Singapore seeks to select intangible heritage item for Unesco list

Dialogue will be held with community to uncover things that resonate with people

Malaysia has Mak Yong theatre from the villages of Kelantan; Indonesia has Indonesian batik, the art of boat building in South Sulawesi and three genres of traditional dance in Bali, among others.

The question of what would be Singapore's first item on Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Representative List is now under consideration, Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, revealed during the debate on her ministry's budget.

The list was started in 2008 following Unesco's Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to raise awareness about the importance of such heritage items and ensure their protection.

Ms Fu announced yesterday that Singapore ratified this convention last month, committing to safeguard its cultural heritage. She added that Singapore is working to identify its first item on the Unesco list.

In a National Heritage Board (NHB) poll this year, some respondents suggested Singapore hawker food such as rojak, bak kut teh, dosai or char kway teow, when asked what ICH was significant to them.

Food resonated most strongly with the more than 3,000 respondents.

Ms Fu said: "In the coming months, we will continue our conversations with the community to uncover the intangibles that resonate with Singaporeans."

NHB chief executive Chang Hwee Nee said the potential listing is part of the board's hope "to share our multicultural aspects of our heritage with the international community, and contribute to the diverse cultures of the world".

There has been controversy from time to time over the listing of ICH items. But an item's listing does not imply it belongs, originates from or exists only in the submitting country.

The bid to have a Singapore item on the ICH list comes as Singaporeans pay more attention to the island's history and heritage, and follows the successful listing of the Botanic Gardens as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015 during SG50.

Mr Victor Yue, honorary treasurer of the Singapore Heritage Society, said: "While food is important because we are a foodie nation, there are also other art forms and interesting localised religious rituals worthy of being documented and even listed."

For example, some dialect-run Catholic churches in Singapore have their own interpretations of wakes and funeral rituals, he added.

The Republic is drawing up a comprehensive blueprint for the heritage sector, which would include an inventory for its intangible cultural heritage, in partnership with local communities, academics and experts.

Some $66 million has been set aside to implement this plan.

The ICH inventory will be released in batches over the next few months. It is unclear when an ICH of Singapore will officially be listed with Unesco, although some observers speculate that the inscription could take place next year - the year of Singapore's bicentennial.

Ms Fu said changes will be made to the relevant legislation in the next two years to better support the preservation of tangible and intangible heritage here, and safeguard Singapore's archaeological history more effectively.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2018, with the headline Singapore seeks to select intangible heritage item for Unesco list. Subscribe