Bukit Brown and the soul of Singapore

ST News
Mar 25, 2012

Bukit Brown and the soul of Singapore
All that sound and fury was not a waste of time; as a people, we all gained something

By Ignatius Low

An experiment of sorts in Singapore in civil activism came to an end last week.

Despite a long and loud campaign by interest groups to change the Government's mind, a road will be built across the Bukit Brown cemetery to ease congestion for motorists.

On the same day this was announced, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) published the names of the 3,746 dead whose graves will be exhumed. Works for the project will start at the end of the year.

Seven groups that made a last-ditch attempt to stay the Government's hand formed an intriguing list.

Other than Singapore's Nature and Heritage societies, there was the Singapore Paranormal Investigators, a group that holds 'ghost tours' in various parts of the island.

The rest were the lesser-known All Things Bukit Brown, SOS Bukit Brown, Green Corridor and Green Drinks.

I found myself wondering what they were, and how each might be different from the other.

But I have also asked myself many times during this whole saga whether I was the sort of person who would bother to join one of these groups, attend meetings for hours on end and feel passionately enough to even lead the charge one day.

One answer to that question, of course, is that it depends on what the group is fighting for.

I am not a nature buff, and although I am quite sentimental about the places I grew up in, I felt no connection to Bukit Brown.

In fact, when the first stories were written about the controversy, I - like a lot of people - had to ask where this cemetery was.

I mean, of course I had always known about the burial plots in the Thomson area which would receive a steady stream of visitors during the Qing Ming festival, but I never knew the cemetery's name or knew that so many of the country's pioneers were laid to rest there.

I might have been more passionate about saving the Van Kleef Aquarium, one of my absolute favourite places to visit as a kid, which was demolished some time in 1998.

That is, however, quite beside the point.

The question is - assuming that there was one day a cause that I felt passionately about - would I step forward to try and lobby for a change?

My answer to that, post-Bukit Brown, is probably yes.

And this is why I disagree with people - both within Government and civil society - who might think that the protracted attempt to engage interest groups on the issue was ultimately a big waste of everyone's time.

It was not a waste of time for two reasons. The first has to do with the outcome and the other with the process.

In the disappointment that was expressed over the Government's decision to keep the road, a lot of people missed the fact that the noise and heat generated by interest groups did ultimately make a small difference to the outcome.

Instead of laying a road flat on the ground through the cemetery, the LTA decided to elevate a 600m stretch up to 10m off the ground.

This apparently costs up to three times as much to construct, but will allow animals and other wildlife access across the road, resulting in less disruption to their natural habitat. Some graves (although not many more) could also be saved.

Okay, it's true this outcome wasn't at all close to what the various interest groups hoped for.

But the takeaway for a more neutral observer like me was that the Government will budge - even if a little - if given a hard enough nudge by ordinary people.

The more important reason, however, as to the Bukit Brown saga wasn't a waste of time goes beyond any tangible outcome.

All my life growing up as a Singaporean, I have felt that, as a people, we excel in many areas but always lack the energy or ability to engage in civil activism.

Perhaps we were schooled by our politicians always to be realistic and pragmatic. For that reason, so many of us have only really been genuinely interested in our education, careers and the well-being of our families.

These days, the world is connected enough - and we are well-travelled enough - for us to feel real angst about this at least occasionally.

We are a smart, stable and efficient people, but do we have a soul? Bukit Brown showed me there is hope for us yet.

Through the months over which the debate unfolded, I was amazed by the number of people who came out to make a stand on the issue.

Many may have had little or no connection to the place, but they understood the dilemma between national development and conserving our heritage, and they came down firmly on the latter's side.

Some pored over policy papers and maps of the terrain to argue their case with the Government. Others volunteered time at the weekend to scrub the graves and document them for posterity.

There was also no shortage of creativity - 3-D mapmakers are using their craft to create virtual walk-throughs of Bukit Brown, high-tech RFID tags are ensuring that no grave in the wider cemetery goes unnoticed.

I don't know about you, but I was inspired by all of this. I discovered a new side to our people and it gave me a fresh sense of pride in belonging to this country.

I know now that if I were to step forward one day to argue for a cause that wasn't narrowly selfish, I wouldn't be taken for a crazy idealistic fool and there would actually be people standing side-by-side with me.

So, no, Bukit Brown wasn't at all a waste of time for anyone.

There were many things about the consultation that weren't perfect, of course.

The Government could have presented all the options upfront - including building a viaduct or acquiring adjacent private land - instead of deciding on the road and leaving little room for manoeuvre.

Activists could have more clearly demonstrated that they were actively weighing the national interest against their own narrower interests. They could also have given the Government more credit where it was due, particularly to the politicians and civil servants who went against the grain to engage them.

But we will do better next time. At least as a nation, now we know that we can.