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Celebrating and transmitting our living heritage

Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community And Youth & Second Minister for Law, at the Stewards of Intangible Cultural Heritage Award 2023 Award Ceremony on 1 April 2024

  1. Good afternoon to all of you. I am very honoured to join you this afternoon to celebrate the exceptional contributions from all our Stewards, our three award winners, Stewards of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They are a testament to our living heritage and the rich diversity that we enjoy; and we are privileged to continue to enjoy in Singapore.
  2. Our SG Heritage Plan 2.0

  3. Just over a year ago, we introduced Our SG Heritage Plan 2.0. We refreshed it, recharged it, and we evolved it, to take into account today’s context, the nuances, as well as the challenges ahead for us. At the heart this lies the vision for the heritage sector. It is to foster a dynamic heritage landscape that is accessible to all. And that is important. There is no point having a heritage that is inaccessible, that is invisible, that you keep to yourself. 
  4. Second, one that celebrates our diverse, our multitude, multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial, different heritage in Singapore. This defines us, but it also empowers us. 
  5. Third, it is about embedding our heritage into everyday lives - what we do every day, where we live work and play, and how we relate to and socialise with one another. 
  6. And fourth, it aims to create an environment where heritage is of course preserved, which is important, but is actively part and parcel of today’s present. There is no point keeping heritage for tomorrow’s generation, but we don’t get to enjoy it. So it is about all of that. And that is what Heritage Plan 2.0 is.
  7. To bring this vision to life, the Plan is built on four key building blocks: Identity, Industry, Innovation, and Community. Each coming together, playing a part with one another, making heritage a cornerstone of our national identity. 
  8. At the outset, let me take a few moments to just reflect on the journey that we have embarked on since we introduced the Heritage Plan 2.0. 
  9. Last year, Singapore, alongside Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, have jointly nominated the Kebaya, for inscription into the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. A UNESCO inscription. And besides bringing pride to each of our nations, it helps us foster closer and deeper relations. And I remember last year, when I was with my team in Paris at the UN session, we organised lunch with each of the representatives from each of these countries. And at the lunch, you could see the sense of camaraderie, the commonality, the fact that we are celebrating with one another, that we are jointly going up to UNESCO to put forward something that is deeply a part of what we see is our heritage and culture. And we were so happy to share it with our fellow neighbours. I think this is one way which we can use culture and heritage to our advantage, to build international diplomatic ties, and to cement Singapore’s position as a partnership with other neighbours in ASEAN. 
  10. We also launched the Young ChangeMakers – Youth Heritage Kickstarter Fund. This fund, by the National Heritage Board (NHB) and its Youth Panel, alongside the National Youth Council (NYC), supports young Singaporeans in heritage projects, offering up to $7000 per project, encouraging their active participation in heritage. 
  11. My colleague MOS Low shared during COS 2024 earlier this year that NHB will launch its Heritage Activation Nodes, or HANs, with our community partners. This month, we are going to start with Katong – Joo Chiat. But not to miss out other parts of Singapore, we are also going to be doing this with Clementi later this year, with the aim to increase heritage touchpoints, and offer more opportunities to co-create programmes and celebrate our heritage. 
  12. Why do we do it in these neighbourhoods - Joo Chiat, Katong, Clementi? Because we want it to be in your neighbourhood every day. Where you walk around, where you go to work, on your way to school, where you play. We want you to celebrate that heritage in the community, in the spaces that you normally work in, live in, or play in. And don't just have to make a special trip to the museum just to see heritage. And I think that's an important part of Heritage Plan 2.0. 
  13. Importance of our Intangible Cultural Heritage

  14. As we turn our attention to the essence of today’s ceremony, we are reminded of the critical importance of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in our own society. I think all of us are here because we know, we treasure, we value the importance of ICH. What we need to do now is tell people outside of this room how important this is for us.
  15. We know that it is vibrant, it is dynamic, it is woven, “deep into the tapestry and the fabric of our daily lives”. Whether it is through the festivals we take part in, the hawker food that we eat or hawker centres we go to, to the traditional arts and crafts that we see on stage, ICH is omnipresent. Everywhere, and in living heritage.
  16. And this living heritage is a cornerstone of our national identity. It defines us, it tells people outside of Singapore who we are, what we stand for, what we believe in; where our forefathers came from, what they passed on to us, and what we will steward and pass on to the next generation. 
  17. In a world that is ever evolving, changing, with so many divides, crossroads, for so many different societies, our living heritage is really our anchor, bridging the gap between past and present, young and old. It also connects us deeply to our roots, our families, and our communities, uniting us as a nation, giving us that special heritage through our identity.
  18. Our Stewards of ICH

