Don't shut a window to history

 ST Forum Letter

Jun 6, 2011
Don't shut a window to history

I READ with dismay that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has gazetted Bukit Brown Cemetery as a site for development ('Bukit Brown to make way for housing'; last Monday).

I urge the URA to take a moment to consider the importance of 'ordinary' places, such as cemeteries, in Singapore's history and their role in forging a sense of national consciousness.

Bukit Brown cemetery is probably one of Singapore's oldest remaining Chinese burial grounds. The sprawling cemetery is dotted with the tombs of Singapore's early immigrants. By clearing it, the URA is inadvertently erasing an important component of the nation's identity.

Cemeteries reveal to us the myriad dreams our ancestors had in forging associations with Singapore and its community. Cemeteries make history come alive as they are about the lives of real people. They force us to think of the past as not just a story of the elite and administrators but of the ordinary men and women who helped shape Singapore.

Singapore's version of preserved history seems to focus largely on the memories of colonialism and the struggle for independence. Places such as Bukit Brown - there are not many left - are a window to a different reading of national history.

Perhaps the URA could take a leaf out of the book of cities such as Boston and New Orleans in the United States on how they manage their history through a celebration of heritage cemeteries.

Historical cemeteries in both cities are gazetted as national landmarks and tourist attractions and are an integral part of heritage trails.

Bukit Brown's wide expanse of lush greenery and variety of flora and fauna make it a wonderful spot for jogging and nature walks. There is a lot that can be done to ensure that one of Singapore's historical gems is given the credit it deserves.

The silent cemetery is not only a vessel for the memories of those who have come before us but of the living. It is a powerful marker of Singapore's past - no different or any less significant than the grand monuments that have become icons of the nation.

Assistant Professor Irving Chan Johnson