Delivered in Parliament on 2 November 2021
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am supportive of the general direction of this Bill, the Preservation of Monuments (Amendment) Act.
In the Hollywood movie Monuments Men, the fictional President Truman is persuaded to set up a special US Army unit to preserve classic European works of art from the Nazis. The central idea behind the movie was to recognize that the value of our lives depends on economic concerns, but goes beyond that.
Madam, in the uncertain times we live in, with geopolitical and economic certainties thrown up in the air, our heritage and monuments remind us of where we came from. A people who do not appreciate where they came from cannot chart a meaningful path forward.
Madam, we must approach heritage protection as a democratic effort, requiring buy-in and active involvement of different stakeholders including monument owners, occupiers, civil society and the general public.
In this spirit, while I support the Bill, my speech will put forth suggestions in three areas of protection: Firstly, protection of monument owners’ and public interests through appropriate judicial oversight; Secondly, protection of our actual and proposed national monuments through stronger stakeholder engagement and support, particularly with civil society; Thirdly, protection of heritage in a more holistic manner.
- Protection of Monument Owners’ Interests
Circumscribing powers of forced entry without warrant
First, I would like to talk about protecting the interests of owners and occupiers of actual and proposed national monument through appropriate judicial oversight.
I note with particular concern that Section 27(2A) will enable the Monument Inspector to “forcibly enter” the site “without warrant” when they suspect on reasonable grounds that the site is being defaced, damaged or interfered with, “including by breaking open any outer or inner door or window”. I urge careful reconsideration – how is such violent action consistent with protecting our monuments? Such actions could damage the very monuments they are intended to protect.
While I do agree with the thrust of the Bill to increase protection powers for these sites, I believe the law needs to be more balanced and should not encroach on the rights of monument owners and occupiers, especially at the risk of damaging the actual monuments, unless absolutely necessary. I repeat the Workers’ Party’s position from the FICA debate, that exceptional executive power must be matched with strong judicial oversight.
I have two specific questions to ask:
- In what circumstances will the Monument Inspector deem it of such necessity to forcibly enter the site that the accompanying potential damage to the site’s windows and doors is justified? Can the Minister give some examples?
- In the 51 years of existence of the Preservation of Monuments Act, has the Government ever seen the need for forced entry without warrant into a monument or proposed monument to protect the site, for the same reasons that confer such powers in the Bill?
I would like to suggest a circumscribing of the powers of forced entry without warrant by bringing in judicial oversight, unless in particularly exigent situations. The existing Section 21 of the Preservation of Monuments Act already provides that the Director or a Monument Inspector may apply to the High Court “for any actual or apprehended contravention of the provisions of this Act to be restrained by injunction”. In urgent cases, it is possible to obtain a temporary injunction from the High Court within days. The owner is compelled to comply with the injunction, or may be charged with contempt of court and possibly a jail term.
Hence, I propose to circumscribe the powers of forced entry without warrant to the following situations:
- firstly, non-compliance of the owner with an injunction issued under Section 21 of the PMA;
- or secondly, where there is reason to believe, on balance of probability considerations, that irreparable damage to the site will happen before an injunction order can be obtained.
I note, however, that in urgent cases, it is possible to obtain an injunction order fairly quickly.
I would welcome the Minister’s assurances on the substance of these proposals.
In the Hong Kong and UK equivalents of this provision, there are stronger checks and balances than what is proposed here. Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, Section 5 also provides for public officials to have such powers of entry to inspect monuments. For entry into residential sites, written consent must be obtained from the occupier, or the Authority must give not less than 48 hours’ written notice of their intention to enter. Furthermore, Section 22(2)(b) of this Ordinance reads “no regulations made under this Ordinance shall confer upon a person any right which he would not otherwise have had to enter upon private land”.
The UK’s Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act, Section 88, also allows for forced entry into recognised heritage sites, but only with a Magistrate’s warrant. According to guidance notes by the UK Institute of Historic Building Conservation, forced entry with a warrant “should be seen as a last resort”. I quote, “To convince the Magistrates that forced entry is necessary, the planning authority needs to show what steps have already been taken to gain access by agreement and why these have failed.” Thus, in Hong Kong and the UK, safeguards with independent judicial oversight are provided which protect private property owners’ interests, while balancing the need to protect heritage.