  19. And for our ICH practitioners, our living heritage, they are the stewards of this legacy. And they play a very important role. Not just in safeguarding, but also in inspiring others to take on this challenge of coming forward and looking after our heritage, guarding it with pride. Because if we don't look after it ourselves, it is no longer there for the next generation, it will be gone forever. So the role that you all play is important. 
  20. Each of our ICH practitioners have deep passion, unwavering dedication, and immense pride. And they don't do it for themselves, they don't do it for the awards, but they do it because they know and they value and they treasure how important this is for us, for Singapore's identity. They have faced challenges head-on, and I know it has not been easy, embracing innovation as well, to evolve, to overcome obstacles and hurdles. Their efforts are a beacon of our resilience and a source of inspiration for all of us.
  21. Since 2019, we have recognised these champions, these individuals, with the Stewards of ICH Award, celebrating 14 such individuals and organisations to date. Their stories and crafts are different; they all come from different backgrounds, they have different crafts, they nurture and treasure and steward different heritage. Yet ICH is united by a common thread of devotion to preserving, revitalising, practising, and seeing the living heritage grow from strength to strength in Singapore.
  22. This afternoon, we honour three more stewards of our intangible cultural heritage, who have made extensive contributions to their respective fields and have shown exceptional dedication to transmitting their craft. 
  23. Indulge me a little as I share a bit about our three award winners, starting with Ms Cai Bixia.
  24. Ms Cai Bixia has been practicing Chinese Opera for more than three decades, has been a tireless and dedicated advocate of this traditional artform. She has been teaching Chinese Opera to students since 1997, and since then has regularly organised Chinese Opera classes and workshops in primary as well as  secondary schools, as well as in Institutes of Higher Learning. She also founded the Traditional Arts Centre in 2012, 12 years ago, which has been organising free weekly Chinese Opera classes for children and youth learners. And I think one value of doing this is to introduce Chinese opera, a big part of our heritage, to our children at a very young age, to get them imbibed in the spirit and in the culture of the practise.
  25. Under Ms Cai’s leadership, the Traditional Arts Centre has evolved into a key node for training and development opportunities for Chinese Opera practitioners in Singapore. This includes organising the annual Singapore Youth Opera Showcase, which provided a platform for young Chinese Opera students to apply what they have learnt on stage. So not just learning, but performing on stage, being given recognition, being appreciated. All that is a very important part of the journey, because we can't look after something that we don't treasure, and we don't feel appreciated for. 
  26. In Ms Cai’s efforts to cultivate interest among young Singaporeans in Chinese Opera, she innovatively incorporated local and contemporary elements in a play adapted from the Chinese classic legend, “Journey to the West”. She has also spearheaded efforts to foster exchange of skills and knowledge across the Chinese Opera landscape, including with different dialect communities and their respective opera traditions. The centre’s biannual Singapore Masterclass for Traditional Opera and their annual Chinese Opera Extravaganza are examples of her efforts to bring together practitioners, to enable them to collaborate, to learn from, and to be inspired by one another.
  27. Thank you Ms Cai for your steadfast commitment to generously sharing your knowledge and enhancing the skills of Chinese Opera practitioners in Singapore.
  28. Next, let me speak about Mr Osman Abdul Hamid.
  29. He has been active in the Malay dance scene for over four decades now. I remember when I spoke with him at the Istana during the Cultural Medallion ceremony, he told me that if it was not for Malay dance, he would have been a footballer. So I think we missed a greater trick in football. We could have done very well in football, but I think you brought your fancy footwork to the stage. And I think that's also a very important part of our cultural heritage.
  30. Mr Osman, as I mentioned earlier, has been awarded the Cultural Medallion last year for his achievements and contributions to Singapore’s arts scene. Today, Mr Osman is recognised as a steward of our living heritage, and it is a further affirmation of his lifelong work, his continuous dedication to passing on his craft to the next generation of dancers. You can see the skill, the emotion that was conveyed just with hands and with feet gestures alone. And it's not just a craft, it's an emotional way of speaking to the audience. For that, Mr Osman, thank you very much.
  31. Mr Osman has been teaching and mentoring generations of Malay dance students, actively passing the work on, generously sharing his knowledge, his skills, and his craft, including at the National Junior College, where he has taught for over four decades. Many of his former students have since become Malay dance teachers and choreographers themselves, indicating that if you practise your art, you can grow the art and the space exponentially. 
  32. His passion for sharing the art of Malay dance also extends into the broader and wider community, through his teaching of Malay dance via the People’s Association since 1979. He is currently one of the lead choreographers for PA Talents, orchestrating performances for national events such as the Chingay Parade and National Day Parade.
  33. In 2011, he founded Era Dance Theatre. Under his leadership as Artistic Director, the organisation has provided training and development opportunities for younger generations of Malay dancers. And this includes the annual Muara, or the Rivermouth Festival, bringing together hundreds of young dancers and choreographers across various Malay dance groups in Singapore.
  34. To Mr Osman, thank you very much for your boundless energy, your generosity and your sustained contributions over the years, both as a dancer as well as eventually as a teacher and mentor for many other young Malay dance practitioners. Thank you very much.
  35. The third of our award winners is Mr Raymond Wong, who has been practicing Peranakan beadwork and embroidery for nearly 20 years. A passionate champion of Peranakan culture and craft, Mr Wong has been actively sharing his embroidery skills with others. Not only does he regularly conduct public workshops on Peranakan beadwork and embroidery, he has also taught at LASALLE College of the Arts for more than 10 years, and has mentored several interns at his boutique shop. More recently, Raymond has been generous with contributing his time and knowledge to support the multinational nomination of the Kebaya to UNESCO’s Representative List. Telling us and teaching us that it's not just about contributing to values in Singapore, but the impact that this can make internationally with our neighbours as well.
  36. Mr Wong has also actively experimented with new methods and techniques to advance his craft and to support its continuity. Peranakan bead and embroidery, is something very traditional. But Mr Wong is able to look at this, understand the context of innovation, experiment and bring this to different levels. He has incorporated technological elements, such as machine embroidery, as well as digital prints, that can make the craft more accessible to a wider range of practitioners, as well as wearers, while retaining its living heritage and essence. 
  37. Mr Wong was also one of the craft practitioners featured in NHB’s Craft x Design initiative, in which craft practitioners were matched with local designers to reimagine traditional crafts into innovative products that express Singapore’s unique but rich cultural heritage. And in doing so, he collaborated with two young designers from Aller Row, to design and produce a gown that features elements from Peranakan culture and Raymond’s embroidery expertise. 
  38. To ensure that the Peranakan kebaya remains relevant to younger generations, he has also been incorporating contemporary trends and designs into the kebaya designs itself, which have been featured in exhibitions, fashion shows, and theatre productions both locally and globally.
  39. So to Mr Wong, thank you for your immense dedication, your creativity, your innovation in sustaining and engaging Singaporeans in the craft of Peranakan beadwork, embroidery, and kebaya making. Thank you.
  40. You can see that each of our three award winners come from a heritage space that is unique, that is different, that might not appear connected to one another. But actually, they are. They are all a part of Singapore's rich landscape, rich culture and rich heritage. And the dedication of these three individuals highlights the dynamic nature of these cultural traditions, exemplifying how tradition can be sustained through hard work, dedication but also through infusing innovation and adaptation so that each generation of Singaporeans feel related to, understand and relevant to that evolving heritage space. 
  41. Collective responsibility in safeguarding our heritage

