NUS Master of Arts in Arts and Cultural Entrepreneurship Thought Leadership Series

Heritage studies in a dynamic field: Critical perspectives on a dialectical process

Master of Arts in Arts and Cultural Entrepreneurship Thought Leadership Series

Dr Imran bin Tajudeen, Senior Lecturer | 10-min read

28 September 2021 — Heritage studies is concerned with a highly dynamic field. It comprises a dialectic between critical theories, concepts, and an ever-evolving set of principles and recommendations from international bodies like the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and local regulating entities, on the one hand, and a field on the other hand that is constituted by heritage management and built environment professionals, arts and culture practitioners, and the public as active participants in memory work as well as contributors to a critical feedback loop. Various sections of the arts and cultural sector come under its ambit. Heritage frameworks shape the management and curation of property, from the listing of whole cities and sites to museums and expressions of intangible heritage, such as culinary cultures and dance. As a sector, it dominates the cultural tourism industry globally. Arts and cultural entrepreneurs are thus inexorably drawn under its scope.

Given its dominance in the management of cultural property both tangible and intangible, it is important to emphasise that heritage is better understood as the processes underlying the selective usage of history, relics and practices to reconstruct specific versions of the past, rather than as referring to particular objects, places, or practices.1 This emphasis on process shifts our attention to issues of agency and power over definition, selection, promotion, and narration. Heritage projects and their goals are utilised for tourism, entertainment, education and economic revitalisation, in addition to being part of political posturing and cultural diplomacy for both domestic and global audiences.

There has been what observers term a ‘heritage turn’ in the Asia Pacific beginning in the last two decades of the 20th century, intensifying at the start of the 21st century. In China particularly, an upsurge since the 1990s is discernible, including but not limited to its list of UNESCO-designated World Heritage Sites.2 Taking a global approach while referencing examples from Singapore that provide exciting illustrations of the frontiers of heritage developments in a small city-state with a relatively young history, I focus on four key aspects in the dynamism of heritage studies and the role of critical perspectives in shaping this force for the greater good: heritage as an arena between different sections of society; the inclusion of cultural knowledge and community management in natural landscapes; new approaches to the urban landscape and the inclusion of intangible dimensions of culture; and the extension of the idea of patrimony to modernist heritage.

1. Heritage as arena  
Heritage serves as a medium for constructing self, communal and national identities, and is thus of strategic interest to various groups of peoples and institutions in a society. It is also a highly mediated experience, ranging from museum displays and narration of events and artefacts; to the use of maps, trails and, signboards as aids to seeing and knowing sites, places, and landscapes. Increasingly, documentaries and online programs are also used to mediate popular consumption of history, heritage, and even memory. The framing and mediation of heritage thus serves as an important arena for diverse voices and interests, and for building heritage literacy to engage the public in heritage management and participation. Public institutions and creative enterprises alike likewise have a role and responsibility by dint of having the means to redefine and articulate meanings and interpretations, and to initiate collaborations and participation.

Heritage is also a mode of citizen action in exercising claims to identity, existing long before the ‘heritage turn’. In Singapore, it is possible to retrace this route of action to the 1950s group Friends of Singapore and the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) formed in 1964, that preceded the Singapore Heritage Society established in 1986. The Oral History Centre set up in 1979 also extended its original mandate of capturing the recollections of pioneer political leaders of independent Singapore, to include the memories of ordinary citizens; 3 various places and topics were thereby recorded through numerous interviews in the 1980s to the 1990s. Citizen voices and social memory has also been further extended in the official record with the National Library Board’s Singapore Memory Project of 2011. However, there are also citizen initiatives, whether these are supported by state apparatus and programs/schemes or are independent initiatives.

2. Landscapes of Identity: transcending the nature-culture and global-local divide
The notion of cultural landscapes, introduced by UNESCO in 1992, sought to address a long-standing problematic binary in having two separate lists since 1972 for cultural and natural properties.4 It acknowledges the role of communities in managing resources beyond the scientific management of nature parks by experts – particularly the role of local knowledge systems and management practices, including customary ones. This extends to the rights of indigenous communities to ancestral lands and is thus also tied to politics at a very fundamental level. This paradigm shift is also important in questioning the downplaying of local significance that is typically overshadowed by the privileging of the criteria of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ in World Heritage listing.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015. The opening statement for its Outstanding Universal Value emphasises “the evolution of a British tropical colonial botanic garden that has become a modern world-class scientific institution”.5 Yet simultaneously, Malay and Javanese plant and seed collectors and botanists contributed immensely to both knowledge documentation and the work of collecting specimens from the field. They not only furnished the specimens for the collection and publications at the Botanic Gardens but were also themselves instrumental in discovering a few species and in identifying, editing and cataloguing the specimens, and creating accurate illustrations.6 More significantly, the collectors and their families lived on site in the staff quarters and formed a community with intimate links to the Gardens, before the quarters were demolished in 1979.7