I note the Government’s reasoning that this provision is to align the PMA with powers of forced entry under Section 27 of the Planning Act for protecting conserved buildings. However, the Planning Act provision does not have any mention of forced entry without warrant. Furthermore, we should remember that other than conservation, the Planning Act also covers land use and development in a broader sense and does not perform a monument preservation function.
Certainty of timelines in objections to and duration of a preservation order
My second proposal for better protection of monument owners’ interests is to ensure the certainty of timelines in firstly, objections made to preservation orders; and secondly, the duration of a preservation order.
When the Minister makes a preservation order in relation to a monument, Sections 7(b) and (c) of the PMA allow the owner or occupier to make objections and require that the Board considers these objections and make recommendations to the Minister.
However, there is no specific time frame on how long the Minister has to consider these objections and make the final decision on the preservation order. Given the often onerous responsibility of maintaining a proposed national monument, it would be helpful for owners and occupiers of these sites to have greater certainty on the duration of the process and I seek assurances from the Minister on this point.
I note that Section 12 of the PMA does require that dwelling-houses that are served a preservation order be acquired by the state within a year, or the preservation order would lapse. But this applies only to dwelling-houses at “appear to be occupied” at the time of the issuance of the Order.
Once again, it may be helpful to take a leaf from Hong Kong’s Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, which clearly set out the process, procedures, and timelines for how declarations of “proposed monuments” and objections may be made. Section 2B of the Ordinance provides that the declaration of a “proposed monument” only has effect for 12 months. Section 2C of the Ordinance provides that if the proposed monument is within private land, the owner or occupier may at any time apply to the Authority for withdrawal of the declaration. The Authority has to consider such objections within 1 month of the objection. If unsuccessful, the owner or occupier can pursue their objections further with the Chief Executive and Chief Executive in Council. The clear and transparent statutory timelines provide certainty for all stakeholders.
- Protection of National Monuments and Proposed National Monuments
Moving on to the second big concern of my speech, I would like to speak on how we can go even further in protection of monuments and proposed monuments by deeper public engagement in the gazetting process, stronger support for owners in maintenance of monuments and ensuring the legitimacy of the PMA in relation to other laws.
Deeper engagement of the public and heritage groups
Firstly, I urge the Government to engage the public and heritage groups more deeply in the process of gazetting a national monument. As it stands, the process for making, amending or revoking a preservation order appears, by law, to be one solely between the owner and occupier of a monument and the authorities.
Section 11(7)(a) of the PMA provides that before the Minister makes, amends or revokes a preservation order, the Board is required to “give notice in writing of the Minister’s intention to do so to the owner and occupier of the monument and any land adjacent thereto which will be affected (by the preservation order)”.
There is no legal provision or mechanism enshrined in law for members of the public or heritage groups to provide feedback or objections in this process. Such engagement seems to be up to the discretion of the government, the kind of broad discretion that is often given to the government in the language of many of our laws.
If our national monuments are sites that we as a people reflect upon as sources of meaning and identity, public and heritage groups must have avenues, inscribed in law, to provide feedback on whether sites should be preserved. This would enhance the public’s investment in the heritage preservation cause.
I propose we adopt, in subsidiary legislation, the same process as the Planning (Master Plan) Rules, specifically Rule 4, which requires that a proposal for an amendment to the Master Plan (for example, to designate a site as a conservation area) be advertised by notice and made available for public inspection. Rules 5 and 6 make provisions for members of the public to submit representations and objections to the amendments, and require that if the objection is not ruled frivolous, they have to be attended to by a hearing or public inquiry by the authorities.
I note that the amendment to Section 11(12) does provide that the Board shall publish a list of monuments and proposed monuments, “in such manner as it deems fit”. May I clarify what this manner is, and whether the Government can commit to publishing such a list online and for free.
National Monuments Fund
Next, my first point on resources is in respect of the National Monuments Fund. Amendments to Sections 4 and 5 of the Act extend the functions of NHB to cover “maintenance” of monuments and proposed monuments. I understand that NHB also administers the National Monuments Fund, a co-funding scheme.
