Making room for the past in our future

ST News
Dec 1, 2011

Making room for the past in our future

By Clarissa Oon

WITH some creativity, a compromise solution can be found to the debate raging over the fate of the historically significant and wildlife-rich Bukit Brown Cemetery.

The controversy began in September when the Land Transport Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) announced plans to build a road cutting through the cemetery to ease traffic congestion on nearby Lornie Road.

It sparked calls from historians, nature conservationists, descendants of those buried there and many heritage lovers to preserve the cemetery containing about 100,000 graves, including those of distinguished local pioneers and their families.

About 5,000 of the graves will have to make way for roadworks due to start in 2013, while the rest will be untouched for 30 to 40 years until the future Bukit Brown housing estate is developed. The URA revealed for the first time recently that the area marked for long-term residential use will have a mix of private and public housing.

But if you think about it, pockets of the verdant cemetery can actually be kept as parks and memorials embedded in the future housing estate.

This hint of a compromise can be found in a 'personal reflection' on the cemetery penned by the Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin on his Facebook page, which reveals a little more than his official remarks. He has promised to find alternative ways in land-scarce Singapore to keep Bukit Brown's heritage alive.

'If we are not pantang (Malay for superstitious), I can see small clusters of cemetery parks amidst development. Some prominent tombs can be relocated to other places,' he wrote earlier this month.

But compromise in itself is woefully incomplete if the documentation of the affected graves becomes a rushed job. It will be done by a team of volunteers, led by a specialist who was appointed by the government only last month.

The example that comes to mind is the bulldozing of the sprawling Bidadari Cemetery in the Upper Serangoon area between 2001 and 2006, after which a memorial park was created to honour 20 of the famous dead. However, there was no systematic documentation or photography of the multi-religious cemetery, which held more than 130,000 tombstones, each a repository of valuable information on the dead, their families and diverse cultural and religious belief systems.

Aside from being a pressing and complex conservation issue, Bukit Brown offers two lessons for state-society relations - the need for the authorities to be more transparent about redevelopment plans, sooner rather than later; and the need for both sides to accommodate each other's concerns.

The URA can make available, in a timely fashion, more information than is currently contained in its Concept Plans and Master Plans. Members of the public can give feedback on these plans, which are regularly updated, and are the main source of information on how different parts of Singapore will evolve physically in the medium to long term.

While Bukit Brown was zoned for residential use in the 1991 and 2001 Concept Plans, there is no way of knowing from that piece of information alone the time frame for the cemetery's redevelopment, much less when roads or MRT lines will intrude into the cemetery.

Each Concept Plan sets out very broad guidelines for land use and transport over the next 40 to 50 years, based on population projections.

It is the Master Plan which translates these guidelines into a statutory land-use blueprint for the next 10 to 15 years. As of the last Master Plan in 2008, Bukit Brown remains zoned as a cemetery.

While the sharing of more detailed information on redevelopment is not always possible as it could lead to profiteering on the housing market, that argument does not hold for cemeteries.

Instead, such advance notice would help resource-strapped heritage groups like the Singapore Heritage Society to focus their attention and work with the Government on alternative proposals for conservation.

When it comes to engaging experts and the public on specific areas rich in history and culture, the Rail Corridor is a good act to follow. That is the long strip of former Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) railway land which reverted to Singapore on July 1. Right off the bat, the National Development Ministry has been engaging the public and interest groups on what to do with the land, and their input will go into the 2013 Master Plan. That is a fine example of engagement that allows accommodation.

Old places and spaces are never just about the past; they strengthen our rootedness to the land.

I can think of no better way for the Ministry of Education to be teaching values, such as filial piety and social responsibility, than for our children to see that we have kept the graves of forefathers who contributed so much to this land.

Currently, no grave has made it to the list of gazetted national monuments, as the upkeep of a grave is seen to be the responsibility of a family rather than the state. But if parts of Bukit Brown Cemetery are to be preserved, Singaporeans must ask themselves if the graves of important pioneers could be considered national monuments.

In more ways than one, Bukit Brown is the start of a national conversation.