An important opportunity to transcend the nature-culture divide also presents itself on Singapore’s last offshore island with rural settlements, Pulau Ubin. Managed by the statutory board for parks and gardens, National Parks (NParks), the emphasis was initially on its natural environment, while the cultural aspect of its settlements and houses was not part of the official framing of its significance. In 2018, I led a group of students to document four wooden houses, mount a public presentation on their important role in the public life of Pulau Ubin and their significance from social-historical and cultural perspectives, and engage the relevant authorities to consider steps to restore the remaining wooden houses. NParks has, since 2019, moved to incorporate the cultural dimension in its management of Pulau Ubin.8 This is an unprecedented step forward for rural cultural landscapes in Singapore. 

3. From Sites and Historic Urban Landscapes to Intangible Cultural Heritage

The term ‘Historic Urban Landscape’ is part of a growing lexicon for the international principles of urban heritage conservation. It was first coined by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention in a declaration of 2005 and subsequently in a recommendation issued in 2011 to bring attention to the management of areas surrounding heritage sites. Heritage and history are not equivalent. The new principle is thus of interest to cultural heritage discourse, since the term history is being invoked in an official UNESCO term for heritage.

The need to connect tangible cultural heritage resources and the spatial needs of the arts and cultural sector is another frontier. In Singapore, the idea of identifying and developing specific urban neighbourhoods as sites to foster the arts and community life can be seen in the Bras Basah-Bugis precinct managed by the National Heritage Board (NHB). The National Arts Council also manages and leases out heritage conservation premises for arts companies. Beyond state programs, private initiatives and citizen projects are enablers for creativity and organic collaboration, particularly in neighbourhoods for which “the aesthetic fit comes from being in the heart of a dynamic, mixed-use environment”, in which “cultural activities are rooted and draw inspiration from”.9 Preferences for places shaped by explicit planning for arts precincts, or conversely for sites with mixed use and character, are therefore not always straightforward. Critical perspectives on sites also open up opportunities for alternative, creative interventions upon historical landscapes, for instance in the Sculpture Square project in Singapore involving the conversion of a conservation building, a small chapel, into a venue for three-dimensional works, conceived by local sculptor Sun Yu-Li.10

Singapore’s success in its application to UNESCO to inscribe its hawker culture on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Dec 2020 represents yet another frontier in the global expansion of the heritage framework beyond the monumental and tangible to formally induct aspects of the everyday and of the cultural practices of common people.11 However, this inclusion also raises further questions, including its impact on the hawkers themselves, the economic viability of this line of business in the overall climate of food and beverage in Singapore, and the improvements needed in official policy. In fact, in 1981 the Singapore state decided it would stop building new hawker centres since “alternative forms of food outlets, a different style from what we formerly associate with our cheap hawker centre” will be built in the new public housing estates,12 reasoning further that “as there are enough hawkers, new licences are only issued on the grounds of hardship and for cleared market stalls”.13 Plans to build new hawker centres were only announced in 2011.14 The impact of the long hiatus in spatial provision impacted the hawker business culture in ways that require further study. The reversal of fortunes for hawker culture in Singapore will likewise have further cultural impacts and also highlights the importance of political will in enabling forms of culture to wither or thrive.

4. Modernist heritage, everyday landscapes, and citizen initiatives

Hawker centres in Singapore were developed as a result of a modernisation program. The colonial regime’s modern hygiene and sanitation regulations initiated the registration of itinerant hawkers and their re-organisation in orderly premises in 1950, and the program was further developed in the post-independence era. Once re-housed, the food business culture continued to develop, such that it is possible to speak of a hawker culture in the modern premises where older practices continued in new, modernised surroundings.15

Conversely, modernist complexes have been neglected in the conversation on heritage. In the United Kingdom, attention towards the conservation and revitalisation of the Brutalist complexes of the 1950s has risen since 2014. Where previously expert opinion had to contend with negative public opinion on Brutalism (from the French beton brut, raw concrete) in the UK,16 which derided these buildings as unsightly, Brutalist monuments there have had their image rehabilitated more recently by Instagrammers.17