Can NHB look into expanding the list of qualifying maintenance works? Increasing the amount of financial support for national monument owners will allow them to undertake timely and proper maintenance of monuments, thus delaying the need for major conservation works downstream. We should not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Availability of craftsmanship expertise
My second point on resources is about the availability of craftsmanship expertise to restore and maintain monuments.
One of our national monuments that had been gazetted early on in 1980 is Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery. In the 1990s, it fell into disrepair and was infested by termites. But the restoration and reconstruction took almost 20 years due to the difficulties in firstly, finding local craftsmen with the necessary expertise and secondly bringing in foreign craftsmen.
Singapore currently classifies heritage building maintenance and restoration under the construction industry, so these craftsmen can only work here as foreign construction workers. However, the highly skilled and experienced craftsmen preferred for these projects are often older and would face the age limit obstacle when applying for a work permit. Furthermore, they would only be allowed to work on a single “construction” project, and would have to leave on project completion, so there is no one available to attend to the daily maintenance of these heritage buildings. I also note that in recent years, it has been even harder to attract such foreign craftsmen to come here, given that the pay in Singapore may not be significantly more attractive than in their home country.
Could the Ministry look into this problem more closely in collaboration with MOM, and perhaps consider relaxing entry requirements for foreign craftsmen by recognizing them as such, instead of seeing them as “foreign construction workers”; and allowing them to work on multiple projects while here?
In the longer term, we need to build up local expertise. Could the Ministry work with local Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) and architecture or construction firms to professionalize career pathways for these craftsmen or artisans of heritage sites? Could IHLs also consider incorporating practicum options for IHL students to be involved in craft work on heritage projects?
Over the past year, I have spoken about the need to move more Singaporeans into trades jobs sustainably. It is said that many Singaporeans do not want to go into these jobs, such as highly-skilled construction workers and plumbers. To fix this problem of lack of local craftsmanship expertise, I would like to repeat my call for ensuring decent working conditions and enhancing the standing and pay of these jobs.
Relationship between PMA and other laws (Section 22A)
Next, on the new Section 22A, this provides exemptions from Part IV Provisions for Preservation of Monuments and may mean that the provisions of other laws will always supersede a preservation order issued under the PMA. I would like to clarify, in what circumstances would the Government deem it necessary to use this provision?
To address this, I propose that statutory authorities be under a statutory obligation to consult the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and/or the NHB before taking or omitting to take any acts in relation to a national monument or proposed national monument.
A precedent for such an obligation is Section 19(3) of the Parks and Trees Act, which requires the LTA, before carrying out work or activity within a heritage road green buffer, to consult the NParks.
- Protection of heritage in a holistic manner
The final concern I would like to highlight in my speech is the importance of protecting heritage in a more holistic manner so that the proposed amendments can be truly meaningful.
Historic Urban Landscape
I will start off by proposing the incorporation of the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) mechanism into our heritage management policies going forward.
The HUL mechanism incorporates community participation in the process, especially in the mapping, identifying and categorising of historically significant monuments and sites. It would bring us towards greater “democratisation” of heritage management and protection by giving a greater voice to broader communities and all stakeholders. This mechanism was recommended by UNESCO to all member countries for urban heritage management.
Using historic urban spaces in a more adaptive manner
Besides being preserved, historic urban spaces in Singapore need to be used more adaptively, or they run the risk of being underutilised and “lifeless.” One such space that would benefit from such adaptive reuse is the Padang. In MCCY’s press release on this Bill, the Padang had been singled out as a site that will be proposed for preservation. Despite having borne witness to key historical milestones, the Padang today is regrettably an under-utilised public place. When there are no major events held there, it is deserted and almost ‘lifeless’. Beyond simply preserving the site, could our urban planners and architects be challenged to imagine new ways of bringing the space to life, so future generations can be a part of its story?
More recognition of modernist, post-war architecture
Next, on our modernist, post-war architecture. Most of our preserved and conserved buildings are from the colonial era. However, our post-war, modernist buildings are equally, if not more, iconic, representing the prowess of our pioneer architects and engineers, and the post-war growth of our nation as they strove to create something architecturally unique in the early years of our independence.
I urge the URA and NHB to explore the conservation of more post-war buildings and to ensure their economic sustainability through adaptive reuse. Recently, Golden Mile Complex was gazetted for conservation. A number of buildings like the Pearl Bank Apartments and the old National Library have gone, but it is not too late to save what we have – like Peoples’ Park Complex, for example.
