1960s, and became a little town because of the British presence there. Then, there were military barracks, administrative quarters and recreational facilities.

From the late 1960s, after the the British forces pulled out, low-rise flats and a park were gradually added to the quaint estate. It has been designated as an identity node by the Urban Redevelopment Authority since 2002.

Why it should stay: "Changi Village should be preserved because it has a special place in my heart. I did my national service at Changi Air Base from 2005 to 2007, and whenever we were hungry, we would try to sneak over to Changi Village to buy food.

"I remember the fragrant nasi lemak, electrifying teh tarik and the chicken chop hor fun which was such a pleasure for us starving young soldiers. The food there was quite a morale booster.

"There were also incidents where transvestites would come and 'disturb' those of us on guard duty."

- Mr Steve Tan, 27, tech lead at Qanvast, an interior design ideas mobile app company


Significance: Built in 1972 as the Serangoon Gardens Food Centre, it was later nicknamed Chomp Chomp by the hawker's committee. It is a landmark in the Serangoon Garden estate because of the good hawker food sold there. It was initially an open-air food centre before the then Environment Ministry paid for renovations and built a roof over the centre in 1998.

A second round of upgrading works on Chomp Chomp commenced in September 2003. The $1.4-million project was borne by the National Environment Agency and saw the food centre getting a new roof and new toilets. Chomp Chomp re-opened after this renovation in April 2004, with most of the 36 stalls still being run by the original hawkers and retaining their old spots.

Why it should stay: "Many of us will miss not only the signature hawker dishes, but also the vivid memories of enjoying a meal with family and friends. Many memories are preserved in the places we love."

- Mr Dean Koh, 29, editor of a cycling magazine


Significance: Located on Eu Tong Sen Street in Outram, People's Park Complex was completed in 1970.

Designed by architects William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Koh Seow Chuan from the firm Design Partnership, it is the first air-conditioned multi-storey shopping mall here and also featured Singapore's first atrium in a shopping centre.

It got a facelift in 1998, which saw it retaining its "traditional" flavour - its Chinese floor and ceiling patterns.

Why it should stay: "People's Park Complex is where the old pioneers of Singapore usually gather, to enjoy a chat and food from the nearby coffee shops.

"I see the building as both a sentimental and strategic landmark to retain, especially for the Chinese community here."

- Mr Lawrence Lau, 57, part-time English teacher


Significance: At 250m, this used to be the longest public jetty in Singapore, before the completion of Woodlands Waterfront in 2010.

The Bedok Jetty was reportedly built by local businessman Yap Swee Hong at a cost of $1.5 million in 1966. He did it to facilitate the import of scrap metal from the Americans engaged in the Vietnam War at the time.

Today, the jetty remains a popular spot for anglers engaging in recreational fishing. Located within East Coast Park, it is also a stopover for cyclists, joggers and in-line skaters.

Why should it stay: "This was where I went on a date with my then boyfriend, now husband. I was 22 and it was my first time to Bedok Jetty. My boyfriend took me there because he wanted to show me the stars. That night, we were lucky- the stars were out. It is also a quiet place where all you hear are waves crashing and I remember thinking how peaceful and serene it was, away from the hustle and bustle of Singapore.

"I felt safe and so comfortable that I thought he could just be the one. "

- Ms Sara Yang, 28, legal manager

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.