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S'pore Botanic Gardens has "outstanding universal value", says Lawrence Wong

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was chosen for submission as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it fulfills the criteria of having outstanding universal value, said Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong.

SINGAPORE: The Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) was chosen for submission as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it fulfills the criteria of having outstanding universal value, and the gardens have made important contributions to the region and the world.

Speaking in Parliament, Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong said rubber seeds grown in the garden propelled the growth of the rubber industry, and the development of Singapore from a fishing village to one of the world's busiest ports in the 20th century.

Nominated MP Janice Koh had asked if there was any "public engagement" or communication" in the lead-up to the nomination.

In reply, Mr Wong said the decision to nominate the gardens was based on a study commissioned by the then Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts, and was done in consultation with experts, academics and other stakeholders.

Mr Wong said: "There was indeed consultation done, in the lead-up to even identifying the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It was not the only site that was highlighted as a possibility. There were a few sites considered at that time. There were different views and people had actually expressed their views.

"In fact, if you'll just google 'Singapore Botanic Gardens', which I did incidentally because I was curious what happened in the past, you will find people talking about the listing of the Singapore Botanic Gardens way back in 2009 and 2010. So it's there, on public record."

According to the National Heritage Board (NHB), the 154-year-old Gardens fulfils two criteria to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was a site for experiments on crops such as rubber and orchid hybrids, that shaped Singapore's economic development.

It also has rich historical value as a British colonial garden, integrating English landscape style and buildings with the local terrain.

A feasibility study was commissioned in 2010 by the then-Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, at a cost of S$30,000.

The study identified potential sites that could fulfill UNESCO's criteria as World Heritage Sites. Other sites such as Haw Par Villa, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the former Ford Factory, were considered.

NHB and SBG are currently working together on the bid and have hired a consultant to put together a nomination dossier, including a site management plan, by February 2014.

Upon submission of the nomination documents, experts from one of UNESCO's advisory bodies will carry out site assessments and study the dossier before making their recommendations. This process takes about a year. 

The World Heritage Committee will then meet around June 2015 to vote on the nomination, with some 1,600 sites currently being considered. They may approve it, defer it pending further information, or reject the nomination.

Jean Wee, the director of the preservation of monuments board at the NHB, said: "I think what's very very critical will be the site management plan. We have to assure UNESCO that as a state party, we are responsible and we will do everything that we can to make sure that this, as a protected site, will have a sustainable management plan."

Tan Wee Cheng of the Singapore Heritage Society felt that there would be many positives should the SBG get UNESCO heritage status.

"That would enhance our sense of national pride and national identity. In fact, as studies have shown elsewhere in the world, when you have a UNESCO World Heritage Site, people also become more civic-conscious.

"It means that Singapore now has a new brand name. It enhances our soft power. Now, soft power goes beyond just tourism revenue. It means that people are more interested in dealing with you, in emulating you, in associating themselves with you."

Some members of the community hope that it will open up more conservation opportunities.

"We are also thinking that the periphery areas of the central catchment area, such as Bukit Brown -- they are important sites because they are not under any protection," said Assistant Professor Lai Chee Kien of the department of architecture at the National University of Singapore.

"The Singapore Nature Society as well as the Singapore Heritage Society, they have collectively determined that it is a site worthy of conservation of both natural heritage as well as historical cultural heritage." 

In the months ahead, there will be a series of public engagement sessions, where the nomination document and management plan will be shared with heritage and environmental groups, as well as the public.

Poon Hong Yuen, CEO of NParks, said: "The public's support is very important in the inscription process. It means that we will do a lot of consultation in various forms, it could be focus groups discussions, it could be exhibitions, even just talking to schools to get the school children's support."