Samsui woman mural can stay, but building owner will be fined $2,000 for failing to get approval: URA, MOH

SINGAPORE – The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a joint statement on July 10 that the controversial mural of a Samsui woman holding a cigarette at 297 South Bridge Road can remain unchanged.

But the URA has imposed a $2,000 fine on the building owner for the unauthorized mural. According to the statement, the fine was imposed because the owner “began work” on the mural “without URA approval.”

He added that on March 22, “URA informed representatives of the building owner that approval for the mural had not yet been obtained and requested that a submission be made immediately.”

According to the statement, the application for a conservation permit was only submitted on April 11, after the mural was completed.

The authorities’ request to resubmit a proposal before May 22 was also not heeded.

The statement from the URA and the Ministry of Health says: “Had prior approval been sought, the Ministry of Health would have raised concerns about the depiction of people smoking on a prominent mural such as this, and would have requested a modification.”

He said the mural “normalises smoking”, although he added that “most people don’t see it as a cigarette advert”.

Authorities are looking for ways to minimize that impact.

“We will therefore work with the building owner to find appropriate ways to mitigate any impact the mural may have on promoting smoking, without modifying the mural itself,” they said.

The controversy erupted when Singapore-based American artist Sean Dunston took to Instagram on June 19 to say that the URA had ordered a cigarette to be erased from a mural at 297 South Bridge Road. On June 21, The Straits Times reported on the public outcry against the move, which alleged historical revisionism.

It is well documented that Samsui women smoked cigarettes as a form of recreation after their hard work and even kept cigarettes under their signature red headdress. South Bridge Road was where many of these pioneering migrant women from Guangdong Province lived.

Later on June 21, the URA said it had noted additional comments regarding the mural and had asked the owner to delay any work on the mural until the review was completed.

Checks carried out by ST on July 10 showed that the mural remains unchanged.

The joint statement reminded owners of preserved buildings that they must obtain relevant approvals before starting work and that “failure to do so will result in action against violators, including prosecution for egregious cases.”

A spokesperson for Shepherd Asset Management, the owner’s representatives, said they are happy with the URA’s decision and will pay the fine, adding: “We are pleased that our Samsui woman has sparked so many lively debates and discussions among Singaporeans. It is proof that Singaporeans can have different opinions while still maintaining our strong sense of community and spirit.”

Asked about appropriate solutions to mitigate the mural’s impact on public health, the spokesperson said: “Going forward, we look forward to working closely with URA and the Ministry of Health to find such appropriate solutions.”

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