The Singapore Botanic Gardens Is Now A UNESCO World Heritage Site!
After two agonising years of suspense and anticipation, Singaporeans finally received the good news on 4 July this year. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided that the Singapore Botanic Gardens would be inscribed as a World Heritage Site.
I had the privilege of attending the meeting in Bonn, Germany as part of the NParks delegation supporting the Gardens’ bid, and shared the excitement of every member of the Singapore delegation at witnessing this historic moment.
The day before
The Gardens was 15th on the list of nominations to be considered for World Heritage Site status. At the session the previous day, we watched the committee defer four sites, which meant that the nominating countries had to revise their applications and resubmit them in two years’ time. While confident that we had put up a sound proposal, we shuddered in our seats at the prospect of returning home without a jubilee present for Singapore.
Waiting for the session to start were (left to right) Ambassador to UNESCO Mr Andrew Toh, NParks Deputy CEO Dr Leong, NParks CEO Kenneth, NHB CEO Ms Rosa Daniel, Ambassador to Germany Mr Jai Sohan Singh and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Mr Lawrence Wong.
Journey to World Heritage Site status
While by now most people would know that the Gardens was established in 1859, some might say that its history dates back to the garden set up by Sir Stamford Raffles at Fort Canning Hill in 1821, just two years after he arrived in Singapore. Age alone, however, would not have been sufficient to garner the Gardens World Heritage Site status. Many of the deferred sites had much longer histories than our Gardens, but the committee decided that their management should be improved to prevent future deterioration of their heritage value.
And we believe our good long-term management was a factor that would work in our favour. Through the decades, the Gardens staff have kept its historic landscape, comprising valuable plant collections and heritage trees, in excellent condition. The collections have been continually expanded through botanical research and have contributed significantly to the economic development of our region. These were the key factors, otherwise known as Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs) that convinced UNESCO’s advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), back in May, of the Gardens suitability to be recognised as a World Heritage Site.
Monitoring the live feed of the session in the press room located above the conference hall was Tan Wei Kwoon from Channel NewsAsia.
On the day itself
During the deliberations over the Gardens’ inscription, I was seated in the press room with Tan Wei Kwoon from Channel NewsAsia, running a live feed to the people watching in Singapore. Even through the tiny screen on the recording equipment, the air of anticipation in the conference hall was palpable. My heart nearly stopped when a very insistent lady speaking in French-accented English tried to pull the fibre optic cable from Mr Tan’s laptop! Fortunately, she managed to borrow another cable from the Japanese journalist seated next to me.
When it was the Gardens’ turn to be discussed, delegates from all 21 countries on the committee spoke in favour of the Gardens’ nomination. The tech-savvy Stefan Wessman, a Finnish delegate, spoke about how, despite having spent hours exploring the Gardens on Google Street View, he was amazed by its beauty when he finally got a chance to visit in person.
“The only question mark when it comes to a property like this is how to protect the visual integrity of the site when situated in a fast-growing metropol with limited space available for construction. Even though Google Street View was surprisingly helpful in this case - I have namely spent hours in front of my computer walking along the paths in the garden to take a look at different views towards the residential areas. It was the first-time experience at the property crucial in understanding how the building height plan will function in reality… I have to say that this Authority has to be top-notch in the world when it comes to urban planning and is well capable of taking care of the protection of the site in its wider setting.”
-Stefan Wessman, Senior Adviser to the National Board of Antiquities (Finland)
“While strongly supporting this inscription, and not being a specialist in botanic landscaping and urban planning, in the name of Serbia, I would like to emphasise one aspect of this nomination, that in the moment when humanity is sadly and dramatically losing the harmony between nature and men, between beautiful human beings and flowers, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is giving us very encouraging proof of how men can recreate the lost, or that destroyed paradise. But what is the precondition? The precondition is the harmony among men – racial, social, religious communities. And Singapore happily managed to achieve both. Congratulations to Singapore.”
-Darko Tanaskovic, Serbia ambassador and permanent delegate to UNESCO
Malaysia, our nearest neighbour, shared our joy in achieving our first World Heritage Site inscription. The outpouring of support from such a multinational forum brought all of us in Bonn close to tears.
The Singapore delegation being congratulated by delegates from other countries.
When the Vice-Chair of the committee confirmed the Gardens’ inscription, those of us in the press room cheered! Below, delegates from other countries approached the Singapore delegation to congratulate them, some even while other countries were giving their endorsements.
The work is not over yet
The journey doesn’t end here. We have to ensure that the Gardens’ OUVs remain strong and show the world that we are committed to conserving them. This is a task that the Gardens cannot do alone. We will need the support of all visitors to ensure that the Gardens’ lawns, heritage buildings and forests continue to be enjoyed by all.
Text by Shee Zhi Qiang
Photos by Cassandra Lew
Shee Zhi Qiang is an Assistant Director at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and is responsible for development, while Cassandra Lew is with the Communications team at NParks.
Celebrate with the Singapore Botanic Gardens!
It is only through the support of the community that the Gardens was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To thank you for your support over the years, we are hosting a month-long celebration and you are invited!
From 10 July 2015, the Gardens is hosting “Botanical Inspirations”, an exhibition comprising two showcases that highlight the Gardens’ rich orchid heritage. In celebration of the National Orchid Garden’s 20th anniversary, all local visitors are granted free entry into the garden from 10 July to 31 August 2015.
Read on to find out more! The celebration will culminate with the next installment of the SG50 Concert Series in the Park held here in the Gardens! Click here for more details!
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