Saturday 27 September 2014

Patching heritage cracks

The uncertain fate of Singapore's historic dragon kilns highlights problems of overlapping roles and varying priorities of the three heritage bodies.
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 26 Sep 2014

THEY may be Singapore's only two surviving dragon kilns from the 1940s and 1950s, part of a once-booming brick industry here, but their fate is up in the air.

The wood-fired dragon kilns - their distinctive shapes resemble a dragon's tail and smoking head - at 85 and 97L, Lorong Tawas, in Jurong are part of a fascinating history.

Up till World War II, Singapore was home to at least 20 smouldering kilns. Some of the Jurong kilns used to produce latex cups used by nearby rubber plantations.

However, they sit on government land earmarked for long-term development.

And the National Heritage Board (NHB), the statutory body some would think is responsible for their safe keeping, actually has no power to conserve the site.

This is even though its impact assessment and mitigation division deemed the kilns historically unique and of artistic value last August, and managed to persuade the site's owner, the Singapore Land Authority, to extend its lease by three three-year terms.

The board's division, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), has the power only to gazette - or preserve - national monuments based on stringent criteria.

For the site to be conserved, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) would have to step in. Even then, it would have to weigh the needs of the agencies involved in the site - this includes the JTC Corporation, which runs the CleanTech Park there - and the future land needs of the area. The agencies involved must come to an agreement.

So, after surviving for decades, the dragon kilns' future is clouded due to a hodgepodge of rules on heritage and conservation matters, and overlapping or conflicting development priorities.

Other historic sites and monuments are falling through the cracks too.

In 2008, five heritage bridges along the Singapore River were put on the conservation list by the URA. Under the law, conserved structures and buildings must retain their original structure and achitectural elements.

They must also be sensitively restored or repaired carefully, should the need arise.

But some of these structures, which fall under the charge of their site owners, the Singapore Tourism Board and the Land Transport Authority, fell into disrepair.

This would not have happened if a government body had been appointed to galvanise and see to it that different agencies and developers work towards the same goals.

Architectural conservators, historians and civic groups say the problem lies in the overlapping and unclear roles of the three bodies charged with heritage matters - the NHB, PSM and the URA.

The situation today

THE NHB promotes heritage appreciation through managing its national museums, and documentation and outreach efforts.

Under its umbrella is the PSM, which provides legal protection for national monuments - these must have socio-historical, cultural and architectural value on the level of national significance - and offers monument owners guidance and regulatory support.

Then there is the URA, established in 1974, and which is charged with studying old buildings for possible conservation as part of land use planning.

For a structure to be worthy of conservation, it needs to fulfil the URA's requirements, including having architectural, social and cultural significance; the rarity of the structure; and the contribution to the environment.

Experts have given these bodies the thumbs up for their good work so far.

They applauded the NHB's landmark move to set up an impact assessment and mitigation division last July to study and act as consultant on the effects development has on the country's heritage. The new division came about as part of an internal reorganisation. Comprising a group of conservation architects, historians and researchers, its job is to conduct impact assessments of redevelopment works on heritage sites and structures and work with parties involved to establish mitigation measures.

It acted as mediator, working with the Housing Board and Singapore Heritage Society, to incorporate heritage elements into the new Bidadari housing estate, for example. It also worked with civic group My Community, the URA and Housing Board to help conserve several landmarks in Queenstown, Singapore's first satellite town.

NHB chief executive Rosa Daniel said NHB plays the role of heritage promoter, facilitator and regulator. "Each role is important and we seek to find the balance that best serves the needs of a more discerning public and a more complex operating environment."

Experts acknowledged the URA's work as well. The authority has close to 7,200 buildings in its conservation stable.

They noted that its latest gazette in June saved warehouses, public housing flats and social institutions such as health-care facilities and a library - marking a shift from the large numbers of shophouses and black-and-white colonial bungalows it started out saving.

Gaps in the system

HOWEVER, gaps still exist. Experts argue that the NHB's main business is still the operation of its eight museums and heritage institutions.

Meanwhile, the Sungei Road Flea Market, which has to make way for a new MRT station by 2017, and rustic island Pulau Ubin are, like the historic dragon kilns, not safe from future development works.

Despite valiant efforts - including extensive documentation projects of these places by the NHB - the board's hands are tied, for it has no actual power to protect them.

The PSM division has also got flak from some monument owners for not providing enough technical expertise or funding for repair and restoration efforts, which can cost millions.

As for the URA, concerns about conflict of interest have been raised because, while the authority sizes up places for conservation, it is also associated with "bulldozers and demolition, acquisition and redevelopment", says cultural geographer Lily Kong of the National University of Singapore.

What experts want

EXPERTS believe a more holistic way to promote and protect heritage is needed.

Some say the NHB, with its existing resources, should be the lead agency and be armed with greater bite to push for the protection of sites it deems historically worthy. Others say there is a need for an independent and dedicated government agency.

Some suggestions include expanding the NHB's scope and operations to take on the URA's role of conservator.

Under this scenario, the NHB would also preferably have the power to require site owners and caretakers to report to it on maintenance matters and provide more financial support to national monument owners.

Others, such as Dr Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore, said this power should be vested within a new and independent agency. Describing the agency as an ombudsman, he said it would be able to take both private developers and ministries to task if heritage laws are violated.

Take the Tan Si Chong Su temple, where the secretary of the temple's management committee was fined $500 in 2003 for making unauthorised renovations to the national monument.

The monument's owner, the SLA, was not taken to task, said Dr Tan. "There must be political will to give this body enough power to do the job and this would involve amending or creating legislation for this."

He added: "The heritage ombudsman would sit across ministries and account only to Parliament. If this is in place, then there is no need to worry about the pecking order of the various ministries.

"It would have powers to receive complaints and investigate them. If rules are violated, it would have powers to prosecute the parties involved."

The way forward

NO MATTER who takes the lead in this effort, it is clear that there is a need for a body to step in and impose mandatory impact assessments across the public and private sectors before development decisions are made, said Dr Jack Lee, a heritage law expert from the Singapore Management University.

Architectural conservation specialist consultant Ho Weng Hin said the assessment report should detail the condition of the building or site, the heritage elements worthy of protection and the parameters for future use, given its existing state.

Mr Ho said: "Singapore has a dwindling stock of heritage buildings, so we must be diligent about the background work that we do."

Singapore University of Technology and Design assistant professor Yeo Kang Shua, who is also the honorary secretary of the Singapore Heritage Society, said such reports would ensure that, at the very least, "we will know what we are losing, if we have to let them go".

Dr Yeo added that the process should be open for public comment and viewing - as in the case of Hong Kong, where people can submit historic buildings for grading and the results and meetings are open to the public.

This would start the conservation conversation early on.

Law expert Dr Lee agreed. "Heritage groups often don't realise that a site is in danger of redevelopment until after the decision has been made," he said.

The extra pair of eyes could also help identify important historic areas that have been left out of the country's annals.

These include the Singapore Heritage Society's suggestions, such as schooling, housing and leisure heritage sites and forgotten parts of Singapore like Tanjong Malang in the Palmer and Hill road area.

Alongside civic groups, the body would also champion a mindset shift, where heritage considerations, now in their infancy, carry the same weight as the country's developmental needs.

Such a multi-faceted approach would prevent historically valuable places from slipping through the cracks - such as the red-brick National Library building and parts of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

It is timely to relook this sector, especially with the nation's bid for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to become its first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More importantly, with the country's jubilee year coming up next year, Singapore must develop an overarching and all-encompassing system - through a process of constant refinement - that can work for another 50 years, to ensure a lasting legacy for future generations.

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