WHEN Singapore turns 50 in two years' time, it could well receive a most befitting gift to mark its coming of age: a Unesco World Heritage Site stamp of approval.
It has hired a British consultant to put together a dossier for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to submit to the global body - known formally as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) - hopefully by its deadline next February.
Chris Blandford Associates helped the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London, snag the coveted status in 2003.
Once the nomination documents are submitted, experts from one of Unesco's advisory bodies will carry out site assessments and study the dossier before making their recommendations. This process takes a year.
The World Heritage Committee is made up of 21 elected members - including Malaysia and Japan - serving four-year terms. When they meet around June 2015, Singapore's fate will be decided.
It is a tedious, if not costly, affair.
In a 2007 study commissioned by Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport to look at the cost and benefits of World Heritage Site status in Britain, it was estimated that the cost of producing a bid which reaches the Unesco committee for approval is between £420,000 and £570,000 (S$793,000 and S$1.07 million)
Each year, up to 45 natural or man-made wonders are picked for protection.
If Singapore does get on the list, few are likely to quibble over the price. Benefits - tangible and intangible - that come with the Unesco tag are numerous.
"You may say it's an ISO 9000 on a heritage site," said Mr Tan Wee Cheng, honorary treasurer of the Singapore Heritage Society, in reference to the international quality standards for companies.
"The soft power of a place rises. People will think Singapore is not just a place to make money and to shop. You have culture of world significance."
There are 962 properties in 157 countries on the list, which recognises cultural or natural sites deemed to have outstanding universal value.
The 154-year-old Botanic Gardens is not a controversial choice, although it should not be seen as merely a colonial creation, argued Mr Tan, who says it is a repository of many histories.
The site's contribution to the world lies in the role it has played in scientific plant research and economic botany. Rubber tapping - in which latex is removed from trees without harming them - was pioneered at the gardens around the end of the 19th century.
"The idea that these places don't just belong to a country but are a shining example for all humanity is important," said Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society.
"Singapore Botanic Gardens could sit at the same table as Taj Mahal. It says something about our heritage."
The economic benefits, as evidenced by many other World Heritage Sites, are obvious.
The number of tourists to the ancient town of Hoi An in Vietnam, for instance, jumped 24 per cent the first year after it was inscribed in 1999 and 82 per cent the year after.
The town has had an annual economic growth of 13 per cent since the Unesco listing, with tourism making up more than half of it. Tourism has also created employment opportunities and lifted income levels and standards of living for residents.
The Botanic Gardens may not be the first stop on every tourist's "to do" list right now as it competes with shopping, the integrated resorts and the Gardens by the Bay.
But Ms Alicia Seah, senior vice-president for marketing and public relations at CTC Travel, believes the Unesco brand will draw crowds.
"The Singapore Tourism Board is after quality tourism now. If the Botanic Gardens becomes a World Heritage Site, it becomes a must-see. I'm sure it will sell," she said.
Beyond the dollars, a Unesco listing has other positive knock-on effects such as cultivating a sense of civic pride.
George Town in Penang and Malacca were listed together by Unesco in 2008 and have both undergone gentrification, said leading Malaysian conservationist Laurence Loh, who was instrumental in getting the former named as a World Heritage Site.
"There is a sense of pride. People now understand what heritage is. Penang is slowly but surely renewing itself," said Professor Loh, whose conservation projects like Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Merdeka Stadium and Cheng Hoon Teng Temple have won him Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.
"Everyone says the city looks nice, tidy and clean. The feeling of dilapidation is not there any more. And new businesses have opened."
If the Botanic Gardens does get the Unesco nod of approval, the site would be responsible for sharing its knowledge and assets with the world, said Dr Lum.
"The gardens will be in a position to generate interest not just for itself but horticultural science and public education, and it would benefit many, if it could take its expertise and spread it more widely.
"Unesco status would give it that extra authority."
However, there is a real danger that a heritage site could "turn into a Disneyland", warned heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo, a jury member of the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.
"We tend to commoditise the heritage. The original spirit is the opposite of that. It's not about selling things to make more money, but to preserve it for mankind," said Professor Widodo.
A listing should be seen as a responsibility rather than an endorsement, he said.
"The most difficult task now is to make people realise that with the Unesco inscription, comes this new responsibility, that we are protecting and nurturing something that does not just belong to us, but the world."
Indeed, many World Heritage Sites have suffered from mass tourism.
Temples at Cambodia's 1,000-year-old Angkor Archaeological Park have been damaged by pollution from planes flying close overhead and hundreds of nearby hotels that pump water from underground.
Experts have warned that its renowned Bayon temple could even collapse.
Unregulated businesses that have popped up at many World Heritage Sites have also spoiled the overall experience and hindered conservation work.
Unesco has been trying to arrest such problems by drawing up guidelines and asking countries for management plans.
In its nomination dossier, Singapore will need to spell out how it plans to protect the Botanic Gardens.
Unesco demands that any nominated property must already be protected under local laws. The Botanic Gardens is gazetted as a national park under the Parks and Trees Act.
The authorities would also have to submit a report every six years to make sure the outstanding universal value of the site has not been compromised.
In rare occurrences, Unesco can choose to delist a site or categorise it as "world heritage in danger" to encourage corrective action.
Ultimately, getting on the list is as much about having something truly worthy in your backyard as it is about pushing the right buttons.
Much depends on how the dossier is compiled.
"In the hands of someone knowledgeable, with a good command of English, you will be in a better position to represent the values of the place accurately," said Prof Loh, who was involved in the first draft of George Town's submission.
"There is a lot of politics in the run-up to the listing."
When Malaysia was putting in its bid for George Town and Malacca, it held an exhibition at the Unesco headquarters in Paris, "just to persuade and get visibility".
"In a nutshell, it's how many hands you press. That counts for a lot," said Prof Loh.
Chris Blandford Associates is not the only consultant the Singapore Government has hired for the job.
In 2010, it engaged the help of two conservation experts, professors Lynne D. DiStefano and Lee Ho Yin of the University of Hong Kong, to examine which site held Singapore's best chance of Unesco status.
A few places were suggested: the historic districts of Little India, Kampong Glam and Chinatown; the civic district, Tiong Bahru, Fort Canning and the Botanic Gardens.
Since news broke that Singapore has made a pitch for the gardens to be listed, there have been renewed discussions about other potential sites.
Bukit Brown has been mooted for its rich biodiversity, being a testament to a cultural tradition and bearing unique and outstanding artistry on the tombs' architecture.
Its supporters point to a 1917 cemetery, Skogskyrkogården in Sweden, which was inscribed in 1994 for having successfully blended nature and architecture.
The Singapore Heritage Society said it believes "all possibilities should be explored" and that there should be open discussions on current and future nominations.
"Public engagement doesn't stop if and when we get on the list. It should not be seen as a trophy. It should instead be the start of a process of understanding our own heritage, what is important to us and what we want to conserve," said Mr Tan.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 6, 2013
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