  42. So to stay relevant and continue to be so for future generations, our cultural heritage must evolve. It must grow with time. It must take on board newer ideas, take on board newer feelings, sentiments of new generations of Singaporeans. And this will then continue to evolve and grow. It must remain dynamic. It must never be closed. It must always be open, learning, growing. It is a living heritage. It reflects who we are, who we are as Singaporeans over time from different generations. It must also reflect the value that we see in our multicultural society as we pass it on from one generation to another.
  43. So as we honour the contributions of our award recipients, let us also acknowledge our own collective responsibility in safeguarding our heritage. Each of us has a role. It's not just for the Stewards, not just for the practitioners. Each of us has a role. If we don't appreciate what's on stage, what's in our museums, what's in our living spaces, what's in our daily practices, then it is very difficult for this to pass on. 
  44. So just as in my COS speech in Parliament, I made a call to Singaporeans to come and appreciate our arts and our performances, whether it is performing arts or visual arts or any form of our heritage and cultural traditions. Just as I did that in Parliament because we want to sustain it, we want to grow it together, likewise in heritage we must also play our part. 
  45. It is not just for the practitioners, not just for those who are exponents or experts at it, but for every one of us. If we want this to grow, we want this to be passed on, we must play a part in ensuring that that remains the case. It is our shared duty to ensure that these traditions continue to be Singapore's source of strength, resilience, collective identity, our living heritage, and our collective unity as a country. 
  46. Conclusion

  47. So on that note, I want to thank all of you for being here, for celebrating this, and a big shout out to our three award winners for your unwavering dedication, for being an inspiration to so many of us. 
  48. Thank you and have a pleasant afternoon.
Last updated on 02 April 2024