Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong asked the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth with regard to heritage artefacts excavated by archaeologists or others in the last five years (a) whether all the artefacts have been properly documented and reported to the Government; (b) what is the legal ownership status of such artefacts; and (c) how are the artefacts stored and protected.
The Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien): Mdm Speaker, all archaeological materials unearthed on State Land belong to the State. This includes most archaeological excavations conducted in recent years such as the excavations at the National Gallery of Singapore in 2010 and Empress Place in 2015.
When commissioning archaeological excavations, NHB makes it a requirement for the agencies conducting the excavation works, such as ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, to document and submit reports on the archaeological finds to NHB.
Important archaeological materials from these digs that support the interpretation of Singapore’s history have been accessioned into the National Collection managed by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on behalf of the Singapore Government. They are carefully documented and conserved at the Heritage Conservation Centre (HCC), when not on display. Remaining artefacts may be stored by partner agencies such as the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
NHB typically does not have legal ownership of archaeological materials unearthed on private land. NHB has nevertheless worked closely with stakeholders to identify and protect important artefacts. An example from the past five years would be artefacts recovered from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, which are owned by the Roman Catholic Church. A number of artefacts recovered from the Cathedral are displayed at the Cathedral’s Heritage and Resource Gallery. Selected artefacts are also displayed at the Indian Heritage Centre, managed by NHB, for the public to access and appreciate.
The legal ownership status of archaeological materials unearthed on private land is an area that NHB is studying as part of a broader review on archaeology in Singapore. The review will seek to better support the conduct of archaeology in Singapore, and address any gaps in our laws, regulations and norms. NHB will seek feedback from stakeholders such as archaeologists, heritage experts and NGOs in its review.
Assoc Prof Daniel Goh Pei Siong (Non-Constituency Member): I thank the Minister for the reply. I have a few supplementary questions. The first is, what are the guidelines for the storage or protection of these artefacts for the partner agencies? Whether the same process of protection and storage is applied to territorial waters in archaeological finds that are discovered territorial waters? And also, what happens when members of the public discovers traces of archaeological finds, especially during property construction and renovation? And whether the Ministry is going to consider imposing legal obligations for stopping work and reporting the finds to the Government?
Ms Grace Fu Hai Yien: Mdm Speaker, I thank the Member for the supplementary questions. NHB will work very closely with the related agencies on the standard of protection and record keeping. I must say that right now, we are working with very good professionals. They themselves have a great interest on protecting the artefacts and I think that there is a close collaboration on ensuring that the artefacts are well kept and protected for all to appreciate in the future.
On maritime archaeological finds, this is generally supported by the MPA through their Merchant Shipping Act. We are working closely also with MPA with regard to maritime archaeological finds. We place great importance on maritime artefacts. We display maritime artefacts in the Asian Civilisations Museum, for example. And with the support of philanthropists such as the Khoo Teck Puat family foundation as well as Kwek Hong Png's family, we are able to have good displays for the public to appreciate such finds.
With regard to the public, as I have answered earlier on, this is an area that we are looking further into. We are looking at how we should improve our laws and regulations to not discourage the public for having an interest, but to embrace and engage the public who are interested in archaeology to cooperate with NHB. Ultimately, I think we share the same common purpose. It is to understand the history of Singapore through archaeology. And that history is really for the public, both present and future generations, to appreciate. So, we want to keep artefacts as evidence of history for the benefit of many generations to come.