Singapore identifies Padang, surrounding architecture as potential candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site
SINGAPORE: Singapore has identified the Padang and its surrounding architecture as a potential candidate for Singapore’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site, the National Heritage Board (NHB) announced on Thursday (Mar 9).
Named The Padang Civic Ensemble, the site was chosen as it is considered most likely to fill the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) criterion of being an “outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”.
“This is because The Padang Civic Ensemble is an outstanding example of a British colonial civic square in the tropics,” NHB said in a media release.
“The coalescence of colonial-era and post-independence civic institutions within a single municipal area bears testament to the historically widespread phenomenon of decolonisation and the globally significant transition of long-held British territories to newly independent nations in the decades following World War II."
The Padang already has a high level of preservation, having been gazetted as a national monument on Aug 9, 2022, added NHB.
Adjacent buildings such as the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, the Former Supreme Court and City Hall (now the National Gallery Singapore), the former Parliament House and Annex Building (now the Arts House) and other national monuments are similarly of high historical significance, it said.
The latest move means that The Padang Civic Ensemble has been added to Singapore’s Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
This is a necessary step for participation in the preliminary assessment – a new mechanism in the UNESCO World Heritage Site process, said NHB.
Under the preliminary assessment, countries will receive guidance from the World Heritage Centre and two international advisory bodies prior to the submission of a full-scale nomination. If the site is nominated and subsequently inscribed, this entire process could take five to six years.
In addition to the preliminary assessment, NHB said it will carry out further research this year to determine potential implications on the site and surrounding developments. This will help to guide the decision at a later stage on whether Singapore will formally pursue the nomination.
“This is an important step as Singapore will have to carefully study and balance long-term urban redevelopment needs with the protection requirements of a World Heritage Site,” said NHB.
The UNESCO World Heritage List recognises cultural and natural sites of "outstanding universal value". Nominated sites must satisfy at least one of 10 criteria.
Singapore's submission to UNESCO describes the Padang as a multi-use open green space in the historic heart of the country, and one that has acquired diverse functions since its formation in the early 1820s.
It originated as a military parade ground shortly after the British established a trading post in Singapore in 1819, but evolved into a playing field for sports like cricket, a municipal and civic centre, and a commemorative venue including for Singapore's National Day Parade.
The open green space forms the centrepiece of the Padang Civic Ensemble that includes the surrounding cluster of Neoclassical buildings, which all date to the period of British colonial rule in Singapore.
Singapore's submission states that the site broadens definitions of built heritage "beyond the spectacular and monumental".
"Global recognition of the property will raise awareness of the urgency to preserve similar open spaces which, due to their modest appearances, are easily overlooked and more vulnerable to erasure," it continues.
Ms Jean Wee, NHB's director for preservation of sites and monuments, said it would be a challenge to determine the boundaries of the Padang Civic Ensemble site and the buildings to be included within.
NHB said concerns about the impact on redevelopment in the area were raised at focus group discussions with local heritage experts, academics, government agencies and building owners earlier this year.
Aside from a better understanding of the feasibility of the site, participation in UNESCO's preliminary assessment will give NHB a longer runway to work with relevant government bodies and stakeholders to address redevelopment concerns, the agency added.
While the Padang is already protected as a national monument, the work towards being inscribed as a World Heritage Site will require "a layer of protection" for the site and likely for its buffer zone, which NHB does not have details of yet, said Ms Wee.
"This is still at the very exploratory stage, so at this point we want to make sure that we can fully illustrate and justify the outstanding universal values for the site," she added.
Asked about the decision to recognise a site associated with colonial rule over Singapore, Ms Wee said: "We can't change the fact that historically, we were a British colony.
"But it's also important to recognise that it's from that point that we transitioned as a colony to a sovereign state. So I think we need to be quite upfront in recognising that that is our history. And let's raise an awareness of the full timeline of the wealth of history as well."
BENEFITS OF RECOGNITION
A successful nomination of the Padang Civic Ensemble would provide greater global recognition of Singapore's heritage, raise awareness of heritage preservation in the country, foster a stronger sense of national identity and pride, and ensure the site's preservation for future generations, said NHB.
A World Heritage listing also brings higher footfall and could benefit commercial activities around the site, said Ms Wee. "We think that this actually puts Singapore on the map, especially for increased interest from tourists."
Singapore's historic city centre was among a shortlist of places identified in a 2010 study on potential World Heritage Sites, which also considered the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Haw Par Villa, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Former Ford Factory.
The Botanic Gardens eventually became Singapore's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.
Asked about the Gardens' standard of conservation since - this is periodically reported to UNESCO - Ms Wee said the site has "done very well".
The Gardens saw higher footfall after its listing, and some "transference" of that was seen at Gardens by the Bay as people came to Singapore to enjoy greenery, she added.
Overall, the cost of nominating the Singapore Botanic Gardens was "very good bang for our buck", she said.
Thursday's announcement also follows UNESCO'S 2020 listing of Singapore's hawker culture as a form of intangible cultural heritage.
Singapore, alongside Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand, is also nominating the kebaya – a traditional women's dress – for a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage listing.