Sense of identity through preservation of Singapore’s built and natural heritage

Sense of identity through preservation of Singapore’s built and natural heritage

Sustainable development is much more than building infrastructure or preserving the environment. It is about putting the community at the heart of development, building rooted and cohesive communities, as well as preserving the city’s local character and sense of identity through the preservation of their built and natural heritage. Through Singapore’s Conservation Programme, more than 7,000 buildings and structures have been conserved to date.

Singapore historic buildings and districts give people the  visual and physical link to the city’s past in their changing urban landscape. However, Conservation is much more than just preserving a facade or the external shell of a building. It is also important that the city retains the inherent spirit and original ambience of these historic buildings as far as possible. This requires an appreciation and understanding of the architectural structure of the buildings, good management, and practice in conserving buildings.

Conservation in Singapore

Singapore’s Conservation Programme began in the early 1980s as an integral part of city planning. It was the first large-scale urban conservation programme in Southeast Asia that protects urban streets and areas. Within the small island home of 714 sq km, over 7,000 heritage buildings and structures in more than 100 areas have been gazetted for conservation. About 6,500 of these are shophouses. The first shophouses to be conserved and restored in Singapore were in Tanjong Pagar in 1987.

Shophouses are also a historical source of delight and nostalgia, a prevalent building type in Singapore’s architectural and built heritage. They are commonly found throughout the historic cities of South East Asia. They are narrow, small terraced houses, with a sheltered ‘five foot’ pedestrian way at the front. These buildings can be used for both business and living. Constructed between the 1840s and the 1960s, these shophouses formed the majority of the pre-WW2 urban fabric of the old city centre as well as several other parts of Singapore. The buildings are generally two to three storeys high, built in contiguous blocks with common party walls. Shophouses hence form the bulk of Singapore’s gazetted conservation buildings. Till today, they have been carefully restored and conserved according to the city’s conservation guidelines.

Shophouses styles according to the chronology of Singapore’s physical development :


The balance between heritage and development has never been a straightforward issue of retain or destroy. Often, planners have found creative ways of ensuring that buildings continue to be viable and relevant. Sometimes, retaining a city’s heritage is not just about conserving key buildings alone but is about protecting and enhancing neighbourhoods with unique identities. Better pavements, tree planting and other works have been carried out to areas like Balestier, Siglap, Holland Village and others so that these continue to thrive.

In Singapore, the city is guided by the ‘3R Principle’ when it comes to conservation buildings:

  • (Maximum) Retention
  • (Sensitive) Restoration
  • (Careful) Repair

In addition, conservation buildings are selected based on:

  • Architectural significance and rarity
  • Cultural, social, religious and historical significance
  • Contribution to the environment and identity
  • Economic impact

Below are list and images of still existing built heritages of Singapore:11 12 13 41



Heng, Derek Thiam Soon. Reframing Singapore Memory, Identity, Trans-regionalism. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

2 Comments on “Sense of identity through preservation of Singapore’s built and natural heritage

  1. I agree that preserving is of vital importance nowadays. However, I wonder how Singapore city’s planning works with that many conserved buildings since it is a highly dense metropolitan city like Hong Kong, Take Hong Kong as an example, it only preserves historical buildings, yet, it doesn’t have enough space to develop, and thus, it develops vertically. (skyscrapers). Therefore, I wonder how Singapore works and strike a balance between that. Moreover, I am also curious about why do shophouses are highly regarded as preservable in Singapore but not in other countrie

    • Thanks for your comment !
      First off to answer your question about the comparison of the two cities, unlike Singapore, Hong Kong does not have sufficient statutory protection or incentives to owners of private historic buildings. For Hong Kong, the Ordinance only protects places, buildings, sites or structures of historical, archaeological or paleontological significance. Its main focus is buildings. On the other hand, conservation legislation in Singapore covers ensembles, sites and groups of buildings, and even allows for protected areas and buffer zones. Singapore governments not only provide fiscal incentives to owners of historic buildings, but also to commercial and industrial concerns which set up business in those buildings. In addition, Singapore builds in a mechanism for the Government to claim preferential right to acquire monuments or even expropriate historic properties when the situation calls for it.

      As for Singapore’s city planning itself, slowly becoming a highly dense city like Hong Kong, instead of building upwards and vertically, the city might perhaps just be looking underground as its next frontier for urban growth. Some of Singapore’s urban action is already underground. Many of the city’s office buildings and shopping malls extend several stories below ground level with shops, food outlets, parking and walkways connecting buildings. Back in 2013, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has mentioned that Singapore could do much more with its underground spaces. As inspiration, he cited examples of the “underground city” of tunnels connecting much of central Montreal and the underground siting of swimming complexes, utility plants, concert halls and churches in Scandinavia. If you are interested, please take time and have a look at this article about the underground room growth within Singapore:

      Lastly, of all the architectural styles in Singapore, none is as distinctive as the lavishly decorated shophouses found in the city’s older neighbourhoods. Known as Chinese Baroque or Singapore Eclectic architecture, these shophouses sport a rich mix of Malay, Chinese and European architectural details, all giving a distinctive look to Singapore’s urban landscape. With a mixture of these shophouses, it can elaborate on the acrimonious nature of Singapore’s merger and separation from Malaysia, as well as the history the city has gone through with decolonization, and becoming an inclusive, multidimensional society as of today.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.