Getting to know: Heritage reporter Melody Zaccheus

This short Q&A series with ST's beat reporters lets readers meet the person behind the byline. These are the experts who will be answering readers' questions in our new askST section.  

1. If you could keep one site in Singapore forever, which would it be? 

There are so many sites worth keeping. These include Pulau Ubin, Haw Par Villa and Kampung Lorong Buangkok. Unfortunately, some segments of the Government still don’t see the need to preserve elements of our landscape that make Singapore unique. Cases in point: Bukit Brown and Dakota Crescent. And now sadly, very likely the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. 

2. Where would you bring a tourist for a complete heritage tour of Singapore? 

I don’t think any heritage tour can comprehensively capture what Singapore has to offer.

But for a start, and to explore our multi-religious roots, I would take him or her down to Telok Ayer Street - the landing point for early immigrants in the 1820s. Old religious institutions are still standing there today. These include national monuments: the 1828 Nagore Durgha Shrine, the 1839 Thian Hock Keng temple and 1850 Al-Abrar Mosque. 

The facade of Al-Abrar Mosque in Telok Ayer Street. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Other religious buildings that line the street include the 1924 Telok Ayer Methodist Church which had its exterior walls thickened along its five-foot-way to provide protection against Japanese attacks during World War II. 

The Chinese Methodist Church along Telok Ayer Road. PHOTO: ST FILE

The civic district is another exciting place to venture through. Not only is it dotted with national monuments including the century old St Joseph’s Church, it is also home to the beautiful National Gallery Singapore and National Museum of Singapore - old buildings restored and re-purposed for modern use. Their galleries are pretty easy to digest. 

Other places to visit include Singapore’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Little India. Little India’s low-rise shophouses provide relief to the eye compared to the rest of built-up Singapore. It is also an example of living heritage that continues to thrive. 

3. Is there any heritage site that has been demolished and you would like to bring back? 

The old National Library Building at Stamford Road for sure. I’ve several foggy but meaningful memories of the visits I’d made there with my dad. I remember tip-toeing at a check-out counter that was too high for me to see over. I was fascinated with the book check-out process which involved a librarian stamping due date slips with a chop. Imprinted in my memory is the landmark’s red brick facade and flight of steps that led to the library's treasure trove of tomes. I recall having to grasp my parents’ hands to ascend its stairs. It was a landmark that was close to my heart despite my brief interactions with it. It brings a tear to my eye that I can no longer revisit the building that was to me, the people’s national monument.  

4. What made you become a heritage reporter? 

There’s something about heritage stories that are more meaningful than your average news story. Each heritage advocate and expert I’ve spoken to is so passionate about the subject that it rubs off on you. 

As I’m part of a paper of record, I feel the need to document developments and be at the forefront of the subject to ensure that we don’t lose precious history over cosmetic changes.

Stories ST has covered include how a team of archaeologists had to race against time to salvage 700 years of history at Empress Place. The team's deadline was tight as there were plans to develop the place into an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct for Singapore’s 50th birthday. The archaeologists eventually unearthed the first concrete evidence that Temasek (ancient Singapore) had an established government with a head ruler or chieftain as early as the late 14th century.

5. Isn't it rare for youngsters like you to be interested in heritage? Do you think you, at 27, are the youngest heritage reporter?

There are many heritage enthusiasts and advocates who are young. Take for example My Community’s founder Kwek Li Yong and vice-president Jasper Tan. Both are 26 and champions of Queenstown’s heritage. They have proposed plans such as a five-year blueprint that involves rolling out a community museum for Singapore’s first satellite estate. They were also there to collect artefacts from the iconic and now demolished 1977 Queenstown cinema and bowling alley - a light blue and white building once popular with dating couples and families.

6. Do you think you know more about Singapore's history than your parents and grandparents? 

We’ve experienced different phases of our history, each as important as the other. 

7. How would you encourage other young people like you to better appreciate Singapore's heritage? 

Perhaps start in your neighbourhood. Interest can be sparked by asking yourself questions such as the date of establishment of the temple you frequently pass by on the way to the bus stop. You might be surprised to learn that it could pre-date modern Singapore’s founding. It could have even played witness to the war or it could have risen in the area as part of the sweeping changes that took your estate by storm as the country developed rapidly after the 1960s. Its caretaker could have stories to tell as well. 

If you are driving around Singapore during the weekends, you might zip by places such as Telegraph Street or Parsi Street. Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh’s book called Singapore Street Names: A Study Of Toponymics could shed some light on the origin stories of these places. 

Asking yourself these questions might spark off a natural curiosity that can be applied to your explorations of other Singaporean towns and neighbourhoods. Exploration of a place doesn’t have to be restricted to overseas trips alone. 

I think we should also be reading materials beyond our mandated curriculum. As a National University of Singapore graduate, I was exposed to other historical narratives that helped to broaden my understanding of local history.