The balance between national progress and preservation of heritage

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It may be one of the oldest Chinese temples in Singapore, dating back to the pre-colonial era when the Hakkas first built a shrine to the deity Tua Pek Kong more than two centuries earlier.

But the actual Fook Tet Soo Khek temple in Palmer Road, which was built in 1844, has no official protection status. It is not the only historic site without one.

Sites like Haw Par Villa - home to 1,000 multi-coloured sculptures and dioramas - as well as Singapore's last two dragon kilns - built around the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when Singapore's ceramic manufacturing industry was booming - are also not protected.

Without such a status, they could be erased should a development need arise.

Why have their fates been left in limbo? How does Singapore protect its heritage?


National monuments here were accorded legal protection by the Preservation of Monuments Board, which was set up in 1971.

Monuments have to be of historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance and national importance.

Haw Par Villa, which was built in 1937 by the Aw brothers of Tiger Balm ointment fame, reflects elements of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian folklore, and is the only one of its kind left in the world after its sister park in Hong Kong was demolished i
Haw Par Villa, which was built in 1937 by the Aw brothers of Tiger Balm ointment fame, reflects elements of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian folklore, and is the only one of its kind left in the world after its sister park in Hong Kong was demolished in 1998. Heritage experts believe Haw Par Villa, Fook Tet Soo Khek temple and the dragon kilns are worthy of legal protection status. ST FILE PHOTO

My Community, a civic group, put out a paper proposing that 21 sites in Queenstown be conserved. Three of them were protected by the URA in 2014 - Alexandra Hospital (left), Queenstown Library and the former Commonwealth Avenue wet market.
My Community, a civic group, put out a paper proposing that 21 sites in Queenstown be conserved. Three of them were protected by the URA in 2014 - Alexandra Hospital, Queenstown Library and the former Commonwealth Avenue wet market. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

In 2013, it was renamed the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), a division under the National Heritage Board (NHB).

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Separately, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which was established in 1974, studies old buildings for possible conservation as part of land-use planning.

These buildings must meet the URA's requirements, which include having architectural, social and cultural significance; structure rarity; and contribution to the environment.

Under the law, conserved structures and buildings must retain their original structure and architectural elements.

The PSM preserved 72 national monuments and records show that the URA has conserved over 7,200 buildings since its conservation programme started in 1989.

These are impressive numbers for a small country, although the conserved structures largely comprise shophouses and black and white colonial bungalows.

Members of the public became more actively involved in articulating their preferences for community icons they want protected in and around 2004. That was when the National Library building was razed to the ground to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel.

Constructed in 1959, the building was considered by some to be architecturally undignified. But the public wrote in to save the space, with many penning letters in the media. Architects chimed in and proposed alternatives.

Although the authorities went ahead and demolished the building, the episode was the root of Singapore's public conservation movement. It also crystallised the idea that heritage efforts should go beyond protecting colonial buildings.

The Government has since been listening more actively to public feedback and community stakeholders, in the wake of rising civic activism.

For instance, the URA shifted towards conserving a more diverse mix of built heritage. These include warehouses, public housing flats, a former market, healthcare facilities and places of worship.

Several of these structures are in Queenstown, where civic group My Community is based. The group had surveyed the neighbourhood and put together a paper proposing that 21 sites be conserved. Three of them were protected by the URA in 2014. These are Alexandra Hospital, the Queenstown Library and the former Commonwealth Avenue wet market.

Meanwhile, the NHB formed an impact assessment and mitigation division in 2013 to study development's impact on the country's heritage. The unit's role is to "conduct impact assessments of redevelopment works on heritage sites and structures and work with the necessary stakeholders to establish mitigation measures".


Heritage experts The Straits Times interviewed over the years believe Fook Tet Soo Khek temple, Haw Par Villa and the dragon kilns are worthy of legal protection status.

The Hakka temple, for instance, is culturally rich and steeped in history. To this day, it serves as a social anchor for the Hakka community. There, worshippers gather to eat Hakka cuisine and sing traditional songs during celebrations.

The site in Tanjong Pagar is at risk, with the Central Business District a regular target of redevelopment plans. The area is also home to the unprotected 1902 Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh and the 1866 Keramat Habib Noh shrine.

