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.


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.

Language sensitivities

FOR example, some Tamil speakers are troubled by the growing number of Hindi speakers in Singapore as a result of recent immigration trends. They fear that Tamil, one of the four official languages in Singapore, will decline in importance.

This group of Tamils wants more space in the IHC devoted to South Indian heritage and culture, and less for the North.

The challenge of managing North-South Indian language sensitivities is not new. It surfaced about eight years ago when the Hindu Endowments Board included Hindi, along with Tamil and English, in the Deepavali greeting boards that were displayed in Little India during the annual Deepavali light-up. Some staunch Tamil language supporters disapproved of the board's move.

The organisers responded by keeping the greetings in the three languages but added other languages spoken by tourists who visit the area. In came Chinese, Japanese, and even French.

The Deepavali light-up event, now organised by the Little India Shopkeepers Association, has calibrated this formula by dividing greetings into three languages. More boards now carry greetings in Tamil and English, with fewer of those in Hindi mounted farther down Little India where more non-Tamil speakers gather.

Fortunately for the community, there are now more Tamil voices of reason that can neutralise the views of those who continue to beat the Tamil language drum.

One example is Mr Naseer Ghani, vice-president of the Federation of Indian Muslims.

"We need to focus on the big picture and find ways of making our individual communities' contributions shine in the new heritage centre," he said.

Building a strong community partnership is a must for the Indian centre. It is one indicator of success that the Heritage Institution (HI) sets for the two heritage centres, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC).

The HI, a division within the NHB, helps manage heritage centres in Singapore.

Other indicators include the ability to sustain a vibrant programme that brings back repeat visitors. Positive visitor feedback is also important, said HI's director Alvin Tan. Also monitored are visitor numbers and the level of community involvement in the annual cultural festivals the centres organise.

Artefacts on loan

ANOTHER measure of success is a centre's ability to attract donors and loans of precious artefacts.

One example is a rare Jawi typewriter on display at the MHC in Kampong Glam. Believed to be from the 1960s, it shows the link to the printing and publishing industry that thrived in the area in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In this respect, the IHC is off to a running start as it has already collected over 120 artefacts from Indians in its recent collection drive.

Yet another indicator is the ability to be financially sustainable. The painful journey of the Malay Village provides a cautionary tale. It was meant to showcase Malay culture and heritage, and the idea for the village was first mooted in 1984. Sadly, it became an expensive white elephant. Private operators drew up unrealistic plans, including an idea to build a $10 million high-tech Islamic cultural museum.

The death knell for the village sounded in 2008 when the Urban Redevelopment Authority decided to build a civic centre in its place in 2011.

In its early days, the Malay Heritage Centre also faced financial problems. Set up in 2005 and costing the Government $17 million, the MHC opened with much fanfare. However, it could not become self-sustaining and was forced to turn to the Government for help in 2008.

After a $3 million revamp last year, visitor figures surged, rising to more than 330,000 from September last year to April this year. This compares to 250,000 visitors between September 2009 and April 2010.

To prevent heritage centres from becoming overwhelmed with financial problems, the Government has set up a $30 million fund to help develop and run the Chinese, Malay and Indian heritage centres.

The Eurasian Association (EA) does not dip into this kitty. The NHB provides the EA with other forms of assistance for its heritage gallery in the organisation's Community House.

But running a heritage centre is more than just dollars and cents. Heritage is a mosaic of people's lives. It is key to how a community sees itself, and reinforces its sense of belonging and worth.

The IHC now has a task of Himalayan proportions.

First, it needs to build strong partnerships with the various Indian community groups.

Second, it needs to work with museums and heritage groups elsewhere to make sure the centre has a sustainable and interesting programme of exhibitions and activities.

And all this has to be done, as Mr Iswaran pointed out, on a tight budget in a tight space. But if done right, the IHC may one day glitter in more ways than one.