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Custodians of Culture
Singaporean Yeo Kirk Siang’s appointment to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage evaluation committee not only puts the spotlight on the Lion City’s multiculturalism but also helps it learn from global experts.
BY SHWETA PARIDA
eo Kirk Siang is the first Singaporean to be elected to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage (ICH) evaluation body. He is part of a 12-member international panel that reviews and recommends nominations for ICH to the United Nations agency.
Prior to his appointment, he played a crucial role in having Singapore’s hawker culture inscribed on this list, in his capacity as the director of heritage research and assessment at the National Heritage Board (NHB), a statutory board that oversees the preservation of the country’s heritage.
An alumnus of the prestigious Imperial College London and London School of Economics, he took charge of developing national level policies and initiatives to safeguard and promote Singapore’s ICH under Our SG Heritage Plan (2018 to 2022).
Some of these policies and initiatives include Singapore’s first nationwide ICH survey, intangible ICH and the Stewards of Singapore’s ICH Award.
As part of his work at the NHB, he also oversees the development and administration of its Heritage Research Grants, which provide funding for the research efforts of academics and non-government organisations (NGOs) on different aspects of heritage, particularly ICH.
Prior to joining the NHB, he has worked with Singapore’s Ministry of National Development.
1. How does Singapore leverage its strong emphasis on multicultural identity and heritage to forge friendships within the global community?
Our forefathers brought different cultures with them, including the food we eat and the festivals we celebrate. This sense of heritage gives us the confidence and humility in knowing who we are in the wider world.
It also enables others to understand us better. Such exchange of cultural understanding with our international counterparts is very important to us at the NHB.
We learn from countries that have long-standing practices to protect and safeguard their heritage. Equally, we hope that we have something to offer to them. In December 2019, for instance, just before the Covid-19 pandemic happened, we were invited by the Intangible Cultural Heritage NGO Forum to co-host a symposium on how to preserve ICH in an urban context.
A lot of countries are increasingly focusing on keeping heritage alive in cities because they are affected by a different set of factors – such as high levels of migration, movement of people and globalisation – as compared to rural areas that have strong cultural practices that tend to get lost or diluted over time in cities.
Other countries such as South Korea and Japan have decades of experience in this kind of preservation. Previously, we used to observe Hong Kong because, culturally and as cities, we share many similarities – both are urbanised and sit at the crossroads of trade.
2. How will Singapore’s hawker culture, which has recently been inscribed on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the ICH of Humanity, further enhance the city-state’s place on the global culinary landscape?
The UNESCO Representative List is very significant as it truly represents diverse cultures. It’s a big achievement to join this league of globally recognised food traditions such as pizzamaking, kimchi-making, French gastronomy and Mexican diet.
The process of how we filed our nomination also garnered a lot of international media attention, which helped to make our case stronger. One report drew comparisons between Singapore and Bangkok, which also has a strong street food culture but has, of late, been facing the challenges of rapid growth. The article went on to suggest that it could learn from Singapore’s experience.
Such media coverage has helped to put a spotlight not only on our hawker culture but also Singapore as a nation.
3. What opportunities does your appointment to UNESCO’s ICH evaluation body present to you as a Singaporean?
The evaluation body has people from around the world with different backgrounds – NGOs, government agencies, academics – and experiences. There were other distinguished candidates in the fray, so I’m humbled to have been elected.
The four-year tenure is an enriching experience to learn from fellow members, and also offers me the opportunity to get a closer look at how UNESCO functions and help formulate its future policies. I hope to pull together my experience in how we work in Singapore from a multi-stakeholder point of view.
4. How can the younger generation continue to take Singapore’s multicultural missive to the world through heritage?
Our youths are our cultural flag bearers when interacting with their global counterparts. As such, we hope that they actively participate in preserving our traditions. One of the first things we did was to create an ICH inventory, which lists down 97 cultural practices on our roots.sg website, and provides an easy reference while continuing to grow. Some of these are passed down several generations and may not even have a written record, due to which parts may be lost along the way. It has been quite encouraging because we get queries from schools.
We collaborate with local universities to offer grants to researchers on different heritage aspects, such as buildings, ethnic groups, the history of Singapore, the ‘50s and ‘60s industrialisation period, and practices such as tea culture, the Malay art of weaving ketupat [rice cake wrapped with coconut leaves] and Chinese pastry-making.
“A lot of countries are increasingly focusing on keeping heritage alive in cities. We learn from countries that have long-standing practices to protect and safeguard their heritage. Equally, we hope that we have something to offer to them."5. How has Singapore struck a balance between preserving our cultural heritage and making economic strides?
Singapore has always had to strike a delicate balance due to land scarcity and high urbanisation. We managed to keep our landmark buildings, a challenge in itself due to the physical dimension of these structures, and with a population and economy that continue to grow. This is also seen in our environment preservation policies. While some people might not want certain types of developments in their own backyard, the fact is they must be built somewhere.
