Too much heritage affected by roads and MRT lines: Architect, historian Lai Chee Kien

Too much heritage affected by roads and MRT lines: Architect, historian Lai Chee Kien

Architect and historian, Lai Chee Kien at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, an important heritage site. (Photo: Teoh Chee Keong)

SINGAPORE: Dr Lai Chee Kien is often seen carrying a backpack, holding maps and brochures of heritage sites in his hand and trekking with a group of wide-eyed visitors.

He himself has written and designed many of the maps and brochures, including the Green Rail Corridor Map, a guide to the ecology and heritage of former railway land in Singapore.

The registered architect and now an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Singapore University of Technology and Design marries his two passions – architecture and history - by enthusiastically researching the history of art, architecture, settlements, urbanism and landscapes in Southeast Asia.

One of his first architectural projects was the restoration of four pre-war shophouses along Kreta Ayer Road for the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association.

He explains the reason for his obsession.

“I grew up in different housing types. Very early on, in the 1960s, I lived in a shophouse beneath Bukit Timah Hill and subsequently, we moved to a kampung house in Bukit Panjang before moving to a HDB flat in Queenstown. Now, I live in a terrace house. These different contexts allowed me to mingle with different types of people. It gave me an interest in architectural forms and the heritage of Singapore more generally.”

Among the books he has authored is Last Train from Tanjong Pagar, a graphic novel based on the closure of the heritage-rich Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in 2011.

Over the years, he has participated actively in debates about heritage and even nature as a member of both the Singapore Heritage Society and the Nature Society of Singapore.

To listen to the full interview, click here.


Clearly, the loss of heritage and nature in Singapore deeply concerns him and even though Government agencies have started consulting the public and interest groups more than they used to, he feels they need to do more in taking public sentiments into account.

“I think the Government agencies do pay attention. Some are very receptive. But the engagement has to be throughout the process, not just consult folks and then make decisions independent of the interest groups.”

He notes that the Urban Redevelopment Authority has started conducting more public consultations, but he feels the process can be improved.

“Members of the public should be able to follow the whole process of arriving at the solutions. I think usually the solutions are announced and then there will be a debate.”

He concedes though that citizens themselves need to “get informed” and step up earlier.

While he commends the work of agencies such as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments division within the National Heritage Board (NHB), the normally even-tempered Dr Lai’s voice rises as he bemoans some recent decisions by agencies in general.

“It also depends on which Government agency. For example, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) is actually really late to the game. With the Ellison Building incident, they were reticent about engaging heritage consultants to advise them. They wanted to put a road through and wanted to take down parts of the structure of certain shophouses. It was a protected building yet they wanted to do this.

“It scares us but we take these incidents as they come.”

In the case of the Ellison Building, the authorities did eventually consult heritage experts and a compromise was reached. It has been agreed that a larger portion of the historic building in Selegie Road will be retained during the construction of the North-South Corridor, a major expressway that will connect towns in the northern region to the city. 

Dr Lai strongly believes that there is space to be “creative about how we can keep these old buildings".

Justifying the destruction of heritage and nature with reasons such as the need for development and catering to a country’s current needs “is not right”. He believes “there are ways to do both".

Architect and historian, Lai Chee Kien at Bukit Timah Railway Station, leading a tour of various sites connected to Singapore's rail history. (Photo: Singapore Heritage Society) 


One of Singapore’s greatest losses, he says, is the National Theatre. It was closed in 1984. Structural safety issues were cited. In 1986, it was demolished to make way for tunneling works along Clemenceau Avenue that became part of the Central Expressway. 

“They could have re-planned the road but I think they were calculating the most direct route and that included part of the National Theatre. It’s really a matter of whether the buildings that you demolish are worthy enough.  That debate wasn’t quite ripe at that time. There were not that many conservation folks.”

He was in architecture school at the time and hadn’t found his activist voice.

However, in 2013, 50 years after the building was first erected, he proposed a replica of its façade be built.

“I couldn’t build it on the original site because it was going to be an MRT station, so I had to place it across the street in Tank Road.”

There are plans now to move the replica to Fort Canning, closer to the original theatre’s site.

He admits many say the replica hardly does justice to the original and what it stood for.

