Meet the Researchers: Dr Chua Ai Lin

18 November, 2013

Dr Chua Ai Lin (Assistant Professor in the Department of History) was recently elected President of the Singapore Heritage Society, the youngest elected President in the Society’s history. Looking through her research and teaching interests at NUS (the social and cultural history of Singapore/Malaya, heritage and museum studies and educational research) it is easy to see their relevance to the role. Dr. Chua has also been very active in local heritage preservation and awareness. We caught up with her to congratulate her on her election and to find out more about her work and how her own research and experience informs her decision-making as a public intellectual…

Congratulations Ai Lin on your election. Please could you tell us more about what your leadership with the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) will entail?

Thank you Victoria. Well as President for the next two years I’m responsible for the broad strategic direction for the Society as well as maintaining our ongoing activities. For our general members, our interactive sessions from the ‘Cakap Heritage’ series make up the interactive side of our work, together with public talks, seminars, forums, conferences and tours. In terms of larger advocacy issues, at the moment are three ongoing heritage projects that will dominate our agenda. These are Bukit Brown, the Rail Corridor and Kreta Ayer/Chinatown.

The Bukit Brown debates are still ongoing so this remains a priority. We were particularly heartened that Bukit Brown has been included in the World Monuments Watch list for 2014 following a nomination by the All Things Bukit Brown group. At the same time, we are part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Advisory Committee on the historical documentation of the affected areas of Bukit Brown.

Bukit Brown

For the Rail Corridor, we continue to work closely with the Singapore Nature Society and are represented in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Rail Corridor Partnership, which looks into future plans. Recently we launched an interactive map of the entire Rail Corridor that shows which buildings have already been lost Both Bukit Brown and the Rail Corridor are landscapes rich in history and nature and face uncertain futures (to varying degrees) in the face of developmental pressures.

My other priority, the Kreta Ayer/Chinatown project, is a bit different in that it aims to engage local communities and how they interact with other stakeholders, such as government agencies and commercial interests. At present the stakeholders in the area are entirely represented through the  Chinatown Business Association but the voices of the cultural, historical and residential communities are still lacking. For example, there are numerous clan associations as well as traditional performing arts groups in the area, and many have been actively reaching out to the general public. The Kong Chow Wui Koon opened its Cultural Centre in July, the Gan Clan Association opened their Heritage Centre in September and the Siong Leng Musical Association also has a small museum. They deserve more say in how the area is developed.

Kreta Ayer Road

One model for sustainable heritage regeneration we intend to adopt is a roundtable approach already pioneered by the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) which has already had some success in East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, in Taipei and a roundtable will be held in Macau this December. Various stakeholders (local associations, residents, workers and other space users, businesses, government representatives and academics) meet to talk and create together an action plan with a common baseline. The resulting working document forms the basis of the blueprint for development going forward. SHS is planning a similar roundtable late in 2014.

What is the role of a public intellectual in Singapore?

People are gradually coming round to the realization that if Singapore is truly going to define itself as a global city its cultural resources are a critical dimension. Our history and culture are tied up in places and practices that once lost, simply cannot be recreated. It is quite apparent that the current pace of change in Singapore strikes people in a very personal way and much of the online buzz about Singapore’s past is related to memory and nostalgia. However, the real challenge is to make people care beyond their own personal felt experiences and think about heritage as a collective abstract good, to ask critical questions and articulate the reasoning behind various principles. This is where public intellectuals can help most.


There is certainly more of a call for academics to engage more in their local context, as iterated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the recent U Town opening, for example. It is a duty and we can certainly see the voices of public intellectuals coming to the fore on a variety of issues affecting Singapore. In the Heritage Society, two of our past presidents were academics. In the current committee many are academics, lawyers and professionals so this culture of intellectual rigour enables us to provide a more seasoned and reflective perspective on issues and how we present them to the public.

Is this a good time to be an historian in Singapore?

It is an amazing time to be an historian, there’s so much interest now. I even have a waitlist for my NUS undergraduate course ‘Approaches to Singapore History’. There are many government sponsored initiatives such as the Singapore Memory Project and a new grant scheme from the National Heritage Board for community-driven projects. Much of this is geared towards the 2015 horizon of Singapore’s fiftieth anniversary so we hope that funds will not dry up after this landmark. Looking ahead to next year there are three international heritage conferences in Singapore. There are two in January, one jointly run by the SRN and the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies and shortly before that, NTU will host a complexity theory event billed as the 1st Singapore heritage science conference, ‘Heritage Science as a Complex System’. Later in July the The Association for Asian Studies (AAS), the Asia Research Institute (ARI), and FASS will hold the inaugural AAS-in-Asia conference ‘Asia in Motion: Heritage and Transformation.’

However we have to be clear that heritage is not history and within the field, cultural resource experts do not necessarily have a long tradition of engaging with historians. What historians contribute to the team effort is the longer perspective provided by archival research. This perspective and historical research skills are increasingly valued in professional circles, not only with the expansion of the museum and culture industries but also with the realisation that history and heritage can add a meaningful and profitable dimension, even in business and property development. So our History students can make a real difference in a whole range of diverse careers.

Another reason why it is such a good time to be an historian is the revolution in digital resources. However for recent Singapore history there are still many closed-off official resources which need to be opened up if historians are ever going to be able to write credible recent history. This fact has curtailed many academics, and even honours students’ plans for their theses.

Who or what has been a key influence in your work and/or life?

A sense of historical empathy. Reading historical fiction as a child led me to study history at university and at the end of the day, it’s that feeling of connection with people and times of the past which brings history into our own lives. The ability to put ourselves in the shoes of people different from ourselves, whether through the difference of time period or circumstance, makes us better scholars of history and is also is something that we can apply in our everyday interactions. Heritage is the ‘living presence of the past’, acknowledging the connection and continuity over time and feeling it in a very personal way.

What are your hopes for the future of heritage preservation in Singapore?

There are encouraging signs – the Bukit Brown issue has created an awareness of the need for comprehensive heritage and environmental impact assessments before development projects are undertaken. I hope there will come a time when such assessments are made mandatory and we in Singapore develop the professional skills to conduct them to the highest international standards.
Also the level of public debate through social and traditional media has really picked up. SHS is part of this process of changing mind sets, articulating the important issues and setting the tone for public discourse. The general public are increasingly interested in heritage issues. If we can keep the conversation going and take it to a more informed and thoughtful level, an important raison d’être of SHS would be fulfilled.