Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Emergence of Heritage Conservation in Singapore and the Preservation of Monuments Board (1958-76)

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Emergence of Heritage Conservation in Singapore and the Preservation of Monuments Board (1958-76)

Article excerpt

In Singapore, where a strong state has driven heritage conservation measures, there has evolved a distribution of conservation work between two state agencies-the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Preservation of Monuments Board (known since 2013 as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments). The Urban Redevelopment Authority has designated whole conservation zones, while the smaller Preservation of Monuments Board has picked out individual historic monuments and buildings for preservation. The beginning of heritage conservation in Singapore lies with the events that led to the creation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1971. The Urban Redevelopment Authority did not commence its involvement in heritage conservation until much later. The Urban Redevelopment Authority's designation of key conservation areas, such as Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India, started only in the 1980s. Singapore's heritage non-governmental organization, the Singapore Heritage Society, was not established until 1987. The Preservation of Monuments Board had already been listing historic buildings for conservation for 16 years. Studying the history of the creation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in Singapore reveals the forces behind the early emergence of heritage conservation in Singapore and how Western ideas and institutions provided models for heritage conservation in Singapore to follow.

Heritage conservation was often viewed as a luxury developing countries such as Singapore could not afford during the early years of independence. There was an urgency to rapidly industrialize and to maximize urban space for commercial development and modern housing through urban renewal. This has been taken to mean that little thought was given to heritage conservation by postcolonial governments until after significant economic development had occurred (Yeoh and Huang 1996, 411). However, Lily Kong, in her history of Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority, suggested an opposing view. She proposed that even during the intense period of demolition and rebuilding of urban renewal, there were advocates of heritage conservation within the bureaucracy "who persisted until their voices became more influential" (Kong 2010, 47). These voices, although present in the 1960s and 1970s, had to wait for a wider acceptance within the bureaucracy. Her argument is that Singapore government agencies "were not monolithic or homogenous"; instead "within those agencies and bodies, multiple voices seek to be heard" (ibid.). Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh (2003, 131) make it clear that in Singapore, the "state's engagement with issues of heritage" only occurred more fully at "a specific juncture of its development"-the 1980s and 1990s. However, the Preservation of Monuments Board had its genesis during the 1960s. Debates in the 1960s that led to the Preservation of Monuments Board's creation might reveal more about these early voices of heritage conservation that Kong describes as not coming to the fore until much later.

Kong's assertion that there were quiet heritage debates within the Singapore bureaucracy in the 1960s and 1970s is hinted at by some published material reflecting the thinking of the bureaucrats and the politicians. In one article, Alan Choe, who became in 1964 the first head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority's predecessor, the Urban Renewal Department, asserted: "Contrary to misinformed belief, urban renewal does not mean just the pulling down of slum sections and rebuilding on the cleared area" (1969, 165). He argued: "There are actually three indispensable elements of urban renewal; conservation, rehabilitation and rebuilding. This would mean identification of the areas worth preserving; a programme to improve such areas and make them habitable with an improved environment; and an identification of the areas that must be demolished and rebuilt" (1968, 2-5). In a published interview, Choe even mentioned that in 1967 then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had approached him with his concern that not enough consideration had been given to preserving historic buildings in the rush by Singapore's urban planners to engage in urban renewal (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). …

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