The Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth has announced that an additional $15 million will be set aside to support the restoration of national monuments. The National Monuments Fund is available for non-profit and religious organisations to co-pay for restoration works to monuments that have been gazetted as national monuments.

The Padang and three bridges across the Singapore River have recently been designated as national monuments. The recognition accorded by a national monument gazette marks the structure and site’s historical, architectural or social importance to Singapore’s built heritage. For instance, the Padang has borne witness to key events in Singapore’s history like the victory parade celebrating the formal surrender of the Japanese in World War Two and the announcement of the merger with Malaysia in September 1963.

By gazetting the sites and structures as a national monument board, they are protected by a specific set of preservation guidelines, thereby preserving their originality so that future generations are able to appreciate the monuments with as much historical accuracy as possible. For instance, restoration works need to use materials that are as close to the original materials used as possible and that there cannot be painting over special surfaces that can no longer be replicated today.

What is the Value of a National Monument?

The tagline for the National Heritage Board is “Pride in our Past, Legacy for our Future”. Thus, the gazetting of a monument declares that it is nationally significant based on “historic, cultural, traditional, archaeological, architectural, artistic or symbolic” criteria.

While innovation in architecture is important, preserving and restoring old buildings are important because they are a reflection of our history. The monuments give us a view into how people from different eras lived and give us a deeper appreciation for how a city has changed over time. For instance, when we see the bars at Boat Quay situated in shophouses, we can appreciate the entrepot trade that took place in Singapore’s earlier years.

“History is recorded… in some of the books but it is also recorded in the things that we create and we use… (and) the buildings that we live in and learn in and enjoy – these are part of our material culture”. Watch this Tedx talk on the importance of historic preservation.

There are also many other benefits to keeping and preserving the old buildings in our cities intact such as:

  • Tourism. Maintaining monuments attract tourists who are particularly keen on experiencing how the city used to be through its architecture. The increase in tourism also leads to knock-on effects for the economy and create jobs for locals. 
  • History. Monuments give us tangible evidence and help us to understand the history that occurred before we were born and for the diversity of cultures of those who lived in earlier times. The community benefits when it understands its past and gains a respect for its cultural heritage.
  • Conservation of resources. Although the restoration of national monuments takes a whole suite of knowledge and skills, preserving old buildings reduces construction waste and saves energy required to manufacture raw materials and to construct new buildings. This must be balanced with the building of new green buildings.
  • Revitalisation of neighbourhoods. The preservation of national monuments also help to revitalise neighbourhoods and inject them with a new heart and soul which forms part of the community’s social identity.

The Symbolism of Public Monuments?

While we can agree on the importance of preserving public monuments, deeper questions abound: What makes a public monument worth preserving and who determines whether it is nationally significant? What is significance anyway?

A monument typically commemorates a person or event and it generally reflects the sentiment of the group that commissioned it. However, opinions and values change over time. As such, throughout the course of history, we have witnessed the alteration, removal and destruction of monuments.

At times, it is because an invading force is seeking to deny the cultural heritage of other people. However, there are also times where a community decides that a monument is in direct opposition to their current values.

For instance, at the end of the war in Baghdad, Iraqis celebrated the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime by toppling a statue of the ruler. This statue was initially erected in honour of his 65th birthday. Another example was when a community in Virginia, US wanted to remove a statue of a Confederate General that celebrated racist values centred on white supremacy. What are we placing on a pedestal and how far should we protect something that has been designated as a national monument?

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. Are you familiar with the national monuments in Singapore? Would you be able to lead your overseas guests on a tour of the national monuments? What would increase your interest?
  2. How should we treat monuments that represent a sad or shameful part of our history? Can we celebrate the richness of cultural expression and historical heritage without emboldening anti-social ideologies?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. entrepot’: a port, city or other centre to which goods are brought for import and and export
  2. pedestal’: the base on which a statue or obelisk is mounted; a situation in which someone is greatly or uncritically admired (Nb. Consider both the physical and symbolic definitions of the word.)

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. The Guardian: An approach to troublesome monuments?

Our relationship to a statue, or a building, or a sign is always changing. Often the change is so gradual, happening over decades and generations, that the monument – the version of reality it embodies – simply recedes into the background. Of its time: this is the explanation we reach for as we shrug and walk past, if we’ve bothered to look at all. We make the assumption that the past is past, that those ideas and values no longer have the power to threaten or harm, or never did.

The reality is more complicated. For one thing, this is what monuments do: they normalise the past, for better or worse. They make injustices easier to defend and, more insidiously, harder to see. For another, it’s the people most likely to defend those injustices who ultimately decide what is or isn’t threatening, not the people who have been most affected. Only the dominance of the settler majorities in the US, Canada and Australia, for example, can explain their indifference to the statues of Theodore Roosevelt, John A MacDonald, and Captain James Cook that for many indigenous peoples have long represented genocide.

But as the past resonates in unexpected ways as social and economic conditions change, so a monument’s power ebbs and flows. Its semiotics are always volatile. What the Oxford Rhodes represents to students of colour and their allies right now might be closer to what it represented to their counterparts in the 1960s, when the lived experience of colonialism was fresh, than either would be to Chaudhuri’s cohort in the early 1990s, when – as Chaudhuri points out – multiculturalism was ascendant in Britain and their place in an equal, just society felt increasingly secure.

  1. The Straits Times: What makes a national monument?

THE recent announcement that the Jurong Town Hall building will be accorded “national monument” status comes as a pleasant surprise.

Jurong Town Hall is a prime example of modern architecture in post-independence Singapore and was designed by Architects Team 3 in 1974. Buildings from this period are generally considered not “old” or “historic” enough to be deemed important by many and, as with much of modern architecture, you either hate it or love it.

In the light of this, the decision to grant Jurong Town Hall national monument status should be applauded as a sign of increased recognition of the importance of modern architecture. Nevertheless, this decision also raises a few questions as to how we decide what buildings to recognise and protect, and the rationale behind the decision-making processes. Discussing these questions will not only raise architectural awareness in Singapore, but also help inform ongoing debates over heritage-significant buildings.

What’s the point of endowing only buildings and sites that are in absolutely no danger of being demolished with legal protection? Do we need the political will to champion heritage-significant buildings that are vulnerable? Such issues are worth talking about if we are to take heritage more seriously in Singapore.