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Take a guided tour of the former Command House (above), once the HQ of the British-Malayan army during World War II, on May 7 and 8.
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And on the finale weekend, HeritageFest will take to Pulau Ubin, where the public can explore hidden shrines and a former rubber plantation on the island with Outward Bound Singapore.

Celebrating the past in the present

The Singapore HeritageFest is back and bigger than ever, and it promises to let you see a side of Singapore you haven't before.

FOR such a small island, Singapore has come a long way in establishing itself on the world map. We might all know why Sang Nila Utama named it the Lion City, or how it started off as just a modest shipping port, but what about the little things that weren't in our school history text books?

Did you know, for example, that the front lawn of the National Museum of Singapore used to play host to a row of street vendors peddling hawker fare in the 1960s? Have you ever been inside a Chinese clan association on Bukit Pasoh Road?

In its 13th edition this year, the Singapore HeritageFest is back and bigger than ever, and it promises to let you see a side of Singapore you haven't before.

Wong Hong Suen, senior assistant director at the National Heritage Board, says: "Through HeritageFest, We want Singaporeans to be able to reconnect to our past while also building new memories of the place we call home."

The festival will take place over three weekends this year instead of the usual five "to keep the momentum and excitement strong" and will incorporate more than 130 programmes this year. Because the length of HeritageFest has been cut short, organisers expect a turnout of 1.55 million people, down from last year's figure of 1.6 million.

But Ms Wong believes the steady growth of community partners, around 120 this year, is a better indicator of how well the festival is received. She says: "We had about 80 partners last year, so it's a 50 per cent increase. There's nothing more representative in terms of growth and success than the desire of the community to be a part of the programme."

To better accommodate these community partners, as with the past edition, HeritageFest has done away with a general theme, choosing instead to retain the essence of what it's all about. Namely, the concept of local heritage.

Ms Wong says: "We don't want to turn away people because their ideas don't fit in with a theme. We're a festival for the people by the people, so it's all about finding ways to be more inclusive so everyone can contribute in a fashion they're comfortable with. It's really this dynamism that keeps us alive and unique."

The opening programme will be A Taste of Heritage, where second-, third-, and even fourth-generation hawkers will line the front lawn of the National Museum offering local dishes like Indian rojak, wanton noodles and satay.

"Food is an integral part of our Singaporean identity and nothing gets us talking more animatedly and around-the-clock quite like it," she says. "So we'll kick things off with young 'hawkerpreneurs' who'll share not just their cooking, but also their family recipes with the public."

Keeping true to the festival's stance on inclusion, the 130 programmes will run the whole gamut from arts to nature, so there's something on offer for everyone. Another highlight from the first weekend will be the closure of Bukit Pasoh Road, where activities and performances will take to the street for the first time.

Ms Wong shares: "The Bukit Pasoh precinct is so rich in history and its row of conserved shophouses is of great interest to people. What's really exciting is that more than 10 Chinese clans including the Ee Hoe Hean Club and Gan Clan Singapore will be opening up their spaces and offering calligraphy and opera workshops to the public."

Another new programme will be held at the former Command House on the second weekend. Along with a classical music performance, festival-goers can enjoy guided tours of the very centre which served as the headquarters for the British-Malayan Army during World War II.

On the finale weekend, HeritageFest will take to Pulau Ubin, or "what people may know as Singapore's last-living kampong", for the first time, where members of the public can indulge in musical performances, trail walks, and a specially commissioned film screening, where local director Royston Tan will be premiering his newest film Homecoming.

Ms Wong says: "As early as 1951, there used to be a community centre at Pulau Ubin where people would have regular get-togethers. We chose the venue of the film screening to be a former basketball court where residents would watch television in a communal fashion. Since that closed, we wanted to give back to the community and bring back something that was lost to those still living on the island."

And don't expect the festival to stop growing anytime soon. She says: "HeritageFest is a platform for community collaboration so it's about looking for fresh ways to include people from all walks of life to celebrate our shared memories. Going forward, you can certainly expect a larger variety of programmes, and we look forward to uncovering many more national stories from our rich past."

  • Singapore HeritageFest 2016 runs from April 29 to May 15. For more information, please visit www.heritagefest.sg.