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Supporting community heritage institutions are a national imperative

The government’s announcement on 11th March 2009 that it would be undertaking the burden of funding Singapore’s community museums – namely the Malay Heritage Centre, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the soon to be built Indian Heritage Centre – was greeted with relief, largely because it ended a brief and unsuccessful experiment that had assumed that such entities can be self-funded.

That experiment was predicated on two assumptions, the first of which was that government support for the museums need only be minimal.  That proved to be a forlorn hope, as the examples of the Malay Heritage Centre’s reported funding difficulties over the years and the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall being run on a shoestring budget clearly showed. 

Furthermore, it is difficult to understand why the government had such unrealistic expectations in the first place, considering that it had never expected showpiece museums under its charge like the Asian Civilisations Museum to be self-funding at all.  The Malay Heritage Centre has had to exert heroic efforts in fund-raising to keep itself afloat, which might have inadvertently distracted it from its core role of running operations.

The government has corrected the first assumption with its new policy, but the second – and perhaps more unsound – assumption remains, which is that, notwithstanding that the government will now be subsidising a huge portion of the museums’ running costs, each individual community still has to raise funds for its own museum.  That is a throwback to the government’s philosophy of community self-help, where groups such as Mendaki or Sinda are responsible for supporting the welfare needs of their own communities. 

There are manifold problems with such a policy.  First, it might be impractical – an editorial in the Berita Harian on 14th March noted that it would be not be easy for the Malay Heritage Centre to raise funds from the slightly less well-off Malay community.  In this manner the Malay Heritage Centre may well end up with a much smaller endowment to support its activities than the other two museums.

More importantly, it is clear that the community museums serve national purposes, not just those of an individual community.  They are an important means of preserving the shared cultural heritage of Singaporeans.  Moreover, they also serve to bridge Singapore with its neighbours and the countries like China, Taiwan and India.  Funding the museums should therefore be a national imperative.

In this regard the government might be sending the wrong message that heritage conservation is the province of each individual community, rather than a national one in which all communities have an equal stake.  The government’s new policy therefore seems to be at cross-purposes with its own nation-building rhetoric.


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