The National Heritage Board's (NHB) latest heritage trail, its 21st, covers Sembawang, which lies at Singapore's northern end. The area's past is not as well known as that of historic districts such as Kampong Glam, Little India and Telok Ayer. However, as the NHB reminds Singaporeans, Sembawang once occupied a central role both in Singapore and for the British empire. It was the site of a naval base that repaired Royal Navy warships, and home to thousands of servicemen from Britain's Far East Fleet. The naval base was known also as Little Kerala because of the numerous Malayalees who worked and lived there. Sembawang was inhabited earlier by boat-dwelling Orang Seletar, residents of coastal villages and Chinese planters who cultivated gambier. Taking the pre-colonial and colonial history of Singapore together, Sembawang has been part of the rich tapestry of the nation's multicultural evolution into the global metropolis that it is today.
The NHB's heritage trails provide an easily accessible route to what could be called "place-making" in Singapore. It is a human trait to privilege what exists now over what existed previously, and to believe that today's places represent the culmination of history. Sembawang's economic development is indeed a microcosm of Singapore's economic and spatial transformation over the decades. And the area's gradual change can itself can be charted - from its rural landscape beginnings to becoming one of the centrepieces of Singapore's economic and industrial evolution. To be able to now partake visually of that evolution gives Singaporeans a better appreciation of how the country has been a work in progress. It can also give them a sense of their role and place in its continued development.