Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

April 2013

ST News
Apr 14, 2013

Unesco bid: How about Tiong Bahru, Bukit Brown?

Botanic Gardens bid sparks discussion of possible places that can also be nominated
By Tan Dawn Wei


When Singapore ratified the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) World Heritage Convention in June last year, it happened without fanfare.

So when news surfaced two weeks ago that it had quietly launched a bid to get the Singapore Botanic Gardens listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site last December, more than a few people interested in heritage were surprised.

Now some are asking if other sites are worthy of nomination as well, and suggest, among others, Tiong Bahru and the Bukit Brown cemetery.

To gain entry to the Unesco World Heritage Site club, a state party must first submit a tentative list of sites to be researched further for nomination as a World Heritage Site. That is followed up with a nomination dossier including a site management plan, which will be studied by experts, before the World Heritage Committee votes "yes", "no" or "later".

Singapore cleared the first round and got on the tentative list last December. Now consultant Chris Blandford Associates - who got London's Kew Gardens listed as a World Heritage Site in 2003 - is crafting the dossier, which it hopes to submit by next February.

The whole effort goes back to 2009, when the Singapore Heritage Society first suggested nominating the Botanic Gardens. The following year, the Government roped in foreign consultants to identify Singapore's best shot.

Up for consideration, besides the gardens, were the Civic District, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Haw Par Villa and the former Ford Factory where the British surrendered to the Japanese in 1942.

The National Heritage Board (NHB), the agency driving the Unesco bid, said sites such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Ford Factory and Haw Par Villa did not make the cut as "many of the formal criteria for natural or cultural heritage sites were not met".

The list was eventually whittled down to the Botanic Gardens, the Civic District and historic cultural enclaves of Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam.

That Malacca and George Town in Penang were already on the Unesco list gave hope that Singapore's historic districts might stand a chance too.

"The problem would be the protection of these sites and possible developments in future," said Dr Chua Ai Lin, a historian and vice-president of the Singapore Heritage Society.

Leading Malaysian conservationist Laurence Loh, who was instrumental in getting George Town listed, felt Singapore's best bet after the gardens was to package the historic cultural districts together.

"But Singapore has demolished so much of its heritage and every one of your cultural site settings has been compromised," said the architect, whose conservation projects like Penang's Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur and Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca have won him Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards.

It is a sentiment echoed by heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo, a jury member of the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards. He said of Singapore's cultural districts like Chinatown: "What's left is a shell. There is no more soul. Everything has been commercialised."

Indeed, authenticity counts for a lot. A recent survey on the intangible cultural heritage of George Town found more than 600 traditional trades in operation, some more than 100 years old.

"We may not be as strong as Penang on this front," conceded Dr Chua. "Our historic districts have changed so much."

And since a key criterion for Unesco is protection of land around the site - a buffer zone - the civic and historic cultural districts soon fell out of the reckoning.

"With the demand on Singapore's land and the need to maximise land use, it will be difficult to limit and ensure that the landscape of the civic district and historical cultural enclaves is preserved if successfully inscribed as a World Heritage Site," said the NHB.

In the end, the Botanic Gardens was the clear winner. If it gets Unesco's nod, it will be in the company of China's Great Wall, Jordan's Petra and India's Taj Mahal.

News of the bid has sparked discussion about other possible sites, notably Tiong Bahru and Bukit Brown. Neither was on the government short-list.

The Singapore Improvement Trust pre-war Art Deco flats of leafy Tiong Bahru, a favourite of heritage buffs, were given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in 2003, which means they already enjoy protection. Unesco expects World Heritage Site nominees to be protected by local laws.

Another factor is that it is still a living community and a showcase of how public housing designed in the 1930s remains relevant.

Yet, what might stand in the way of a Unesco bid might well be Tiong Bahru residents themselves.

"My own reservation about the place is that you might not get key stakeholders to agree," said Dr Kevin Tan, former president of the heritage society. "Already many residents are unhappy with people coming in and gawking at them and their homes or simply lining up to buy baguettes and leave," he added, referring to the hip bakeries and cafes that have sprung up.

The Bukit Brown cemetery, which was not on anyone's radar when the 2010 study was done, is now being held up for its rich biodiversity, being a testimony to a cultural tradition, and bearing unique and outstanding artistry on the tombs' architecture. More importantly, it tells the story of Singapore's migrant history, integral to the country's development.

An early 1917 cemetery, Skogskyrkogarden in Sweden, is on the Unesco list.

