Singapore Heritage Society's Statement on Bukit Brown Cemetery: Proposed Dual 4-Lane Road Project

SHS Statement on Bukit Brown Cemetery: Proposed Dual 4-Lane Road Project

by Singapore Heritage Society on Monday, September 12, 2011


The Singapore Heritage Society believes that thorough historical surveys are needed in order to make wise urban planning decisions that take into consideration the intangible aspects of nation-building. It is regretful this has not been done for Bukit Brown Cemetery. Documentation and research must start immediately as the cemetery is a vast and rich source of primary historical data that is unique to Singapore. 

The Singapore Heritage Society understands the pressures on land use in Singapore but believes that:

a) Public consultation and a thorough consideration of all the issues is important before major decisions are made.

b) Thorough historical and archaeological surveys should be carried out before any redevelopment decisions are made, in order to provide policy-makers and developers with the knowledge to make informed and sensitive decisions.

c) New, creative and visionary solutions to housing and transportation needs should also be actively sought and looked into, just as cutting-edge research into water treatment technologies has helped Singapore deal with the recent ending of the 1961 water pact with Johor.

d) The social and cultural history encompassed in Bukit Brown is unique to Singapore and must be appropriately valued.

The richness of Bukit Brown's historical significance has thus far not been commonly understood and much more research remains to be done. Hence a proper evaluation of the opportunity cost of redeveloping the cemetery has not been factored into urban planning decision-making.

The preservation of Bukit Brown Cemetery is important as a physical reminder of Singapore's rich history, which stretches back well before 1965, to the early 19th century. The paucity of historical awareness in Singapore is partly due to the fact that each successive generation loses the physical structures that anchor the memories passed down from their forefathers.

With a new awareness of the importance of maintaining these memories being encouraged by the Prime Minister, the value of Bukit Brown must be carefully considered. Once removed, there is no way to restore this historical landscape.

This opportunity cost of losing Bukit Brown is difficult to measure in purely monetary or statistical terms. In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's National Day Rally Speech, he highlighted a major new initiatives by the National Library Board, iRememberSg, to collect Singaporeans' memories in order "to weave the tapestry of the nation".

The memories of our community go back far beyond living memory to include the hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried in Bukit Brown (an estimated 100,000 graves), including many significant historical personalities, such as Tan Kim Ching, Cheang Hong Lim, Lim Chong Pang, Gan Eng Seng, Chew Boon Lay, ONg Sam Leong, Tan Kheam Hock, Chew Joo Chiat, Tan Ean Kiam and Teh Ho Swee.

At the very least, a thorough historical documentation of Bukit Brown Cemetery must be carried out before any redevelopment work begins. This documentation should include the following aspects:
1) Tomb inscriptions -- names, genealogy, place of origin, couplets, dates
2) Cultural features -- eg. feng shui features surrounding the tomb, carvings, monuments of identity, epigraphic materials
3) Spatial mapping using GIS to understand the positioning of graves relative to each other and the topography
4) Historical research into the significant personalities buried there.
5) Personal and social memories -- the family rituals around death, burial and paying respects to ancestors.
6) If exhumation is to be done, an archaeological survey can also be carried out.

The first three provide a vast amount of data for future historians to analyse and are rich materials for detailed studies of the local community. The last aspect documents practices still carried on today that have changed over time and are likely to change or disappear altogether in future.

Each Chinese dialect group has unique practices regarding all the above, and which are likely to exhibit local variations that differ to practices of Chinese on the mainland as well as other overseas Chinese communities. This historical data is unique to Singapore and contributes to both local history as well as the understanding of the broader field of Chinese diaspora studies.