As a young and small country with little to no natural heritage, Singapore still manages to punch above its weight, boasting one UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a bid to include an item in the Representative List (RL) of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens journey to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 2015, after a five-year application journey, the 161-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens was awarded the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), making it Singapore’s first UNESCO WHS. Singapore’s Botanic Gardens is the first Botanic Gardens on the list from Asia, and the third Botanic Gardens on the entire list, joining the Orto botanico di Padova in Padua, Italy and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.
Image: Commemorative stamps launched to celebrate the inscription of the Singapore Botanic Gardens as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. / NParks
In fact, as a former British colony, Singapore’s Botanic Gardens was once an outpost of the British Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. During the British empire, Botanic Gardens performed the dual function of advancing scientific knowledge and economic development. The Singapore Botanic Gardens played a large role in the development of the rubber trade in Southeast Asia in the late 1800s, and in the breeding and hybridisation of orchids in the mid 1900s, a field in which the Botanic Gardens remains unparalleled today. These achievements, along with the exceptional preservation of the gardens through the efforts of the many generations of Singaporeans involved, led to its achievement of the UNESCO WHS status.
Singapore’s Hawker Culture nomination for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
In March 2019, Singapore submitted its nomination for its hawker culture to be inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH). This nomination serves to recognise hawker centres as communal dining spaces. It also recognises the hard work put in by generations of hawkers and of the greater appreciation Singaporeans have begun to have for our hawkers and our hawker culture. Although hawker culture may not have originated in Singapore and is not exclusive to the island, it has grown to become something Singaporeans value as part of our culture, history, and identity.
On 16 December 2020, Hawker Culture in Singapore was successfully inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Although many have warned of the impending doom of Singapore’s hawker culture, support schemes and programmes from the government appears to have turned the trend around. Proof of the vibrancy and continuity of our hawker culture can be seen in the number of aspiring young hawkers we have, with examples like “Beng Who Cooks” rising to fame recently on the back of their charity work during the Circuit Breaker period. Programmes like the Staggered Rent Scheme and the Incubation Stall Programme, which reduce the initial rent paid by new hawkers, have encouraged more young people today to venture into the hawker industry. A mentorship programme with experienced hawkers has also been set up, to help young hawkers get their footing. Although some of these newcomers have since thrown in the towel, many more continue to keep going and to thrive, particularly in the new not-for-profit social enterprise hawker centres like Timbre+ and the new Pasir Ris Central Hawker Centre. Public support for young hawkers has also been strong. For instance, a “Next Gen Hawker Food Tour” has also been set up to encourage Singaporeans to explore the hawker stalls and eateries started by young hawkers.
Protecting and preserving our cultural heritage
Although nine in 10 respondents agree or strongly agree that hawker centres are an important part of Singapore’s identity, according to a 2016 survey by the National Environment Agency (NEA), we cannot take the continued survival of our hawker culture for granted. Only with the continued support from the government, business owners and fellow Singaporeans, would we be able to keep this unique cultural heritage alive. Similarly, our Botanic Gardens need to continue to be maintained and developed in the years to come, to remain relevant and valuable to Singaporeans.
The richness of Singapore’s heritage does not end with these two nominations. On 22 February 2018, Singapore ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity, and subsequently launched the Inventory of ICH. As of October 2022, the Inventory consists of 102 elements, and more will be added progressively. As we look around and marvel at the many things that make Singapore our home, we must not forget that these things only exist today as a result of the preservation and effort put in by those who came before.
Let us work together as one Singapore, to preserve our unique cultural heritage for future generations, to make Singapore a home we can all be proud of.