While the Government has said it currently has no plans to submit other sites for tentative Unesco listing, heritage groups hope the first step for the Botanic Gardens will lay the foundation for Singaporeans to discuss what they value and want to protect, and how that squares with the national agenda.

Dr Chua believes the focus should not be on whether each site meets the Unesco criteria of having outstanding universal value.

"It's not a list of checked boxes, but a spark to kick off a conversation about what is meaningful to us," she said.


BUKIT BROWN: The grave of former Qing dynasty official Chew Geok Leong, with two statues of Sikh guards accompanied by guard dogs. The old cemetery tells the story of Singapore's migrant history. -- ST FILE PHOTO

dawntan@sph.com.sg

The Economist
Grave concerns
Apr 6th 2013  | From the print edition

IN SINGAPORE, a small, crowded island where the population has more than doubled in a generation, the dead have long had to make way for the living and the unborn. In the 1960s, as a graveyard was cleared, a government minister dismissed objections with the question: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents, or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” These days, however, resistance to the planned building of an eight-lane expressway through another cemetery, at Bukit Brown, is less easily swept aside.

Not only is this a special cemetery—the biggest Chinese graveyard outside China, and Singapore’s first municipal pan-Chinese one (as opposed to those for different clans or dialect groups). Singaporeans are also less docile than they were. Bukit Brown, which closed to new applicants in 1973, has become embroiled in their search for a sense of national identity; and hence in a debate about what sort of country Singapore wants to be.

Bukit Brown, 230 hectares of lush greenery in the heart of Singapore, is for much of the year a peaceful haunt. But at Qing Ming, the annual grave-sweeping festival that culminated this year on April 4th, it bursts into life, crowded with filial clusters visiting their ancestors’ graves. They clean them, burn joss and candles, leave offerings of fruit, cakes, tea and other goodies and make bonfires of ghost-money and gifts for the afterworld. One lucky grandmother this year got a handbag, a pair of shoes and a frock. One elderly man keeps the voracious undergrowth away from his great-grandfather’s grave because “I promised my granny,” but when he is gone his own daughter may not come; he does not want to burden her with the responsibility.

By the next grave-cleaning festival, Bukit Brown may have been transformed beyond recognition, as work starts on the road. Of more than 200,000 graves now estimated to be in Bukit Brown and adjacent graveyards, only 3,746 will have to be exhumed. And in an unusual concession to the nature-lovers who have argued Bukit Brown is an invaluable haven for birds and animals, it is to be built as a flyover, so as not to impede their movement. But no one can doubt that once construction begins the character of the place will change for ever.

The government is showing consideration for the people directly affected as well as for the fauna. Descendants of those in the graves that lie in the way of the road have until April 15th to register for exhumation, and until May 31st to arrange a private disinterment. After the deadline, the government will, at the taxpayer’s expense, arrange exhumations and cremations, and store the ashes for three years in a columbarium. Remains still unclaimed will then be dispersed at sea. No more than about a third of the graves to be disturbed have been registered so far. For the dead, passive resistance is the only option.

Bukit Brown has become a focus for active protest, too, by a diffuse but devoted band dedicated to trying, almost certainly forlornly, to save it from the developers. They argue that Bukit Brown is an essential part of Singapore’s “heritage”, which should these days afford it some protection. The government has just announced free entry for Singaporeans from May 18th to all national museums; and it is to pump more money into television programmes exploring Singapore’s history. An explicit model is one that used Bukit Brown to tell the national story.

The rekindled interest in heritage is part of a broader conversation about identity, which in turn is bound up with the biggest political issues: population and immigration. Singaporeans are having very few children: their women’s average fertility rate is among the lowest in the world. Already, probably more than half of the country’s population was born elsewhere, and that proportion seems likely to increase.

In January a government white paper projected that the population would increase from 5.3m now to 6m by 2020 and to 6.5m-6.9m by 2030. This did not go down well with many less well-off Singaporeans, whose main daily grouses are the cost of housing and the difficulty of getting onto the underground at rush hour. Many blame both problems, as well as their low wages, in part on an influx of foreigners. So the government also talks of the importance of keeping a “Singaporean core”. But it has not dispelled fears of a congested, high-rise future in which ever more new arrivals compete for space with the “core”.

The government argues that the expressway is needed to combat congestion on nearby roads, where the volume of traffic is forecast to grow by 20% by 2020. Activists counter that it will wreck Bukit Brown and that it would be better to find ways to curb car use. They see it as the first step in a bigger plan. The whole area was designated for residential use as long ago as 1991.

