The Raw and the Cooked (1): Finding Balance in a Battle of Heritage

How many of us followed that recent discussion on yusheng as Singapore’s intangible heritage? Raise your hands? Maybe not many. Let’s try another question: How many of us think Singapore should survive another 500 years? Now we should see more hands. But let’s try this: How many of us remember the Curry Day last year and feel very emotional about it? Kee chiu? Now we see many, many hands. The point is this: Cultural heritage is not merely a domain of archaeologists and antiquarians, it is also about living traditions that provide bonding in our society.

Unfortunately, ‘intangible heritage’ has been a most misunderstood concept of our time, often lending itself to exploitation by political interests. When Malaysians accused Singapore of appropriating yusheng as its own heritage recently, they were apparently under the impression, like many other countries, that the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage could grant a country exclusive rights for a cultural property, when in fact the legal instrument was only designed to raise awareness in safeguarding traditional expressions, of social or spiritual practices, against tides of globalisation.

Going beyond the ‘Chinese’ identity in Singapore

An issue of cultural affiliation was similarly at play when the idea of a ‘food museum’ was mooted in Singapore’s Parliament two years ago (incidentally by MP Baey Yam Keng, who has not been much appreciated by netizens last week for his defending of a PRC scholar that described certain Singaporeans as behaving like ‘dogs’). When one talks about ‘why our Hainanese chicken rice is different from that found in Hainan Island’, it might be interpreted as the usual rhetoric propagated in the last decade on how Singapore’s citizens are descendants of immigrants and therefore can be at home in two worlds of an essentially same culture, or how immigration is the norm. Highlighting such ancestral links is very different from, say, highlighting unique creations of a nation as a melting pot.

Hence one needs to be careful with the representation of heritage. When French gastronomy was inscribed in 2010 as an item of intangible heritage in the global representative list of UNESCO, it also implied the privileging of a particular living culture and the suppressing of local identities or minority ethnic identities in France. This is something that can also become a sore point in Singapore, considering the issue of how people of different ethnic groups should ‘eat together’. (If I have to make a personal choice for the national dish, I would probably pick mee goreng – it is nothing fancy, but a form of truly syncretic culture. Then again I wouldn’t like so much tourist attention that it may soon come with a higher price tag like satay; let the tourists go for their chilli crab or fishhead curry instead.)

Cultural landscape as new trend in heritage protection

Singapore has little urgency for looking into intangible heritage anyway. The very creation of the Intangible Heritage Convention was motivated by the need for heritage lists to be ‘balanced’, considering that heritage of countries in Africa for instance is embodied in its performing arts, rituals and oral literature rather than in monumental architecture like in Europe. In Singapore, the urgent task now, considering the dominance of architecture and urban landscape in heritage protection, would be to take a cue from the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), which has recognised and protected cultural landscapes since 1992, with artistic and religious aspects included in consideration. Hence sites like the Bukit Brown Cemetery can also be considered as a special form of ‘cultural landscape’, exemplifying the idea of culture and nature being in harmony and not in opposition to each other.

In terms of historical and aesthetic interest, the site is also significant as a balance against Western monumental architecture of the British colonial period which dominates Singapore’s historic urban districts. In that sense, the site has universal values in cultural significance not only for Singapore but the world as a whole. It is the biggest Chinese cemetery in the world as such outside China, it is material evidence of itself, its authenticity makes it worth more than all the museums on history or heritage that may be created on a whim.

Balance between local and universal values of heritage

Whereas a site like Sun Yat Sen Villa may represent the history of modern China or the universal values of democracy, Bukit Brown Cemetery should be seen as reflecting the spread of the Chinese diaspora in this region in terms of cultural and aesthetic significance, and from a historical perspective, as representing the blood, sweat and tears of the local community and local personalities that helped to build Singapore, not to mention it being a site of spiritual values. We must be meticulous in identifying such local and universal values, not let the values of the site be equated with a vague ‘Chineseness’.

Bureaucrats often think they know what heritage is worth, but they also lack foresight. Places like Boat Quay were almost demolished in the name of modernisation, but look how much tourist money such quaint architecture and abandoned warehouses along the Singapore River have brought. For the longest time, the island of Sentosa has been developed as a paradise for tourists, but it is really the tropical charms of places like the Botanic Gardens or Pulau Ubin that make Singapore worth a longer stay or repeated visits. Of course, tourism is not the basic premise in heritage protection. Kreta Ayer (‘Niu Che Shui’) or ‘Chinatown’ is now good for tourists who are not bothered with whether the food they are eating is northern or southern Chinese, but it has completely lost its cultural character which used to be identified with the Cantonese community there.


Why do we need cultural heritage at all? Moralists would say it is a duty to our forefathers or to humanity. Social scientists would say it helps us to maintain our sense of identity and affirm our cultural values. Historians and conservators look at artefacts and monuments and they see historical and aesthetic values. Tour operators and government officials look at it and see economic values. Politicians may decide to see its value in winning trust of the people or in claiming affiliations. Educationists would see its importance in engaging the senses through material forms and natural settings, and in teaching respect for cultural diversity. Human rights activists may even argue that heritage tangible or intangible is also a form of cultural rights.

One thing for sure, authentic heritage once gone is lost forever. If one may be allowed to conclude on a moralistic note here, I would say: Don’t destroy heritage, don’t let our humanity go to the dogs. So far, I have not yet touched on the environmental issue of sustainability: Reckless urban development and removal of the soil in our natural landscape will only invite more flooding in our island when the rain pours.

(First published in Facebook on 26 Feb 2012)


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Filed under Bukit Brown, Heritage, racialism

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