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30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989: Focusing on Identity

  Published: 14 November 2019
  Theme: Heritage

When the focus shifted to a stronger emphasis on Singapore’s identity in the 2000s, Dr James Khoo led discussions with people from all walks of life in shaping and defining this.

With a critical mass of important buildings and core historic areas conserved by the 2000s, there was an increasing public interest on how to shape and manage Singapore’s identity that went beyond just the retention of the built heritage.

The review of the Concept Plan 2001 first opened up the discourse on this with extensive public consultation. The Focus Group on the “Identity Versus Intensive Use of Land” co-chaired by academic Simon Tay and developer Philip Ng emphasised in their final report in December 2000 that retaining identity should be a vital aspect of Singapore’s development as a “given and not an afterthought”.

The group also suggested that: “conservation should go beyond individual buildings to whole neighbourhoods…A new focus should be given to buildings and areas that are more recent such as Geylang and Katong.”

The Identity Plan

This led to the development of the Identity Plan as part of the Master Plan 2003. A land use plan “plus”, the Identity Plan presented ideas and proposals on how to retain and enhance the special characters of 15 local places close to people’s hearts.

The Parks & Waterbodies and Identity Plan, with the Old World Charm areas highlighted and various reports

The Parks & Waterbodies and Identity Plan, with the Old World Charm areas highlighted and various reports

Dr James Khoo, a neurosurgeon, led the public engagements in 2002 contributing to the Identity Plan as the Chairman of the Old World Charm Subject Group focusing on four areas - Balestier, Jalan Besar, Tanjong Katong and Joo Chiat. He also later became the Chairman of the Conservation Advisory Panel from 2002 to 2010, an independent platform that provided regular feedback on conservation proposals.

Reflecting on the growing public interest then, James shares: “The momentum was building amongst the public in wanting to live in not just a nice city with clean air and water, but one with beautiful surroundings with our built heritage that can root us. Questions were raised about how we can look at conservation in a more holistic way to include the social and cultural dimensions and whole streetscapes.”

A major outcome of the engagement exercise then was in helping owners in the areas like Balestier and Joo Chiat understand that conservation did not mean a loss of value for their properties, says James. “Most of the people we spoke to valued conservation and wanted a stronger sense of identity, but they did not know how to do it. They were also afraid that their properties would lose their value after conservation.”

“Through briefings by URA and our dialogue with them, we showed that that they could retain the value of their properties through the ‘old and new’ approach for secondary settlements (areas outside the city centre developed between 1900s to 1960s) by building up the back and keeping the front,” he adds.

The result of the engagements with residents and owners saw strong support for the conservation of close to 800 buildings in the four areas, which were gazetted in 2003.

The engagement exercise and public survey also gave people a chance to better appreciate the details around conserved buildings. On the design of possible new extensions at the back of the conserved buildings, some survey respondents preferred traditional designs to tie in with the conserved portion while others wanted more innovative solutions. Respondents were also divided on whether certain trades in the areas should be retained or left to market forces.

The Old World Charm Subject Group concluded that conservation needed to take on a more integrated and synergistic approach that went “beyond physical structures to include communities and activities that contribute to the charm of places.” The group also recognised that holistic conservation meant users, owners, stakeholders and heritage-supporters should be part of the conservation process.

A visit by one of the Subject Groups to Changi Boardwalk with the then Minister for National Development, Mah Bow Tan

A visit by one of the Subject Groups to Changi Boardwalk with the then Minister for National Development, Mah Bow Tan

Many of the proposals and ideas from this exercise have since been implemented over the years and identity remains an integral part of planning and conservation efforts. Conservation efforts have also evolved to focus on software aspects. Communities are taking the lead to develop programming and other place-making activities for historic areas.

Tapping on diverse views

Another important milestone then was the formation of the Conservation Advisory Panel (CAP). Made up of a diverse group of individuals, from teachers, developers, architects to taxi drivers, James found the platform valuable in providing new perspectives on conservation proposals. It also enabled people to understand each other’s different points of views.

Dr James Khoo (at the bottom) at one of the Conservation Advisory Panel meetings

Dr James Khoo (at the bottom) at one of the Conservation Advisory Panel meetings

“We tend to understand things only from our own perspective. So having such a diverse group is important in ensuring we cover all bases. I made sure that everyone on the table had the opportunity to share their views. Everyone contributed,” says James.

In evaluating conservation proposals, James recalls refining a scoring system used for evaluation amongst those on the panel. Given his medical background, he believed the scoring system could offer a more rational and objective evaluation. The panel members would assign scores to proposed buildings for conservation based on their architectural merit, cultural significance, contribution to identity and their economic value. Those that had a score of more than 60 points would be more highly considered for conservation by the panel.

Over the years, CAP has evaluated 34 proposals covering 1,000 buildings. Its tenure ended in 2018. Moving forward, James continues to advocate for public education and outreach in raising awareness and appreciation for Singapore’s heritage and identity. He believes this needs to start from the young. “We need to teach our young to be more aware of their built surroundings. Our children must know what came before us in order to understand the present and the future.”


This article is part of '30 Years of Conservation in Singapore since 1989', a special supplement that presents 30 reflections and stories of personal and collective struggles and triumph in charting Singapore’s conservation efforts in the last 30 years. Read the complete supplement here.