Kelvin Ang, Director Conservation Management, Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority: “Heritage Helps Raising Citizens’ Awareness of Singapore Multi-Cultural Diversity”

The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore is a State Agency with a mission to evaluate, plan and implement urban needs for Singapore The agency task includes the preservation of historical areas as well as the city’s heritage. In an exclusive interview with ASEAN.Travel, Kelvin Ang, URA Director Conservation Management tells all about the way tourism is integrated into Singapore’s efforts to protect and enhance its heritage. Some 7,200 buildings in 100 areas within Singapore have received conservation status to date. Legal protection of historical building started in 1973 with the listing of a batch of eight monuments.

Kelvin Ang, URA Singapore
Kelvin Ang, URA Singapore

How would you describe the value of Singapore’s historical heritage?

Kelvin Ang- As a country we can talk of a unique heritage value in ASEAN. We do not have centuries-old cultural icons such as big religious sites or monuments like in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand or Vietnam. However, we have a unique vernacular urban heritage, what I would call a ‘street architecture’.URA is here to protect this heritage.

How do you integrate the concept of tourism into heritage conservation?

K.A.- I must first highlight that the primary purpose of preservation is not tourism. It has never been a basis for preservation. Our task was to raise awareness among our citizens to understand the diversity of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Singapore and consequently give them this sense of identity. It was a way to give citizens pride for their living environment -not only by focusing on economics but also by instilling a social value.

Some 15 years ago, we also realize that younger generation knew very little about their own town, beside their home, working place and a few areas for their shopping or entertainment. We then launched a program “Rediscovering Singapore” distributing some 100,000 copies with circuits and trails to venture beyond their own boundaries. The motivation was “Go and Explore Your Country”. Then, we realize that it also generated interest among high value, educated visitors. We consequently have been working with the Singapore Tourism Board to approach foreign markets as well. In a study presented a few years ago by Hong Kong University, we learned that European travellers are particularly keen on nature and heritage and will spend more days at a destination to immerse themselves into a local culture.

How does tourism contribute to heritage preservation and enhancement?

K.A.- Conservation is important as it gives values to areas in town which are not necessary typical tourist attractions. And the fact that tourists will start venturing in less exposed districts also give a kind of pride to local communities which suddenly feel that they are part of the discovery trail. Tourists also generate revenues for local communities. Food outlets, traditional markets, some craft shops are benefiting from tourists’ visits. Historical districts with a value for visitors will always be the ones where locals have a story to tell, a story which can blend with the own district’s history.

Are they also negative aspects to this tourism involvement?

K.A.- Tourism definitely has a positive impact if we meanwhile know how also to control it. That means not to go by turning areas into exclusive tourist attractions and consequently turn away locals. It has its own complexity as we ust remain careful about an area’s evolution. This is why we work closely with the National Heritage Board as we aways convey the message to our citizens: ” This is YOUR heritage”. We think that we then avoid to turn areas into pure tourist traps. We, for example, work with various bodies to help to retain local shops or restaurants to preserve the authenticity of places. Tourism is seen as an extra injection to keep an area vibrant and alive.

What would be the areas that you think are great for foreign visitors these days beside traditional tourist attractions in the city centre?

K.A.- Tiong Baru is an emerging area for niche tourism with its art deco style architecture as it used to be one of the first public housing estate developed before World War II by British. It has been gentrified but architecture has been preserved with some charming shops and restaurants to discover.

I feel also that the area around Balestier Road is a great place to visit for travellers. It used to be a centre for sugar cane plantation with the arrival of many Chinese and Indian workers. it was also a centre of revolutionary activity and also the centre of Malay movie industry in the late forties to the sixties, a heritage that we share with Malaysia. Today, Balestier Road has a lot of traditional shophouses with classical architecture, old food shops with old-style delicacies. It has an ideal mix of local and tourist attractions and we want to continue to promote in a soft way that district.

Tiong Baru Art Deco public housing estate

I also feel that Pulau Ubin is a great area to explore. This is probably Singapore true last piece of rurality with the last village settlement. And of course we have Kampong Glam, Singapore historical Muslim settlement area and Katong/Joo Chiat, the centre of the Sino-Malay [Peranakan] culture.

Does URA work with other ASEAN cities and institutions to help promoting and preserving historical heritage?

K.A.- URA scope of work is targeting above all our domestic market. However, this does not mean that we do not work or cooperate with other cities in the region. We of course have close relations with Georgetown in Penang with which we have a strong common heritage. But also we worked and exchange ideas with Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bangkok and Yangon. We do not think that we are necessarily the best example of conservation but we can provide our experience in that field after many decades in activity.