Giving a future to our past

Chua and Fauzy Ismail, an architect, tutor and researcher with the National University of Singapore’s Department of Architecture. He is also a volunteer with the Singapore Heritage Society.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, May 1: Sarawak has a rich heritage, both tangible (buildings, monuments, sites, landscapes and objects) and intangible (traditional arts and crafts, customs and traditions, and food) ones.


Our heritage must be preserved and conserved as they are our roots. It is our reference point as to how our society has evolved to the present and which has given us our unique identity.

DayakDaily recently caught up with the executive director-cum-vice-president of Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), Dr Chua Ai Lin, to pick her brains, so to speak. This historian was here to give talks on heritage and the theme of her initiative was ‘Giving a future to our past’.

It was her first visit to Sarawak, and she shared insights about Singapore’s heritage, how she got involved, what still needs to be done about their heritage, and how Sarawak could emulate Singapore in sustainable heritage management.

Kuching’s tangible heritage, the Sarawak Steamship Co.Ltd building at the Kuching Waterfront. It was built during the Brooke era in 1930.

“In Singapore Heritage Society, we believe that the easy way we think about heritage is ‘Living present of the past’ as compared to when we speak of history — as to what happened before. Sometimes, people think of it as black and white photos, what happened during the Second World War, for instance.

“However, heritage is about things of the past that is still around us today. So, it is here, in the present. Think about living heritage. That is how I think about it.”

The importance of heritage.

Chua, who is a past president of SHS (2013-2017), felt that heritage was very important, and being in SHS gave her all the more reason to promote and to advocate for it.

“Singapore started on a built heritage conservation journey quite some time ago, back in the 1980s, and the Singapore Heritage Society started in 1987.”

The Square Tower at the Kuching Waterfront was built in 1879.

She revealed that in the mid-‘80s, interest in heritage started picking up, and in 1986, the first Singapore Government Master Plan for conservation was laid out. In 1988, the government established a commission on heritage to look into it.

“After the result of that commission, the government started the National Heritage Board.

“Around 1987, SHS was formed and a citizens’ group was there to speak up for heritage conservation. So, again to push the government a bit further, areas that have been overlooked or maybe doing things that could have been done better. So, our SHS role is to bring up all these issues and to have a voice for heritage conservation.”

Dragged into heritage conservation

Chua said she was literally dragged into Singapore heritage conservation while working as a historian for the National Archive of Singapore (NAS) and after joining SHS.

“When I joined the SHS, I attended a lot of talks, tours and met very knowledgeable people that changed my life. I was able to see my own city through my own eyes clearer. I really began to enjoy and appreciate something that I had not done before.

“Imagine now built heritage conservation Singapore has more than 7,200 conservation buildings like China Town, Little India, Kampung Glam and the old shophouses.”

Chua opined that Singapore was doing very well in built heritage as it was well organised, had good guidelines and constant programmes to review conservation areas.

The old Courthouse, which is a landmark in the city.

Intangible heritage

She recalled that in the early days, the idea of heritage was very much on buildings, but as time went by, attention shifted towards intangible heritage. Even now, the Unesco World Heritage body is more into intangible cultural heritage.

Chua said Singapore was now catching up on the intangible side.

“At the official level, Singapore has signed up with the Unesco intangible cultural heritage convention and she has nominated its first intangible cultural heritage item.

“To develop this intangible heritage, we want the community to be involved and have a say on what is going on. It is not just about your traditional crafts, your performing arts but also a place in a heritage district.”

Chua said she liked to use the phrase ‘Historic urban landscape’ as another term for holistic heritage.

“It is not about one building but the whole street, infrastructure, social system, economic system, way of life, people and their stories.

“To be in a holistic manner, Singapore is working to try to recognise the stakeholders from the ground up, small business owners, local residents and not just the people with power, financial means or who own big businesses.”

The imposing Plaza Merdeka and Waterfront Hotel towers over the Textile Museum, which is nestled in the The Pavilion Building (front). Its architecture is a mixture of English Renaissance and English Colonial.

Is Singapore doing it right?

Chua believed that to do it right (in a holistic manner), they must first recognise the full range of stakeholders and bring them together. Secondly, they must adopt international best management systems, like Heritage Impact Management (HIM) assessment — a policy-making tool recommended by Unesco.

She said Singapore had done environmental impact assessments but not HIM, which requires specialised training.

She added that there was also the need to introduce specialised training so that there would be professionals who could do HIM and make it a high standard before using it as a policy-making tool in Singapore.

Chua said they really wanted Singaporeans themselves to get involved in such kind of work, but they have no experts in this field.

She disclosed that to do this kind of heritage work, the Singapore government brought in Unesco trainers and, at the same time, tried to match up with international best practices.

A section of the General Kuching Post Office and Carpenter Street arch. These structures are symbols of cultural gateways of the West and the East.

“There is also the need to understand the local community, and foreign experts may not really understand local society. This is also where we can learn from other people around us in the region of South East Asia — Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, for instance. As of now, there is a lot of work that has already been done.

“I think we can learn from them in terms of understanding local society and community. Maybe, Unesco experts can give us the structure, the more intellectual ways of doing it, but in terms of implementing that, we certainly need people who understand South East Asia to help us.”

What can Sarawak learn from Singapore?

Chua pointed out that Sarawak could learn from its built heritage conservation as Singapore had over 30 years of experience in it. There are many technical guidelines and much technical knowledge available to draw from.

“Talking to friends in Sarawak, you can take a look at Singapore’s redevelopment authority website. There are a lot of guidelines and books that can be downloaded. There is a lot of knowledge there as Singapore has already a system for built heritage conservation.”

How do we do sustainable heritage management?

Chua pointed out that it was very important to get every level of community involved.

“For example, you can start to have an understanding of a district, what are the inherent strengths of the place. We need to understand who is there, what are the things they are doing, the businesses, the activities they are doing and try to identify the things and the characters of the place.

“We need to try to preserve the characters, not just the physical environment, the people, the story, the trade and the activities. We must have this knowledge first before we start to plan.”

Chua said if one just imagines, the plan may not be fit into what is actually present there.

“If you have to bring ideas to make something new, actually it takes effort and resources. So, really, understanding the place is the first step.”

Intangible heritage can be felt at Carpenter Street, which hosts western design buildings but owned by the Chinese community.

In sustaining the conservation effort further, she also believed that the authority could still build something new, especially if more land is available.

“One can always find some other space to built something new without having to demolish the old. You can appreciate both as they are different and make the city exciting.”

Chua said the key learning point for her in looking at the history of heritage conservation in Singapore was that in the 1980s, before they started at old shophouses, it was dirty, dilapidated, rundown and no one wanted to live there.

“After conservation, the price for one shophouse is S$10 million. In China Town, the rental on one ground floor shop unit is S$20,000 a month. Not only are they beautiful now, but they have also become rare assets. It became something to treasure, so much so that now we have a problem as many foreign investors are buying our shophouses.

“They have not only become cultural assets but economic assets, as well. There is a complete turn around in the way we see these old buildings because they have been renovated and made beautiful again and people see them with new eyes.” — DayakDaily