Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

May 2012

May 31, 2012

More than a Grave Situation
Singapore’s Bukit Brown saga reveals serious potholes in planning and public relations

By: Christopher Tan

The Bukit Brown “problem” is yet another classic case of opposing needs that cities the world over grapple with every now and then – of urbanism versus environmentalism, of progress versus heritage, of mobility versus liveability.

That is not the real controversy, though, because such a struggle is to be expected in any modern metropolis populated with people who have diverse views and priorities. To me, the most startling thing about the whole Bukit Brown affair pertains to poor planning and even poorer communication with the public.

The Government had conceptualised Lornie Road as a crucial link of the Outer Ring Road system way back in the 1990s. It has spent more than $400 million so far on a series of overpasses and underpasses to connect arterial roads from Tampines to Queensway, forming an unbroken “circle” just outside the city centre. With hardly any traffic lights along the way, this ring allows motorists to bypass the congested (and ERP-priced) city area without going onto any expressway (which is often priced, too).

One of the last pieces of the Outer Ring Road jigsaw is the Lornie Viaduct. Construction started in 2004, and the $34 million project was completed in 2008. As soon as it opened, congestion in Lornie Road worsened. The LTA’s traffic engineers should have seen this coming. A viaduct increases flow rate, allowing more vehicles to ply into Lornie than before.

Soon afterwards, the authorities widened Lornie Road. This was finished in 2009. Just two years later, the Bukit Brown road project was announced.

The planners had more than a decade to determine the configuration of the Outer Ring Road system. And when the Lornie viaduct was being constructed, they had another four years to fine-tune what should be done to ensure a road system that would at least be able to cope with demand for the next 10 years.

If a road through Bukit Brown was deemed necessary, it should have been built back when the Lornie overpass was being erected. If Lornie Road needed to be widened significantly, the authorities could also have got on with the job when the viaduct was planned. It might have had to make the difficult decision to acquire a row of bungalows along Lornie, but the Government has never shied away from tough decisions –  certainly not when property acquisitions are concerned.

Or alternatively, they could have extended the Lornie flyover to span the entire length of Lornie Road. This would have created a two-tier road that should be able to handle future demand.

But from how things panned out (as described above), this was not to be. Instead, we have witnessed a series of patchwork projects. To make things worse, the Government says Lornie Road will be downsized to a dual two-lane road after the Bukit Brown project is up in 2016. It is now three-lane in one direction and four-lane in the other. In defence, it says the widening of Lornie was an “interim measure”.

Spending tens of millions to widen a road, only to downsize it in seven years is haphazard planning at best, and an irresponsible use of tax dollars at worst. The money spent is one thing. What about the invisible costs in the form of traffic disruptions, noise and dust that motorists and residents nearby had to endure from 2004 (when the construction of the viaduct started)?

The second shortcoming of the Bukit Brown saga is poor communication. When the four-lane dual carriageway that cuts through the cemetery was announced in September 2011, nary a word was said about why it was necessary and why the alignment chosen was best. It was only after various civil groups kicked up a fuss that efforts were made to communicate and “engage”.

The No. 1 rule about engaging the public is timeliness. You don’t engage them after the fact. And engagement starts with effective explanation. For instance, people have to understand why the Bukit Brown road has to be built now, when the site is not due for redevelopment until some time in 2050. Or why building a second deck along the entire stretch of Lornie Road is not feasible. (Traffic disruptions during construction was cited as one main reason, but as one industry watcher put it, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”.) Or why the planned Thomson MRT Line will not be sufficient in crimping road demand along that corridor.

These clarifications have to be communicated early, and not after people have been worked up. Otherwise, the effort – however sincere – can be counter-productive.

To be sure, there will be more Bukit Brown-like challenges ahead. Singapore will do well to recognise that, and embrace the need for proper planning and positive dialogue.




Mandate of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

REFERENCE: AL Cultural rights (2009) SGP 2/2012


29 May 2012

I have the honour to address you in my capacity as Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 19/6.

