New laws to protect and promote S'pore's archaeological, cultural heritage may be proposed

Amendments to the Preservation of Monuments Act, which sets out powers of the government to protect and preserve national monuments, were proposed on Oct 4. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - New laws to protect Singapore's archaeological and intangible cultural heritage could be proposed following an ongoing review of the National Heritage Board (NHB) Act.

This could establish rules on ownership for artefacts found here, and legislate recognition for practitioners of such living traditions, heritage observers said.

They had called for laws relating to archaeology to be relooked after amendments to the Preservation of Monuments Act were first announced last month.

An NHB spokesman told The Straits Times that the board was looking to introduce provisions about safeguarding and promoting the Republic's archaeological and intangible cultural heritage but could not say when the review would be completed.

Consultations with key stakeholders and other relevant agencies are still ongoing.

The spokesman added that the review aims to strengthen and expand NHB's roles "to keep in tandem with developments in the heritage sector".

The review comes as Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 3) approved changes to the Preservation of Monuments Act, which sets out powers of the Government to protect and preserve national monuments.

Dr Kevin Tan, former president of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and former president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore, said that more thought should be put into the collection, protection and ownership of artefacts.

"Current laws do not go far enough to deal with what happens with artefacts recovered from archaeological sites and how these should be handled and protected," he said.

Emeritus Professor John Miksic of the National University of Singapore's South-east Asian Studies Department said more can be done to ensure the preservation of artefacts that have already been acquired so that future generations may study them.

University museums could play a role in this regard, he added.

SHS president Jack Lee said a requirement for archaeological work to take place before certain sites in Singapore are redeveloped should be written into the law.

These could be sites that are likely to have archaeological relics based on past human activity, such as areas near the Singapore River, said Dr Lee, who agreed with Dr Tan and Prof Miksic that issues of artefact ownership should also be looked into.

"Perhaps the law should state that relics of a certain type or over a certain age that are unearthed belong to the state, so they can be preserved for the public benefit rather than sold for private profit," he said.

Ms Caroline Ang (left) at an archaeological dig at Fort Canning Park on Oct 28, 2018. PHOTO: ST FILE

Prof Miksic, an archaeologist who has been involved in excavations here since the 1980s, said archaeologists here have been consulted in drawing up the potential amendments.

He added that they hope the potential amendments will provide a more direct role for the NHB in coordinating archaeological research here in the future.

Prof Miksic said interest in archaeology among the general population seemed to be growing and that it could contribute to nation building by showing that Singapore has had a multicultural, sophisticated society for more than seven centuries.

"Archaeological research in Singapore has already yielded more data on the 14th to 16th centuries than any other urban site in South-east Asia," he said.

As for laws on intangible cultural heritage, which Singapore currently does not have, Dr Lee said the NHB may consider adapting laws from other countries.

Japan, for instance, gives special designations to practitioners who possess outstanding skills relating to intangible cultural heritage, which qualifies them to receive government funding to develop their skills and pass them on to future generations.

In Malaysia, a living person can be designated as national heritage and added to a national heritage register.

However, Dr Lee said that in the absence of such laws, the NHB can still support intangible cultural heritage.

He cited the Stewards of Intangible Cultural Heritage Award, which recognises intangible heritage practitioners and qualifies them to tap up to $20,000 in funding.

Other ongoing efforts, such as maintaining an intangible cultural heritage inventory and nominating forms of such heritage to be inscribed on Unesco's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, show the Government's commitment to recognising these heritage forms, said Dr Lee.

Following the inscription of hawker culture on Unesco's list last December, Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling said in Parliament in March that the NHB would consult the public to identify new candidates for inscription.

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