Experts want more say under heritage blueprint

They hope proposed framework will ensure early debates and address gaps in protection

After public outcry over the initial plan to demolish and rebuild a corner of the 1924 Ellison Building, the LTA said it would hire a conservation specialist to advise on how best to minimise impact on the structure.
After public outcry over the initial plan to demolish and rebuild a corner of the 1924 Ellison Building, the LTA said it would hire a conservation specialist to advise on how best to minimise impact on the structure. ST PHOTO: NIVASH JOYVIN

If heritage blogger Jerome Lim had his wish, experts and the public would have been able to vigorously debate whether the eight-decade-old Sungei Road flea market should have been retained before any decision was made.

The market will be shut down from July 11 and the community of rag-and-bone men and women will be dispersed.

But it was not just the flea market.

There was an outcry among members of the heritage community following the initial decision to demolish and then rebuild a corner of the conserved 1924 Ellison Building to make way for the North-South Corridor.

So when the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) announced last week a heritage blueprint to examine how tangible and intangible heritage can be systematically documented and preserved, they jumped in with a wish list.

They hope the blueprint will help to start the conversation early, address gaps and give more muscle to the National Heritage Board (NHB) and other organisations involved in heritage protection.

In the announcement, MCCY said NHB will be designing the blueprint.

Mr Lim said: "Agencies such as NHB and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) should be better empowered to raise objections and save significant structures and spaces before redevelopment plans are even formed."

The experts hope the blueprint would also define NHB's role more clearly as an uncensored champion of heritage.

"Heritage needs a stronger advocate, and decisions on preservation and development issues must be debated on an equal footing," said Singapore Heritage Society executive member Yeo Kang Shua.

A common criticism is that heritage concerns, in some cases, are either unaddressed, minimally catered to or only factored in late in the decision-making process.

Over the past year or so, many heritage and community spaces have been lost to redevelopment, including Rochor Centre.

After the community weighed in on the 1924 Ellison Building debate, the Land Transport Authority said it would hire a conservation specialist to advise on how best to minimise impact on the structure.

But others were lost, including a knoll with links to an early Indian community - levelled to facilitate the construction of the new Shenton Way Bus Terminal.

Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth Baey Yam Keng said that the heritage plan will provide a reference point to determine what is important, to help strike a balance between development and preservation.

He said: "At the moment, when there are development plans, we get feedback from residents or community groups that places should be preserved but these currently don't have a basis of reference."

The community added that the heritage blueprint should lead to independent and objective impact assessments to rationally debate what should be saved and what the country can afford to lose.

This should be holistic and take into account heritage, the environment and the community, they said.

"Ultimately, we should work towards a heritage impact assessment mechanism that kicks in prior to redevelopment," said Dr Terence Chong, head of Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

He added that such a mechanism will facilitate genuine consultation and discussion between different interests.

The community also hopes the blueprint can address other issues, including the recognition of local tongues, as well as sub-cultural practices.

There is also a need to tweak archaeology policies to allow government experts to conduct excavations on private land if certain criteria are met, they said.

The hope is to also build local private and public sector capacity to evaluate and manage the country's heritage assets.

Dr Yeo also suggested allowing researchers to conduct more studies on artefacts in the national collection. The president of Slow Food (Singapore), Mr Daniel Chia, is hoping for an official record of local dishes.

Experts lauded some of NHB's efforts, saying more of such initiatives can be emulated.

They cited NHB's ongoing nationwide intangible and tangible heritage surveys, which were rolled out over the past two years. These will be worked into the upcoming blueprint.

They also applauded NHB's ongoing in-depth heritage study of Haw Par Villa's 1,000 Technicolor sculptures, dioramas and architectural features in detail.

Sociology Professor Kwok Kian Woon summed up the wish list: "My wish is for the agenda to remain very open-ended so that what constitutes Singapore heritage would not be prematurely defined, and that there's room to accommodate all kinds of human experience that have enriched our multicultural society."

In the announcement, MCCY said that NHB will look at strengthening archaeology laws, support more ground-up projects, partner more communities and explore ways to empower them to co-curate heritage content. NHB's chief executive, Mrs Rosa Daniel, said: "Through the heritage plan, we hope to engage with Singaporeans to discuss how we can together preserve and celebrate our heritage in a comprehensive way for future generations.

"This requires a shared understanding of both opportunities and challenges in the longer term and of the priorities in the next five years. We will build on current achievements and work to fill identified gaps."

The first edition of the plan will be published early next year, and will detail new strategies and initiatives for the next five years. It will be updated every five years. The public and heritage stakeholders will be consulted.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline Experts want more say under heritage blueprint. Subscribe