National Treasures

Published on 26 October 2017

What are the elements that make up Singapore’s unique and priceless intangible cultural heritage? And how should we safeguard it?

By Pamela Ho

Photo: Courtesy of the Indian Heritage Centre
Photo: National Heritage Board

The Chitty are Indian Peranakans, birthed from the marriage between early Tamil immigrants in Singapore and the local women. One of their more unique celebrations is Parchu Pongal which is observed the day before the Pongal rice harvest festival in mid-January when delicacies and sweets are placed on banana leaves as ancestral offerings, a practice absent in other Indian communities.

Very few people, let alone Singaporeans, know about this unique festival, but more should. So much so that in July 2016, in a bid to establish a national cultural inventory, the National Heritage Board (NHB) launched a survey to identify key aspects of Singapore’s intangible cultural heritage. While an exploration of this nature is not new, the survey was the first attempt to do so in a more systematic way and on a much larger scale.

“We started out focusing on preserving heritage buildings, sites and monuments,” explains Yeo Kirk Siang, the NHB’s Director of Heritage Research and Assessment. “But the journey naturally brought us to a point of realising that these are shells without the intangible aspects of heritage. So, we started engaging different groups in the community, talking to them, understanding the challenges they face on the ground, and what our role could be.”


Photo: Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

“With rapid social change and the challenges we’re facing in terms of intergenerational transmission of memories, traditions and practices, I think it’s timely for the NHB to look into intangible cultural heritage more systematically,” says Prof Kwok Kian-Woon, a sociology lecturer at Nanyang Technological University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Deputy Chair of the NHB’s Heritage Advisory Panel.

Unlike tangible heritage, which can be preserved by law, regulations and guidelines, intangible cultural heritage is tricky even to study and document. “Singapore is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. Sometimes, cultures influence each other and take on a local character,” explains Yeo. “Cultures can also evolve. As such, experts tend not to use the word ‘preserve’ when talking about intangible cultural heritage, as it gives the idea that it’s frozen in time. The preferred term is ‘safeguarding’, which suggests finding ways to let it continue by getting people to be aware of the value it brings to them and to society.”

To aid its task, the NHB referenced the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which describes the term as “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities and individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”.

In turn, the term can be further classified into five categories: oral traditions and expressions, traditional performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship.


Photo: National Heritage Board

Of course, what is of cultural value to Singaporeans cannot be bureaucratically defined. As Yeo points out, the various ethnic communities were swiftly engaged, and a platform was created for dialogue. “The NHB cannot be the one to say, ‘OK, we want to preserve this, so you must continue doing it’. While we can facilitate, if something has lost its meaning to contemporary society, then even if we try to keep it alive, it will be like a ‘live performance’ at a museum that showcases past lifestyles. It no longer holds meaning because it no longer represents that particular community. You can try to force it, but it becomes a very tourist kind of thing – that’s not what we want.”

As a first step, the NHB’s heritage institutions – namely the Malay Heritage Centre, Indian Heritage Centre and Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall – were approached because they serve as the focal point of the respective communities, as spaces where members share their history, achievements and contributions in the context of the Singapore story.

Trudy Loh, Director of Heritage Institutions at the NHB, says these bodies “bring us closer to the ground and enable us to work more closely with the various communities. Their annual CultureFests are very much about intangible cultural heritage, as they revolve around their oral traditions, crafts and traditional arts. I think if people see value and meaning behind something, they are more likely to practise it. So it’s about how we can create and make that value and meaning live on.”

While the process of documenting intangible cultural heritage is drawn-out and challenging, Prof Kwok believes it can be achieved if we approach it on a case-by-case basis. “There will be straightforward cases, there will be complex cases, and that’s all part of the challenge. Life shouldn’t be so easily categorised into boxes. I wouldn’t let these challenges be so daunting that we don’t do anything at all.”

