Matters of grave concern

The Economist
Mar 16th 2012, 5:53 by Banyan

Singapore's heritage

FOR those who think of Singapore as an antiseptic place of high-rise buildings, bustling streets, glitzy shopping malls and immaculately tidy parks, Bukit Brown comes as a bit of a shock. An expanse of wooded green space in the heart of the island, it is full of Chinese graves. Over 100,000 of them, by some estimates, many wildly overgrown with tropical greenery.

From 1922 to 1973 it was a public graveyard. But many of the graves are even older, dating back as far as the 1830s. Before the public cemetery opened, there were private ones in the area. And some tombs were moved here.

Perhaps that disruption helps explain one mystery about Bukit Brown: why, in a place where thousands of statues, tombstones and inscriptions offer testimony to the importance of filial piety, so many ancestral graves have within just a couple of generations been so forgotten and neglected.

But some of the descendants of those buried at Bukit Brown say their parents never took them there, assuming they would not be interested. In fact, some have tried very hard to locate their ancestors, and have lovingly restored their tombs.

Many have been helped in their searches by the Goh brothers ( , Charles and Raymond, who have become expert in the history and topography of the graveyard. (The Gohs, who act as guides on “heritage tours”, have another sideline, as “paranormal investigators”, Singapore's very own ghostbusters). But they say only one-tenth of the graves have so far been identified. They are worried there may not be time to complete the job.

The area has since 1991 been zoned for residential development. For most of the graveyard, the housing is still some way in the future. But drastic change is imminent. An eight-lane road is to be cut through the graveyard. The government's Ministry of National Development (MND) says this is needed to relieve congestion on nearby roads, which is expected to increase by 20% in the morning rush-hour by 2020. The government will soon announce the road's final alignment. It says fewer than 5,000 graves will be affected and all will be exhumed.

Those fighting to save Bukit Brown (  argue that existing roads could simply be widened, and that slicing it in two will ruin the place. They argue the area is worth preserving as a priceless piece of Singapore's heritage, where many of its pioneers, heroes and prominent citizens are interred. Among them is Lee Hoon Leong, the grandfather of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister.

The Nature Society (Singapore), an NGO, argues that Bukit Brown provides important services simply by being lush, green and central ( : as a carbon sink and "natural air-conditioner". It is also important to wildlife, including the rare Giant Fruit Bat, but especially forest birds, some of which are endangered, such as the Changeable Hawk Eagle.  The NS(S)'s Ho Hua Chew says 91 species have been recorded so far, with 14 of them nationally endangered. It is also an important "stepping stone" for birds to the remaining patches of woodland and greenery in the south of the island. Mr Ho says the projected expressway runs through a highly ecologically sensitive section of Bukit Brown.

Singapore's government has been used to having its decisions accepted without much dissent. But last year the ruling People's Action Party did worse than ever at the election (though it still won 60% of the votes and more than 90% of the seats in parliament), which was taken as a rebuke for what was seen as its high-handed approach. The MND insists that the road decision has followed extensive public consultations. But those campaigning against the road feel this was largely for show.

On a small, crowded island, it is understandable that housing space for the living should take priority over resting space for the dead, and the eventual disappearance of Bukit Brown may be inevitable. But as Charles Goh puts it, in an immigrant society, it provides an important sense of people's roots in the past, and their identity now. And even many with no family connection with the graveyard will mourn its passing.

Update: Shortly after this article was posted, the government's Land Transport Authority announced the final alignment of the road ( . It will include a 670m-long vehicular bridge to minimise “impact to the existing terrain and surrounding environment”. The number of graves to be exhumed will be 3,746. An informal coalition (  of interested NGOs and activists issued a statement expressing “dismay and disappointment” at the plans, and at the way in which they were informed of them, at a meeting on March 19th, after final decisions had been taken. They called for a moratorium on all works at Bukit Brown.