By Benny Lim
The recent inscription (4th July 2015) of Singapore Botanical Gardens (or Botanic Gardens) into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site was deemed as a national pride for Singapore. The mainstream news media, Today, even proclaims that all 21 members of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee were so impressed with Singapore’s nomination bid that every single one of them expressed their support and congratulations (Today, 5th July 2015). There was also an outpouring of love and support on the social media sphere, where Singaporeans shared their joy upon receiving this great news.
As a Singaporean, I have mixed feelings about the inscription. On the one hand, it is really great to know that a part of Singapore is being recognized as an important heritage on an international platform. Moreover, the submission of Botanic Gardens to the UNESCO committee also shows Singapore’s commitment in preserving the site – an action even rarer than the unanimous endorsement by all the members of the UNESCO Committee.
On the other hand, I can’t help but think – is there really a need to be listed by UNESCO?
The National Parks Board of Singapore has been doing a great job in taking care of Botanic Gardens. The site is definitely not in a dire state, where a UNESCO inscription will bring about financial aid and international conservation expertise. Furthermore, it is a proven fact that UNESCO can do very little in physically protecting the very sites they declare as World Heritage. The recent destruction of the monuments by ISIL in the ancient city of Hatra (Iraq), which was listed 30 years ago, clearly reflects UNESCO’s limitations. One thing is for sure – this listing will increase the international awareness of Botanic Gardens, and boost tourism for Singapore. Economic impacts aside, the increased human traffic due to tourism, if not well managed, could bring about more destruction (look at Angkor Wat in Cambodia). If there is genuine interest in preserving Botanic Gardens, Singapore should not have disrupted the status quo, since the site has been very well maintained for the last few decades.
I would feel really embarrassed if this whole inscription is more about the recognition in time for Singapore’s Golden Jubilee in August 2015. As we all know, land scarcity in Singapore has led to the redevelopment or destruction of many cultural areas and landmarks. Singapore’s priority has always been very clear – cultural landmarks have to give way to national development. One can take a walk (anywhere) around Singapore (or just within the vicinity of Botanic Gardens), and it is not difficult to physically see how much the façade of the city-state has changed in recent years. The old National Library Building along Stamford Road is a good example. To take pride in Botanic Gardens’ inscription merely reflects the city-state’s shallowness in cultural preservation.
It is hoped that with this international recognition, Singapore would hype up their conservation efforts. Another great site to consider is Bukit Brown Cemetery. Currently, the Singapore Botanical Gardens fulfill two criteria (of ten) on the UNSECO World Heritage checklist. I strongly believe that Bukit Brown Cemetery fulfills similar criteria, if not, more items than Botanic Gardens.
Benny Lim (Ph.D.) is a full-time faculty member of the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong. He teaches ‘Culture and Heritage Conservation’ in the BA in Cultural Studies programme.