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S’pore historians rebut interest group’s claims that Fort Canning historical gardens are “fake heritage”

A local heritage group insists that the gardens were based on the wrong historical empire.

Joshua Lee | July 2, 10:23 am

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The National Parks Board (NParks) recently opened nine historical gardens in Fort Canning Park as a nod to Singapore’s pre-independence heritage.

Highlights include a Sang Nila Utama Garden, which takes on the name of the mystical founder of Singapura, and a water feature which is based on the Forbidden Spring (Pancur Larangan), purportedly the bathing place for 14th century royals on the hill.

Detail from a handcrafted volcanic mural wall at the Pancur Larangan. Via NParks.

However, less than a month after the gardens were opened to the public, a Singapore heritage group, Urban Explorers of Singapore, blasted NParks for promoting “fake heritage”.

Pointing out that the structures at the Sang Nila Utama Garden and Pancur Larangan are based on the Majapahit empire, the heritage group claimed that the ancient gardens on Fort Canning Hill “almost definitely did not exist the way they are being depicted” because Sang Nila Utama supposedly hailed from a rival empire:

“Sang Nila Utama was a prince from the older empire of Srivijaya, which was based in Palembang in Sumatra. Singapore’s earliest named rulers thus all trace their ancestry to Srivijaya, not Majapahit.”

Srivijaya and Majapahit were kingdoms that existed between the seventh and 16th centuries. Remnants of the civilisations can be found in Palembang, South Sumatra and Trowulan, East Java respectively today.

One of the structures the group took issue with is this gateway below which, according to them, is “a replica of Wringin Lawang at Trowulan in East Java, the former capital city of the Majapahit Empire”:

The Sang Nila Utama Garden. Via Instagram user @littlehustlelife.

Additionally, the NParks version of Pancur Larangan also “appears to have been based on the bathing complex at Tirta Empul Temple in central Bali, which was once a vassal of the Majapahit Empire”:

Photo via Urban Explorers of Singapore / Facebook.

In response to the group’s claims, NParks said that the gardens were influenced by Majapahit and Malayu empires because of their relevance to 14th-century Singapore, reported The Straits Times (ST).

Local historians Kwa Chong Guan, Goh Geok Yian and John Miksic worked with NParks for two years on the gardens in Fort Canning.

Kwa also clarified with the paper that the Srivijayan empire ceased nearly 300 years before Sang Nila Utama came to Singapore.

Hence, Kwa added, the team referenced the Malayu empire which succeeded the Srivijayan empire when designing the gardens to better represent 14th-century Singapura.

Echoing Kwa’s comments, Miksic told ST that it is common for people to think that the ancient kingdom of Srivijaya had the most influence on Singapura because the former was the first big Malay kingdom.

In fact, according to Miksic, no one actually knows what Srivijaya structures look like as only their foundations remain in Palembang and Jambi.

On the upside, Miksic told ST that it is great to see people “writing about Fort Canning’s past and going into its details because few would have done so previously”.

Urban spectacles versus sensitive conservation

Aside from the above criticism, Urban Explorers also posed the question of sensitive conservation versus creating a visual spectacle, highlighting examples such as the palm trees and Omani arches in the vicinity of Sultan Mosque:

“Often in Singapore, we choose to create urban spectacles for visitors and tourists instead of sensitively conserving what we actually have.”

Concerning the lack of actual 14th-century physical heritage left on Fort Canning, the group said we should not reconstruct speculatively, but focus on Singapore’s actual built heritage.

“We believe this is a better, more authentic way to celebrate and understand our heritage than to turn our country into a sanitised theme park,” it wrote.

Urban Explorers CEO responds

Responding to queries from Mothership, Harsadi Majid, CEO of Urban Explorers of Singapore — who goes by the pen name Azyure Hikari — pointed us to UNESCO’s Venice Charter, which rules out reconstruction and insists that restoration must stop where conjecture begins when it comes to heritage conservation.

“We stand by this principle. Don’t know what it looks like for sure, don’t build,” he said.

On the discussion that this incident has triggered, Azyure said:

History is subjective by nature and it should always open up for discussion. It is nice to know that John Miksic’s perspective is aligned with us.”

You can read Urban Explorers of Singapore’s original post below:

Top image by NParks.

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