Removal of historical boundary markers from Dover Forest raises concerns

Workers wrapping Tan Kim Seng's boundary marker to prepare it for removal from Dover Forest on Oct 27, 2021. PHOTO: NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD

SINGAPORE - They were removed for safekeeping, treatment and possibly public education, but the decision to extract two historical boundary markers found in Dover Forest has raised eyebrows among some heritage enthusiasts here.

In November last year and February this year, the National Heritage Board (NHB) announced that it had removed and added them to the national collection.

One belonged to Straits Chinese merchant Tan Kim Seng while the other was owned by Teochew businessman Sim Liang Whang. The land they were found on belongs to the state.

Amateur historian Walter Lim, 58, told The Straits Times that he feels extracting the markers is not the best way to preserve them, as removing them from their context renders them less meaningful.

Echoing his sentiments, architectural historian Yeo Kang Shua, 46, said that as a general principle for heritage conservation, every effort should be made to ensure that conservation of a heritage asset is carried out in its original location except in extenuating circumstances, such as when redevelopment makes it impossible to keep the asset on site.

"This is preferred over ex-situ conservation or relocation because the context or surroundings of heritage assets are linked to their significance," he added.

"In the case of boundary markers, they are inextricably tied to the land."

NHB said in a statement to ST that it considered the markers' historical significance, physical condition and "the best way to safeguard them" before they were extracted.

"In fact, the exposed (Tan Kim Seng) marker was deteriorating due to erosion and subject to possible vandalism," it added.

It noted that before objects are accessioned to the national collection, they are assessed on a case-by-case basis, with factors such as their significance and value, how they would help tell the Singapore story, and whether there are similar objects in the collection taken into consideration.

"The objects must also complement the collecting strategies of our museums and heritage institutions, and be suitable for public display," said NHB, which has put Sim's marker on display at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

Mr Lim suggested that the authorities could record the positions of known historical boundary markers to ensure they do not become lost during future redevelopment projects.

Those that are deemed more valuable could have educational signboards erected next to them, and be included in existing heritage trails, he said.

"Removing and keeping the markers in the museum as a preservation method should be a last resort," he added.

Another concern raised by observers was the removal of "live" markers, which refers to markers that continue to mark present-day land lots. When such a marker is removed, the law states that the chief surveyor may require it to be replaced.

Of the two extracted markers, Tan's marker was still in use, demarcating the boundary of a land lot belonging to the state. NHB obtained the chief surveyor's approval for its extraction.

In a joint statement to ST, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and NHB said there was no need to install a replacement for the marker as the land lots adjacent to it are also state land.

As for Sim's marker, SLA and NHB said it was no longer in use, and hence "no further permission was required for its extraction".

Map research consultant Mok Ly Yng, 54, compared the removal of "live" historical markers with removing a rare animal species from its natural habitat and turning it into a dead artefact for museum display.

"Boundary markers are part and parcel of the land; in a museum they no longer serve their original purpose," he said.

Others like Mr Matthew Goh, 48, a hiker who had visited the recently discovered Gim Bee marker in Adam Drive, said displaying the markers in museums may make them more accessible to the public and allow more to learn about their history, as remaining historical boundary markers are often in difficult-to-access areas.

Remote video URL

NHB said prior to the extraction, stakeholders such as known and contactable descendants of the marker's owners were engaged. While Tan's descendants were contacted, it was unable to contact Sim's relatives.

The two agencies added that markers should not be damaged, destroyed or removed, and that land owners are responsible for preserving those erected on the boundaries of their land.

The law states that the chief surveyor has powers to place boundary marks, as well as alter, repair or remove them. He may also authorise a registered surveyor to place the marks, which today take on several forms such as iron pipes and nails.

"When there is a need to remove the boundary markers, prior approval from the chief surveyor should be sought and each application will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, including whether replacement boundary marker(s) are needed," said SLA and NHB.

Those who wish to find out if a boundary marker is still in use may write to the chief surveyor, who is responsible for maintaining all survey records, at sla_enquiry@sla.gov.sg

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.