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Jun 13, 2011

Bukit Brown: Spare a thought for the alternative

THE fate of Bukit Brown cemetery echoes that of the old National Library. Upon the latter's removal, then National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan said: 'I hope... the new National Library will one day evoke similar memories for the younger Singaporeans.'

Six years on, however, the new library has not achieved the same level of public resonance as the old one. What is often overlooked is the fact that it is impossible to have the same affinity for new glass-and-steel buildings as one has for older constructions. Once destroyed, that quality can never be replicated or replaced.

In the new economy, old fragments are not just good for memories' sake, but help a city's competitive advantage by bolstering the sense of diversity, contradiction and creativity - all valuable assets now.

We need to see our history not as a hindrance or trade-off to progress, but a resource for it. Cities such as London and Paris are great precisely because they layer their history and keep so much of their old fabric intact.

Paradoxically, the inability to 'layer' is a typical Singaporean trait; the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Housing Board adopt a rather narrow definition of history, favouring more 'glorious' colonial-style buildings and shophouses while removing the less 'presentable' parts. For example, with the exception of Tiong Bahru, hardly a trace can be seen of earlier Housing Board estates or reminders of our nation-building past.

The scarcity of land is always cited as a reason against conservation. Singapore's land area is 712.4 sq km with a population density of 7,126 people per sq km. By contrast, Manhattan's land area is just 59.5 sq km with a density of 27,485 people per sq km. Potentially, 11 Manhattans can fit into one Singapore, with leftovers. This leads us to the question of the old library tunnel and Bukit Brown. Does it absolutely have to be that plot of land? It seems to be more an issue of values and priorities rather than necessity.

If there is no significant change in our value system and conservation policy, Singapore would be heading towards a homogenised future, with each generation preserving less and less of what is distinct. I urge the URA and Housing Board to spare a thought for the alternative.

Liu Zhenghao

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