Seeking to Save Chinese History in Singapore

Develop or preserve? That’s a question that is always asked in Singapore, a densely-populated country with very little space to make use of. With a government that has always opted for the most “pragmatic” response, the answer has often been to develop.

But when the government first announced plans to demolish a part of Bukit Brown cemetery to make way for a new highway, many Singaporeans opposed the idea, seeing it as the latest in a long list of disappearing landmarks of the country’s history. Groups such as the Nature Society (Singapore), Singapore Heritage Society, Asia Paranormal Investigators and SOS Bukit Brown have begun to organize to campaign for the preservation of the 200-hectare green space.

“Bukit Brown Cemetery is one of our last direct links to our pioneer generation, and the last place ordinary Singaporeans can collectively venerate our forefathers,” SOS Bukit Brown on its website. “It is a space where families can visit loved ones buried in its grounds, and conduct traditional rituals to respect and honor them. The mere documentation of exhumed and destroyed tombs alone cannot do justice to the rich cultural and ecological value of the physical place.”.

As part of the campaign to raise awareness and interest in Bukit Brown, SOS Bukit Brown regularly organizes walks, encouraging Singaporeans to visit and enjoy the lush greenery and historical tombs before it is too late.

Walking along the tarmac road, one sees that some of the tombs are marked with stakes, and others not. The markers signify the tombs that will be exhumed and removed to make way for the eight-lane highway. There are more than 3000 of them, allowing one to visualize just how huge a construction job it’s going to be, cutting right through the middle of what SOS Bukit Brown has described as the “green lung” of Singapore.

As one of the biggest Chinese cemeteries outside China – proof of the history of large-scale Chinese immigration in Southeast Asia – the cemetery is also home to a variety of flora and fauna, and 86 bird species. 12 of the 86 species have been identified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable.

Not every Singaporean wants to preserve Bukit Brown. Many have never been to the cemetery before and feel that the demolition is a necessary step to take so as to alleviate traffic problems on the roads around the area. Even those who have ancestors buried in Bukit Brown may not feel the need to preserve the area.

A closed-door meeting was meant to be held Monday evening between the government and campaigners to discuss the issue. However, it was reported that the alignment for the Bukit Brown road had already been completed the afternoon before the meeting was meant to take place.

The Land Transport Authority also announced that a section of the road would be built as a bridge, which means that a small number of the previously marked graves would not be affected, and that a larger part of the greenery would be preserved.

Campaigners expressed their disappointment that the meeting, which had originally been meant to be a dialogue and discussion, had turned into “a unilateral dissemination of information by particular agencies.” In a joint statement, they stated that, “The fact that this meeting is held after LTA’s announcement of plans for the new highway demonstrates the old practice of presenting decisions as fait accompli to concerned groups instead of genuine engagement and discussion.”

They also called on a moratorium on all works at Bukit Brown. But with the government unlikely to listen, the campaign pushes on, persevering until the last minute in the hopes of saving a portion of Singapore’s past.

(This first appeared at Asian Correspondent, for which Kirstin Han blogs at http://asiancorrespondent.com/author/kirstenhan/.)