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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Singapore deserves a future UNESCO World Heritage listing

My response to someone who wrote online that he thinks any Singapore application for UNESCO World Heritage Site is silly because there is nothing of significance here:
 

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Thank you for your long note.  I am not surprised by your comments.  Yours are typical of many Singaporeans.  It also highlights the fact that a lot of work remains to convince Singaporeans that we do have a heritage that is unique and that we have to be proud of what we have.

 

I would suggest that you have a look at the full list of UNESCO WHS: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list

 

There are over 800 sites worldwide.  Ask yourself how many are you familiar with, and how many of them are as grand and monumental either in visual terms or possesses equal significance as the top tier monuments you mentioned, such as Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and the Great Wall. 

 

I suspect, other than perhaps 50 or so, all of the rest are hardly well known beyond the political boundaries of the countries they are situated in.  So, why are they listed there at all?

 

The reason is that, the UNESCO WH Convention is primarily concerned with the conservation of sites that have universal value.  Universal value does not necessarily imply grand physical appearance.  Neither does it imply intricate artistic design per se.  It implies having significance that is meaningful to human civilization.  Human civilization does not just mean major cultures and countries but would encompass even small nations and indigenous peoples and tribes.  Nobody now denies the contributions, wisdom and significance of even small peoples to the exuberant diversity of the world we live in today.

 

It is for that reason that we have sites such as the following:

 

Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley in the tiny European nation of Andorra, which according to the UNESCO, is "a microcosm of the way its inhabitants have harvested the scarce resources of the high Pyrenees over the past millennia to create a sustainable living environment in harmony with the mountain landscape. The Valley is a reflection of an ancient communal system of land management that has survived for over 700 years."  You might call it a pile of stones in a remote godforsaken place, but experts will tell you about what the site can teach us about utilization of resources and maintenance of eco-balance in fragile environments.

 

The Struve Arc – "a chain of survey triangulations stretching from Hammerfest in Norway to the Black Sea, through 10 countries and over 2,820 km. These are points of a survey, carried out between 1816 and 1855 by the astronomer Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve, which represented the first accurate measuring of a long segment of a meridian. This helped to establish the exact size and shape of the planet and marked an important step in the development of earth sciences and topographic mapping. It is an extraordinary example of scientific collaboration among scientists from different countries, and of collaboration between monarchs for a scientific cause. The original arc consisted of 258 main triangles with 265 main station points. The listed site includes 34 of the original station points, with different markings, i.e. a drilled hole in rock, iron cross, cairns, or built obelisks." 

Each of the Struve Arc site is just a simple stone sculpture – hardly monumental, but they commemorated a series of important international scientific collaboration that is worthy of conservation and remembrance.

 

SGang Gwaay in Western Canada: "Remains of houses, together with carved mortuary and memorial poles, illustrate the Haida people's art and way of life. The site commemorates the living culture of the Haida people and their relationship to the land and sea, and offers a visual key to their oral traditions."

 

How about our sites?  I have already explained about the significance of our historic centre and its significance as an example of British imperial and colonial urban planning, and how the emergence of a major global trading port here gave rise to the unique mix of cultures and architectural style.  Tiong Bahru is an outstanding example of post-modern urban planning and public housing project.  Bukit Timah and Sungai Buloh are the best example of a well-preserved tropical rain forest next to a metropolis – this hardly exists anywhere else in the world – and Bukit Timah had been acclaimed by renowned naturalist Alfred Wallace as a site with unrivalled biodiversity. 

 

I would like to raise the example of Kaiping Dialou and Villages of Guangdong Province in China:  From the UNESCO WHS site: "Kaiping Diaolou and Villages feature the Diaolou, multi-storeyed defensive village houses in Kaiping, which display a complex and flamboyant fusion of Chinese and Western structural and decorative forms. They reflect the significant role of émigré Kaiping people in the development of several countries in South Asia, Australasia and North America, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

 

The Kaiping Dailou were built only in the 20th century – between 1920s and 1950, by Overseas Chinese. Few people even in Guangdong have heard of them 10 years ago.  But it was the Overseas Chinese community and the local grassroots who realised their global significance as a symbol of the fusion of cultures and architectural forms, and as symbols of the modern history of transcontinental human migration.  In a country like China with long history and numerous historical monuments, Kaiping's bid was viewed with skepticism initially – it was hardly surprising that people asked how could Kaiping with only 80 years' history dare rank itself with monuments more than a few millennia old.  But the grassroots efforts of Kaiping eventually succeeded in convincing the local, provincial and later central government of the merits of UNESCO WHS listing.  The rest is just history and Kaiping's significance is now recognized by the world.  I have no doubt that our efforts to get Singapore listed will face similar obstacles, but these we will overcome with education and a lot of hard work.

 

Take another look again at your backyard and appreciate the uniqueness of this nation!  

 

 

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