by Terence Chong, Yeo Kang Shua and Tan Wee Cheng (First published in Today, 6 April 2013)
The Singapore Heritage Society welcomes and supports the Government’s intention to nominate the Singapore Botanic Gardens for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Indeed, the Society had mooted this back in 2009.
It is also pleased that the Government finally ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention in June last year.
The 154 year-old Botanic Gardens is a worthy site. It was established in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society on gambier plantation land formerly owned by Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay. Besides collection and experimentation of trees and plant species, additional land was committed for an ‘economic garden’ in 1879 to aid the establishment of plantation lands and plots in the region.
As stated in the justification provided to UNESCO, it stands as a testimony to the history of the economic, social and scientific development in Malaya. The Botanic Gardens saw pioneering work on rubber cultivation techniques carried out in the late 19th century which helped pave the way for its mass manufacturing in the early 20th century.
The Botanic Gardens also had an important hand in the distribution of rubber seeds to plantation owners in Malaya, persuading them switch to rubber from other crops. This move ensured Malaya’s early economic growth by giving a sizeable foothold in trading markets around the world.
Furthermore, while the Botanic Gardens is an undeniable symbol of the colonial empire’s power and reach, we should never forget the crucial risk-taking of local entrepreneurs who embarked on the rubber industry and the contribution of the numerous workers to the economic development of Malaya. Such is the interwoven nature of history.
THE NOMINATION PROCESS
With heritage education as part of its mandate, the Society would like to take this opportunity to explain the nomination process for UNESCO World Heritage status.
In order to achieve World Heritage status, a government must first prepare an inventory, known as the ‘tentative list’, of the country’s significant cultural and natural sites, or ‘properties’.
In the case of the Botanic Gardens, overseas consultants were hired by the Government in 2010 to conduct a feasibility study of possible sites that could be included in this tentative list. The Government has submitted the Botanic Gardens as the sole item on the tentative list, and is currently preparing a formal application for World Heritage status.
When the application is formally submitted, it will be evaluated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites or International Union for Conservation of Nature which assesses cultural and natural sites, respectively. After which, the evaluation is submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for its decision.
Though the Botanic Gardens meets many of the criteria or ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ to qualify as a World Heritage Site, it should be remembered that it is already gazetted as a ‘National Park’ under the Park and Trees Act. It is thus safe from destruction or encroachment, regardless of World Heritage status. Indeed, government protection is required before a site may be considered for World Heritage status.
VITAL TO CONSULT AND ENGAGE
Moving forward, the Society believes that two things are vital to the nomination process.
The first is consultation with local experts. This consultation process is crucial under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and its Operational Guidelines.
These rules oblige governments to embark on consultation processes over the identification, nomination and protection of possible sites with a wide variety of stakeholders including the local community, academics and experts, and non-governmental organisations. This ensures that local knowledge and experience are taken into account throughout the application process, and not just as an afterthought.
It also encourages the government to be more communicative when it comes to its decision-making process. This will go a long way in enhancing long term interest in the site as the local community would have contributed to the process and feel that it has a stake in it.
The second is public engagement. What does achieving UNESCO World Heritage status mean for ordinary Singaporeans?
The Society strongly believes that the real value of winning World Heritage status lies not in global recognition or prestige. Rather, it lies in the opportunity to educate and raise awareness both locally and overseas, that contrary to popular belief, Singapore is a place rich with heritage.
More importantly, Singaporeans will be made to think deeply about what is meaningful us, why it is meaningful and, in the process, gain knowledge about a history that shapes our identity. The Society believes that all the accolades in the world will come to naught if citizens are not excited or engaged.
A BUDGET TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC
To achieve this, the Society would like to make several suggestions.
With respect to the Botanic Gardens, create a budget dedicated to raising public awareness of the historical significance of the Botanic Gardens and the establishment of research grants for scholars, local and overseas, to excavate stories, information and documents in order to enhance our understanding of the Botanic Gardens.
Educate the public about the importance of conservation and the significance of Outstanding Universal Values, by commissioning local studies and public forums on the other prospective sites in Singapore that may be considered for tentative listing.
Indeed there are other sites that might have Outstanding Universal Value, but without legislative protection by the Government, they will be unable to receive the UNESCO stamp of approval.
Some possible sites include Bukit Brown, a beautiful swathe of tranquil greenery full of historically important graves that tell a tale of our ancestors’ journeys and connection to the region.
There are also the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Central Catchment Nature Reserve, with tropical rainforests that are reportedly home to as many species of plants as the entire North America, and where a Belgium scientist discovered 150 new species of flies and where Alfred Wallace collected about 700 species of beetles in just two months about a century ago.
And then there are the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru, early examples of public housing development; and perhaps even our ubiquitous Housing and Development Board’s slab block flats that embodied modernist ideas that Le Corbusier tried to demonstrate in his Unitéd’Habitation.
In an era where the international community values sustainable development, the preservation of such sites in what is essentially one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and their successful listing as World Heritage, will be an ultimate tribute to the foresight and creative genius of our leaders and urban planners.
Terence Chong, Yeo Kang Shua and Tan Wee Cheng are Executive Committee members of the Singapore Heritage Society. This commentary was first published in Today, 6 April 2013.
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