I would like to draw the attention of your Excellency’s Government to information I have received regarding the planned building of an eight-lane highway through the Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is described as a remarkable space of natural, cultural and historical value.

According to the information received, the Bukit Brown Cemetery is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China with approximately 100,000 graves. The remarkable natural, cultural and historical value of the Cemetery lies, in particular, in the uniqueness of the designs of the tombs, the artistic embellishment and fengshui orientation of the gravestones as well as the information found on the gravestones such as the origin of the deceased, their family relations including women, and personal epigraphs. It is reported that the Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is unique to the region, enables people to trace their family trees by providing otherwise unavailable information, to learn about their past including the history of Singapore and its regional linkages, thus contributing to building a sense of identity and belonging to the region; it also provides a valuable database for researchers and scholars. The value of the Bukit Brown is reflected in the living practices of people who continue to pay their respects to their ancestors in the form of ceremonial rites, offerings, as well as in highly personalized ways in continuity of living cultural practices. The Bukit Brown is also described as an important recreational and leisure space, with a unique combination of nature and heritage.

It is reported that in September 2011, the Government of Singapore announced the construction of a new eight-lane road through the Bukit Brown Cemetery to relieve traffic congestion, and that, in line with long term plans of the authorities, the Bukit Brown area will be developed for housing in the future. It is estimated that the new road will affect about 5 per cent of the graves (5000 graves). Reportedly, exhumation of affected graves is planned for the last quarter of 2012, and the construction of the new road should start in early 2013. It was also brought to my attention that the Governmental authorities have announced that, in order to preserve the heritage of the Bukit Brown Cemetery, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Land Transport Authority will work with the Singapore Heritage Society and other stakeholders to identify and document key heritage elements of the Cemetery.

According to the information received, the decision taken by the Government to build the road was not preceded by a meaningful consultation process, in particular with civil society organizations and experts working on cultural heritage as well as environmental issues. Reportedly, some meetings were held only two weeks before the decision was announced, and were mainly aimed at informing civil society organizations about the rationale behind the decision and at managing public opinion. While recognizing that Singapore cannot continue to grow as a country and as a society without future building and infrastructure projects, opponents to the governmental decision propose that alternative options be considered. They also underline that the housing project is to be established in about 30 years, making it premature to install existing infrastructure into the area, as this would in effect pre-empt future choices.

Excellency, while I do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of the reports received, I would like to recall that, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.

I would also like to draw your Excellency’s Government to my report on the right of access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage, submitted in 2011 to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/17/38). In this report, I stressed the significance of accessing and enjoying cultural heritage by individuals and communities as part of their collective identity and development processes. I underscored that the right to participate in cultural life implies that individuals and communities have access to and enjoy cultural heritages that are meaningful to them, and that their freedom to continuously (re)create cultural heritage and transmit it to future generations should be protected. I underlined that States, in particular, have the duty not to destroy, damage or alter cultural heritage, at least not without the free, prior and informed consent of concerned communities (recommendation b). In addition, concerned communities and relevant individuals should be consulted and invited to actively participate in the whole process of identification, selection, classification, interpretation, preservation/safeguard, stewardship and development of cultural heritage (recommendation c). I encouraged States to develop cultural heritage mapping processes within their territory and to utilize cultural impact assessments in the planning and implementation of development projects, in full cooperation with concerned communities (recommendation e). I also underscored that States should make available effective remedies, including judicial remedies, to concerned individuals and communities who feel that their cultural heritage is either not fully respected and protected, or that their right of access to and enjoyment of cultural heritage is being infringed upon (recommendation l).

It is my responsibility under the mandate provided to me by the Human Rights Council to identify possible obstacles to the promotion and protection of cultural rights and to work in cooperation with States in order to foster the adoption of measures aimed at the promotion and protection of cultural rights.

