Conservation in Singapore

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“While Singapore continues to transform, it is important to enhance our sense of identity and identification with our city. Singapore is our home. People must feel this in themselves and in their surroundings. URA’s role is to make Singapore a city with character and identity through our physical landscape. So far, more than 6,500 buildings and structures across the country have been conserved, despite our limited land and a relatively short history. Retention of our identity through conservation will become more important as more of our city becomes developed and redeveloped to cater to the needs of a larger population.[1]

The Central Role of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) 

Soon after the separation from Malaysia and became an independent nation, Singapore was in a dire condition physically and economically. Two most important institutions were set-up in 1965 to deal with the most pressing physical and economics issues and to develop Singapore, namely the Housing Development Board (HDB) and the Economic Development Board (EDB). In 1967 the Urban Renewal Department (URD) was set up under the HDB to tackle the physical, social, and economic regeneration of the Central Area, until 1974.

Singapore street market in 1960s. (Source: old postcard of Singapore)

Singapore street market in 1960s. (Source: old postcard of Singapore)

On 1 April 1974 the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) was created as an independent statutory board under Ministry of National Development (MND) to take over the URD responsibility, with primary task to redevelop the Central Area and resettle residents affected by the redevelopment. Within the period of 1967-1989 a total of 184 hectares of land were cleared, assembled and sold under the URA Sale of Sites Program, resulting in the development of 155 projects. Through this program, Central Area was transformed from an area of slums and squatters into a modern financial and business hub

In 1980 URA prepared a comprehensive long-term plan for the Central Area including the development of Marina City on 690 hectares of reclaimed land. Three years later in 1983 the Urban Design Plan for the Central Area was created and aimed to guide “an orderly transformation of the city skyline and the creation of an environment interwoven with the historical, architectural and cultural heritage of the older parts of the city”, followed by the announcement of Central Area Structure Plan in 1985. Thus URA was exercising its power to “develop” and at the same time to “conserve” the central area of Singapore. Although the URA’s conservation policy seems comprehensive in adhering good conservation principles, but in reality the results are not satisfying. It focuses too much to the physical and economic aspects of gentryfiyng most of the remaining heritage buildings in the central area, and not giving enough attention to preserving the existing community or social-cultural fabric.

The “demolish and rebuild” policy during the 1970-1980s has cleared or destroyed a large stock of old shop-houses and town-houses in a vast area of the central area of Singapore, and its communities have been displaced from the historic mixed-used settlement areas and dispersed elsewhere. Some of the reasons for demolition and population-removal policy were to sanitize the social diseases (like overcrowding, prostitution, gambling, gangsters), to improve the environmental problems (bad utilities, unhygienic sanitation, structural dilapidation), and to reclaim unproductive area for new commercial development with much higher values and returns. Vast shop-house area inside the old central area, like Kampong Glam, Middle Road, and Kereta Ayer areas were re-developed and replaced by high-rise housing-cum-commercial blocks to house some of the existing inhabitants, and the original communities have been relocated somewhere else.

The extent of demolition and re-development was so large, until finally the government realized the irreversible loss of tangible cultural heritage and intangible identity of place especially in the central area. Therefore since 1990s the conservation plans have been drafted and implemented, to save the remaining stocks of this valuable urban heritage – although it was mainly driven by the tourism industry and the speculative property re-development schemes. Many old shop-houses were given second lease of life by “adaptive re-use” approach, from empty buildings they were turned into new shops, restaurants, cafés, hotels, or offices. Major changes in the interior space to adapt the new functions and to comply with stringent building safety regulations were permitted, while façade features or style should be kept. The original white-indigo lime-based plaster was removed and replaced by stronger PC-based plaster, often with new weather-proof and colorful exterior paints. The dying traditional craftsmanship and the usage of traditional building materials are not revived, but replaced by modern contemporary technology and materials, and resulted in the loss of authenticity and discontinuity in the production of material culture.

URA Conservation Plan was announced in 1989. Historic districts like Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam, Singapore River – including Boat Quay and Clarke Quay – as well as residential areas like Emerald Hill, Cairnhill, Blair Plain, and secondary settlements like Joo Chiat and Geylang were given conservation status. The naming or labeling of these areas followed the Singapore Tourism Board “branding” strategy to sell Singapore, which turned the central areas of the city into “theme parks”.

Central Area Structure Plan 1974-1989 with area labeling or branding (Source: URA)

Central Area Structure Plan 1974-1989 with area labeling or branding (Source: URA)

URA Early Conservation Approach

 In 1993 URA together with the Preservation of Monuments Board (PMB) published “Objectives, Principles and Standards for Preservation and Conservation”. Here it is stated that the objectives, principles and standards have been specifically written with the Singapore context in mind, and they are derived from local experience, and where appropriate are drawn from international sources (among others are Venice Charter 1964, Burra Charter 1988, etc.[2]

URA prescribes “3R Principle”: maximum Retention, sensitive Restoration, and careful Repair. This principle is further elaborated as:

1)    Building should not be altered, or parts of it demolished, if they can be preserved in their original condition.

