Can the Indian Heritage Centre glitter?

Can the Indian Heritage Centre glitter?

Work has just started on the Indian Heritage Centre, a new kid on the block of heritage institutions in Singapore. Already, it faces daunting challenges in defining what heritage it should showcase and in getting buy-in from the diverse Indian community here.

SINGAPORE - The $12 million iconic Indian Heritage Centre (IHC), which celebrates the heritage of the diverse Indian community in Singapore, will fling its doors open to the public in two years' time.

Situated at the crossroads of Campbell Lane and Clive Street in Little India, the new building will have a stunning facade: an ancient Indian stepwell that resembles a jewel in the day and a glowing lantern by night.

The building will house five permanent galleries, activity spaces and a rooftop garden.

Rare artefacts and multimedia presentations will offer visitors a glimpse into the lives of the Indian pioneers, their roles in creating the unique Singapore identity and the community's links with the global Indian diaspora.

Controversy

BUT even before it opens its doors, the heritage centre looks set to become embroiled in debates involving the various Indian communities here. These include controversies over what Indian heritage to showcase, how much space should be devoted to the different regions and religions of India, and whether the centre can be financially sustainable.

Some challenges in setting up the centre were raised at a ground-breaking ceremony in April. Mr S. Iswaran, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and Second Minister for Home Affairs and Trade and Industry, who chairs the IHC's steering committee, said the work has to be done "within a tight site and even tighter budget". The IHC's four-storey building will sit on a 1,000 sq m location in Serangoon Road.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam added two other challenges.

One was the need for further research to trace the origins of the word "Serangoon", which gives its name to one of the earliest roads in Singapore, built in the 1820s.

The other challenge he highlighted was said in jest. But it is an important one, nonetheless.

"As I was reading the leaflet calling for contributions, I did have a slight sense of trepidation because they called for contributions for personal memorabilia from leading personalities. And in the Indian community, everyone is a leading personality."

One key challenge facing the IHC now is to capture the essence of the contributions of a diverse minority community.

According to the 2010 population census, there are more than 340,000 Indians in Singapore. Of these, more than half, or 54.2 per cent, are Tamil speakers.

The others speak about 10 other languages. They include the Telugus and Malayalees from South India, and the Punjabis, Gujaratis and Sindhis from the North.

To seek views from these diverse groups, the National Heritage Board (NHB) invited 56 Indian community groups to its six feedback sessions. It was a much larger gathering of groups than similar ones held for the Chinese and Malay heritage centres.

At the NHB sessions, all the Indian representatives present voiced their support for the IHC's storyline. They were also eager to share their organisations' histories, and offered documents and objects for possible display at the new centre.

The problem, however, is that the Indian community in Singapore is varied - and can be contentious.

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