Survey to identify sites with archaeological value in Singapore

It could pave way for experts to step in early; laws, framework for the field to be developed

At the travelling roadshow at Raffles City Shopping Centre, visitors can learn about Singapore's first national heritage plan and give feedback.
At the travelling roadshow at Raffles City Shopping Centre, visitors can learn about Singapore's first national heritage plan and give feedback. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

A nationwide survey will be done to identify sites of archaeological interest, possibly allowing archaeologists to step in early to survey and excavate in future before developers swing in.

Such sites could include the mouth of the Singapore River - home to an early settlement and later a thriving harbour - and others with ancient settlements and trade activities.

The National Heritage Board (NHB), which will carry out the survey, will also collaborate with organisations such as the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and the National University of Singapore to establish a legislative and operational framework for the field.

Archaeologists and experts had previously pointed out gaps in existing legislation - for instance the lack of clarity on the ownership of artefacts dug up in Singapore.

NHB said the framework will therefore look into policies of ownership, research and development, and the regulation of excavations.

The survey was announced yesterday at a roadshow at Raffles City Shopping Centre. It is one of the updates on the first five-year phase (2018 to 2022) of the Republic's first holistic blueprint for the heritage and museum sector, which will be officially launched in April.

The blueprint has been divided into four categories: our places, our culture, our treasures and our community.

On places, NHB said it will work closely with planning agencies from "an early stage". This follows calls by experts and the public to incorporate heritage considerations into development plans from the outset.

Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's assistant chief executive of policy and community, said planning agencies will be able, for instance, to check against its inventory of tangible heritage. If a site has heritage features, mitigation or commemorative measures can then be worked out.

This inventory will be made public by the end of the year.

NHB said the aim is to achieve a balance between meeting Singapore's development needs and maintaining the history and character of its places and buildings.

Mr Tan added: "We felt that it is timely to put together a masterplan that actually brings together all the different agencies and all the stakeholders to co-develop these strategies and initiatives to effectively address these issues."

Under the "our treasures" component, NHB said it will focus on developing more exhibitions to showcase local stories, artefacts and exhibits, and Singaporean curators.

Under the "our community" component, NHB will be ramping up support for ground-up projects through its heritage participation and project grants. It will conduct clinics to equip its partners "with the necessary knowledge and skill sets" to execute heritage projects successfully.

For the "our culture" component, Mr Tan said the board will be completing its ongoing survey of intangible cultural heritage by the year end. Intangible cultural heritage includes things like oral traditions and social practices.

NHB plans to introduce a scheme to recognise intangible cultural heritage practitioners to ensure traditional crafts are passed on.

Archaeologist Lim Chen Sian of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute's Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre said new archaeological explorations could unearth more data about the island's history as a trading outpost and colony, and could also shed light on early industries such as brick-making.

He added: "Our built heritage is probably the best protected in Asia - we have more than 7,000 conserved buildings and 72 national monuments. Now, it is time to consider archaeology."

NHB's travelling exhibition on the heritage plan will run until Feb 4. After its week-long run until Sunday at Raffles City Shopping Centre, it will move to Toa Payoh HDB Hub, Lot One and Our Tampines Hub. Visitors can give their feedback on the spot.

The heritage blueprint, first announced last year, will be updated every five years, with the long-term aim of setting out goals for 2030.

Mr Tan said: "Ultimately, we hope this masterplan is something we co-develop and co-create with Singaporeans so that it is something they can be proud of and something we can leave behind for future generations of Singaporeans."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline Survey to identify sites with archaeological value in Singapore. Subscribe