Since I am expected to report on these issues to the Human Rights Council, I would be grateful for your cooperation and your observations on the following matters:

1.Are the facts alleged in the above summary accurate?
2.Have complaints been lodged to challenge the decision of the Government to build the road, and with what results?
3.Have the Governmental authorities made a cultural impact assessment of its plan to build an eight-lane road through the Bukit Brown Cemetery, and with what results? Was such assessment made in full cooperation with concerned communities, including in particular civil society organizations and experts working on environmental and heritage issues, and in the case not, why not?
4.Have the Governmental authorities examined possible alternatives?
5.Can you please provide more details on the plan of the Urban Redevelopment Authority and of the Land Transport Authority to work with the Singapore Heritage Society and other stakeholders to identify and document key heritage elements of the Cemetery?

I would appreciate a response within sixty days. Your Excellency’s Government’s response will be made available in a report to the Human Rights Council for its consideration.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.

Farida Shaheed
Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights

May 18, 2012


This is the trailer for a short independently-made documentary, BUKIT BROWN VOICES. The film tells the story of Singapore's oldest Chinese cemetery on the cusp of major change.

During what is the last Qing Ming (grave sweeping) festival for some families whose ancestors are buried at Bukit Brown, we hear their thoughts and memories about what the place and the customs they practise mean to them.

A Film by Su-Mae Khoo & Brian McDairmant


ST 12 May 2012


One idea for preserving Bukit Brown heritage
By Alicia Ang

I HAD always wanted to design a columbarium.

In a country like Singapore where land is scarce, burial needs have evolved from cemeteries to columbaria. Inevitably, current facilities will run out of space and demand for well-designed columbaria will increase.

The recent brouhaha over the development of Bukit Brown cemetery inspired my final-year project.
Four months of project work - and visits to the cemetery - resulted in Bukit Brown Memoirs. My concept revolved around the idea of preserving the graves and designing a heritage centre-cum-columbarium to support the heritage and history represented by the graves in Bukit Brown.
For Bukit Brown was not what I had expected a cemetery to be: eerie and grim. Instead, it was filled with greenery that provided serenity. Walking down the concrete pavement and meandering through grass to get to tombstones, I found Bukit Brown filled with gems waiting to be discovered.
The intricate carvings found in Peranakan and Chinese culture are apparent on some tombstones; Sikh guards and Chinese sculptures are found on others. Each tombstone has its own character and story to tell. To completely demolish these would be a loss.

My hope is that Bukit Brown Memoirs would help Singaporeans preserve a piece of our heritage by collating and documenting information.

The chosen site is a vacant Command House located at 1 Fairy Point Hill, on the east side of Singapore, away from the city. The building is isolated on top of the hill, surrounded by lush greenery. It faces the Johor straits.

The peaceful environment creates an ideal location for a columbarium that aligns to the environment currently present in Bukit Brown. Here, I attempted to pay homage to the famous and the ordinary by symbolically honouring them as Singapore's pioneers.
The proposed spaces feature galleries to exhibit preserved artefacts, photography works, documented works, exhumed graves, and a miniature Bukit Brown cemetery model for one to see how it once was. LED screens will feature digital images and historical short film footages from the past.

My concept was inspired by the layers of history buried with Singapore's pioneers in the cemetery. The concept of layers is further enhanced with the play of artificial and natural lighting denoting the importance of the space.

The hardest part of the project was to create a sense of spirituality in the space, to evoke the emptiness that is prevalent with the loss of a dear one and a piece of history.
I was able to achieve the desired effect by playing with different volumetric expressions and natural elements such as light and water.

The achromatic colour scheme focuses on the different shades of warm grey to create a sombre mood, yet at the same time invites visitors to pay their respects to our pioneers.
Putting Bukit Brown Memoirs together has helped me learn how our forefathers built Singapore, and that we should give them due respect.

The project was a sensitive attempt to resolve the Bukit Brown issue close to Singaporeans' hearts.
The writer, 19, recently graduated from Temasek Polytechnic with a diploma in interior architecture and design.

A malay metaphor tak kenal maka tak sayang (not knowing without loving it)
describes well a person who cannot understand or appreciate dondang sayang - he probably
does not know anything about it.

What actually is dondang sayang?

