Of grandparents and grandchildren

 ST Editorial
Oct 28, 2011

Of grandparents and grandchildren

ONCE, in the 1960s, 'Mr HDB' - former Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San, credited with initiating Singapore's public housing success - faced a difficult task. He had to justify the Government's acquisition of graveyards to build houses. A delegation of old people visited him and pleaded that their ancestors were buried there. Mr Lim asked them: 'Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want me to look after your grandchildren?' His logic prevailed.

That generational logic is at work in all countries where the practical needs of today have to be balanced against the no less real attachment to the resting places of the departed. In land-scarce Singapore, however, yesterday and today jostle so closely for space that the tension between them is palp-able.

So it is with Bukit Brown cemetery. The Government's arguments for building a road through a part of the cemetery are sound. But it will affect about 5 per cent of the more than 100,000 graves at the cemetery. These graves are not only a part of family histories; given the historical nature of the cemetery, the graves are collectively a part of Singapore's heritage. Here, then, is a case of development literally cutting a path through history. Its costs involve intangibles of history and identity which, by their very nature, cannot be quantified. Yet a decision had to be taken, and it has been.

What is interesting is its implementation. The Government is reaching out to representatives of key stakeholder groups such as the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, the Peranakan Association of Singapore, the Singapore Heritage Society and academics. Its intention is to document the graves before they are exhumed and capture for future generations a sense of the cemetery as a social space invested richly with memories and rituals. This way, although the graves will lose their physical location, they will retain some of their social meaning.

How successful this effort is will have ramifications beyond Bukit Brown. As with the demolition of the old National Library building and the closure of Tanjong Pagar railway station, Singaporeans have revealed once again their love of heritage as an essential part of their ownership of Singapore. Change cannot be avoided, but it can be handled. What is required is a robust two-way engagement between the state and society. Genuine participation, and transparency in the decision-making that follows, will do much to make change acceptable.