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Policy Analysis Exercise: “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in Chinatown: Threats & Strategies” (2017)
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Singapore Heritage Society was a client organisation for the Policy Analysis Exercise of the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, completed in December 2017.  The full report can be downloaded here.

Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in Chinatown: Threats & Strategies
by Alisa Toh Qian Wen, Chee Wei Jia, Lai Jian Qin, Norman Maswari Aziz-Boey, Chester Matthias Tan Han Feng, Vanessa Chiam Hui Ting (Master in Public Policy, 2018)

Executive Summary:

Chinatown, like other historical districts in Singapore such as Kampong Glam, Little India and Boat Quay, has a rich history and cultural identity. These districts have been the subject of conservation efforts by the Government, but they primarily extend to the physical conservation of buildings and structures. In recent times, there has been commentary from certain segments of the public that Chinatown has lost much of its social fabric and is increasingly catering to the tastes of tourists. Also, it has been reported that property investors have been buying up conservation shophouses such as those in Kreta Ayer due to their perceived potential to appreciate in value, resulting in tenancy changes. All of this has led to a sense that Chinatown is gradually losing the character and vibrancy that it once had. This raises the question of whether conservation policy should go further to also protect other intangible aspects of Chinatown’s heritage and culture, such as practices, trades, knowledge and cultural spaces.

In the course of our research, a refrain that often emerged was that the intangible cultural heritage of Chinatown was under threat due to 1) a perceived loss of community spirit, 2) a perceived loss of authenticity, and 3) a highly competitive real estate market in Chinatown which has resulted in the displacement of some traditional trades and businesses. With respect to the last factor, we were unable to obtain sufficiently representative quantitative data to make specific conclusions about the property market and the displacement of traditional trades in particular. Nevertheless, our qualitative research shows that this has been experienced at least by some business owners in Kreta Ayer. In addition, it has also been pointed out that interactions between government agencies and other stakeholders such as business owners need to be improved. To address these issues, there needs to be, in the long term, a revival of interest from the general Singaporean community in Chinatown not just as a space, but as a place. Without an interest in the heritage of Chinatown, there is no demand generated for the goods,services and experiences in Chinatown, which not only affects the level of community participation in Chinatown, but also the survivability and renewal of businesses there. In the shorter term, there is a need to help traditional businesses remain relevant so that they can enhance their competitiveness and continue to thrive in Chinatown.

To this end, we propose three broad policy measures to be taken by the relevant agencies:
1) Setting up a dedicated statutory heritage trust (by the Government, spearheaded by Chinatown’s lead agency, the Singapore Tourism Board);
2) Improving the commercial viability of traditional trades and businesses (by the Singapore Tourism Board and the National Heritage Board, with the involvement of business owners and the Chinatown Business Association);
3) Revitalising Chinatown to attract the interest of youths (by the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Citizens’ Consultative Committee, or the statutory heritage trust proposed above, with the involvement of the Ministry of Education, private organisations and others).

While we consider that the setting up of a heritage trust would be the most comprehensive proposal, we recognise that its successful implementation would likely require extensive consultations and feasibility studies, making it the least likely option to be implemented within the short-term. Thus, our other proposals for improving the commercial viability of traditional businesses and making Chinatown more attractive to youths, are measures that the relevant agencies could embark on simultaneously or alternatively.


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