The struggle between conservation and development
Crystal Heng Si Ying
School of Social Sciences, Nanyang Technological University
On a bleak, drizzly morning, Singaporeans bade farewell to the iconic Rochor Centre, nestled in the heart of the city. Characterized by Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats of four distinct colours — yellow, blue, green and pink, it was time for yet another site to make way for future development projects, which in this case is the North-South Corridor expressway (Wong, 2018).
Time and again, with heavy hearts, we witness various buildings or places being sacrificed to accommodate the country’s infrastructure development plans. While we are confronted with the problem of land constraint, leaving us with limited alternatives such that we have to sacrifice certain sites to support the country’s development, I would argue that conservation must not be neglected. As we adopt a growth-oriented urban development model (Shatkin, 2014), we must remember that these sites contribute to shaping the unique Singaporean identity; they are an integral part of Singapore’s history and an essential chapter of the Singapore story; the physical existence of these sites will aid in educating future generations about culture. In fact, conservation and development are not mutually exclusive, we can strike a balance between the two.
In the global arena, Singapore is often referred to as the ‘little red dot’. Having a tiny land area of 719.9 square kilometres recorded in 2017 (Department of Statistics Singapore, 2018), we have to constantly seek solutions to overcome the problem of land constraint. With limited alternatives, we end up sacrificing various sites. The Sungei Road Thieves’ Market is an example which has made various sacrifices in view of infrastructure development projects. Being a flea market, one can find virtually anything ranging from ancient items to second hand products here. In 2017, the curtains were drawn as the site made way for future residential development. Approximately 20 sellers relocated to the Kreta Ayer Flea Market in Chinatown (Chng Shao Kai, 2018) only to be uprooted once again this year for the construction of a sheltered linkway. While efforts have been made to help these sellers find a new home, it is inevitable that one day, their ‘new home’ will be deemed as a potential site for re-development, rendering them ‘homeless’ once again. Given that a petition to relocate the site was raised to the parliament, it demonstrates the strong feelings of attachment the public has to the site. Hence, before we sacrifice sites to accommodate future development projects, we should think of ways to preserve the precious memories associated with these places and recognize the importance of conservation.
Whether it is a building or a place, Singaporeans form memories associated with these sites. These shared memories contribute to shaping the unique Singaporean identity and conservation efforts are therefore crucial to allow Singaporeans to have something tangible to identify with. To illustrate, Dakota Crescent, being one of our oldest public housing estates, contains memories of many Singaporeans who lived and grew up there. For the residents of Dakota Crescent, this is their home, a part of what makes them a Singaporean. In 2014, it was announced that the estate would have to be sacrificed for redevelopment but its courtyard and iconic dove playground (Li, 2017) will be retained. This is an apt exemplification of an attempt to strike a balance between development and conservation. At the very least, the residents of Dakota Crescent will have something palpable to identify with such that whenever they reminisce about the wonderful memories they have forged there, it will delight them to know that the very playground they used to spend their afternoons at still exist. Conservation is hence paramount to ensure a tangible part of the site remains, cementing the Singaporean identity built upon shared memories.
Furthermore, these sites are part of our history, part of the Singapore story and it is imperative that we preserve them as we chart the development and progress of the country. Singapore has been lauded for its rapid advancement from third world to first world status within a short span of 50 years. As Singapore modernized, we see high-rise HDB flats and skyscrapers permeating the country. However, elements of the past are still evident, as seen in the various shophouses present in Singapore. Being typical two-storey buildings, it was recently announced that eight pre-World War 2 shophouses featuring Art Deco style in Jalan Besar (Urban Redevelopment Authority, 2018) will be put up for conservation status. Apart from this, the first satellite town of Singapore, Queenstown, houses a seven-storey building, the Princess House which served as the first headquarters of HDB. Featuring 1950s modern architecture, Princess House was marked for conservation in 2007. These buildings are representations of our past and a chapter of the Singapore story. By conserving them, we are essentially reminding ourselves of how far we have advanced in terms of the country’s infrastructure development, allowing us to take pride in what we have achieved.
Additionally, some of these sites are associated with a distinct culture such that preserving them would aid in educating future generations. In 1986, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced the Conservation Master Plan, marking out six areas including Chinatown, Kampong Glam, Little India and Emerald Hill for conservation. Today, we frequently see learning journeys organized to these areas, for students to learn more about cultures. For instance, the Thian Hock Keng Temple (Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, 2016) located at Chinatown is one of the oldest Hokkien temples in Singapore. Being declared as a national monument in 1973, a trip to this temple will enable one to learn more about the dialect aspect of the Chinese culture. Conserving a site thus goes beyond its physical presence, these sites serve as useful tools in cultural education.
In this whole struggle between conserving and making way for further development, the crux of it is to adopt a consultative approach and consider the public’s sentiment. We do not always have to make a tough choice between the two as they can co-exist. Many years later, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can revisit the colourful blocks of flats nestling in the city?
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