Singapore / From Conservation of Single Monuments to Conservation of Historic Districts – Boat Quay

Conservation Key Map of Singapore
Conservation Key Map of Singapore

The Beginning of Conservation in Singapore
Boat Quay was the first conservation project as a whole district in Singapore in 1989. However, the history of Singapore’s effort in conservation could be traced back to 1970s, starting with some individual monuments. After the unstable phase as a new independent sovereign state in the late 1960s, the rapidly upgrading industries and up-growing economy in the country brought several urban issues, from some housing and sanitation issues to the more cultural aspects of this ethnically diverse city. A considerable amount of historic buildings and structures was obliterated in accordance with the overwhelming modern development undergoing. The earliest steps of conservation were taken upon individual monuments and landmarks by the Preservation of Monuments Board starting 1973. The first 8 heritages granted legal protection as national monuments were Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, Armenian Church, St Andrew’s Cathedral, Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, Telok Ayer Market, Thong Chai Building, Thian Hock Keng, and Sri Mariamman Temple.

From Shophouses to Conservation Areas
Then the authority turned its focus on the state-owned shophouses which suffered from time and the wars. Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) played the key role of the rehabilitation along Murray Street and Tudor Court; the remake successfully turned public perception of the value of these pre-war buildings. The restoration of pre-war shophouses was ongoing from the 1970s to the early 1980s before URA showed its interest in conservation at a bigger scale. In 1986, URA unveiled the Conservation Master Plan for the historic areas in the city. Along with Chinatown which had Telok Ayer Market and several restorations of shophouses undergoing, there were ten conservation areas in the historic districts of Chinatown (Telok Ayer, Kreta Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Pasoh), Little India, Kampong Glam, Singapore River (Boat Quay and Clarke Quay), Cairnhill and Emerald Hill starting 1989. These early efforts of conserving architectural, historical and cultural significant buildings in Singapore were shifted from individual monuments to the redevelopment and restoration of the whole district.

From Shophouses to a Whole Area of Shophouses
Among various cultural types of conservation projects, there was a clear path that could track to the preservation of buildings with Chinese cultural background, from earlier temple of Thian Hock Keng to the rehabilitation of plenty of shophouses in the early 1980s. By 1989, when URA finally started to tackle the conservation work in Boat Quay, which was a cluster of unused shophouses and storage houses, it was not fresh and new nor too difficult for them to handle. The conservation guidelines of Conservation Districts in the Singapore context were stated as follow, “Our conservation guidelines are applied in varying degrees to the different conservation districts. We have to take into consideration the historical significance of each conservation district, the context of the surrounding developments and the long-term plans for the area.” Apart from the individual redeveloped buildings, the bigger context also has to be taken into the consideration when redeveloping. “The extent of the building to be conserved and the degree of adaptation allowed also varies by district, and in some cases, by the uniqueness of the subject building.”

Falling into the category of Historic Districts URA further categorised from Conservation Areas, most of the buildings Boat Quay have to be retained and restored entirely. Although the final outcome of the redevelopment might not seem to accomplish the historical significance in terms of programmes and functions, it did “retain and restore” the historical structures in Boat Quay nicely and efficiently while making use of the water front area and creating a buffer for the hustle business district context adjacent. As the first attempt of the conservation of a Historic District, it could not only be seen as the extension of the earlier shophouses restoration, but a gentle gesture when the new coexist with the old in a bigger urban context.


Powell, Robert. Living Legacy: Singapore’s Architectural Heritage Renewed. Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1994. 86-87.

“Conservation.” Conservation Districts. Accessed December 09, 2016.

Conservation Guidelines. Singapore: URA, 2000. 5-7.

Singapore River Planning Area: Planning Report 1994. Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1994.

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