Saving icons of Singapore

Saving icons of Singapore

SINGAPORE - Pulau Ubin, Changi Village and Chomp Chomp Food Centre have emerged as the forerunners of a poll on the local landmarks Singaporeans most want to see conserved.

The poll was commissioned by SundayLife! last week, following the collective wail that greeted King Albert Park's closure for redevelopment last month, taking with it a McDonald's outlet popular with many Singaporeans in their youth.

With many also lamenting the soon-to-be demise of the hawker institution Lavender Food Square and next-door Eminent Plaza later this year, the poll's aim was to find out the most treasured places and spaces not yet designated for conservation.

Voters were given nine options, all well-known, spread out across the map and with some historical or architectural significance. They were allowed to vote for more than one place on the list and were encouraged to suggest other places they felt should remain the way they are. The online poll last week drew 1,621 votes over 36 hours.

The rustic Pulau Ubin took top spot, drawing 21 per cent of the votes. Coastal Changi Village, with its low-rise flats and hawker stalls, came in second with about 16 per cent of the votes. Another hawker institution, Chomp Chomp, was third with 14 per cent.

Coming in fourth and fifth respectively were pioneering shopping mall People's Park Complex and Bedok Jetty, once the longest public jetty here.

In sixth to ninth spots were former granite quarry Little Guilin, Golden Mile Complex - a mixed-use complex and striking, seminal work of home-grown architecture - the old chalets at East Coast which date back to the 1980s, and now-shuttered Yan Kit Swimming Complex, one of the earliest public pools in the Tanjong Pagar area.

Nominated MP Faizah Jamal, who had asked in recent Parliamentary debates for more to be done to conserve Pulau Ubin, says she is not surprised the island off Singapore's north-east coast was the top choice. "It is probably the last bastion of old Singapore," she says.

Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin says many are likely to have voted for Pulau Ubin because it "offers something special, that the mainland does not".

"It is rustic, away from urban restrictions and provides people a sense of freedom," she says.

Voter Jollie Ng can attest to that. The 22-year-old Nanyang Technological University student says she first set foot on the island when she was 14, for a school camp. "Pulau Ubin is a shelter from busy Singapore, filled with wonderful camping memories. My friends and I will be going there after we graduate from university, to reminisce and to mark the end of our official student lives," she says.

Architectural and urban historian Lai Chee Kien suggests that the top three voters' choices point to people liking distinctive areas "outside of their every day and mainly urban experiences".

Agreeing, Ms Faizah notes: "The old world charm of Pulau Ubin, Changi Village and Chomp Chomp, and even the messiness associated with these places are far removed from the sterility of the glass and steel that we are surrounded by."

Other heritage experts say the top three choices are linked to good memories, which also adds to their popularity.

"People go to Pulau Ubin, Changi Village and Chomp Chomp to have a good time, to eat, and for recreational activities. The positive nature of the activities taking place in these landscapes adds to the value of such sites, and people associate positive things with them," says Associate Professor Chang Tou Chuang from the National University of Singapore's department of geography, who researches on urban and tourism geography.

Dr Lai adds that the options in general point to places that are "familiar ballasts in a still rapidly-changing city state", since several of them "have not seen drastic renovations since the 1970s".

SundayLife! also received more than 30 other suggestions on other spaces, and buildings here that the public wanted to see kept as they are.

Several mentioned the long-established food centres at Newton Circus, Adam Road and Tiong Bahru, while others highlighted green spaces such as Bukit Batok Nature Park, Bukit Brown Cemetery, Sembawang Park and MacRitchie Reservoir.

Some also mentioned sports and recreational areas such as the iconic Queenstown Sports Complex in Stirling Road, which was constructed in 1970. It is Singapore's first neighbourhood sports complex. Also mentioned was the "Dragon Playground" at Toa Payoh Lorong 6. The iconic playground, designed with a dragon motif, was built in 1979, and the HDB confirmed earlier this year that it will be preserved, pending future developments.

A handful of voters also suggested entire districts, such as Pasir Ris, Geylang, Holland Village and Dempsey Hill. Others wanted individual buildings or places to be conserved, such as Kampung Lorong Buangkok - Singapore's last kampung near the Institute of Mental Health, which was built in 1956 and does not have conservation status - downtown bookshop haven Bras Basah Complex, which dates back to the 1980s, and Lim Chu Kang Jetty.

Dr Chua says these responses show that people have "a lot of feeling for places that are part of their everyday life". "Their ideas show us how people in the present connect with things from their past. They are driven by their personal experiences," she says.

Dr Lai adds that the food centres that were highlighted both in the poll and in voters' suggestions are "instructive" to government agencies, which can use these to "find out why hawker centres now have become an identifiable and integral part of Singapore culture, and how to design new ones from now on".

The heritage experts that SundayLife! spoke to gave suggestions of their own too.

Prof Chang called for the distinctive Changi Airport control tower, built in 1981, to be preserved, along with the Merlion. "These are monuments, icons that have carried Singapore's name beyond its shores. The airport's terminals have changed and developed, but the control tower has never really changed its look. It is the first thing that greets you when you return from overseas."

On the Merlion, he says: "We do not go to it for recreation, but it is something unique and distinct. Some will say its a strange creature, but whether you like it or not, it has lasted through decades and it is something that tourists can immediately identify with."

Ms Faizah singled out Kampung Lorong Buangkok as well as several expansive tree-lined roads, such as Neo Tiew and Upper Thomson roads, which she says "are not ugly highways" and give a sense of space.

Dr Chua mentioned the iconic Chinese theme park Haw Par Villa, known for its 10 Courts of Hell, which she says "has no official preservation status" at the moment.

"Its future is uncertain," she says, although she notes the Singapore Tourism Board's efforts to revitalise the place. This month, the grounds will be opened up to arts groups for exhibitions and workshops.

Several voters lamented that the Singapore they know is being taken away from them. Facebook user Natalie Lian wrote: "How can one feel a sense of belonging when bits and pieces of these memories are slowly but surely stripped away?"

The heritage experts say there is plenty that the public can do to highlight the fact that they want certain places preserved. Says Dr Chua: "Singaporeans must come forward to show how much the places mean to them. The Government will be more willing to preserve places that people show a deep sense of attachment to."

Last month, it was announced in Parliament that lovers of Pulau Ubin will be asked to give their ideas on how the popular island can be protected and enhanced. The Government hopes that a wide range of people, from island residents to interest groups and experts, will give their views in an upcoming consultation, to be led by Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee.

Ms Faizah says this is an opportunity for the public to share to their views. "It is the best chance we have of doing it right this time," she says.

She urges: "Tell your MPs, write to the press, have conversations with your friends in constructive, empowering ways. Brainstorm ideas and solutions."

Dr Chua says people can also join interest groups on Facebook and other social media platforms to connect with other like-minded individuals.

Adds Prof Chang: "When the URA has an exhibition of their Master Plan, you can give feedback during a certain period. Those are opportunities for your opinions to be heard."

The URA's Master Plan, which guides land use, is updated every five years. The latest, the Draft Master Plan 2013, was unveiled last November and will be finalised by June this year.

Which landmarks do you want to see kept the way they are? E-mail

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