Alvin Tan, Deputy Chief Executive (Policy & Community) of the National Heritage Board of Singapore, tells us why everyone has a part to play in the country’s heritage.
A nugget of wisdom from Alvin Tan stays with me long after our phone call. “It is by securing a future for our past that we are able to leave a legacy for our future,” he declares as we conclude our chat about recent initiatives by the National Heritage Board (NHB).
The Deputy Chief Executive (Policy & Community) has an affable and confident personality that is palpable over the phone and in person. He arrives at his photoshoot impeccably dressed and with a winning smile, looking the part of the man who is changing the face of Singapore’s heritage preservation.
Tan bestows me a book as we part. Titled Early Hawkers in Singapore, it documents the street hawkers of the 1920s to 1930s through translations by Dr. Lai Chee Kien and illustrations by Chang Yang. His gift is a harbinger of victory. Weeks later, on December 16, NHB announced the successful inscription of hawker culture in Singapore on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, elevating the status of hawkers and showcasing the nation’s commitment to safeguarding it for future generations. This is a big win for Singapore, particularly while the nation is in the throes of the Rediscovering Singapore tourism campaign.
Ripe for Rediscovery
The $45 million initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) is a rallying cry for locals to explore the island and support local businesses. “As STB has planned, we are encouraging Singaporeans to go on their Singapolidays at their leisure, explore the heritage that’s in their neighbourhood and go away with a renewed appreciation of what the city has to offer.”
One of its newest initiatives was the launch of the Hougang Heritage Trail, comprising 18 heritage sites spanning cultural and community institutions. Such trails are assembled with generous contributions of photographs and stories from the community of former and present residents.
“We wanted to get Singaporeans to rediscover the heritage gems we already have that either they’re not aware of or have overlooked because they were previously traveling for the holidays. We try to make heritage accessible and bring it to their doorsteps.”
With Singaporeans being a well-travelled group, Tan sees a pent-up demand for new and unique heritage experiences. “When we introduced initiatives such as glamping at Malay Heritage Centre and Deepavali trishaw rides at the Indian Heritage Centre, these were snapped up in record time. For the former, all slots were taken within five to six minutes after registration opened. Our programmes are usually very well attended but we had never seen anything like this.”
Passion and innovation
Passion is the driving force behind such success. Tan, who has been with NHB for ten years, oversaw the three institutions of Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, Malay Heritage Centre and Indian Heritage Centre as his first task when he came on board. “Working with the different ethnic communities allowed me to experience firsthand the passion of the communities and the pride they have for our heritage. It’s rubbed off on me.” In sustaining his passion, he credits his teams for their enthusiasm and stakeholders for their encouraging feedback.
“At times, when I think my passion has plateaued, something happens to reignite it like when we rediscovered the forgotten reservoir at Keppel Hill and the Tiong Bahru Air Raid Shelter,” he adds.
His “mind that is constantly working and going on overdrive”, coupled with a “strong sense of curiosity about the world”, is the push he needs for further innovation. “I’m driven by an insatiable appetite to learn from the best,” he admits, before he details how NHB adapts and adopts overseas practices for Singapore.
“We always benchmark ourselves against other highly urbanised places with similar land and planning constraints such as Hong Kong and New York.” Such densely populated global cities face the same struggle of straddling gentrification with modernisation and the preservation of heritage.
“With encounters of ‘lost heritage’, it strengthens my resolve to try and safeguard or document comprehensively as much of our heritage as possible, either in my work at NHB or as a member of URA’s Heritage and Identity partnership.”
“There are, however, always trade-offs,” quips Tan. He explains that decisions that impact heritage are informed by housing, social, economic and infrastructural needs.
“I think we have done well in the field of conservation. We have 73 national monuments and more than 7,000 conserved properties. Compared to Hong Kong, Singapore’s Preservation of Monuments Act and Planning Act confer our monuments and conserved properties statutory protection from demolition whereas only declared monuments in Hong Kong have statutory protection from demolition.”
Beyond the tangible
But built heritage is only a piece of the puzzle as Singaporeans’ sense of identity and belonging transcends physical infrastructures. What binds us is Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which is defined by traditions and living expressions, such as performing arts and rituals inherited from our ancestors.
“We’re relatively new in this field. Under Our SG Heritage Plan, we adopted a comprehensive approach to document Singapore’s ICH and facilitate the transmission of our ICH elements,” says Tan.
Documentation is key. “If ICH practitioners pass on, the skills will be lost. So we created the ICH inventory, which currently houses approximately 88 elements.”
Other ICH initiatives included the introduction of a grant for think tanks and institutes of higher learning to support in-depth research. “Through ongoing showcases at our museums and festivals, we hope to raise the visibility of Singapore’s diverse ICH elements and provide a source of income for ICH practitioners and groups.” In 2019, the Stewards of Heritage award, inspired by Japan’s and South Korea’s Living National Treasures award, was launched to give practitioners formal recognition.
Heritage in your hands
Crucially, Tan highlights that efforts to safeguard our cultural heritage also falls on the individual’s shoulders. “Everyone can and should play a part as cultural transmitters,” he says. Tan says it could be as simple as sharing cultural practices related to festive occasions and traditional food recipes with the next generation. His advice – that Singaporeans should support local ICH practitioners and groups by attending performances, patronising their shops and sharing about it online – is pertinent when using the SingapoRediscover vouchers. This would help them “continue to earn a living and sustain their trades”.
In the face of modernisation, ICH is far more fragile than built heritage. Also referred to as living heritage, it must be allowed to evolve to make room for globalisation. “We expect elements of ICH to change over time as they adapt to economic conditions, technology and lifestyle changes. We need to ensure that Singapore’s ICH elements will always remain relevant to their respective communities so that they will continue to practice it to pass it on to the next generation. It’s also important to support practitioners as they innovate and try new techniques so that their practices and products are sustainable in the long run.”
A fresh start
Next year, NHB has their plate full. “We are launching new heritage trails, gazetting new monuments and creating new street corner heritage galleries all over Singapore. We hope to bring back our signature festivals such as the Singapore Heritage Festival and the Singapore Night Festival. We are also reopening our World War Two interpretive centers of Changi Chapel Museum and Reflections at Bukit Chandu. I’m excited about the reopening of the Singapore Philatelic Museum as Singapore’s first dedicated Children’s Museum.”
His hope for the upcoming months is that Singaporeans will join NHB in celebrations of the successful UNESCO listing. His optimism about the future of heritage is contagious. “I think Singaporeans will continue to hold heritage close to their heart as our society matures and our population ages. I hope more Singaporeans will realise that their community or family heritage is in their hands.”
Asked how he’s planning to spend his SingapoRediscovers vouchers, it is no surprise that heritage is on his mind. “I’ll spend it in a way that supports a heritage business or the industry.”
For more information on National Heritage Board’s initiatives, head here