S’pore signed a UN convention to protect “intangible” heritage, explained

Because all the best char kway teow and hokkien mee cooking techniques must be protected.

By Joshua Lee | March 14, 2018

Singapore has ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage on February 22, 2018. 

This was announced by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Grace Fu at her ministry’s Committee of Supply debate on March 8, 2018.

Here’s the lowdown.

Intangible what?

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (what a mouthful) is an international agreement that tells us what kinds of intangible heritage we should preserve and how we can go about preserving it.

So what makes up intangible cultural heritage?

  • Oral traditions (e.g. Folk stories)
  • Performing arts (e.g. Dikir Barat, Lion Dance)
  • Social practices (e.g. Using tissue paper to chope seats)
  • Rituals (e.g. Qing Ming rituals, Thaipusam)
  • Festive events (eg. Lunar New Year, Hari Raya)
  • Traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques (e.g. Dragon kiln clay pottery making, char kway teow cooking)

What does ‘ratify’ mean?

According to the National Heritage Board (NHB), by ratifying the convention, Singapore has agreed to be bound by the standards spelled out in the convention. This is meant to show that Singapore is committed to safeguarding and promoting her intangible cultural heritage.

So what now?

The government, together in consultation with Sngaporeans will need to identify which parts of our own cultural heritage we want to preserve, and then go about preserving it according to the international guidelines set out by the convention.

According to the NHB, documenting a particular method of traditional craft (for example, making rice dumplings) does not mean that there will only be one correct way of doing it as “cultural practices often vary from individual to individual, and evolve over time”.

After selecting which aspects of cultural heritage to document, we will put them up for nomination on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If successful, Singapore’s entries will be recognised internationally. And then we will also need to provide a report on the steps we will be taking to preserve them.

And because we’re part of that little club known as the United Nations (UN), we’ll have support from other member nations.

According to the Straits Times, many respondents polled by the National Heritage Board indicated that food, as a cultural heritage, resonated most strongly with them, compared to social practices, festivals, and traditional performing arts. 

Minister Fu said in her parliamentary speech that in the months to come, NHB will continue its conversations with members of the public “to uncover the intangibles that resonate with Singaporeans”.

According to Fu, the ministry has set aside $66 million to fund the first five-year instalment of the Our SG Heritage Plan which safeguards and promotes local culture for future generations.

So who knows? We might see Hill Street Char Kway Teow’s recipe on that list soon.

Top photo via Getty Images.

Here are some articles on our heritage that might interest you:

S’pore’s intangible cultural heritage needs your wallet more than UNESCO recognition

NSFs who went AWOL helped archaeology dig at Fort Canning Hill: John N. Miksic interview

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