2)    When upgrading and adapting a building to a new uses, the existing structure must be retained. This can be done through strengthening and repairing the structural elements in the most sympathetic and unobtrusive way, and using original methods and materials, wherever possible

3)    Selective replacement should only be considered when absolutely necessary.

4)    Total reconstruction goes against accepted international conservation practices

5)    A thorough research of the conservation building will also facilitate the proper execution of works on site.

6)    The technical aspects and process of the various activities must be documented at every stage.

To implement the principles, URA defines “7 Levels of Conservation Activities” and “Top-Down Approach”. The seven levels of activities are: 1) Maintaining the essential character of the building, 2) Preventing further deterioration, 3) Consolidating the fabric of the building, 4) Restoring the building to original design and material, 5) Rehabilitating the building without destroying its character, 6) Replacing missing significant features of the building, and 7) Rebuilding severely damaged parts of the building.

The “Top-Down” Approach literally means that works start from the top (roof) and progress downwards, while retaining the floor(s) and roof. This enables the lower elements of the building to be repaired or replaced without affecting the existing structure. The benefits from this construction method are: the building remains structurally stable, the work can proceed under all weather conditions, and deterioration due to weather is minimized.

URA facade classification and stylistic description (Source: URA, 1995)

URA facade classification and stylistic description (Source: URA, 1995)

In shop-house conservation, URA endorses “facadism” and prefers to retain the façade and allows alteration of the rest of the building. To facilitate this façade classification was defined according to linear periodization, with meticulous stylistic description of its parts:

1)    Early Shop house style (1840-1900)

2)    First Transitional Shop house style (early 1900s)

3)    Late Shop house style (1900-1940)

4)    Second Transitional Shop house style (late 1930s)

5)    Art Deco Shop house style (1930-1960)

Similar stylistic classification and approach was applied to different conservation areas, like Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India, with some adjustments to match with the special “theme” assigned for those particular areas. Three books elaborating the historical background of the place and special physical features of shop-houses typology for each conservation area, with very little attention given to the existing social-cultural significance.

To encourage and to give incentive to private conservation initiatives, The Architectural Heritage Awards was created.[3] It was started in 1994, when URA gave “Good Effort” Award for well-restored buildings. The annual “Architectural Heritage Awards” was first introduced in 1995 to replace the previous award. In 2003, the awards category was further refined: “Category A” for national monuments and fully conserved buildings, and “Category B” for old buildings with new, innovative and sensitive interventions. The judging is conducted by an Assessment Committee appointed by the URA.

The policy and the guideline are profoundly inclined towards physical conservation of multi-racial, colonial, and national heritage of Singapore – while the conservation of social fabric of community is noticeably missing. It became apparent later that the conservation policy which is focused mainly on the tangible aspect has created problems in the intangible aspect of heritage.

Former Shop Houses in China Square after redevelopment

Former Shop Houses in China Square after redevelopment

Holistic Urban Heritage Conservation and Regeneration

Cultural purification and elimination of parts of our layered or hybridized identity which have been formed for generations are not truthful to our own history and to our future generations. Buildings and elements from various cultures and influences from past to present have become indispensable parts of our cultural heritage, and it will continuously evolve into the future. Inhabitation aspect is always related to the articulation of the built forms or the material culture. When the social fabric (community, inhabitants) is gone, then building and settlement will turn into empty shells where deterioration will take place. In this critical stage, the choices are demolition or re-development, especially when it takes place in the central urban prime locations.

Conservation, preservation, restoration, revitalization efforts of our material and living heritages should be aimed towards the community cultural continuum. The community’s cultural continuum can be kept and nurtured by preserving the community’s tangible and intangible cultural heritages through faithful and careful restoration, and through sensitive and sensible care and interventions. The dying or missing traditional skills and craftsmanship can be revived and restored through training and education, and to be updated with the current technological advancement. Following the principles of traditional medicine to cure the sickness by invoking good energy for holistic healing process of body and soul, effective and affirmative actions can be developed in the spirit of good will and good faith in order to preserve our memory and identity through conservation of our cultural heritage in entirety and holistically.

The community should be empowered by technical skills and sustained by economic and institutional infrastructure, through holistic conservation and preservation strategy in mobilizing all stake holders. Recognitions such as awards and status should be aimed to generate greater impacts towards a more sustainable and effective heritage policy, planning, and management of the community’s tangible and intangible cultural heritages, and not for the sake of marketing or branding for the sake of mass-tourism money.

