From neglect to nostalgia: the history of our heritage

Like ‘culture’ and ‘love’, heritage is one of those big words that can mean almost anything you want it to. From priceless artefacts of ancient civilisations to concrete dragon playgrounds, it is a shapeless concept powerful enough to arouse passion yet trivial enough to sideline for our baser needs.

This is partly because heritage is unlike nature for which there is instinctive affinity. After all, who can reasonably argue against more trees and parks?

But preserving, say, a temple or a mosque immediately raises issues of religion, ethnicity and class, all of which come with their own set of politics and communities. Heritage can be divisive. This is why Singapore’s relationship with heritage has neither been smooth nor static. Like many issues in our midst, the way we see heritage has changed according to how we see ourselves.

1960s – 70s: benign neglect

Heritage was treated with benign neglect by the government during the early years of industralisation. The immediate post-Independence concerns were economic growth, mass public housing and tackling unemployment because the People’s Action Party (PAP) understood that these issues, and not heritage, would ensure re-election.

Compounding this neglect was the survivalist mentality of the ruling elite which demanded the imagination of a Singapore cast firmly in the future where heritage and history fell neatly and conveniently between the covers of textbooks. This ‘future Singapore’ was imagined as a global city first, and a nation second, for it was believed that only as the former could the latter exist.

Naturally, legal tools like the Land Acquisitions Act and favourable conditions like the absence of large swathes of indigenous peoples like Aborigines and Native Americans whose livelihood and identities were historically connected to the land also made it possible to sidestep difficult questions. But perhaps most politically significant was the view that heritage awareness was but a few small steps from cultural superiority and ethnic differentiation at a time when the leadership decreed the erasure of our ‘ancestral ghosts’ from our immigrant histories in order to forge a ‘multiracial’ society tabula rasa.

Under these conditions, strict dichotomies must have presented themselves as hard but necessary choices. The false dilemma of Lim Kim San’s now immortal utterance – “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents, or do you want me to look after your grandchildren?” – is as much a sober reminder of the narrower range of urban development alternatives open to the government back in the 1960s as it is today a bromidic platitude in light of the technological advancement we have made since, not to mention the creative solutions we can come up with if we put our minds to it. Anyone who repeats Lim’s phrase today, in one of the richest countries in the world with one of the most educated populace, cannot escape accusations of intellectual laziness and political inertia.

1980s: the middle class and the first wave of heritage tourism

Heritage, however, was never completely marginalised by the government. Like arts and culture, though never a national priority, it was useful for tourism and nation-building. In the same way ethnic performances and cultural dances in schools and National Day Parades are re-enactments of the government’s fantasies of ‘multiracialism’, our colonial heritage served as an ideological reminder of the city’s openness to the world, while the preservation of ethnic buildings were useful gestures towards ‘racial’ equality. The establishment of the Preservations of Monuments Board in 1971 did little to change perceptions of heritage from the top.

By the 1980s, notable sections of the public began to perceive heritage differently. The formation of a discernible middle class and intelligentsia heralded the advocacy of local heritage beyond colonial legacies and state narratives, coinciding with the establishment of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) in 1986. The more educated Singaporeans became, the more interested they were in their past. This saw the intertwining of heritage issues with the concerns of the chattering class, a perception that still holds among many civil servants today.

Parallel to this, the government began to package heritage for tourists and nation-building more decisively. In what may be argued as the first wave of heritage tourism, the Tourism Task Force was set up in 1984 while the Committee on Heritage was established in 1988 to nurture national identity. In 1989, to serve both tourists and the state narrative alike, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) marked out ‘ethnic enclaves’ like Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Serangoon Road for preservation.

1990s: the global city and the second wave of heritage tourism

The desire to be a global city in the 1990s saw the second wave of heritage tourism. Efforts to turn the city-state into a ‘Global City for the Arts’ was part of the broader attempt to reinvent the country as a financial, medical and education hub that would attract highly skilled professionals. The difference between the first and second wave was that the latter made little effort to hide the fact that the tourist’s gaze was all important.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the Chinatown debacle in 1996. The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board’s (STPB) proposal to transform Chinatown into a thematic landscape divided by stereotypical elements like ‘water’ and ‘fire’, was derided by civil society, SHS among them, for serving up caricatures of Chinese culture to international, typically western, tourists. Indeed, the debacle was deemed instructive enough to written up as a case-study by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Governance.

Another example of putting the imaginary tourist first is Haw Par Villa. Known for its tranquil garden and dioramas of Chinese mythology, Haw Par Villa found itself re-named ‘Haw Par Villa Dragon World’ when STPB took over in 1988. It was turned into an American-styled theme park replete with laser shows, acrobats and boat rides. Its exorbitant entry fee and inauthenticity subsequently turned locals away thus forcing STPB to make entry free again in 1998.

These two failed experiments have yielded two lessons. Firstly, local audiences cannot be alienated if heritage attractions are to be sustainable which, in turn, means retaining authenticity for citizens. Secondly, heritage is more than just the ‘built heritage’ of buildings and structures but also encompasses ‘intangible heritage’ like language, music, and other cultural practices that give meaning to places.

Heritage today: four types of heritage voices

Today heritage comes to the forefront of national debates. This is undoubtedly the consequence of broader socio-political trends. The watershed General Elections of 2011, which saw the ruling party win its lowest share of the popular vote since Independence, was notable for two particular hot-button issues. They were liberal immigration policies and overcrowding in public transportation.

These two concerns, more than others, best encapsulate the fear among many that their country was losing its identity and that the socio-cultural change that immigration wrought was just too rapid. These fears have only added to the spectrum of heritage voices in Singapore.

On one end of the spectrum we have ‘heritage advocates’ for whom heritage preservation is a matter of principle. They may comprise academics, researchers, and civil society activists who believe that heritage has intrinsic value as a window to the past.

The next group are ‘site-specific defenders’ – people who care for a particular place or building because of their personal connections to it. Site-specific defenders may not be lovers of all types of heritage. They include neighbourhood communities trying to save an old bus-stop or members of the public banding together to save their old secondary school.

‘Heritage opportunists’ are those who may see heritage, and any other issue at hand, as a convenient stick to hit the government with. These opportunists may or may not genuinely care about heritage; but more vital to them is to demonstrate the perceived unresponsiveness of the government to public calls.

Finally, we have the ‘nostalgic citizen’ who probably makes up the bulk of people that engage with heritage issues. The nostalgic citizen may not be as informed or committed as any of the groups above but they are likely to feel that the country that they grew up in is changing faster than they can adjust to. They see heritage preservation as a broad means to slow down the physical and cultural changes to the national landscape.

These groups are, needless to say, convenient generalisations of different heritage voices and are certainly not mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, they suggest that heritage has become increasingly complex and political as the electorate in the global city matures.

Heritage – it’s a big word after all.

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