Governments all around the world today face the challenge of striking a balance between modernisation and the conservation of national culture and heritage.

Singapore is no exception.

Cultural conservation vs redevelopment in Singapore

For years, Singapore has embarked on many policy initiatives to conserve culture, while enabling redevelopment. Most notably, the gentrification of historically and culturally significant areas such as the heartland estate of Tiong Bahru.

Here, the façade of the old buildings is retained. However, instead of the traditional shops and services they used to house, they now feature spruced-up ‘hipster’ cafes and shops. For example, the premises of The Dispensary café used to be occupied by a Chinese medical hall.

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The Dispensary
Above: Façade of The Dispensary café, preserved from the original Chinese medical hall. (Image from:

Economically speaking, this seems an efficient balance between conservation and modernisation, especially in land-scarce Singapore. Retaining the cultural and historical façade of these areas preserves a slice of history for the younger generation while creating an attraction for tourists looking to soak in some local flavour and generating revenue, seemingly ensuring the survivability of these cultural elements in a profit-driven capitalistic economy.

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However, from a cultural perspective, one must examine the effectiveness of such conservation efforts. ‘Touristic culture’ tends to retain only profitable aspects of a culture—snippets of the original culture which would suffice to provide a taste of the original. In Tiong Bahru, for instance, little of the ‘kampong spirit’ (community spirit) of the area has remained, save for the unique façade of buildings and ‘Heritage Trail’ markers informing curious visitors of the historical and cultural significance of the areas. Without its socio-cultural essence, is it really still Tiong Bahru?

ASEAN and Culture

This struggle between conservation and redevelopment in Singapore is not isolated. Across ASEAN, the wave of globalisation has eclipsed many traditional practices. From wood-carving in Indonesia, to songket-weaving in Malaysia, traditional practices have slowly faded into the background of contemporary society, surfacing only for cultural holidays or tourism.

Indonesian wood carving
Above: Indonesian wood carving. These are traditionally hand-crafted by master craftsmen. (Image from:
Malaysia Songket
Above: Malaysia Songket. These are intricate hand-woven fabrics in cotton or silk that utilises gold or silver threads. (Image from:

What does this trend mean for ASEAN?

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On one hand, convergence towards a single capitalistic culture and value system could signal the possibility of increased cohesiveness within ASEAN.

One of the key challenges in maintaining a united and cohesive ASEAN has always been the reconciliation of differences across member countries. Lacking a common history, culture and language, differences between member countries have underscored concerns that cooperation towards the success of the ASEAN agenda could be hampered.

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Such struggles can be juxtaposed with other inter-governmental organisations, such as the Commonwealth, where the shared heritage, political and social structures, and language form common ground for continued cooperation. In this vein, the dilution of individual national cultures, and movement towards a common capitalistic value system could equate to the establishment of more common interests—a driver of successful partnerships and integration within ASEAN.

However, this comes at the cost of nations and communities having their own unique cultural identities.

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Culture possesses a social power to create common identities and a sense of belonging to communities. Aside from its social benefit, in rational economic terms, this sense of belonging plays a strong role in maintaining stability. The resultant political and social stability then go further to help the country advance economically. Culture, as the invisible cement that defines all ASEAN countries and holds them together as nations, should therefore not be sidelined.

Striking the balance

The symbiotic relationship between social stability and economic development necessitates that culture should not be diluted in the interest of regional cooperation. Instead, it should be leveraged on to this end. In other words, conserving culture can be a common basis for improved regional cooperation and understanding.

Cultural conservation cannot be left to market forces, as seen above, and would, therefore, require government intervention. This is where regional organisations can contribute positively, by assisting in these governmental efforts.

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In the ASEAN case, one of the ASEAN visions for 2025, as outlined in the Blueprint for ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, is to realise “a dynamic and harmonious community that is aware and proud of its identity, culture and heritage”. In pledging to support cultural conservation, ASEAN should serve as a facilitator to strengthen the efforts of its member states with their common struggle, creating a common platform for understanding and cooperation. This way, the diverse cultural identities that make us uniquely ASEAN are maintained, while increased commonalities are recognised, creating new grounds for cooperation.

In this way, cultural conservation can bring ASEAN forward to a brighter future.


Joelle is currently an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield, pursuing a Double Major in Politics and Sociology. She believes that more focus needs to be put on youth engagement and empowerment in social and political issues, and passionately involves herself in such efforts. She can be contacted at

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.