It is a form of traditional singing popularised in Malacca in the early  19th century, particularly among the Baba Peranakan (Straits-born Chinese)

The word dondang means singing, and sayang is love. Taken in its Malay context, dondang sayang is mengulit kasih (lullaby)

One significant characteristic of dondang sayang is that it must be sung in the form of pantun (quatrains or old fashioned 4 verse poems) to ensure its entertaining effect.

It is claimed that the pantun in dondang sayang depicts the courtesy, fine thoughts and emotions of the Malay.

According to Malay historical records, dondang sayang was originally a song in itself with its own melody and rhythm. It was introduced in the 12th century by Princess Wan Benai of BIntan in the Riau islands.

During the reign of the Malay Sultanate in 1377, dondang sayang was brought by the womenfolk who migrated to
Malacca where it was immediately embraced by the people there.

In later years, it was refined with the introduction of music to accompany the singing. The musical instruments then consisted of a rebab, rebana and tendawak, all are different types of Malay drums.

The Portuguese rule in Malacca in 1511 added the violin and later, the accordion, both Western musical instruments to the list.

Because of its past history, dondang sayang has Chinese, Persian, Portuguese and Middle East influences.

The development of dondang sayang went into a serious phase in 1870 with a version embracing the Malays, Baba Peranakan and the Indian Chettiars in Malacca. It was mainly performed at weddings and other native festivals.

In Singapore one of the most active dondang sayang groups is the Persatuan Gunong Sayang established by a group of Baba Peranakan in 1910 at Ceylon Road, Katong.

Prime movers of the group include Mr Boon Kim Yew, 67, William Tan 60. The late Gwee Peng Kwee was also a prime mover of this group.

extracted from ST 7 Jun 1988, pg 7

William Tan who plays a nonya Alice Wee in the play Tidak Berdosa
ST file picture

ST File picture

Prominent members of the Association include Koh Hoon Teck, a well-known dondang sayang singer and a founding member of the Association in 1910.

As a pantun expert, it had been one of Koh's wishes that dondang sayang should be sung at his funeral. Upon his death in 1956, his family members and close friends accordingly arranged for a “pantun party” at his gravesite in Bukit Brown cemetery.




Kalau pergi rumah Che Nona,
Petik kan saya se-biji delima,
Dunia bukan kita punya,
Asal manusia pulang ke-tanah.

English Translation
If you go to Nona's house,
Do get for me a pomegranate,
This world is not ours forever,
From earth we came to earth we return.

G T Lye,  a nephew of Koh Hoon Teck, and son of Gwee Peng Kwee,  recited the same pantun that was said when Koh Hoon Teck died in 1956, and recounted stories of the Koh Hoon Teck's death and social circles.

The following pantun appeared in Vol 1, pg 42-43 of Koh Hoon Teck’s book, Panton Dondang Sayang Baba Baba Pranakan

Brapa tinggi pokok pisang
Tinggi lagi asapan api
Brapa tinggi gunong Laydang
Tinggi lagi harapan hati

No matter how high the banana plant is
Smoke is even higher
No matter how high Mt Ledang is
My hope is even higher


Gwee Peng Kwee
Berita Harian file picture, 11 May 1980

Gwee Peng Kwee was born on 24 Aug 1901 in New Bridge Road.
His father Gwee Eng Chuan, has 4 sons and 2 daughters. Peng Kwee was the eldest

His father Gwee Eng Chuan, passed away in 1914 when he was 42, leaving behind a widow Song Chwee Neo.

When Eng Chuan died, Chwee Neo got a gratutity of $2000 to raise a family of 6 children.

His uncle Koh Hoon Teck took them to live in Chin Swee Road.  It was then that Gwee Peng Swee was first exposed to Dondang Sayang.

In 1915, Gwee left school and start to work with his relative in the rubber store.

As for Song Chwee Neo, she would go to relatives' houses and try to sell a few things, dresses and other things.
She was able to supplement the family budget in this way.