“The intention really was to suggest that there was this really amazing building here linked with the independence era.”

After all, the theatre was built to commemorate Singapore's achievement of self-government in 1959. It was referred to as the “People’s Theatre” as members of the public had contributed to its construction through fund-raising activities.

An architectural competition was held to choose a design and local architect Alfred H. K. Wong’s was the one eventually adopted.

Dr Lai temporarily relinquishes his historian identity and morphs into an architectural geek as he explains why the building’s design was remarkable.

“In the 1960s, it wasn’t viable to air-condition the entire space, but it had to be enclosed. So you had to rely on natural ventilation. The design solution was to have a cantilevered steel roof overhanging an open-air auditorium extending out onto the slopes of Fort Canning. That could accommodate about 3,400 people.

“The other remarkable thing was that the design incorporated the slope of Fort Canning. So even if you were not a paying patron, you could move right up to the top of Fort Canning and you could still see some of these performances on stage in the theatre.  For example, you could see Louis Armstrong from up there. He would look the size of a bee but at least you could listen to him play in the distance. There was something egalitarian about it. The theatre was a space where in our early years, Singaporeans could learn about different types of cultures.”

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Lai Chee Kien with the National Theatre replica in Tank Road. (Photo: Facebook / Lai Chee Kien)

One could say that since then we seen the construction of new iconic arts and performance venues such as The Esplanade where shared memories could be built too.

“But I think something like the National Theatre is still relevant because it can still function as a theatre and strangely enough, open-air theatre is now actually making a comeback. If you go to Austria, there are performances that specify that you have to have an open-air environment. That’s because the music from the orchestra is the purest in that environment,” he says.


While enthusiasts like him might wax lyrical about such buildings and sites, I wonder if they have made enough of a case for more Singaporeans to join the cause so that Government agencies would naturally think twice before making decisions about what to conserve and what not to.

He admits that it often seems like a cause spearheaded by niche groups and others only come on board when a building or site is threatened.

“I think people are definitely reactionary. We need to examine this as a whole community. People need to go to these places before they are threatened. Also, for example in the case of the Ellison Building, we have to ask why is it that protected buildings are suffering this kind of fate?

“These agencies have their own reasons for doing things, efficiency, cost, and so on and so forth. I think it’s about slowly influencing them and turning them around. If we have a lot more documentation, if we have a lot more experts, if the whole society can turn around to more citizen awareness of heritage from the start, we can avoid these situations and the authorities might make decisions in a more considered way from the start instead of making a decision and running into problems with groups later on in the process. Both the citizens and the state have to work together,” he says emphatically.

He is also a member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority-Ministry of National Development’s Bukit Brown Cemetery Heritage Advisory Working Committee and was part of the team that documented significant tombs on the site.

It was in 2011 that LTA announced that a new dual four-lane road linking MacRitchie Viaduct and Adam Flyover would be built over parts of Bukit Brown Cemetery to cater to increased traffic and help ease peak-hour congestion along Lornie Road and the PIE.

The remaining parts of the cemetery and its surrounding land are slated for redevelopment into a new housing estate in the future.

The fate of Bukit Brown became almost a national issue as heritage groups protested the authorities’ plans for the site.

“I think that neither the advocacy groups nor the state agencies, the LTA and the NHB expected Bukit Brown would be the arena for heritage discussion and contestation at such heightened levels.”

I suggest that it’s probably because very few people went to the cemetery before it was threatened. Can we really blame the authorities for thinking such sites are replaceable and that it is acceptable to encroach on them in the name of development and meeting society’s current needs?

“Yes, I agree people should be more proactive but the NHB entered the discussion very late. While they deliberated, some concerned Singaporeans from all walks of life formed a group calling themselves 'The Brownies'. They had a headstart in defining what heritage information could be derived from the tombs, discovering important local personages connected to all sorts of political and socio-economic histories of Singapore, such as the tomb of Gan Eng Seng, Chew Joo Chiat, etc. The interred slowly formed a web of history quite unlike what had been recorded in textbooks.”

While he didn’t find the absence of LTA and NHB in these discussions unusual, he wishes they had “convened discussions with heritage and even nature groups as various endangered local species found there".


He claims that what happened to Bukit Brown was avoidable.