He adds that this on-going process involves discovering, rediscovering and, in some cases, recovering. “Having a sense of what has been lost is also part of the process of understanding ourselves. So it’s not as if the NHB is saying ‘all has to be retrieved’. There may be reasons why things have been lost along the way. In finding out why, we discover something new.”

Culture Quest

The NHB’s various heritage institutions organise annual CultureFests. These play an important role in safeguarding the respective communities’ intangible cultural heritage. Here are some highlights not to be missed.

Photo: Courtesy of Malay Heritage Centre

Malay Heritage Centre

The Malay community in Singapore is made up of sub-ethnic communities such as the Javanese, Baweanese and Minangkabau. Since 2012, their unique heritage and cultures have been featured in special exhibitions under the Se Nusantara (Of the Same Archipelago) series.

The centre’s general manager, Harneis Hadir says the Se Nusantara exhibitions “not only explore the diversity of these sub-ethnic groups through tangible heritage, in the form of artefacts, but also intangible heritage in traditions and practices such as attire, marriage ceremonies and cuisine. For instance, rendang is a Minangkabau dish and the martial art of silat has Javanese, Malay and Bugis variants. These exhibitions enable us to understand how our cultures have evolved since our forefathers settled in Singapore and help us gain a fuller sense of our identity as members of different cultural communities and as Malay Singaporeans.”

Launched at October’s Malay Heritage Centre CultureFest, the latest exhibition features the Bugis community in Singapore. “Historically, the Bugis – who hail from South Sulawesi – are known to have a strong sense of honour,” Harneis says, “and their men have been depicted in colonial literature as being fierce in nature and possessing martial prowess. In reality, many were also seafarers, traders and merchants.”

The Bugis exhibition runs till 24 June 2018. For more information, visit

Photo: National Heritage Board
Photo: Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall

Dr Sun Yat Sen was the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. For a brief period, his residence and base for his revolutionary activities in Nanyang was a two-storey colonial-style villa in Balestier, which is today the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. While the building itself is a form of tangible heritage, general manager Alvin Ting says “it’s the people and the stories behind the villa that bring it to life, making the experience much more meaningful.”

Throughout the year, the centre organises outreach activities that promote the appreciation of Chinese culture, among them Chinese New Year, the Dumpling Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the annual CultureFest.

Highlights of this year’s Wan Qing CultureFest include The Influencers of Modern Cheongsam in Singapore: 1920s to 2000s (4 November), which is conducted in English; Stitches of Love – Hidden Blessings in Children’s Clothing and Accessories Exhibition (till 4 March 2018); and the Balestier Food & Heritage Trail (4-5, 11-12 November), where visitors explore various heritage sites, visit famous eating spots in the Balestier precinct, and receive a specially prepared food goodie bag.

The Wan Qing CultureFest runs from  4 to 12 November. For details, visit

Photo: National Heritage Board
Photo: Indian Heritage Centre

Indian Heritage Centre

Singapore’s Indian community is far from homogeneous. Because the early immigrants came from different parts of the Indian subcontinent, they brought with them different cultural practices and traditions. This makes each sub-group unique and, collectively, they contribute to the colourful diversity of the Indian community in Singapore.

The centre’s general manager, Saravanan Sadanandom, says its mission is to be a focal point for the Indian community and to serve as a platform for everyone to learn about Singapore’s diverse Indian heritage especially during the annual CultureFest. “Because we’re located in the heart of Little India, visitors can also step out and explore this historic precinct, which is still home to many living and thriving intangible cultural practices.”

The theme of this year’s Indian Heritage Centre CultureFest is rasa, a Sanskrit word for ‘aesthetics’. The festival kicks off with an opening show that ties in with the launch of a special exhibition, Symbols and Script: The Language of Craft. It showcases a live orchestra depicting the jugalbandhi, or Indian classical dance performance, and Carnatic and Hindustani classical music.

There will also be a full-day programme that explores the aesthetics of masks.

For details, visit

Photo: National Heritage Board
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