‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’: Fears and Concerns


The government just announced Singapore’s first Heritage Masterplan, a few days after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the government’s decision to recommend to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage our ‘hawker culture’. This is an amazing step in the right direction for two reasons:

  1. It is a recognition that our heritage extends beyond our pre-independence history. The vast majority of our listed physical monuments dates back to the 60s or earlier, and therefore left out much of the 70s and 80s from our national history. Perhaps they are too recent, but Singapore is no longer young. To recognise a cultural heritage that is still present and dear to many Singaporeans is a step in the right direction towards preserving our post-independence heritage.
  2. To recognise cultural practices is also to recognise the people who participate in these cultural practices – something that the mere preservation of buildings cannot always capture.

However, I do have some fears and concerns in relation to these recent developments.

1) Not a Substitute for Physical Conservation and Preservation

The safeguarding of cultural heritage cannot be a substitute for the conservation of physical monuments and buildings to varying degrees. The Heritage Masterplan treats intangible heritage as separate from that of physical heritage – however, they are not distinct and separate.

Take this simple example: is food court food part of our hawker culture? They are similar in many ways – we can find chicken rice and nasi lemak in both venues. The stall owners would have to squeeze into small and cramp stalls, and the preparation of food often starts early in the day. Would kopitiam food qualify as part of our hawker culture? Most Singaporeans, when talking about hawker culture, or hawker food, would undoubtedly be referring to Chomp Chomp, Newton, or Old Airport Road – not the food court in the mall next to the nearest MRT station.

It is for the same reason why the government had such a heated fight over the question of whether to preserve 38 Oxley Road. If the space does not matter, surely meeting minutes and photographs would have sufficed as the material for important historical lessons. Alas, no, the physical space matters.

To put it simply, the protection of cultural heritage must be accompanied by an effort to retain the physical spaces that the heritage exists in.

To put it simply, the protection of cultural heritage must be accompanied by an effort to retain the physical spaces that the heritage exists in. Think of cultural heritage as water – you cannot really hold it but you know it is there. The physical spaces are the bottles that would contain the water that is our cultural heritage.

Let’s hope that the entry of intangible heritage into the conversation is not going to become an excuse to neglect the conservation and protection of our built heritage.

2) Culture is not static, so safeguarding cannot be dogmatic

The safeguarding of cultural heritage must be carried out in a sufficiently open-ended manner, and to avoid dogma, such that culture is not artificially held in stasis. In the case of hawker culture, itself a relatively new development due to the government’s hygiene push of the 60s and 70s, there will always be newcomer to the scene. They should not be artificially excluded from ‘hawker culture’.

Some fond local snacks are late-comers to the food scene, such as kueh tutu, which was only part of the hawker scene from the 80s at the earliest. Where will Singapore’s culture head in in the next 10 or 50 years? No one knows, but what is clear is that we will never discard our past. We will build upon older practices and ways of life.

Chinese Opera Performance near the Esplanade – how do we promote and safeguard a dying art? (Photo credits: Esplanade)

Therefore, whenever we talk about protecting intangible heritage, we have to avoid falling into the trap of attempting to preserve things in stasis, but rather the question should be how are we going to support an eco-system that would allow the given culture to thrive, propagate, and continue to develop in an organic manner.

Let’s hope that the coming public conversations will not be petty squabbles over what qualifies as ‘hawker culture’, but rather how do we promote a new generation of Singaporeans to start businesses in hawker centres – be it to sell rojak or craft beer.

3) Intangible Heritage is more fragile than buildings

Warsaw was flattened during the Second World War, and it was rebuilt to specification after the war – visit Warsaw today, and you would think it was constructed in the 16th century, not the 1960s. The preservation of physical heritage is easy – and the reconstruction of what was lost is not a tall order. However, the cultural life of Warsaw before and after the war was forever different.

Intangible heritage is easily damaged compared to physical heritage – and often more irreversible.

Take Chinatown for example, it was the hub of the Chinese society in Singapore and Malaya. Our National Archives contains many fond accounts of visiting Chinatown on weekends. Extended families would rent mini-vans and drive to Chinatown together. People spoke of the outdoor food markets “Da Pai Dang” fondly. The introduction of hawker centres eliminated these street hawkers. When the government attempted to revive such a concept as a tourism gimmick in Chinatown, the resultant was a semi-open air food court (Chinatown Food Street) without any of the cultural essence that made “Da Pai Dang” such a central part of the collective memory of the old Chinatown.

Sure, Chinatown was still “China”-town, a Chinese quarter of town. We still find Chinese signboards hanging, and old businesses such as Greater China Mooncake and Pek Sin Choon Tea continued operating. However, this rarefied and sterilised Chinatown is no longer the same as the town which thousands of Chinese Singaporeans saw as the hub of their existence in Southeast Asia.

Let’s hope that our bid to safeguard our cultural heritage will occur in a well-measured and thoughtful manner that would not end up transforming our cherished cultural practices into mere museum pieces.


While I look to the recent announcement by the Prime Minister and the National Heritage Board with great excitement, if our heritage preservation track record is anything to go by, let us hope that amidst the buzzwords and all the frenzied social media sharing about how awesome our hawker culture is, we do not fall into these potential pitfalls that had often plagued heritage efforts elsewhere.


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(Cover photo credits: thesmartlocal) 

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