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Speech by Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development, at the 2019 Architectural Heritage Awards

  Published: 21 October 2019

Good evening. I am very happy to be here at the 25th Architectural Heritage Awards. This is also a very special year as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Singapore’s urban conservation programme.

30 years of conservation

In 1989, URA formalised its conservation programme and conserved over 3,200 buildings in the districts of Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam, Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, Cairnhill and Emerald Hill.

But our conservation journey started as early as the 1960s, when we began to safeguard older areas of our city. At this time, urban renewal was an urgent task, and many people did not quite see the value in keeping older buildings. They thought these should be torn down, and new housing and infrastructure built instead. I think you cannot look at it from today’s lens, but put yourself in the shoes of Singapore back then in the 1960s, and the kinds of imperatives, pressures, that Singapore then was under. But thankfully, our pioneers saw the importance of protecting our built heritage. At the same time, they recognised that conservation had to be done pragmatically and with careful selection. Buildings needed to serve new purposes with new times, and continue to contribute to Singapore’s progress and development.

Putting this philosophy into practice, URA launched the conservation programme in the 1980s, with the first phase of large-scale conservation. Since then, we have continued to expand the footprint of our conserved landscape. To date, we have conserved close to 7,200 buildings and structures in more than 100 areas across our island.

Paying tribute to our pioneers

While there are many who contributed to this conservation journey, let me mention a few who, at critical junctures, helped to a make big difference. In fact, there are many more, and I wish I had the opportunity to pay tribute to every single one of our pioneers who made a difference to today. To start, our pioneer planners. Mr Alan Choe, the first General Manager of the Urban Renewal Unit in the 1960s, was one of the early ones with the foresight to safeguard older buildings amidst intensive redevelopment. As a young architect leading an urban design team in the 1970s, Mrs Koh-Lim Wen Gin fought to conserve low-rise historic districts in the city centre and made conservation a priority in our work. Her efforts and the efforts of her team laid the groundwork for the Conservation Master Plan, which was launched in 1989 under Dr Liu Thai Ker’s stewardship as URA’s CEO and Chief Planner. Mr Khoo Teng Chye, who also later took up the role of CEO and Chief Planner of URA, was crucial in strengthening the strategy and case for conservation.

We had important partners in other public agencies who also played very critical roles. Mrs Pamelia Lee, then in STB, she helped to use tourism to make a strong case for conservation. Other members of the public, and organisations such as the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), also championed the value of our heritage buildings in those early years. We are grateful that they fought hard, championed, and spoke about the importance about protecting our memories and built heritage. Finally, then-Minister for National Development, Mr S. Dhanabalan, provided critical political support to make urban conservation a reality in 1989. I wish to thank everyone who has a played a part in making our cityscape that much more diverse and more memorable. Numerous other URA, MND and partner officers and citizens also worked tirelessly behind the scenes to implement this, ensuring that buildings were restored and put to good use. For those of you here who contributed in those early years, thank you.

Co-creating our heritage landscape

At the formative stages of our journey, partnerships were key, and they remain so today.

We have taken a more inclusive and consultative approach to co-create and sustain our built heritage landscape. We continue to work with interest groups like SHS, and engage institutes of higher learning such as NUS, NTU, SUTD and SOTA, to discuss and generate more public interest in our built heritage. We can conserve buildings but often it is the memories, the values and the determination that underlies these buildings and the activities that went on in them, that we want future generations to learn from. Conservation is not adequate on its own with the participation of communities to keep the memories of the earlier days alive. We formed the Heritage and Identity Partnership (HIP) to foster public-private partnerships that help to develop better ideas and approaches for sustaining memories of our places. We are also collaborating with the local chapter of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to produce a series of technical handbooks to complement our conservation guidelines and grow industry capabilities for conservation projects.

The community has also been stepping forward with more ground-up initiatives. For example, earlier this year, a group of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School alumnae conducted community workshops to put together a proposal to conserve their former campus at 37 Emerald Hill Road.  URA had already been studying the overall plans for the Orchard Road area, and carefully considered the group’s proposal as part of its review. I am happy to share that the site’s three oldest buildings have been conserved. Another example is the Parish of Christ Church, the spiritual home for Anglican Tamils and a familiar landmark along Keng Lee Road. It was conserved earlier this year. When URA first proposed conservation, the church leaders and stakeholders recognised the historical and architectural significance of the building and expressed their support. They went on to further research the church’s history, and have launched a storyboard to share their story with the wider public – so not just protecting the building, but working with its current owners to share its story with people.

The professional industry and building owners are also crucial partners, being responsible for the physical protection of conserved buildings. We therefore started the Architectural Heritage Awards in 1995, to recognise and encourage good restoration practices. Please join me in congratulating the two winning projects this year: (i) Temasek Shophouse, and (ii) the residential shophouse at 105 Onan Road. Both these projects were restored with a focus on sustainability, and went the extra mile to promote public enjoyment and understanding of each building’s history.

Building our future Singapore together

The support of building owners, the professional industry and the heritage community has been integral to our conservation efforts. Looking back on this journey, we celebrate not just 30 years of hard work, but also 30 years of partnerships, 30 years of trust.

We will continue to engage and collaborate deeply with the industry, community, and all Singaporeans to protect, sustain, and enliven our built heritage for the next 30 years, and for many more generations to come.

Thank you all and please enjoy the evening.