‘Garden city’ Jurong a Heritage Town contender - Experts

SINGAPORE - Jurong could be a strong contender for the second edition of the Heritage Town award to be given out by the National Heritage Board next year.

Heritage experts such as architectural historian Lai Chee Kien, say the estate - broadly inspired by the late British urban planner Ebenezer Howard's garden city concept - is a microcosm of Singapore's industrial and green development over the decades.

This concept calls for self-contained communities, including residences, industries and agriculture, surrounded by "greenbelts".

"Singapore's own interpretation of the concept, which incorporated green and leisure spaces within industrial towns, has helped soften the estate's industrial nature. This concept from the 1950s to 1960s later contributed to the development of Singapore as a garden city," said Dr Lai.

The award, held for two years, was won by Joo Chiat in 2011.

Aside from strong contenders like Queenstown and Tiong Bahru, naval architect and heritage buff Jerome Lim, 48, reckons Sembawang, Toa Payoh Central and Radin Mas have what it takes.

Sembawang, for instance, used to be home to a naval base, which was built by the British government during the 1920s and 30s. Toa Payoh - the Housing Board's second satellite town after Queenstown - has religious sites such as the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery and Seu Teck Sean Tong, said Mr Lim, who has documented Singapore's historically and culturally rich estates in his blog.

The second edition of the award will involve a three-month-long search for a town that best embodies Singapore's heritage and culture. More than 100 towns here are eligible.

Submissions can come from the community and interest groups, but they have to be processed by the candidate-towns' Citizens' Consultative Committees (CCCs) - grassroots organisations under the People's Association which work with grassroots advisers of a constituency.

The winning town's CCC will receive $100,000 in funding for heritage-related activities.

A panel of seven judges will assess submissions of the towns based on their vision, past and future heritage activities, and level of innovation.

There is great interest in vying for the award due to the impact it has in raising heritage awareness.

In the case of Joo Chiat, the prize money helped promote Peranakan and Eurasian cultures, among others, via arts performances, architecture and cuisine.

Dr Uma Rajan, spokesman for Joo Chiat CCC, said: "Grassroots leaders and residents alike began taking a deeper interest in everything heritage - from the old boundaries, the old sealine where new condominiums now stand alongside the old hotels, to road names."

While commending the award for celebrating "place histories", experts propose channelling funds and efforts towards the promotion of heritage activities in lesser-known estates, such as Yew Tee and Changi.

This requires greater urgency, as the collective memories of these estates tend to fade over time, said cultural geographer Lily Kong, of the National University of Singapore.

Experts also pointed to the limitations of having the award go through the CCCs, and said the boundaries of certain heritage sites in towns are not clearly defined. Said Dr Lai: "Which CCC can represent Bukit Brown Cemetery, which (site) has heritage value to be documented?"

Dr Kong concurred: "Places with a certain identity and heritage may cut across electoral and CCC boundaries."

Meanwhile, grassroots leaders in Tiong Bahru say they are weighing the merits of the award before deciding whether to apply. While winning can generate pride, the "practical needs" of residents also have to be taken into consideration, said Seng Poh Residents' Committee chairman Kelvin Ang.

While businesses might benefit from more visitors, residents may baulk at the possibility of overcrowding, he said.

"Just like any other heritage site in the world - we need to balance site promotion and the needs of the existing community."

melodyz@sph.com.sg


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