Heritage society 'disappointed' with Govt's Bukit Brown decision

ST News
Feb 6, 2012

Heritage society 'disappointed' with Govt's Bukit Brown decision

By Grace Chua

THE Singapore Heritage Society wants Bukit Brown Cemetery to be fully documented, and its heritage and environmental value taken into account, before any road or housing decisions are made, it said in a position paper.

It added it was 'deeply disappointed' with the Government's decision to continue with a road through part of the historical burial ground, adding it regretted there was no public consultation before zoning and road-building decisions were made.

The position paper, released on Saturday night, comes after a Facebook post on Friday by Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who described the ongoing work to document some 5,000 of the graves there.

In his post, Mr Tan - who is the Government's de facto point man on Bukit Brown public engagement - said a controversial road through the cemetery would be adjusted to reduce the impact on the graves, based on the documentation exercise.

But the society felt that documentation of all graves should have come before the route setting, rather than the other way around.

The dual four-lane carriageway was announced last year and is meant to ease congestion on Lornie Road. However, it will affect 5 per cent of the area's 100,000 grave sites.

The society said: 'The argument that a road which is not the shortest possible route through the cemetery is sub-optimal is a calculation based upon traffic needs only.

'Unlike standard road-building projects, this one comes at the opportunity cost of a unique historical and valuable natural space in Singapore.'

It added that the society 'regrets there was no consultation prior to the decision, and urges the Government to consider alternatives that would not destroy the heritage value in the cemetery'.

The 223ha cemetery, which is slated for residential use under the Urban Redevelopment Authority's Concept Plan 2001, is the resting place of notable immigrants like businessmen Cheang Hong Lim and Chew Joo Chiat. The society's paper argues that it is not only the graves, but also cultural practices like rituals and offerings, which will be lost should the graves be exhumed for development.

It recommended the cemetery be gazetted as a heritage site and turned into a heritage park, suggestions it had made in its book Spaces Of The Dead: A Case From The Living, which argues for cemeteries to be conserved as open-air museums or parks.

The society also suggested the Government look at best practices of historical cemeteries and heritage parks such as Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts and Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris.

'If it is not possible to gazette Bukit Brown in its entirety, large swathes of the cemetery can be designated for legal protection,' the paper said, adding that the decision on which parts to be gazetted can be made based on information gleaned from the full documentation of Bukit Brown's graves.

Cost-benefit analyses, the society added, should be a key part of any heritage-related decision, and take into account a site's physical space, its biodiversity, value as a tourist attraction, and the sense of identity or belonging it promotes among citizens.

Likewise, environmental impact assessments should be done, it said. The lushly forested cemetery slows down stormwater run-off into the Kallang River, wrote Assistant Professor Lim Han She of the National University of Singapore's geography department, in an annex to the position paper.

The hydrologist added that clearing the vegetation would increase surface run-off, straining drainage systems around the Thomson Road area.

Other environment and heritage civic groups have previously taken a similar stance.

The Nature Society (Singapore) last year put out a position paper asking planners to consider the site's uncommon birds and plants, and its value as a carbon dioxide sink and rainfall 'sponge'.

Members of the public have also spoken up. In a December letter published in The Straits Times, Madam Marian Tay wrote that 'already-concretised plots like Turf City are left untouched for years, golf courses are not acquired, and much of western Singapore is still available for development'.

Mr Tan, who is also Minister of State for Manpower, had noted on Friday that Bukit Brown could hold 15,000 homes for around 50,000 residents, and be an extension of Toa Payoh township.

Asked about Bukit Brown's potential for housing, Heritage Society executive committee member Terence Chong, who wrote the paper, said that the society 'understands the nation has housing needs. However, housing at Bukit Brown Cemetery remains a conceptual possibility which must be reassessed with changing times'.