Unesco listing: It takes a community

In 2011, National Parks Board librarian Christina Soh spent hours thumbing through boxes of archival materials in London's Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

Her mission: to substantiate historic facts about the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which was a satellite of the 1759 Kew Gardens.

The 60-year-old also sought to learn more about the key players in the Botanic Gardens' history, such as former directors Henry Ridley and Richard Eric Holttum.

At the time, Singapore was already working towards a bid to nominate the Botanic Gardens for Unesco World Heritage status. It was listed as a Unesco site by the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany, last Saturday.

Over two trips in 2011 and 2012, Ms Soh went through the handwritten letters and expedition notes of the gardens' first director, Sir Henry. These included letters to Kew asking for manpower and finances to run the gardens in Singapore.

She listed experts and members of the community who helped put together the gardens' nomination dossier for its Unesco bid. They included the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) Singapore, Nature Society Singapore and even the great-granddaughter of pioneer Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay, Madam Hoo Miew Oon.

Dr Nigel Taylor, the former curator at the Kew Gardens and current Singapore Botanic Gardens director, told The Straits Times that the staff engaged the community from the start to "raise awareness of the bid and make it clear that this was an all-inclusive project, not just one run by government".

On the sidelines of the announcement in Germany, National Heritage Board (NHB) chief executive Rosa Daniel credited the successful listing to community support.

"This would not have been possible if we had not been able to bring together the support of the community. It wasn't just from the public, but the stakeholders, our heritage interest groups, our experts who endorsed that."

Dr Taylor and Ms Jean Wee, director of NHB's Preservation of Sites and Monuments, embarked on their 1 1/2-year mission to assemble a nomination dossier in 2013.

Icomos Singapore, which comprises heritage practitioners, was commissioned to provide historic information. Among other things, it found the gardens continued its activities even during the Japanese Occupation. Its research into the Syonan Shimbun, or Syonan Times, showed performances by the Syonan Police Band were held there from May 1942 to September 1944.

Said its president, Dr Kevin Tan: "We were anxious for the pitch to succeed and we wanted to cover all angles as thoroughly as possible in terms of the site's social history and architectural heritage."

Meanwhile, Nature Society president Shawn Lum said his group emphasised the role that the gardens and its directors played in green conservation.

Madam Hoo did her part by contributing Whampoa's antique cactus pots and two large flower pots to add to the gardens' collection of artefacts. Her ancestor was fluent in English and a leading member of the Agri-Horticultural Society who helped negotiate with the colonial government for the gardens' establishment.

The gardens will continue to work with the community, said Dr Taylor. It has established a stakeholder committee, which will meet every six months and help oversee the gardens' site-management plan.


This article was first published on July 7, 2015.
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