At the moment, the future Prince Edward MRT station is being built in the larger vicinity. Construction work for the new Circle Line station, which is expected to be completed by 2025, skirts around the three religious structures. Heritage considerations were woven into the design of the station, the authorities said in 2016.

Separately, Haw Par Villa, which was built in 1937 by the Myanmar-Chinese Aw brothers of Tiger Balm ointment fame, reflects elements of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian folklore. It is a unique Chinese cultural resource and the only one of its kind left in the world after its sister park in Hong Kong was demolished in 1998.

The last dragon kilns in Singapore represent a link to a once-booming brick industry here, which comprised 20 kilns that flourished until World War II.

The slant towards development over retention means the fate of these heritage structures remains in limbo. Another example is The Quadrant in Cecil Street. Despite the best advocacy efforts of its master tenants, the 1930s low-rise art deco structure has not clinched any protection status. The relic of pre-World War II Singapore served as the South-east Asian headquarters of the Kwangtung Provincial Bank with its original banking hall layout and bank vault still intact. It was used by immigrant Chinese to remit money. A road reserve line runs across the building.

To compound matters, every subsequent decade holds dear its own landmarks and icons, all which merit debate and discussion of their possible protection. But this is not taking place enough.

Such sites, which the heritage community has flagged so far, include a clutch of Singapore-designed, post-1965 structures such as Golden Mile Complex and People's Park Complex.

Some believe the buildings show the aspirations of a freshly independent nation and the Republic's urban renewal process, with these structures representing the island's first high-density, mixed-use complexes.

Given the peculiarities of Singapore's property scene, experts have pointed out that most leasehold properties will not have the time to mature to "heritage age". Against the backdrop of land scarcity and an increase in the number of ageing buildings, they say more mid-century structures are likely to be demolished if collective sale fever rages.

The conservation of these private high-rise or high-density structures is not easily resolved. Singapore has yet to conserve any post-independence strata-title buildings, but experts note that as the nation matures, there is a need to move towards a new generation of monuments and heritage structures from the island's more recent past.

To facilitate this process, existing laws and policies that impact the upkeep, lease extension and rehabilitation potential of these buildings will need to be re-examined and tweaked. Another recommendation by heritage experts revolves around encouraging the architectural fraternity to suggest alternative plans for building rehabilitation, regeneration and change of use. This is to encourage the public to understand that demolition is not the only option for Singapore.


In the quest to redevelop the country, Singapore has sometimes erased its past without objective consideration and evaluation. As a result, the country has regularly lost - sometimes with little to no documentation - beloved icons and popular street food stretches. It has almost completely wiped out islander and kampung ways of life, and its only free hawking zone - the 1930s Sungei Road flea market.

It is critical that the country soon figures out a consistent, community-centric process that it should undertake for its sidelined historic gems and more modern heritage landmarks.

At the very least, independent and publicly accessible heritage impact assessments should be implemented for both above-ground and underground heritage, before any redevelopment works are planned. This will allow the country to strike the right balance between what it can afford to lose and what it should retain.

Some in the heritage sector have also suggested an independent agency made up of ordinary Singaporeans and representatives from civil society to work on heritage matters.

Mr Kwek Li Yong, founder of My Community, said: "The industry as a whole needs to be more participatory and work with people on the street, so that the public can better understand what heritage is, why it is important and how we can protect it for future generations.

"The work of determining the value of a building or place should not be left to government agencies, architects or historians alone, as it alienates heritage from the very communities these structures are sited in."

The bicentennial year is an opportune time to review certain policies and evaluate if the right balance between national progress and the protection of heritage has been struck. There are other aspects to consider as well, such as pumping more financial and manpower support into the field of archaeology, and the protection and promotion of intangible cultural heritage.

At the moment, the NHB is working on a masterplan for the heritage sector. It is looking into strengthening research and documentation of historic buildings and sites, as well as intangible cultural heritage, and developing ways to commemorate Singapore's tangible heritage.

In land-scarce Singapore, heritage spaces tend to be vulnerable to developmental needs.

However, heritage sites add value to the landscape and provide a sense of familiarity, place and time, rooting the people of Singapore to their homeland.

The process in which Singapore protects its heritage landmarks could be better fine-tuned so that the island does not lose more than it already has.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2019, with the headline 'The balance between national progress and preservation of heritage'. Print Edition | Subscribe