What is “heritage”?


I recently caught up with a friend who’s been living in South Korea for the past couple of years and who has practically cut all contact with what’s happening here. She had a lot of catching up to do, so naturally I told her about the many social transformations the country is going through, how some of them may be beneficial in the long run and how some others I don’t necessarily agree with.

To my surprise the only thing that really caught her attention was the fact that we wouldn’t be able to meet at our usual hangout, the McDonald’s in East Coast.

“What do you mean it’s gone?? Who allowed that?! Why weren’t we consulted on this?”


At first I thought she was over-reacting; how do you practically consult each and every person on every micro project that happens? And yes, sure, we had some fun times in that fast food place, but that’s all it ever was, a fast food place. It’s not like a temple was destroyed, right?

Her response? “Yeah, it was a fast food place, but it was much more than that. It was a place filled with memories!”

That’s when I realised: her reaction was exactly the same as my mother’s shock over parts of Bukit Brown cemetery being re-developed or my father’s sadness when finding out his old primary school would give way to yet another shopping mall.

All of these urban development choices raise some very valid points: how do people decide what constitutes “heritage”? Who decides what’s worth keeping or what should be replaced? Shouldn’t the public be able to weigh in on the decision?

A good starting point would be to define what we mean by “heritage”. For me, “heritage” means buildings and landmarks that have historical significance (shophouses, streets, monuments, etc.).

For others, it may be anything that’s the result of traditions or customs; “intangible heritage”, as the UNESCO calls it, such as cuisine, language, ceremonies, skills, currency, etc.


I remember a particularly heated debate with a colleague once, because he insisted intangible heritage was way more valuable than material heritage. His argument went that buildings can have a price tag put on them based on the quality and/or rarity of the land it sits on, whereas traditions and culture are priceless.

I actually agreed with part of his statement, but I told him he was completely ignoring the value of symbols and historical significance; would Paris sell the Eiffel Tower? Would New-York ever sell the Statue of Liberty? Sure, they’d probably make a lot of money, but that’s not enough to justify these national monuments being treated like any other random office building!

This may seem like a petty argument, as in an ideal world both tangible and intangible heritage would be preserved and passed on from generation to generation.

But such policies have such an important economic impact that such discussions also take place at the higher levels of government.

Just look at how Nicolas Sarkozy made it a personal affair to have French cuisine recognised by the rest of the world! The move was not only about having French gastronomy officially recognised as exceptional, it was about adding economic value to the work of French chefs around the globe, raising the number of tourists to France, and reinforcing the country’s soft power.

So where does Singapore fit into all of this?

I’d say we’re pretty good at championing our intangible heritage; anyone that’s ever heard of Singapore will know about durian, chicken rice, the different languages, races, and religions living together, the economic prosperity, the safety and security, the many laws and fines, and yes, even the chewing gum ban.

But in terms of tangible heritage, we’re way far behind many other countries; we’ve only recently started preserving our iconic architecture and historical landmarks (the ones we do keep are used as eating and shopping facilities), we don’t have any iconic landmark recognised the world over (is the Merlion the best we can do?), and we’re constantly renovating things (seriously, how many 7/11s do we actually need on this tiny island?).

It’s so bad that almost all of the friends who visit me from abroad tell me we are a soulless city: “sure, your city is new, shiny, and impressive, but where is the soul? Where do I see the REAL Singapore?”. Well, I usually tell them they need to spend a few more days in Singapore to really explore the areas that aren’t mentioned in the tourist guides.

But should visitors have to look so hard to find the real us?

Take one of my favourite spots in Singapore, the Sungei Road flea market.

I love the area for many different reasons, but the main one would have to be the authenticity of the people there. They are the heart and soul of Singapore.

So imagine my distress when I found out the whole area would be scrapped to make way for yet another MRT station

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against urbanisation and development. I just wish there was a way to do it without having to turn to Youtube for a reminder of some of our long-forgotten ways of life…

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