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Jan 7, 2012

Heritage debate a good sign

By Goh Yi Han

FOR many Singaporeans, the recent debate over what should be done to preserve the Bukit Brown area might have been their introduction to the notion that cemeteries have some kind of heritage value beyond the quirky or offbeat (read: ghost stories and spirits offering 4-D lottery numbers).

But not for me. In secondary school, I joined some schoolmates in designing a tourism package as part of a project for a geography contest. Determined to show an alternative side of Singapore, we settled on promoting tours of cemeteries.

Beyond generic concerns about 'respecting our forebears', you'd be surprised at how much one can learn about this country's culture and history from the final resting places of its people.

A traditional Chinese tombstone usually states the dead person's province of origin. Round pillars on a Muslim grave mean a woman is buried there, and flat ones indicate a man. The Armenian and Jewish quarters of some older cemeteries are a testament to the communities within our society that have come and gone in years past.

We thought we had a sure winner, but we came in second. The reason? The judges felt our idea was not feasible as visitors would not care, or they would be too superstitious to sign up. So you can understand why recent events made me want to turn to anyone and say 'I told you so'.

Vindication aside, I am glad to see how many people are helping to prove those judges wrong. Clearly, more Singaporeans are starting to think about how best to preserve collective memories, whatever the aesthetic merits. They want to have a say, rather than leave the heritage board to decide what is worth keeping and what isn't.

Many of those speaking up seem older - for instance, the Methodist Girls' School alumni working to save the Old School buildings at Mount Sophia. Besides the fact that they were the ones who attended MGS before it moved in 1992, perhaps it is also because they grew up in a landscape that changed rapidly post-independence, erasing many memories of their growing-up years.

In fact, I do wonder if today's young people feel the same way. What significance do we attach to the school where we spent nights cramming for exams? Are we thinking about what we want to have around 50 years later that we can reminisce about with our grandchildren? By the time we decide to do anything, it might be too late.

So whatever the outcome of the debate, at least we are having one. Better sooner than later. If not, the day may come when we have nothing but malls and curiously named condominiums to hang on to - and nobody to blame for it but ourselves.

The writer, 23, is a second-year law student at Columbia University.

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