“I have been using the stretch of Lornie and Adam Roads for over 25 years and I know it was part of the Outer Ring Road system the British had planned in the 1930s to connect outlying areas to town areas. The Outer Ring Road is a kind of highway infrastructure heritage and a concerted effort on the part of various parties via discussions would have avoided the highway being constructed in its present form.”

He maintains that other trade-offs could have been made.

“A seven-lane highway is broadened into an eight-lane one, so if we shave off some parts of Bukit Brown near the road, some parts near the nature reserve and golf course, it could have been broadened into an eight-lane highway from its present form. We just needed to sacrifice slips of land to widen the existing highway. Some tombs would have been affected but not as many as what was done eventually. Also the traffic jams are caused mainly by vehicles exiting the PIE into Lornie Road into a red light junction at Sime Road less than 50 metres away. Take away that junction and you'd have smoother flow.

“It would have been ideal if the agencies had delayed their plans on the account of such newfound heritage, but that was not what transpired in the end."

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Bukit Brown Cemetery. (Photo: AFP)

Since he couldn’t save Bukit Brown, he did the next best thing. He helped with the documentation of significant graves even though his expertise didn’t lie in that arena. He specialised in independence era architecture.

“The problem is those who potentially have the expertise sometimes don’t want to step up to the plate because in this case it was something controversial. We haven’t really done a lot of research to make sense of all these different places and when you have something like Bukit Brown pop up in the radar, it really connects a lot of people who have the same ideas but I think the important thing for Singaporeans is really, if you think it’s heritage, you should go there and write about it and often times there isn’t really enough information.”

He feels more of us should step up to make an impact. After all, he is just one person.

We move on to discussing the other reason given for the sacrifice of such sites – Singapore’s housing needs.


Dr Lai feels it wouldn’t be entirely necessary had the city been planned better from the start and this is where traces of his fiery mentor, architect, Tay Kheng Soon’s influence come through.

Mr Tay has been vocal on a range of issues including stating that the Government’s city planners have not used land here efficiently enough.

Dr Lai too is an advocate of perimeter blocks for housing which would have ensured more homes per square metre of the island without the need for so many high-rise blocks and possibly even without too many heritage and nature sacrifices.

“Perimeter blocks means you build right to the edge of a plot, along the perimeter. It looks less dense but in fact you could actually get a lot of density out of just making it a perimeter block rather than having something in the centre. It could come up to slightly even more than the current HDB density, even if the blocks are low-rise. So it’s more efficient use of land and it makes for a better landscape. And you can actually have a nice social space in the centre of each block.”

He concedes that this could be challenging for laypeople to understand but assures me that it’s a well-researched concept.

I wonder why the early planners didn’t consider this.

“There was a pressing need for housing, so the model that was explored was the public housing flat which had proven itself in other countries. HDB was also continuing from what the British Singapore Improvement Trust had done.

“I think if we had gone into further research into these kinds of more traditional housing forms, we could have had a better mix of buildings. What we’re trying to do right now is to go up to 40 storeys and in Hong Kong they’ve gone up to 60. I’m not sure if that is conducive to building a community. Imagine if one day if the lifts are all not working!”

He claims it’s not too late to consider such new ways of housing the masses.

“We should look at areas that are sensitive in terms of heritage and perhaps these housing models can be introduced to use land more efficiently so that heritage doesn’t have to be sacrificed to make way.”

Farrer Park which is currently home to facilities such as a decades-old boxing gym, a field and a swimming complex, comes to mind. 

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Lai Chee Kien conducting a tour of Middle Road for The Theatre Practice in relation to their production: "Four Horse Road". (Photo: The Theatre Practice)


Other subjects of rigorous debate come up. One that he is especially concerned about is the building of the Cross Island Line and how that could potentially affect the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR).

“I was completely surprised when I heard of the news because from the 1960s onwards, we were told that that’s a sacred nature space that you couldn’t cut through. Suddenly you have a proposal that you might go through beneath. Even cutting through beneath could affect the nature above.” 

However, the Government has explained that skirting the MRT line around the nature reserve has its drawbacks. 

The skirting alignment, about 9km long, will incur an additional travel time of six minutes for commuters crossing between the East and the West. It will also require longer tunnels and extra ventilation facilities. It involves land and home acquisitions that could affect families. The extra works could also incur S$2 billion more in expenditure.

