Heritage survey can pave way for greater public say

The 150-year-old Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple is one of the historic sites marked by the National Heritage Board.

Understandbly, heritage buffs have welcomed last month's announcement that the National Heritage Board (NHB) will conduct a comprehensive survey of heritage sites and landmarks.

After all, at least one of their number put forward the need for such a survey 15 years ago. But now that its time has come, many in the heritage community wonder if the NHB's survey will go far enough in addressing the heritage needs of today.

The reason? NHB's focus on a "baseline survey" to create a list of sites, landmarks and traditions of heritage value.

But it did add that the survey is the first step towards a more long- term strategic plan for heritage planning. Its spokesman said: "With funding secured, it allows NHB to embark on this, which has always been in our plans.

The survey provides a stock-take on current heritage buildings and sites, a comprehensive inventory list, as well as a broad understanding of our heritage landscape."

NHB is expected to spend $1 million on the survey.

However, in the past few years, several heritage controversies have emerged, amid the lack of publicly inclusive, comprehensive and formal formulation of what "heritage" actually is, and what sites might have it and need protecting.

For example, last year's decision to raze the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) 1958 Dakota Crescent estate for new developments under Mountbatten's estate renewal plans raised questions of community heritage versus the need for infrastructure development.

Heritage experts see the two-year survey period as a time for NHB to work with interest groups, activists and the public, to create awareness and appreciation of heritage, and preservation and conservation issues.

They also hope NHB will be more consultative and less secretive in its selection of heritage sites.

The NHB survey

THE NHB will be introducing a heritage panel consisting of architects, anthropologists and historians, among others, to advise on best practice.

A grant will also be launched to fund heritage research by non-governmental organisations and institutions of higher learning. Their findings will be included in the survey.

The study will rely on information from archives, field visits and existing academic research as well.

The final list will include places where significant historical events took place, buildings with architectural merit, or social and cultural landmarks meaningful to a community. Key findings will be shared with the public.

NHB said more details on the survey's methodology and scope will be published next week.

Heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo noted the survey represents political will in the Government to support a comprehensive inventory of what he hopes will span Singapore's 700-year history.

Hong Kong, Malacca, Medan and Jakarta have attempted such surveys before but these were not comprehensive, said Dr Widodo.

Dr Kevin Tan, the president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore (Icomos), described it as a "long time coming".

He had first proposed the survey about 15 years ago when he sat on the NHB's preservation arm, the Preservation of Monuments Board (now known as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, or PSM), as a board member.

"The heritage survey is the first step to see what we have before we can decide on further legislation that could give the NHB more bite and justification to protect our heritage," said Dr Tan.

But it cannot merely serve as a catalogue of places, said Dr Widodo.

He and other experts said it is a tremendous opportunity for the Government to get the community on board, and to develop a sense of identity over shared places and experiences.

Some experts point out that heritage decisions are still largely made behind closed doors.

Detailed reports on why sites and structures have been preserved or conserved are rarely made public.

Currently, the PSM is responsible for giving a building the status of a national monument.

The process involves a multidisciplinary advisory committee which provides input to PSM.

Property owners and other stakeholders are also consulted before a decision to gazette is then put to the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth for approval, said NHB.

Under the Preservation of Monuments Act, a national monument should have historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic significance, and be of national importance.

Preservation is the strictest form of legal protection - building owners cannot alter or repair any national monument without NHB's approval.

Then there is conservation, which falls under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), which studies buildings for possible conservation as part of land- use planning.

A conserved building can be re-purposed, but its original structure and architectural elements should be retained or restored as far as possible.

Buildings must meet standards such as having architectural, historical or social merit.

Owners can submit their sites for consideration and "public feedback is taken into account", said a URA spokesman.

But the selection process is ultimately kept under wraps and, in the case of URA, comes under the Official Secrets Act.

Experts say that inertia behind opening up such discussions to the public could stem from when Singapore was a young nation and there was a fear that such exercises could slow down or halt development.

The Singapore Management University's heritage law expert Jack Lee criticised the lack of transparency, saying: "We don't know what happens during the discussion phase as these tend to be an internal process that is not made clear to the public."

He noted that with Bukit Brown Cemetery, civic groups and the public were clued in on plans to build a road through it only after the decision was made.

Unless this practice is corrected, heritage will always "be in subservience to the country's development needs", he said.

However, in recent years, the Government has made some headway in public engagement efforts.

In 2002, the URA introduced a multidisciplinary conservation advisory panel to give feedback on its proposals and to suggest buildings to include.

It also surveyed the public to identify places endearing to them as part of plans for the Master Plan 2003.

URA staff engaged grassroots organisations, building and property professionals, non-governmental groups, business owners, residents and students.

This was the authority's first comprehensive public feedback exercise on places with unique character and buildings to be conserved.

It took about two years. The URA said decision to subsequently conserve about 700 buildings and structures.

What the survey could be

Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien hopes the "relevant advice and considered solutions" given by local experts in past government consultation exercises will be factored in, citing their weigh-ins on the importance of, for instance, saving flats built by the SIT, the Housing Board's predecessor.

The Singapore Heritage Society's president, Dr Chua Ai Lin, said the survey is an opportunity to provide hands-on training and experience in cultural mapping skills to a fresh pool of committed volunteers.

Dr Widodo suggested that survey organisers tap crowdsourcing technology to put together a more thorough map of Singapore's tangible and intangible heritage.

For example, simple tools such as Google Maps could be used to let members of the public drop pins on areas they consider worthy of further research. Technology can also be used to grade and categorise such inputs.

This means having a system which allows both the Government, experts and the public to organise sites, structures and landmarks. Such a wide-ranging approach could capture the significance of buildings that contribute to the Republic's nation-building narrative - such as the first HDB flats, blocks 45, 48 and 49 in Stirling Road.

A more holistic assessment would see places like these, which may not have high historical or architectural impact but which have community significance, holding heritage status.

The survey should have a clear objective of putting on public record its aims, methodology, criteria and evaluation process. NHB should publish its full, not just key, findings.

Cultural geographer Lily Kong from the National University of Singapore said the survey is a starting point for more conversations on heritage, where a consensus can be developed on what exactly the country's "steeply embedded" heritage values are.

Icomos' Dr Tan agreed. "If people have access to this information, then they can build upon it and there will be something on the agenda for discussion."

Time for a mindset shift

Today, the authorities can afford to adopt a more measured, broader approach to balancing development needs with heritage concerns, as large expanses of land are no longer needed to address infrastructure crises.

Rather than view the survey as a state initiative to compile a definitive list of heritage sites, NHB can get the community involved, and build greater awareness of heritage issues.

It can be the blueprint for a new heritage consciousness, in which community enthusiasts have some say in determining what stands or goes in their neighbourhoods, and where government planning agencies get to explain the rationale behind decisions.

It also serves as a test-bed to explore how the public can have a greater role in the heritage process.

Done right, this survey can act as the foundation for the next phase of the nation's heritage journey.

melodyz@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 23, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

SERVICES