Tiong Bahru among the nominees by new Facebook group for S'pore's first Unesco World Heritage Site THE buzz to find a new national icon, one to match the Angkor Wats and Taj Mahals of the world, is growing.
A little over a year ago, Singapore rejoined Unesco, the United Nations agency that conserves sites of world heritage.
Now, government agencies and heritage lovers here are throwing up names of places in Singapore that might make it to Unesco's World Heritage Site (WHS) list - and gain official recognition as a world wonder.
WHS status is given to the world's greatest natural or human-made wonders, deemed to be of 'outstanding universal value'.
The WHS list, which currently stands at 878 entries, includes the who's who of world attractions, such as the Great Wall of China, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Stonehenge in the UK.
Now, Singaporeans want one of their own.
A Facebook group set up two weeks ago, which called itself the Unesco World Heritage Site for Singapore, has gathered 150-odd members.
Possible local WHS nominees range from established tourism attractions like the Botanical Gardens to lesser-known spots like the old Tiong Bahru estate.
Said its founder, Mr Tan Wee Cheng, a 39-year-old adjunct associate professor in accounting at NUS: 'I hope to encourage Singaporeans to start identifying the things we hold dear to our hearts and want to showcase to the world.'
In cyberspace, members of a heritage lovers' forum are discussing the possibility of setting up a local chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites.
Also known as Icomos, it is a non-governmental organisation, comprising professionals interested in conservation, which will facilitate the nomination.
The government agency responsible for a WHS nomination, the Singapore National Commission for Unesco, said it is 'working with the relevant Ministries and government agencies to study the suitability and feasibility of nominating' a WHS.
But while the idea has captivated heritage lovers, it also has its fair share of detractors and cynics.
Their common refrain: So what's there in Singapore?
Nevertheless, Singapore's chances are 'pretty good', according to Mr Richard Engelhardt, senior adviser at Unesco and the former regional adviser for culture in Asia and the Pacific for Unesco.
Not anytime soon
'There is confidence in the Government's ability to conserve any site that is eventually selected,' he said in a phone interview from Bangkok where he is based.
However, Singapore won't be seeing a WHS of its own anytime soon.
The nomination process takes about five years, involving in-depth research by the applicant country, numerous site visits by Unesco and reviews by various committees.
Before a place can be declared a WHS, laws for the protection of the site also need to be set up and a management plan implemented to ensure its preservation.
Public support is another requirement.
'Unesco won't look at a nomination unless all the stakeholders are in agreement,' said Mr Engelhardt.
These stakeholders include government bodies, private developers and homeowners.
In Singapore however, the discussion so far seems to be taking place mostly between government bodies.
An obvious stakeholder, the Singapore Heritage Society, has not been consulted, said its president, Dr Kevin Tan.
'We do not even know of the existence of this Singapore National Commission for Unesco,' he said.
He believes the Government is taking a cautious approach.
'They are probably considering all the pluses and minuses of having a WHS in Singapore first,' said Dr Tan.
'It's the civil service mentality and that's okay. But in determining the pluses and minuses, who are they talking to?'
He feels the Government needs to engage all stakeholders and not have a perception that 'the only stakeholder is the Singapore Tourism Board'.
He hopes that the National Commission, currently made up of officials from various ministries, expands to include others like academics, architects, the Nature Society, the Heritage Society and Harp (the Historic Architecture Rescue Plan, a conservation group).
If successful, WHS status will bring many benefits, both tangible and intangible. The tourism industry may be boosted by an influx of tourists.
'Getting on the WHS list is, after all, like getting a ISO 9000 stamp,' said Mr Tan. 'It will give us a different selling point and make our tourism industry more resilient.'
A WHS may also help to achieve what years of National Education have tried to do - cultivate a sense of national identity.
'Choosing a WHS is a healthy process for a young nation,' said Mr Engelhardt. 'It is like a high school student discovering things about his past in grandma's attic.'
But with benefits come perils.
Gaining WHS status can drive up rents and attract new residents and businesses, altering the character of a place forever.
The influx of tourists may actually end up causing harm in places if infrastructure is lacking.
This was what happened to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean.
WHS status can also stifle development.
Mere months after gaining its hard-won WHS status, Penang's Georgetown may now lose it due to the construction of four high-rise hotels, projects which were planned beforehand.
But if the government halts the projects now, it can be sued by developers.
For Singapore, the first obstacle may be selling the idea to Singaporeans who believe there is little culture here to speak of.
It's a uniquely Singaporean problem.
'Most countries do not suffer from such a mindset,' said Mr Engelhardt.
'The irony is that tourism messages aimed at foreigners might have actually affected local residents even more in the way they look at themselves.'
In the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore's tourism slogan was Instant Asia, as it sold itself as a one-stop destination to see Asia.
Then came the about-turn to the present slogan, Uniquely Singapore.
'If we are truly Uniquely Singapore, then we have to ask what it is that is unique about Singapore,' said Dr Tan.
'And surely, that cannot be a shopping mall.'
ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA
TAJ MAHAL, INDIA
CIVIC DISTRICT (includes Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street) The heart of old Singapore, then the jewel of the British Empire. Besides outstanding examples of imperial architecture, also comprises well-planned ethnic districts.
SINGAPORE BOTANIC GARDENS The British Empire's laboratory for tropical botanical research. First place outside South America where rubber was commercially planted. This changed the landscapes and economies of Malaysia and Indonesia forever.
BUKIT TIMAH NATURE RESERVE AND SUNGEI BULOH WETLAND RESERVE Some of the world's best examples of nature conservation in an urban area. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve contains more varieties of plants and trees than the whole of North America.
CHEK JAWA Teems with unique collections of marine life from six distinct habitats - coastal forest, mangroves, sand bars, seagrass lagoon, rocky shore and coral rubble.