Commentary | Qoi Wen Ting, Event Associate Editor and Calissa Man, Managing Editor (Event)
Singapore, a country characterised by its melting pot of differences, is rife with images that appear at odds in a traditional urban landscape.
Amidst the towering skyscrapers and futuristic downtown, one can find squat shophouses of cheerful colours and lush greenery breaking the monotony of greyscale urban canyons.
With the successful inauguration of Singapore Botanical Gardens as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and our hawker culture’s upcoming inclusion on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, local preservation appears to be on the rise.
Many have pointed out that in the face of pragmatism and economic developments, preservation does not stand a chance. Is this really the case? Can the dichotomous relationship of preservation versus pragmatism ever be resolved?
Preservation is pragmatism, only because the value of preservation is determined in the eyes of the beholder.
With increased recognition of the importance of heritage, we can look at three aspects of heritage that successfully balance pragmatism and preservation.
As a multicultural, multireligious young nation, our differences have ironically become integral in shaping our identity. Food in Singapore is most notable as a rojak of different cultures and the mis-mash of different cuisines.
The importance of food as a marker of identity is ever more important in a globalised, interconnected world where homogeneity trumps diversity.
Under the multisensory experiences that evokes strong feelings of nostalgia and memories, food anchors our identity amidst the waves of globalisation.
Indeed, it is not uncommon to see a plate of crispy Indian prata beside a bowl of steaming teochew porridge and fragrant nasi lemak on one table in a hawker centre.
In a bid to preserve our unique food culture and prevent over-commercialisation of such eating practices, the preservation of the hawker culture has gained momentum in recent years.
Hawker centres evolved from street hawking carts in pre-independence Singapore to the stalls in open-air complexes of today.
The preservation of these hawker centres is thus pragmatic - it is only with a common set of practices that Singaporeans maintain a connection to their homeland despite the waves of globalisation luring them to distant shores.
These visceral experiences, as well as the provision of affordable, delicious, food choices that Singaporeans are familiar and can resonate with, are essential to the building of the city-state. Singapore’s youth and rapid development necessitate the careful construction of identity and sense of belonging to cultivate a rooted sense of identity.
Some would argue that preservation goes beyond simple actions to having the right intent too. The consideration of extrinsic value alone is insufficient; we must recognise intrinsic value also.
In this light, preservation is dichotomous with pragmatism – it necessitates the recognition and acknowledgement that pragmatism will always come before preservation.
However, we can see how preservation and pragmatism meld seamlessly together in the conservation of various buildings.
This is because the modernity injected into the old not only preserves spaces but also gives them a new lease of life with their rustic charm. This is especially important given Singapore’s aspirations as a global cultural hub. The charm of old buildings give them character and are ideal spaces for the creative process.
The adaptive reuse of historic buildings and old shophouses in Selegie Road and Waterloo Street houses arts organisations like the Dance Ensemble Singapore, the Chinese Calligraphy Society, and The Theatre Practice and Objectifs.
Pre-war bungalows and disused shophouses are redeveloped into art studios under the National Arts Council’s Arts Housing Scheme.
The integration of the arts and our cultural heritage further highlights Singapore’s vibrancy, revitalising defunct areas and creating a win-win situation.
Lastly, the conservation of heritage cannot just include cultural heritage, but the arguably most tangible heritage that Singapore has.
Situated in the tropics, Singapore is a hotspot of diversity. We have inherited a rich natural heritage that is recognised for its value since the colonial era.
Sir Stamford Raffles was not merely interested in trade and commerce but also invested in advancing Western knowledge about the plants and animals of Southeast Asia – it is this natural bounty we have inherited and must treasure today.
Raffles founded the Singapore Institution in 1823 to facilitate naturalists’ forays into Southeast Asian diversity and even sent findings to organisations such as the Royal Society in London.
Our natural inheritance was recognised to have a significant contribution to Man’s knowledge of the natural environment.
More importantly, pragmatic concerns of marketing and building a liveable city necessitates conservation.
Natural environments provide ecosystem services that not only serve provisional, supporting and regulatory purposes but also offer mankind with essential recreational services.
Recreational services help to promote aesthetical, community, education and cultural values. From the public upheaval regarding land reclamation in Chek Jawa to the recent development of Mandai as an eco-tourism hub, it is evident that Singapore is becoming more aware of its natural assets.
Chek Jawa, one of the richest nature sites in Singapore, supports six major habitats in a small area namely the coastal forest, mangroves, rocky shores, sandy shore, sandbanks, seagrass lagoons and coral rubble.
Public awareness of the unique blend of habitats have overturned decisions for land reclamation in the area and contributed to conservation in not just Chek Jawa, but the designation of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Labrador Nature Reserve as a nature reserve.
The importance of the Mandai Mangroves and Mudflat area for migratory shorebirds, many of them endangered, is undeniable. It is little wonder that Chek Jawa was gazetted as a nature reserve in 2018.
This led to increased research, education and recreation in such nature spots, allowing for increased social interaction and appreciation.
Indeed, there lies immense value in the preservation of both cultural and natural heritage both for the present and future. Building a smart, liveable city goes beyond the consideration of socio-economic needs.
What was traditionally seen as intangible are now practical considerations for preservation.
It is also precisely because of Singapore’s youth that we have to hold on to our heritage, such that future generations can enjoy the fruits of our labour.
What we preserve now will be a richer heritage for generations to come. Let’s preserve what matters most, for the future, together.
About the authors: A first-year Geography major, Wen Ting is the Associate Editor (Events) of The Convergence and is an avid reader and passionate dancer. During her (limited) free time, she is baking, cooking and mulling over life during long walks in the park. Her attempts to brighten up her college room include planting sunflowers which have, sadly, yet to sprout.
Calissa is a first-year Political Science undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, and the Managing Editor (Events) of The Convergence. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading about public policy, gender studies or gardening (let’s just say her dream of growing tomato plants is one marked by persistent attempts).