Looking forward to 2017: Building momentum in efforts to protect local history

The fate of the National Aerated Water Company building, one of the last few examples of industrial heritage here, is up in the air.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Even as 2016 draws to a close, with many notable events shaping what has been called by many a year of change, 2017 looks to be a significant year. The Straits Times looks at what to expect for housing, education and heritage in the new year.


For years, the former National Aerated Water Company factory stood, disused and seemingly forgotten. Then, on Dec 9, came the news that the 62-year-old building in Serangoon Road had been sold to a Malaysian developer and could be razed to make way for a condominium.

It sparked rigorous discussion in the heritage community, which opposed the move, citing the building's history and architecture.

Although the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced later that the building could be conserved, its fate is still unclear and some sort of compromise between URA and the new owner will have to be struck.

This tension between development and heritage conservation and preservation could be eased when the results of the National Heritage Board's (NHB's) tangible heritage survey are released in the second half of next year.

The study - the first such comprehensive survey by the board - seeks to put together a list of Singapore's key landmarks and sites, with the aim of stepping up efforts to safeguard heritage as part of the NHB's broader mission of heritage commemoration and preservation. The findings will be shared with the public, who can contribute their personal stories and memories.

A $550,000 tender for the study called by NHB was awarded to art and history consultant Art Logica last year.

Dr Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, who is part of the Art Logica team, said the public can look forward to "some interesting findings".

Singapore Heritage Society executive member Yeo Kang Shua said the data will come in useful if particular areas or places are targeted for development in future.

"The information will arm us with the knowledge of what we can safeguard. More importantly, it will also form the basis of an informed, rational and objective dialogue of what we can't save and take proactive measures to mitigate the loss," Dr Yeo said.

The survey results are expected to improve coordination among development agencies, heritage bodies and civil society.

Meanwhile, a team from anthropology company Ethnographica was tasked with handling NHB's intangible cultural heritage survey earlier this year.

NHB said results for this will likely be announced in 2018. About 150 types of intangible cultural heritage, including oral traditions such as folktales, are expected to be identified.

Within the sector, there could be a push towards greater emphasis on more skilled restoration techniques and processes.

At the URA's Architectural Heritage Awards in October, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee said: "While we can conserve buildings, we can achieve better heritage outcomes if they are restored through appropriate research, considered design and technical or scientific methods by professionals."

In a similar vein, experts have been calling for more Singaporeans to be trained to acquire the know- how to protect the country's historic structures and streetscapes. This would require all players, including academia, to contribute.

Another item on the community's wish list is better coordination of public portals among custodians of the country's historical records and heritage data.

This is on the back of a clear trend: More Singaporeans are interested enough to visit museums and heritage institutions.

Last year, about 3.8 million people - an all-time high - visited the national museums and heritage institutions, up from three million the year before.

Next year, new trails and revamped galleries will be added to the mix.

For instance, NHB will be launching a heritage trail of Little India next month. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, the board will be organising a series of World War II guided tours, among other things. And on Feb 16, the National Archives of Singapore will be re-opening its Memories at Old Ford Factory museum, which focuses on World War II.

The National Parks Board has also launched a Pulau Ubin trail to celebrate the island's cultural heritage and rustic character.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens will open its Learning Forest early next year as well as roll out an exhibition at its CDL Green Gallery, which will run from late February to April. This will feature the works of Mr Eng Siak Loy, who designed some of the Gardens' heritage landmarks such as its clock tower.


This article was first published on Dec 28, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.