The Old National Library, c. 1970 [Photo: National Museum of Singapore]
Ask any person from each generation to describe Singapore and they would paint a picture alien from the rest. Even now, places anchoring our childhood memories are on the brink of erasure with none the wiser.
On 7 April 2021, the Ministry of Education announced mergers between 18 schools due to declining enrolment rates. This is despite some of the selected schools having roots that trace back to Singapore’s pre-independence years. While local government authorities see consistent reinvention (even cannibalism of itself at times) to be essential for the nation’s survival — for instance, school mergers as an adaptation to reduced births and enrolment numbers — others have raised concerns of the potential erosion of national heritage, culture and identity.
2020 alone has witnessed the demolition of one of Singapore’s oldest housing estates, the 62-year-old Dakota Crescent housing estate, and Singapore’s most iconic Brutalist icon, the Pearl Bank Apartments. While select buildings such as the Golden Mile Complex have been gazetted for conservation, not all historical buildings in Singapore have the same fortune. The former National Library along Stanford Road, for instance, was demolished in 2004 to make way for the construction of Fort Canning Expressway despite public outcry. The historical monument that lived through Singapore’s colonial and independent years ultimately lost to modern pragmatism and convenience.
The demise of the Old National Library has since sparked conversation about heritage conservation and the importance of heritage buildings in cultivating national identity for past, present and future generations. Certainly, the idea of places being focal points of identity is not a novel concept. Formally theorised as place identity, it suggests that an individual’s personal identity can be influenced by the physical environment due to reinforced and complicated patterns of “conscious and unconscious ideas, feelings, values, goals, preferences, skills, and behavioral tendencies” in a specific environment .
In other words, heritage buildings play a crucial role in influencing the development of an individual national consciousness through embedded environmental factors and values. This has the potential to create a community and national consciousness that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warns to be essential in securing economic success.
In land-scarce Singapore, however, heritage conservation is easier said than done. Like most globalised cities in the world, capitalism has homogenised most spaces characterising Singapore’s topography, leaving landmarks unique to Singapore’s multicultural heritage to be few and far between. To preserve Singapore’s historical architecture for self-identity building, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launched the Identity Plan that prioritised values of conservation and history in relation to the land’s charm, character and identity. URA also sought the opinion of the general public through focus group interviews.
While the Identity Plan is promising for the overall conservation of Singapore’s historical architecture and heritage, it still falls short of resolving the conflict between urban redevelopment and heritage conservation. This is because buildings are not just built for communal use, but are often imbued with political and commercial agenda — a situation further complicated with Singapore’s practice of collective sales (more commonly known as en-bloc sales).
Let’s examine Golden Mile Complex as a case study. Even though Golden Mile is located at a prime spot in town, the Complex received backlash during its collective sales as conflict ensued between developers and heritage conservationists.
While the retention of Golden Mile’s architecture is important for identity forming to the layman Singaporean, it presents a losing business to developers who struggle to revitalise the building within strict size and area constraints. Seeing that the developers are the ones bearing the brunt of the cost, it is no wonder why they prefer demolition to conservation. In the case of Golden Mile, the state has tipped the scales in favour of revitalisation through unprecedented offers of incentives to willing contractors and developers to preserve instead of demolish — a sign of the Government’s favourable stance in conserving historical buildings for place identity making.
However, it is crucial to note that any building, including buildings under the conservation scheme, are overseen by the government and therefore subjected to sudden changes or treatment. Ellison Building is a prime example. Despite being under the conservation scheme, the decision was made to demolish and reconstruct part of Ellison Building due to tunnelling works. The conservation scheme was revealed to only be applicable to private property owners and not the government. As SMU heritage law expert Jack Lee told the Straits Times, “if the Government wanted, it could grant permission for works despite the conservation order or even delist the building.”
Stronger measures are thus necessary to ensure heritage buildings are properly conserved. The solution comes in the form of inter-organisational cooperation. In a report commissioned by the Singapore Heritage Society to address collective sales and its antagonistic relationship with heritage conservation, it was discovered that stronger communication amongst smaller tenants, developers, the Government and the Singapore Heritage Society was needed. The report also proposed the Heritage Impact Assessment be made mandatory prior to collective sales of land. To encourage place identity making in local Singaporeans, heritage awareness campaigns were also cited to be essential.
This is home, truly
While progress is important for a country’s survival, heritage is what gives us identity and a sense of patriotic pride. As local architect William S.W. Lim surmises in his book, Architecture, Art, Identity in Singapore: Is There Life After Tabula Rasa, heritage buildings contain “elements of traditions, multicultural diversity and collective memories that can be the essence and source of a pluralistic Singaporean identity”.
These buildings, however, have gradually been eroded away in the face of modernity. Other sights unique to Singapore’s heritage are also no exception. Local ice cream street vendors, for instance, are a dying trade due to their non-transferable and personal licenses. In the coming years, ice cream sandwiches are likely to vanish from Singapore’s shores following the retirement of current vendors. Who would have thought that such a beloved Singapore street food can disappear so easily without a trace?
Though urban development is essential in a country scarce of any natural resources, Singapore would do well to remember that a country is foremost a community of people who share the same memories, pride and identity. After all, as Kit Chan sings in the national day hit song, Home, “There is comfort in the knowledge / That home’s about its people too.”
It is for Singapore, a diverse community of cultures, races and people, that the conservation of heritage buildings should absolutely become a priority.