Public consultation needed in process of gazetting monuments: Heritage groups

The process of gazetting monuments only involves its owners and occupiers and the National Heritage Board, as well as the owners and occupiers of adjacent land. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Heritage advocates are calling for the public to be involved in deciding the buildings and sites to be gazetted as monuments.

They add that clear reasons should also be provided for some of the proposed new laws protecting monuments, along with greater support for owners of the building and site.

Their call follows the introduction of the Preservation of Monuments (Amendment) Bill in Parliament in early October.

It seeks to extend protection to proposed monuments, which are currently not protected under the Act.

With the changes, the authorities will put out a notice to inform owners and/or occupiers of such buildings and sites of their intention to make a preservation order for their property.

Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) president Jack Lee said extending protection to proposed monuments is welcomed.

However, he added that the process of gazetting monuments involves only their owners and occupiers and the National Heritage Board (NHB), as well as the owners and occupiers of adjacent land.

"There isn't any formal procedure for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and members of the public to be consulted in the process," said Dr Lee, who is an expert member of a subcommittee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos).

The subcommittee focuses on legal, administrative and financial issues.

"If the proposed gazette is not advertised in a manner akin to proposed master plan amendments, then other people may not realise that their actions on that site are being done in relation to a proposed national monument and they may unknowingly flout rules," he added.

With the changes, NHB formally brings monument maintenance under its purview. The amendments also provide the board with greater enforcement powers to protect national monuments.

For instance, the board may serve an enforcement notice and stop any operation or activity if it assesses that these place a national monument at risk of being destroyed, removed, damaged or altered.

Dr Lee said when making, amending or revoking a preservation order, the Government should adopt a procedure similar to how conservation proposals are made public.

The process for conservation proposals allows for objections to be raised before a decision is finalised.

"In general, greater public participation in heritage processes is needed, so that different perspectives can be obtained and taken into account before a decision is reached," said Dr Lee.

Observers said while changes to the law reflect that the heritage field here is maturing, NHB's reasons for adding certain new clauses should be made clear.

For instance, an individual will need written permission from NHB to clear, dig up, excavate or grow any plant or tree in sites that are monuments or proposed monuments.

Mr Ho Weng Hin, co-founder of heritage conservation consultancy Studio Lapis, said: "When the Bill is read without explanation of the context in which these laws may be applied, the amendments may appear pedantic.

"The reason for these amendments should hence be clarified."

He noted the clause may be applied to sites where horticulture is important, such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which is not currently a monument but has been inscribed a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Adjunct Professor Kevin Tan, who specialises in constitutional and administrative law at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is concerned that the change will allow the director of monuments and monument inspectors the power to enter monuments and proposed monuments without warrant.

They can even break doors and windows, if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that offences have been committed and provided they are unable to enter or entry has been refused.

"These are very wide powers that should be used sparingly," said Prof Tan, former president of SHS and former president of Icomos Singapore.

Another change allows the director and inspector to enter monuments and proposed ones without warrant, but without force.

They do not have to suspect any wrongdoing has been committed or to be first denied entry before entering.

"My concern is that this may be used too readily without there being a requirement for entry into monuments or sites to first be refused," said Prof Tan.

Professor Ho Puay Peng, head of NUS' Department of Architecture, said the broadened definition of monuments, which would include sites, will align the definition of monuments here with international standards.

With monument maintenance under NHB's purview, Prof Ho said the board could help owners by conducting in-depth research, culminating in conservation management plans for each monument.

He added the plan could lay out the significance of the monument, and this will chart how future uses or works on the monument can retain its historical significance.

This approach will give both NHB and monument owners a deeper understanding of the monument, benefiting their management, said Prof Ho, who holds the Unesco Chair on Architectural Heritage Conservation and Management in Asia.

Dr Lee said NHB could also consider reviewing the National Monuments Fund, a co-funding scheme that it runs to support the maintenance and restoration of monuments, to ensure owners get sufficient assistance for required works.

The Bill will be debated in Parliament this week.

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