Saving our heritage, not just Bukit Brown
Feb 23, 2012

Saving our heritage, not just Bukit Brown

Huang Ziming

For too long a time, our idea of ‘heritage’ has been devalued, removed from our lives and entrusted instead to the market forces, commodified for tourist consumption – a case in point being the displacement of residents and traditional trades from Chinatown, or the substitution of real kampungs with a replica called Malay Village. Where economic or use value lies in future housing development, a multi-religious site like Bidadari Cemetery is simply cleared away despite historical values being identified.

For too long a time, the public may have presumed that heritage for preservation needs to be of national importance and initiative has to come from the authorities. But any such impression clearly has to change this time with the case of Bukit Brown, as there are not only initiatives by groups like the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), Nature Society (Singapore) and Asia Paranormal Investigators to preserve the site, but also other visible efforts by individuals and independent groups researching, networking and information-sharing on the social media, without depending on the National Heritage Board for interest and directions.
Social Value of the Communities in Heritage Protection

The principles of a people-focused approach to heritage protection are certainly not new in the world. Dating back to 1979, the Burra Charter (the Australia ICOMOS Guidelines for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance) has referred to ‘social value’ as part of the cultural significance at the heart of decision-making for heritage. The 1999 version of the charter refers to cultural significance as “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations”. The 2005 UK Strategy for Sustainable Development not only discusses the importance of protecting natural heritage but also emphasises on the power of community action in shaping the environment against threats of climate change.

Incidentally, there is a practice in the UK, across 50 per cent of its region, of making ‘local lists’ of heritage sites which are not on the existing statutory lists, and this has drawn much community involvement and interest. Perhaps the time is ripe for such practice to be adapted as a model for truly ground-up and pre-emptive initiatives towards protection of heritage reflecting the history and identity of different ethnic communities in Singapore. One needs not always be fixated on the idea of gazetting monuments of ‘national importance’, which may unnecessarily drag us down with contestations of how to measure individuals’ contributions to a nationalist history.

I would like to argue here for the value of a cemetery like Bukit Brown as heritage site from a combination of different angles, beyond the aesthetic or historic values of individual tombs which many have already elaborated on. It has to be emphasised that preservation of such a place of memory or sacred space cannot be replaced by mere documentation. Since there are some people who would suggest that building highways and houses are more important in Singapore than preserving heritage, it is also important that we weigh different considerations against one another. They would try to convince us that such course of action will indeed be necessary for our common good in the long run, while we need to argue why heritage is important for our society, and why we may need ‘standard operating procedure’ in studying any heritage as ‘public good’, like what Singapore Heritage Society is advocating in its position paper.
Intrinsic Value versus Instrumental Value

There comes a time when we as individuals or even an entire nation may need to do some soul-searching on our value system, and one useful way to start would be to make a distinction between what we see as intrinsic value and what we see as instrumental value in our daily life. An example of intrinsic value is the aesthetic value of a good piece of music we enjoy as listeners or musicians, whereas instrumental value may be what a rock singer sees in the music when he is concerned with the fame and fortune that it can bring. Environmentalists who want to protect the biodiversity of plants and animals in the world would be looking at their intrinsic value as life forms, whereas some scientists may be more interested in the knowledge they may provide for technological advances.

To cite something closer to home, intrinsic value is what we see in human life itself, or in our relationship with our families and friends, whereas money is what we should rightly see in terms of instrumental value only, for unless you have a terrible fetish for the texture of dollar bills and coins, its value is only manifested, say, when you buy food to feed yourself and your family. Similarly, we should by right think of instrumental value of cars and iphones in terms of using them for the convenience and joy in spending time with our loved ones, rather than value in the material of these objects themselves. So there may be something fundamentally warped in our society, if let’s say we as a nation are all thinking like salesmen of cars and iphones: if, instead of thinking of how to produce such goods to improve the quality of human life, we are thinking of how the country should produce human population in order to feed the economy of cars and iphones!

Indeed there may be something fundamentally wrong with our value system, if some of us treasure the value of our housing property more than the lives of old folks who need a shelter, like what the controversial news from Woodlands suggested last week. What will be left of our humanity then? In fact, if we want to talk about the ‘function’ of heritage, we can say that it is not about the aesthetic pleasures that a painting or a calligraphy may give us per se, but rather about the social and cultural values that it represents to us, such as family bonding, kindness and filial piety, as traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Coming back to the example of Bukit Brown Cemetery, we can say it is not just the intrinsic value of exquisite carvings and decorations per se that we have to preserve, but also the cultural tradition that is embodied in them, and the entire setting of rituals in paying respect to one’s ancestor, in a landscape set apart from the bustle of daily life, that one hopes the next generation can continue to experience. This is not to forget the belief of a tomb as a final resting place, in a setting that is one with nature – a belief which is respected universally, and hence transcends all communities.

Cemeteries therefore can serve as heritage sites to provide a sense of history and humanity that is educational for the younger generation, as they represent our shared values as citizens of the nation and of the world. One can still further elaborate on this point, but for now it would do good to remind ourselves that the cars that are shining on the highway today will soon depreciate into scrap metal while new cars are pushed into the market, and money generated from property investments will keep changing hands from one stranger to the next, but cultural and natural heritage mishandled in our generation will be forever lost and irreplaceable.

Photo courtesy of SOS Bukit Brown.