Singapore Graveyard Stirs Lively Debate

Wall Street Journal
November 9, 2011

Singapore Graveyard Stirs Lively Debate

    Chun Han Wong/The Wall Street Journal
    Visitors stroll past hillside graves near the main entrance to the Bukit Brown cemetery, located in a remote, densely vegetated part of central Singapore.

Life is abundant after death in a remote Singapore graveyard, where a struggle over a forgotten stretch of the island nation’s history has stirred strident debate over the spirit of its future.

Authorities and activists are jousting over the fate of the remains of up to 100,000 dead people – including luminaries of the island’s colonial yesteryears – interred at the Bukit Brown cemetery, located in a densely-vegetated part of Singapore just south of the city-state’s central water catchment area and nature reserve. Should government plans proceed, the 86-hectare burial ground will gradually be transformed into a residential district, starting with road construction slated to begin in early 2013.

In the eyes of advocates, though, the development plans would mean irreversible loss of cultural heritage and wildlife in a city-state where economic imperatives have often superseded preservationist impulses.

“Singaporeans and the government are constantly warning against cultural rootlessness and an eroding identity. The complaint that Singapore is more hotel than home is well aired,” Singapore Heritage Society spokesman Terence Chong said. “It is thus crucial to protect, preserve and document our heritage in order that we may become a people who care about where we have come from, as much as we are concerned about what the future holds.”

Bukit Brown (“bukit” means hill in Malay) – now a magnet for nature enthusiasts – was named after former proprietor George Henry Brown, a ship-owner who came to Singapore in the 1840s. Already a burial ground for migrants from China’s Fujian province when bought by Brown in the 1880s, the area was eventually acquired by the government and designated a Chinese municipal cemetery from 1922 to 1973.

The site, one of the largest Chinese cemeteries outside of mainland China, provides a final resting place for community leaders, business pioneers and many common folk. Among them is Lee Hoon Leong, the grandfather of Singapore’s first prime minister and guiding architect, Lee Kuan Yew.

Authorities announced in September plans to build by 2016 a four-lane carriageway across the northern part of the cemetery in a bid to alleviate traffic congestion on nearby roads and cater for future traffic growth.

About 5,000 to 6,000 graves will be disinterred to make way for the new road, in a process that activists fear will also do irreparable damage to a biologically diverse habitat for some 85 bird species.  Plans for the remaining graves are not yet known, though eventually the whole area is slated to become a housing district, albeit without a specified timeframe.

“Bukit Brown serves as a potent reminder that our nation arose not only on the backs of the rich, but on the faceless ghosts of our collective familial past, thus enriching the tapestry of the Singapore story,” Mr. Chong, a sociologist, said.

Letters to local newspapers – penned by the public and descendants of those buried in the cemetery – have echoed these sentiments, calling for the site to be preserved. Some have also linked its fate to wider questions over development choices in the city-state, including past decisions to build golf courses, which take up a lot of space and, many argue, cater to the wealthy.

“Singaporeans should ask themselves to choose between saving an exclusive golf course or a culturally, ecologically and historically rich site like Bukit Brown Cemetery, if they are keen on nurturing” the city-state’s soul, wrote Liew Kai Khiun, an academic at the city-state’s Nanyang Technological University.

Singapore’s breathtaking makeover from trading post to glitzy metropolis stands as proof of the government’s drive to economize space on the tiny island. This time, too, officials are pressing on with their plans for Bukit Brown, though they are pledging to document graves likely affected by the road development.

“We are aware of the rich heritage of Bukit Brown and its links to the history of our country,” Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin said in a statement last month. “We have sought to explore various possibilities for the road but there were no easy choices.”

The government also reiterated in the statement its intention to stick with long-term plans to remake Bukit Brown into a residential zone.

Activists aren’t giving up. A petition to “save” the cemetery has attracted over 800 signatures thus far, while others have suggested some compromise plans for the site’s development.

“As descendants of Singapore’s early pioneers, we appeal to the authorities to explore alternatives like widening existing roads or using flyovers to preserve this national heritage,” Chew I-Jin, an architect, wrote in a letter to the Straits Times newspaper. Her ancestor Chew Boon Lay, a prominent businessman who died in 1933, is buried at Bukit Brown.

“It is not too late to recognize that Bukit Brown is rich with ‘living’ possibility and multi-uses – not just for those who pay respects to ancestors but also as a place for learning and recreation,” she wrote.