Race against time to preserve the cemetery the high-tech way

ST News
Oct 30, 2011

special report
Bukit Brown battle 2.0
Race against time to preserve the cemetery the high-tech way

By Yen Feng

The clock is ticking.

By this time next year, parts of Bukit Brown will be unrecognisable. Its thick undergrowth, and thousands of tombs that nest in the cemetery's leafy hilltops, will be gone. In a few years, the hills will go too.

State-funded efforts to document graves in Bukit Brown - the final resting place of many of Singapore's pioneers dating back to the 1890s - will begin next month. But its admirers are not standing idly by.

After the Government recently announced plans to build a road that will tear into nearly a quarter of the 86ha site, a number of amateur historians have devised new ways - beyond pen and paper - to preserve the history of Bukit Brown, using cutting-edge technology.

These methods employ social media, such as Facebook and blogs, mobile phone technology, and 3-D imaging software that can not only store information about the tombs on the Internet, but also pinpoint their locations via satellite, and even re-create a virtual environment that allows users to 'visit' Bukit Brown on their computers from anywhere in the world.

The handful of innovators are joined by a growing chorus of people, including activists of the Singapore Heritage Society and the Nature Society, who have since come out to protest against the Government's plans to build a

dual, four-lane road into Bukit Brown to relieve congestion along the Pan-Island Expressway and Lornie Road.

The news last month followed a May announcement that the area had been gazetted for housing development.

Both times, the announcements were met with a rare show of public resistance.

Letters poured in to The Straits Times Forum Page: While some supported the Government's foresight in urban planning, the majority argued that Bukit Brown, with its rich history and biodiversity, should remain untouched for conservation reasons.

Even though the Government made public its plans to redevelop Bukit Brown in its 1991 Concept Plan, interest groups said the site was still zoned as 'cemetery' under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Master Plan as recently as 2008.

They were galvanised to speak up after they felt the authorities had not consulted them on the site's heritage value before it announced plans last month to build a road there.

The Singapore Heritage Society said the public anxiety displayed in recent months over the loss of the cemetery suggests Singapore's nation-building project has been fruitful.

Recent news of the road plans has driven people to the cemetery's hoary hills.

Mr Raymond Goh, 47, a Singapore history buff regarded by many academics to be an expert guide in Bukit Brown, said weekly sign-ups for his guided tours alone have increased from 20 to 200 in just the last month.

Next month, even more people are expected to fan across the area, bearing equipment to document information about the tombs that will make way for the new road.

Paid workers will be led by anthropologist Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, who has been tasked with recording the tombs' details for study and safe-keeping by the Government.

This documentation of Bukit Brown's graves is believed to be the first such project funded by the authorities, and the most extensive yet in redevelopment land works.

The Government hopes to document some 10,000 tombs - about 10 per cent of known tombs in the entire Bukit Brown area - though the Land Transport Authority said the number of affected graves may be closer to 5,000.

If this sounds like a lot of work - it is. Last week, Dr Hui said it may be a challenge to find enough skilled workers to do the job in time.

The bulldozers are coming in September next year. He has just under a year to beat the clock.

Digital life

That is one reason some heritage buffs have taken to doing a bit of sleuthing on their own.

Uneasy over concerns that the stipulated timeframe will not be enough to make a thorough record of Bukit Brown's history, they are bringing to the conservation effort additional firepower in the form of time and professional expertise.

Some of these projects are already under way, while others are still in the planning stages, said the projects' leaders, who share their ideas over Facebook, and whose day jobs range from engineers to teachers to map-makers.

For instance, a blog and e-database set up by Mr Goh earlier this year to document photographs, personal stories and old newspaper clippings about the buried dead in Bukit Brown have attracted thousands of visitors; on a Facebook page, lively discussions carry on, with members posting comments several times a day.

And if Mr Liew Kai Khuin, 38, has his way, the academic in media and cultural studies would re-create the entire Bukit Brown universe online.

Think multi-player Web games like Second Life, where users interact virtually in a 3-D environment, said Mr Liew, adding that a virtual Bukit Brown could include information about the graves and their locations for educational purposes.

He added: 'Many of the tombstones' designs come from a previous era that may be lost on the current generation. Such futuristic digital portals can actually help them to link to the past.'

Present tense

There are more present worries, however.

It is likely that whatever form these high-tech ideas take, in reality, just like Dr Hui, they face constraints in terms of time and resources available, said Mr Yue. And the challenge is greater if they mean to cover the entire Bukit Brown site, he added.

Heritage groups have asked the Government to push back its deadline set for March, because they want more time to ensure each grave is thoroughly documented.

Asked whether other alternatives had been considered, the land authorities said the decision was made through a 'rigorous and established planning process' that included evaluating different options, and consultation with other state agencies.

It also said the rest of the land would not be developed for another decade or longer.

But at least a couple of conservationists are still hoping that the Government may yet be persuaded to leave Bukit Brown untouched.

As for the others, they will be stepping up efforts to save what they can. Remember: tick-tock, tick-tock.