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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Times (15 Feb 09): World Heritage site in S'pore?

World Heritage site in S'pore?
One S'porean thinks so and his campaign has triggered a lively debate
By Tan Dawn Wei

The Botanic Gardens is home to more than 10,000 types of plants. -- PHOTO: NPARKS

Tiong Bahru estate (top) was designed in the 1930s in Art Deco style. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Heritage buff Tan Wee Cheng, who has started a campaign on Facebook, thinks the civic district, Botanic Gardens and Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve all stand a chance. -- PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Malaysia has three, Thailand has five and Indonesia has seven.

Between the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, there are 21.

When it comes to Unesco World Heritage sites, South-east Asia certainly has not fallen off the world map.

 

But for all of Singapore's World No. 1 recognition - whether for its airport, business-friendly economy or nation branding - this city-state is conspicuously missing from the Unesco list.

 

It is not the only country in South-east Asia that does not have an internationally recognised heritage site: Brunei, Myanmar and Timor Leste have also not made nominations to the world body for this prestigious title.

But does Singapore have what it takes? Is the Raffles Hotel worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as India's Taj Mahal or China's Great Wall?

 

One Singaporean thinks so. Having been to more than 200 Unesco World Heritage sites, university lecturer Tan Wee Cheng is convinced that this island has something to offer.

 

A month ago, he started a group on social networking website Facebook to campaign for Singapore to get itself on the coveted list. It has since attracted 200 members and a lively online discussion.

 

'It occurred to me during my years of travelling that this status is like an ISO for historical monuments. For a long time, people have said Singapore is a cultural desert. I want to tell people out there this is not true,' said the 39-year-old former investment banker. He is an adjunct associate professor at the National University of Singapore, teaching accounting.

 

Most of the 878 cultural and natural heritage sites on the list are nowhere as famous or impressive as the Taj, Great Wall or Petra in Jordan; in fact, many are little-known sites, said Mr Tan. If they can be on the list, surely Singapore has a shot, he argued.

 

His picks: the Botanic Gardens, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the civic district.

'Increasingly, those listed in the last five to 10 years are groups of sites within a country or a city. Penang's George Town and Malacca are listed as a single entry. In Singapore's case, the civic district and ethnic quarters can be grouped as a historical centre. Another could be one that incorporates the Botanic Gardens and Sungei Buloh,' suggested the heritage buff.

 

To get on the list, a site - whether a complex, city or forest - needs to be deemed as having outstanding cultural or natural importance to humanity.

 

Since 1972, when the programme was launched with the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, properties in 145 countries have been inscribed. Italy leads the pack with 43 sites listed.

There is no reason why Singapore cannot be on the list, said Dr Kevin Tan, president of the Singapore Heritage Society.

 

He cites Tiong Bahru as a candidate for being 'one of the very few remaining Art Deco-style public housing schemes that still exist'.

 

The precinct had sprung up because of the mass housing movement in Europe. While it had its roots there, it was adapted to Singapore's tropical climate, which distinguished it from other Art Deco buildings. Five-foot ways are one such unique feature, explained Dr Tan, an adjunct professor of law.

 

Architecture restoration specialist Ho Weng Hin also believes the old estate has a shot at Unesco stardom.

'Taken as a whole, the estate is like an open-air museum of how architects and planners thought about how the urban man could live,' said Mr Ho, who does consultancy work on conservation projects.

 

Another crucial factor that makes Tiong Bahru a viable candidate is that it is still very much a living community - although the buildings were designed in the 1930s, the place is still relevant today and features a good mix of communal amenities, he argued.

 

'The unique thing about Singapore is how its public housing programme is the only successful example compared to where it originated. In the United States and Britain, they have degenerated into slums,' said Mr Ho.

Another front runner mooted by heritage experts is the Botanic Gardens, home to important botanical studies - not least of all, rubber.

 

Founded in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society on the current site, the Gardens embarked on botanical research after the colonial government took over its administration and launched a scientific journal.

Last year, the Gardens was awarded a Michelin three-star rating, putting it in the ranks of Paris' Eiffel Tower and New York's Empire State Building.

 

It was also named by Time magazine as Asia's Best Urban Jungle, with a collection of more than 10,000 types of plants, including the region's most significant living collection of documented palms, orchids, cycads and gingers.

Associate Professor Johannes Widodo, a jury member of the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation, thinks the Gardens is Singapore's only hope given that most of the country's built heritage has been lost to urbanisation and development.

 

'World Heritage sites must have a universal value. Buildings such as those in the civic district - Raffles Hotel, City Hall, St Andrew's Cathedral - are probably valuable for Singapore, but not so much meaningful beyond this particular context,' said the lecturer at the National University of Singapore's Department of Architecture.

'Sites like Botanic Gardens have strong connections with the history of the colonial economy in the past, and ecological value in the present - which has become our global concern.'

 

Since rejoining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2007, Singapore has been familiarising itself with the various conventions under the world organisation, according to the secretariat for Singapore's Sub-Commission on Culture and Information for Unesco.

 

The sub-commission, led by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, advises the Singapore National Commission on Unesco on issues related to culture and communication.

 

In a statement to The Sunday Times, it said it is working with relevant government agencies to study the feasibility of nominating 'various cultural landmarks and districts of historical significance for a World Heritage site listing'.

As part of the study, it will look into Unesco's assessment criteria, the benefits and costs of a listing.

 

A cost benefits analysis that Britain's Department for Culture, Media and Sport commissioned in 2007 showed that a World Heritage site listing has benefited tourism and attracted additional funding, education and civic pride, among other things.

 

The value of a World Heritage status also means stronger protection of a particular site, since it is subjected to international preservation standards, said Prof Widodo.

 

dawntan@sph.com.sg

 

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