The Government did eventually work with nature groups and agreed to only come to a decision after an Environmental Impact Assessment.

But why does he feel the trade-offs are worth it?

“After 50 years of independence, I think there is a need for us to sit back and really think about what kinds of developments should proceed because heritage and nature does not come by a second time. We really have to reconsider what is the edge that Singapore has to act as a ballast for Singaporeans. Singapore has a very short history and all of these buildings and places really don't just give us character but define us as Singaporeans. Yes, there’s a price to be paid to protect such things and I do think that Singapore is not that poor so much so that we don't consider it,” he says this as a matter-of-fact, but with a tinge of emotion.

“We’re starting to look like any other global city. I really feel it’s important for Singaporeans to feel connected to this place somehow and part of the way we can connect to this place is through places that are very significant to you.

“The LTA has been narrowly focused in the sense that we’ve been talking about the National Theatre, and many other buildings and sites. Too much is being affected by roads and MRT lines. These don’t show LTA in a good light in relation to considering the heritage of Singapore,” he adds.

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Lai Chee Kien engaging audience members after one of the many talks he gives on heritage and history. (Photo: Singapore Heritage Society)


He claims many areas in Singapore are under-studied. This includes Lim Chu Kang, Chua Chu Kang and Yio Chu Kang.

“In Teochew, 'chu' means 'house' and 'kang' means 'river'. It’s related to the histories of the northern settlements. Nee Soon used to be one of the 'Chu Kangs'. It was called Chan Chu Kang because people with the surname “Chan” settled there. Likewise with the other “Chu Kangs.” “Lim”, “Chua” and “Yio” indicate the surnames of the people who settled there. These people were given deeds to plant pepper and gambier on both sides of the river bank.”

He commends the NHB’s work in creating brochures and booklets highlighting the history of different districts, but reiterates that citizens must step up.

“In other countries I’ve visited such as Taiwan, a lot of this comes from the ground. The schools or different interest groups start to document their own areas, particular buildings. They are so proud of their environment.”

More recently the fate of Pearl Bank Apartments, People’s Park Complex and Golden Mile Complex and Tower have resurfaced.

Pearl Bank Apartments was recently sold to developer CapitaLand.

While many said it and the other buildings in question were not well-maintained and are losing their relevance, others say the Brutalist architectural style of these buildings is iconic of Singapore’s early development.

“This will be one of the big challenges for heritage and that’s really because of the land tenure of 99 years.

"A lot of these buildings have gone past the halfway mark of their use-by date. In terms of collective sales we might start to see more.”

I ask him if he thinks the Government should intervene.

“I think it’s probably quite hard in this case because it’s a multi-tenanted, but if the state feels that it is an important typology and losing it will mean losing something of heritage value, then I think they should definitely step in. At the moment, that’s not happening. I think the state should actually step in for a lot of significant buildings. You may have to repurpose them to make the retail offerings in People’s Park for example, more relevant, but otherwise the building itself has a significant history.

"If you look at the plan of the building, on the ground level it’s actually designed as if it were a bazaar, trying to be as close to the original as possible but also with open spaces. It was a testing out of a new typology. This is what brought Singapore into a new level of modernity."

While he feels passionately about certain heritage and nature areas, I ask him how clear criteria can be formulated so that decisions on such issues can be more universally objective.

“I think if we can have a scale of relative importance, it would be helpful. If we can give a certain value, so for example, things that shouldn’t be disturbed at all should be put in Class A. Anything in Class B and C can be subject to debate. The various agencies can come up with a preliminary ranking system and then of course have constant consultation between the different interest groups and stakeholders.”

However, what factors should determine what buildings or sites go into a particular class?

“With some things such as the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, there shouldn’t be any trade-offs because it’s the only one of its kind. If we’re talking about groups of shophouses, maybe some trade-offs can be made because there could be many of the same kind. So there should be tiers of possible trade-offs.”

He is also in favour of a mandatory heritage impact assessment before decisions are made.

“Past SG50, we really need to think about what would make people live in Singapore till SG100. Heritage allows people to identify with the country.”

Source: CNA/bh