The government can explore the promotion of rehabilitation of old buildings, which is also Greener.
For instance, some buildings in Krakow, Poland have been rehabilitated – a market for merchants in the mid-13th century was turned into an underground museum and a bank in the 19th century was turned into a cultural centre. Various tools can be used, for example, tying in rehabilitation with revitalisation of an urban core, a community improvement project, or offering grants and subsidies.
Heritage Impact Assessment
Next, going forward, I urge the government to implement a mandatory heritage impact assessment scheme (a HIA) for development plans that are likely to impact any heritage sites.
In an answer to a PQ I raised in February this year, the MND explained that every development proposal is subject to a robust planning evaluation process that considers the development’s impact on traffic, public health, environment, as well as built heritage.
I urge the government to go one step further in enshrining this process in law, and committing to a rigorous and transparent process with deeper engagement with the public and civil society.
A HIA scheme will better allow the government and private owners to consider the impact of specific developments in a particular site on our built, as well as intangible, heritage. Mandatory HIA regimes have been implemented in other countries, even in land-scarce Hong Kong.
HIAs, for which there are recognized templates and prescribed processes, should be conducted at an early stage of planning and the public should be engaged.
URA commissioned a historical documentation study for the area in Bukit Brown that was meant to be exhumed. This was consistent with a baseline study of a HIA. However, for Bukit Brown, the study was unfortunately commissioned only after the decision to exhume the cemetery was made and hence no mitigation measures, such as an alternative alignment of the expressway, were proposed.
38 Oxley Road
Lastly Madam, one issue which I think looms large in the public mind and represents a potential conflict between the interests of the owner, occupier and heritage preservation mandate of the state is the status of 38 Oxley Road, the former home of our first Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
If the house comes under consideration for preservation, it is this very act, the Preservation of Monuments Act, that will determine what is due process.
The Workers’ Party does not have a position on what should be done with the house, and neither do we think it is our place to decide, but what we care deeply about is the heritage due process that we hope will be upheld, in a rigorous, transparent and fair manner. Given the high-profile nature of this case, how it is handled will set a precedent for future heritage decisions. This will be monumental (pun intended) for heritage management in Singapore. In relation to this case, whether the wishes of a single individual are respected in relation to the national heritage interest, how the public is consulted, how negotiations with the owner and occupier are conducted, how heritage value is assessed and evaluated, whether our heritage institutions and laws are seen to be legitimate and effective – will resonate in the years to come.
On this note and in conclusion, I call for stronger safeguards on the powers of forced entry without warrant, greater certainty of timelines for monument owners and deeper public consultations and engagement on monument preservation and conservation.
Madam, in the final scene of the movie Monuments Men, the fictional President Truman asks George Clooney’s character if saving these great works of art justified the loss of a soldier’s life. This deep question goes to the heart of the tension between our economic or material aspirations and our cultural aspirations as a society. It should never be an “either or” question. We should use all of our ingenuity and resourcefulness as a people to ensure that the cultural aspiration never becomes the enemy of the economic one but rather its steadfast partner. Thank you.
 PMA Bill, S27(2A). These offences include a failure to maintain the site (S13(7)); making physical alterations to the site without obtaining necessary permissions (S15(4)); non-compliance with NHB’s specifications in carrying out works(S20(1)(a)) or wilful damage to the site (S22(1)).
 PMA was enacted in 1970. https://www.mccy.gov.sg/about-us/news-and-resources/press-statements/2021/oct/amendments-to-preservation-of-monuments-act#:~:text=The%20Preservation%20of%20Monuments%20Act%20(PMA)%20was%20enacted%20in%201970,preserve%20and%20protect%20National%20Monuments.
 Current PMA, S21(1)
 https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/debrief-conservation-of-golden-mile-complex-paves-way-to-protect-spores-modernist; https://read-a.com/docomomo-singapore-modernist-architecture/
 Trent Ng, “Striking the Balance Between Heritage Conservation and Urban Renewal in Singapore: Advocating for a Mandatory Heritage Impact Assessment (HIA) Regime” (27 November 2015) at 39 https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/defaultsource/admissions/mpp/pae-final-report_trent-ng.pdf?sfvrsn=313970b_2