At the NHB, we work with government agencies to assess which aspects of cultural heritage can be preserved, and make informed decisions based on processes such as by engaging citizens and NGOs. As Singaporeans increasingly engage with the wider world on topics such as climate and culture preservation, they act in sync with the global undercurrents that strongly emphasise consultative citizen-led national development initiatives.
6. What have been the biggest growth drivers of Singapore’s heritage management in terms of policies and practices?
One of the biggest recent developments has been the formulation of our SG Heritage plan, the groundwork for which was laid down several years ago. It’s the first dedicated master plan on the heritage landscape that charts out our work in a fiveyear period from 2018 to 2022. Where possible, we consult with stakeholders such as academia and youth. We often collaborate with international experts to explore ways to exchange knowlege in the areas of heritage and culture preservation. We held roadshows [pre-Covid-19] that were attended by more than 30,000 people who provided their feedback. Such interactive exercises helped in formulating some of the recommendations for four key aspects: places which constitute the physical environment; culture which is the ICH; treasures, which refers to our museums and objects that embody our history; and community, which is our people.
7. As a cosmopolitan nation, how has Singapore preserved its multicultural context?
Singapore’s multiculturalism informs our work as it has been an international trade route where people from around the world have lived for centuries. While most people know our history started with the landing of Raffles 200 years ago, it, in fact stretches over 700 years. We are still as cosmopolitan now as we were back then, albeit modernised. Our international peers are often fascinated with how we celebrate diverse cultures, and the way we nurture it among our youth. We always try to explore whether we can borrow an idea from other countries and adapt it to our context. For example, our Stewards of Singapore’s ICH Award is inspired by similar recognitions awarded in South Korea and Japan. A few of our international colleagues have commented that our ICH inventory is very well-structured in terms of methodology, survey and gathering of experiences.
8. How can Singaporeans, as global citizens, work with the international community to ensure stronger collaborations in areas of cultural and heritage preservation?
We have been taking part in different platforms to engage in this discourse, such as symposia and now, webinars. There is a UNESCO category 2 centre based in Seoul, whose primary objective is to encourage networking and exchange of ideas within the Asia-Pacific region through events and sharing of best practices. We are also regular contributors to the agency’s newsletter, which goes out to different countries. In a recent edition, for instance, we wrote about the Indian festival of Thaipusam as part of our focus on different ethnic groups.
"OUR INTERNATIONAL PEERS ARE OFTEN FASCINATED WITH HOW WE CELEBRATE DIVERSE CULTURES AND THE WAY WE NURTURE IT AMONG OUR YOUTH. WE ALWAYS TRY TO EXPLORE WHETHER WE CAN BORROW AN IDEA FROM OTHER COUNTRIES AND ADAPT IT TO OUR CONTEXT."
9. Why is it important for Singapore to safeguard its heritage? Is culture best preserved with ground-up initiatives that involve both communities and institutions?
The importance lies in examining how heritage and diversity shape us, by giving us a peek into history and commonalities that we share and may not be aware of. Encouraging discovery and mutual understanding is an important part of heritage. Practices, food, festivals, dances – such knowledge resides within the individual. Unlike buildings that can be preserved, when it comes to practices, it’s for the individual to see value and purpose in continuing them. This is why we work very closely with the community by making them a part of our events. Some even run their own workshops, especially those that are centred on crafts, such as Thow Kwang Pottery, which runs Singapore’s only functional dragon kiln; the Indian art of kolam or rangoli [colourful floor decoration]; and Nyonya beadwork and embroidery workshops run by Peranakan boutiques.
10. How do your international counterparts view Singapore’s stance on the preservation of its heritage?
Our international peers feel that we are quite innovative in the way we use technology to showcase traditional heritage. For instance, during last year’s Ramadan, which fell during our lockdown period, we ran online campaigns to help non- Muslim groups better understand Ramadan customs. They also remark on how diverse we are, despite our small size. Initially, foreigners might have some misconceptions, but when we share with them how we ensure that different cultures and minority groups are represented adequately through policies and practices, they appreciate the level of effort. We have also been running an accessibilityrelated programme with the aim of reaching out to different groups, such as the elderly. For instance, we have developed wayfinding tools to help people with dementia by putting up familiar heritage symbols, such as rice dumplings and kueh [Malay sweets], around their neighbourhoods.
Foreign visitors also find our hawker centres to be vibrant. An anthropologist from Hong Kong once said he was happy to see that at our hawker centres, people of different faiths and backgrounds can come together – something he hasn’t seen in a lot of countries. To him, that observation says a lot about us. We are not perfect, but we have mutual respect for each other.