Good conservation projects and practices are those which successfully demonstrating the following points:[4]

1)    articulation of the heritage values in order to convey the spirit of place through conservation,

2)    appropriate use or adaptation of the structure,

3)    interpretation of the cultural, social, historical and architectural significance of the structure(s) in the conservation work,

4)    understanding of technical issues of conservation/restoration in interpreting the structure’s significance,

5)    appropriate use or adaptation of the structure,

6)    interpretation of the cultural, social, historical and architectural significance of the structure(s) in the conservation work,

7)    understanding of the technical issues of conservation/restoration in interpreting the structure’s significance,

8)    use of appropriate materials,

9)    how well any added elements or creative technical solutions respect the character and inherent spatial quality of the structure(s),

10) manner in which the process and the final product contribute to the surrounding environment and the local community’s cultural and historical continuum,

11) influence of the project on conservation practice and policy locally, nationally, regionally, or internationally,

12) ongoing socio-economic viability and relevance of the project, and provision for its future use and maintenance, and

13) technical consistency, complexity and sensitivity of the project methodology.

Living heritage: traditional trades in the shop-house in Serangoon area ("Little India")

Living heritage: traditional trades in the shop-house in Serangoon area (“Little India”)

Changes in Singapore Urban Conservation Approach

Recognizing the need to involve the community in the urban planning process URA started to embark on public consultations exercise in the urban planning process since the drafting of Concept Plan 2001 (Aug 2000 – May 2001). The ideas and feedbacks from public were gathered through public forums, exhibition, and public dialogue before the Concept Plan was finalized at the end of 2001. In 2002 similar process was repeated again when Master Plan 2003 was drafted. Three Subject Groups were appointed by the Minister of National Development to study proposals on: 1) Parks & Water-bodies Plans and Rustic Coast, 2) Urban Villages and Southern Ridges & Hillside Villages, and 3) Old World Charm. The ideas and recommendations were to be incorporated into the draft of Master Plan 2003.

The Subject Groups comprise professionals, representatives from interest groups, and laymen. They felt that a shift in the balance between conservation and re-development is required, and a new framework is needed for holistic conservation – an integrated, synergistic approach that goes beyond physical structures to include communities and activities that contribute to the old world charm.[5] Holistic conservation encompasses the whole neighborhoods, including contemporary and less architecturally significant buildings. It is multi-dimensional, to include buildings, road patterns, streetscapes, open spaces and vistas; demands multi-disciplinary involvement across local and national levels; and incorporates all stake holders (users, owners, heritage-supporters, decision makers) of the conservation process.

Besides specific recommendations for different places across Singapore, the Subject Groups also suggested the following proposals to take conservation efforts in Singapore to the higher level:[6]

1)    Valuing the priceless: conserving areas with rich heritage, charm, and social value, even though there may be loss in development potential at the local level.

2)    Different levels of conservation: conserving significant exteriors, interiors, and details of selected buildings; and controlling the use of selected buildings with strong social and historical values.

3)    Act fast: preparing a comprehensive list of buildings for safeguarding.

4)    A Network of heritage assets: linking up areas of the conserved area with the new developments that serve as heritage connectors.

5)    Differential expectations and planning: adopting different performance and planning standards that are sensitive to the urban fabric of areas identified with the conserved area.

6)    Beyond efficiency, embracing new solutions: exploring alternatives to widening of roads within the conserved area, and exploring the use of different transportation modes.

7)    Recognizing our heartland heritage: keeping blocks of public housing architecture and townships that encapsulated the range of public housing from the 1950s to the present.

8)    Wish list: retaining more built heritage for future generations, including the more recent building that depicts the history of Singapore’s path towards independence and efforts in nation building process.

9)    Heritage economy: recognizing conservation’s contribution to the economy by providing funding for conservation initiatives and efforts.

10) Money talks: introducing more incentives for owners of conservation buildings

11) Private sponsorship: encouraging the setting up of a privately-run heritage trust.

12) Getting insights: commissioning a study on property value of conserving buildings

13) Promote traditional trades: developing ways to recognize owners of traditional trades that are valued by the public.

14) Active citizenship: precipitating the formation of local business improvement groups.

15) Renaissance people: developing a heritage education program that takes a more active and concerted form to inform, educate, and inspire people about their city.


Recognitions and the Future of Conservation in Singapore

In October 2007, Singapore rejoined UNESCO after 22 years of absence. But even before this historic turning point, UNESCO had given Singapore three awards in recognition of the achievements of individuals, private sector organisations and public-private initiatives in successfully restoring and conserving heritage structures in this small city-state.

UNESCO aims to promote the stewardship of the world’s cultural resources, including the built heritage which constitutes our collective cultural memory, and the foundation upon which communities can base their future.  In Asia and the Pacific, UNESCO supports conservation activists at all levels, and particularly seeks to encourage the role of the private sector in preserving the region’s cultural heritage. The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation is one of the regional initiatives that support the organisation’s global strategic objective of promoting the localisation and empowerment of the culture profession to develop and implement the best conservation standards. 