In 1922, Gwee Peng Kwee joined a Literary Club. Classes were conducted by Song Ong Siang, and it was from Song Ong Siang that he learnt a lot of English under him.

Gwee was to get married in 1927.


Mr. Gwee Peng Kwee (centre right) and his Peranakan or Straits Chinese bride (centre left), both dressed in traditional Qing dynasty style (1644-1911) first-day wedding robes, flanked by a young flower girl and a young pageboy at 27 Cuppage Road on 15 January 1927. Taken from book Communities of Singapore : a catalogue of oral history interviews., page 55-1

Gwee Peng Kwee only staying in Koh Hoon Teck’s house in Chin Swee Road for 1 year before moving elsewhere.

In 1940, they moved to Carpmael Road in 1940. One evening after his dinner in 1941, he was taking a walk and started to hear music. Yes it was Dondang Sayang, and a song he liked very much.
And then he met his uncle Koh Hoon Teck in the Club.

From there, he learnt from the pantun master Koh Hoon Teck, and soon became recognised as an expert himself.
‘I was at a wedding party with the dondang sayang players and I was invited to sing. A Malay gentleman agreed to start the singing and another from the party must reply. He directed himself at me: “Encik nyanyi dulu. Saya jawab.”

‘I was struck, I blushed. The music was playing and the audience urged me to reply. It was shameful. The Malay gentleman was asking:

Baba pandeh, saya tanya:
Bulan berjalan, mana kaki-nya?
(Baba is clever, so I ask of you:
The moon moves but where are its legs?)

‘I answered:
The moon moves not a length of padi,
The clouds move, the world revolves;
The moon moves through the power of God
The snake crawls, where are his feet?’

So profound an answer was given that soon Gwee’s formidable reputation as a stylish pantun composer grew.

Taken from http://peranakan.org.sg/culture/culture-thearts/the-romantic-master-of-dondang-sayang-gwee-peng-kwee/

On May 31, 1943, the woman who bought up 6 children,  Song Chwee Neo died.  Some of her sons became guardians of Peranakan culture, and Gwee Peng Kwee became

the champion of Dondang sayang.  William Tan was to acknowledge repeatedly that Gwee Peng Kwee was his mentor.


William Tan Wee Liam (1928 - 2009).

We will miss the sweet soothing voice of Baba William Tan. Among his contributions to the cultural scene of the Baba community were the three plays he directed: Buang Keroh Pungut Jernih (1985), Biji Mata Mak (1989) and Tak Sangka (1990); the sessions he conducted for the members of the Gunong Sayang Association; and the collaborations with authors on the Peranakan Chinese culture.
Performing with Baba William Tan was Nyonya Jessie Chiang and GT Lye.

Tomb of Song Chwee Neo in Bukit Brown Cemetery

The nyonya with a sweet smile.  One of her sons Gwee Peng Gwee became the champion of Dondang Sayang.

Even during the occupation year in 1943 when life was difficult, he did not hesitate but to give her a good funeral and grand send off to Bukit Brown
where she was laid to rest, at a age of 70 years.

G loved her mother a lot, 15 years after she died, he still published in ST – In Memoriam.

Her grandson, William Gwee Thian Hock, wrote some books on Baba culture for example A Nyonya Mosaic: My Mother’s children and also a dictionary of Baba Malay.

Another grandson, G T Lye continues the tradition his father Gwee Peng Kwee has left behind.

G T Lye,  ST file picture


27th April 2008, Peranakan Wedding by Peranakan Association, GT Lye, Terry Lim

Mr Gwee passed away in 1986 leaving behind about 7,000 handwritten pantuns, most of which were his own compositions, in specially bound volumes. The majority of the verses have not been published.

From: http://peranakan.org.sg/culture/culture-thearts/the-romantic-master-of-dondang-sayang-gwee-peng-kwee/

ST, 11 Nov 1982, Tigerish Art

Dr Thomas, who wrote a book : Like Tigers Around a Piece of Meat

If you are always sitting around worrying about losing, about whether people are going to laugh at you, you’re finished as a dondang
sayang singer.


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