In Singapore, architectural modernism has recently received the spotlight as the next frontier for heritage conservation by experts acting independently and advocating for state recognition. The independent body drew attention to a range of modernist works, from pioneering experiments in compact, high-density mixed-use building complexes to landmark condominium projects and examples of public housing projects regarded as being of iconic value.18 The new Singapore chapter of the DOCOMOMO has justified conservation using the ecological argument of reducing the carbon footprint, in addition to arguments on how modernism, being so dominant in Singapore, is thus fundamental in telling its story.19

Other citizen initiatives emphasise the everyday community dimension of memory and affect in the lived realities of older public housing estates where a strong sense of community has developed over several decades, and which are slated for demolition.20 Meanwhile, migrant labour populations in global cities are not usually represented within heritage discussions – an example is ‘Little Thailand’ in Singapore’s Metabolist architectural landmark, Golden Mile Complex.21 Given their immense potential in redefining both the tangible and intangible aspects of cultural landscapes, collaboration across sectors and disciplines in modernist architectural complexes constitute another frontier in thinking about critically informed interventions through the medium of heritage.



  1. Smith, Laurajane (2006). Uses of Heritage. New York: Routledge, 42, 44-84.

  2. Ludwig, Carol and Linda Walton (2020). “Introduction: (Un)Authorised Heritage Discourse and Practice in China”. In The heritage turn in China: the reinvention, dissemination and consumption of heritage, edited by Carol Ludwig, Linda Walton and Yi-Wen Wang. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 16.

  3. Ting, Kennie (2015). Heritage. Singapore: Straits Times Press, 56.

  4. Byrne, Denis, Sally Brockwell, and Sue O’Connor (2013). “Introduction: Engaging culture and nature.”In Transcending the Culture–Nature Divide in Cultural Heritage: Views from the Asia–Pacific region, edited by Sally Brockwell, Sue O’Connor, and Denis Byrne. Canberra: ANU Press, 6.

  5. UNESCO (2015). Singapore Botanic Gardens. UNESCO World Heritage Convention. 

  6. Suhaili Osman (2015). Ilham Alam: Nature and Healing in the Malay World. Singapore: Malay Heritage Centre, 41-48.

  7. Hio, Lester (2014). “Singapore Botanic Gardens: Still a delightful breath of fresh air.” The Straits Times, Nov 28. 

  8. Zaccheus, Melody (2019). “NParks steps in to spruce up Pulau Ubin's charm.” The Straits Times, Nov 24.

  9. Chang, T.C. (2016). “‘New uses need old buildings’: Gentrification aesthetics and the arts in Singapore”. Urban Studies 53(3), 533.

  10. Sun, Y.-L., & Hong, B. Y. (2014). From a dot: Journey of Sun Yu-li. Singapore: ArtBeatz Pte Ltd, p. 60.

  11. UNESCO (2020). “Hawker culture in Singapore, community dining and culinary practices in a multicultural urban context.” UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

  12. Parliament of Singapore (1985). “Resettlement of Street Hawkers”, 07-03-1985, Vol:45. 

  13. Parliament of Singapore (1981). “Licensed Hawkers (Particulars).” 06-03-1981, Vol. 40. 

  14. Tan, Shin Bin. (2015). Keeping Char Kway Teow Cheap—At What Price? Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

  15. Kong, Lily. (2007). Singapore hawker centres: People, places, food. Singapore: National Environment Agency

  16. Alberge, Dalya (2016). Save our brutalist masterpieces, says top heritage expert.” The Guardian, Nov 13.  

  17. Phaidon (2018). “Instagrammers campaigned to save these Brutalist buildings.” Sep 27.

  18. Zaccheus, Melody (2019). “Move to create list of 50 post-1965 buildings to help raise profile of Singapore's modernist architecture.” The Straits Times, Oct 18.

  19. Ng, Keng Gene (2021). “New heritage group on mission to save modern buildings here.” The Straits Times, Aug 21. 

  20. Ng Kok Hoe, et. al. (2019). They Told Us to Move: Dakota-Cassia. Singapore: Ethos Books. See also Chia, Lianne, and Ruth Smalley (2021). “For old folks, leaving Tanglin Halt is like losing a kampung family. Can it be replaced?” Channel News Asia Aug 15. 

  21. Chan, Yin-kit. (2020). “The Golden Mile Complex: The Idea of Little Thailand in Singapore.” Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies 13(1), 103-121.

  • News
  • Heritage studies in a dynamic field: Critical perspectives on a dialectical process
02 October 2021