Since 2000 the Heritage Awards committee has received more than 300 entries from across Asia. Many of the entries have set technical and social benchmarks for conservation in the region, while simultaneously acting as catalysts for local preservation initiatives.  Over the years, the projects illustrate the increasing momentum and level of conservation in Asia and the Pacific. Four Singaporean conservation projects have so far won UNESCO Heritage Awards: the Thian Hock Keng Temple (Honourable Mention Award in 2001), the Convent of Holy Infant Jesus (Award of Merit in 2002), Old St. Andrew’s School (Honourable Mention Award in 2006), and finally the Hong San See Temple restoration project won the highest Award for Excellence in 2010.

On the community level, recently some individuals have registered themselves to become individual members of ICOMOS, which is the first important step towards the formation of ICOMOS National Committee. Government is also interested to look into the possibility of submitting some sites in Singapore for UNESCO World Heritage listing. Although these developments seem preliminary and still very early to generate real impacts, but these are significant steps towards better approach to preservation and conservation of heritage.

In Singapore both land and heritage are scarce. These constraints should drive better and more effective conservation strategies and methods so that the full positive impact of conservation may contribute to strong economic development, nation-building, and a sense of home. In working towards these ends, it is essential to form a civic coalition, a community network and an alliance among all stakeholders to maintain a balance between conservation and development, and to ensure an orderly and healthy evolution of the built environment and the community that lives within it.

We are obliged to prolong the lifecycle of our tangible and intangible heritages for the sake of the future generation, to ensure the link with their roots and the transmission of memory from the past into the future. Conservation means nurturing the community’s cultural continuum. By prolonging the life of our heritage for future generations, we can ensure their link with their roots and the transmission of memory from the past to the future.

“A nation must have a memory to give it a sense of cohesion, continuity and identity. The longer the past, the greater the awareness of a nation’s identity”[7]


[1] From the speech by Mr Mah Bow Tan Minister for National Development at URA Corporate Plan Seminar 2007 at Orchard Hotel on 9 February 2007 (

[2] URA & PMB (1993), p. 12

[3] URA (2004), Architectural Heritage Singapore – Architectural Heritage Awards 1994 to 2004

[4] Refer to UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation criteria. Detail information about the awards can be found in:

[5] MND (2002), Parks & Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan – Subject Group Report on Old World Charm, p.8

[6] Ibid. pp. 26-33

[7] Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, one of the founding fathers of independent Singapore (1915-2006)

[*]This paper was presented at the serial talk on Capitals’ Archaeology: Urban Origins and Conservation, organized by The Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SEAMEO-SPAFA), 29 April 2011, at Siam Society, Bangkok, Thailand. It was then published in SPAFA Journal Volume 21, Number 3, September-December 2011 (ISSN 0858-1975), published by the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts, Bangkok, Thailand.


  1. Engelhardt, R. (editor). “Asia Conserved:  Lessons Learned from the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Conservation Awards”. Bangkok: UNESCO, 2007
  2. ICOMOS Charters,
  3. Ismail, Rahil, Shaw, Brian & Ooi Giok Ling (editors). “Southeast Asian Culture and Heritage in a Globalizing World – Diverging Identities in a Dynamic Region.” Surrey: Ashgate, 2009
  4. MND (2002), Parks & Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan – Subject Group Report on Old World Charm, Ministry of National Development, Singapore
  5. MND (2002), Parks & Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan – Subject Group Report on Urban Villages and Southern Ridges & Hillside Villages, Ministry of National Development, Singapore
  6. Tan, Sumiko (1999), Home.Work.Play, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
  7. URA & PMB (1993), Singapore – Objectives, Principles and Standards for Preservation and Conservation, Urban Redevelopment Authority & Preservation of Monuments Board, Singapore
  8. URA (2004), Architectural Heritage Singapore – Architectural Heritage Awards 1994 to 2004, Award Winning Projects by Singapore-registered Architects, Urban Redevelopment Authority,  Singapore
  9. URA (1995), Chinatown Historic District, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
  10. URA (1995), Little India Historic District, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
  11. URA (1995), Kampong Glam Historic District, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore

Johannes Widodo
Associate Professor and the Deputy Head for Administration and Finance, the co-Director of the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architectural and Urban Heritage in Melaka (Malaysia), and Executive Editor of JSEAA (Journal of Southeast Asian Architecture) at the National University of Singapore. He is the founder of mAAN (modern Asian Architecture Network) and iNTA (International Network of Tropical Architecture). He received his degree in Architecture from Parahyangan Catholic University (Bandung, Indonesia, 1984), Master of Architectural Engineering degree from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium, 1988), and PhD in Architecture from the University of Tokyo (Japan, 1996).