Core interests

This is what Singapore’s government has always done: look around corners on behalf of its people and plan ahead, confident enough in the infallibility of its policymaking and in the inevitability of its re-election to ignore pressure groups and to scorn pandering to populism. Even its critics concede it has been successful. But times have changed. Social media have turned silent, isolated dissent into more concerted, vocal protest. The political opposition—with less than 10% of the seats in parliament—seems a long way from power. But with 40% of the popular vote in 2011 it can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant. For its part, the government makes much these days of its willingness to “listen”.

In this context, the struggle over Bukit Brown takes on a wider meaning. The improbable coalition of birdwatchers, conservationists and heritage buffs trying to stop the road are testing the government’s promises of a new responsiveness, or, put another way, the strength of its conviction that it still knows best. The argument over the fate of the graveyard may look like a tussle over Singapore’s past. But it is really about its future.

Economist.com/blogs/banyan (http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan) 

The Economist
Apr 1st 2013, 3:37 by Banyan | SINGAPORE

Singapore's heritage

AT QING MING, the annual two-week-long tomb-sweeping festival that culminates this year on April 4th, Bukit Brown springs to life. The biggest Chinese graveyard outside China (http://bukitbrown.com/main/) , its expanse of lush greenery in the heart of Singapore is for much of the year the peaceful haunt of joggers, birdwatchers, cyclists, strollers and the descendants of those buried there. At Qing Ming, this last group expands. The cemetery becomes crowded with clusters of the filial, visiting their ancestors’ graves. They come because they do so every Qing Ming. But this year, their visits have a greater significance: Bukit Brown is in danger, and has become embroiled in a debate over what sort of country Singapore wants to be.


They sweep their ancestors’s graves clean and slash back the foliage with which the jungle tries to reclaim untended tombs. They scrub the headstones and sometimes repaint the epitaphs. They burn joss and candles and strew coloured paper. They make bonfires of paper ghost-money and of gifts for the afterworld. One lucky grandmother this year got a new handbag, a pair of shoes and frock. A great-grandfather, dead these past 80 years, scored an iPhone5 (in replica but, one assumes, preloaded with all the apps a contemporary ghost might need). They leave offerings of fruit, cakes, tea and, sometimes, duck, fish, pork or cockles (to be consumed by the living, with the shells scattered about to symbolise money).


Little old ladies have to be carried up the muddy paths between the graves. Some families are in a rush, with other ancestors in other cemeteries to visit later on. Some make a day of it, taking time to fold the ghost money, and staying for a picnic of the foodstuffs the dead will not, after all, enjoy by themselves. Tai Liu Sai’s elderly great-grandson, who has rescued his grave even while a number of its neighbours have been subsumed by the undergrowth, does so because “I promised my granny.” When he is gone, his own daughter may not come; he does not want to burden her with the responsibility. Just down the hill is the grave of Lee Hoon Leong (http://publichouse.sg/categories/people/item/196-lee-hoon-leong-grandfather-of-lee-kuan-yew) , a grandfather of Singapore’s founding prime minister, and great-grandfather of the incumbent. As of the morning of March 30th, it had not been swept during this Qing Ming.



This year the rituals have been tinged with a new source of melancholy. By the next grave-cleaning festival, Bukit Brown may have been transformed beyond any recognition, as work starts on the eight-lane expressway the government plans to carve through it. The sunnily inclined will point out that of over 200,000 graves now estimated to be in Bukit Brown and adjacent graveyards, only 3,746 will have to be exhumed to make way for the road. And in a gesture to the nature-lovers who have argued Bukit Brown is an invaluable haven for birds and animals, it is to be built as a flyover, so as not to impede their movement. But no one can doubt that the character of the place will change for ever, from as soon as construction begins.



The government is showing consideration for the people directly affected as well as for the fauna. Descendants of those in the graves that lie in the way of the road have until April 15th to register for exhumation, and until May 31st to arrange for their disinterment. The government has commissioned a team to document all that is known about the graves to be dug up. That task completed, it is also preparing an oral history of the nearby village of grave-tenders, headstone carvers, fruit-sellers and golf caddies (the posh Island Country Club is just across the road), which was cleared a generation ago. After the deadline, the government will, at the taxpayer's expense, arrange exhumations and cremations, and store the ashes for three years in a columbarium. Remains still unclaimed will then be dispersed at sea.



One tomb to be opened is occupied by a man who was tortured by the Japanese during their occupation of Singapore from 1942-45. His great-grandson says he died from being forced to drink unset cement. The authorities keep nagging the great-grandson to get on with exhumation. But he is biding his time, noting that very few others are doing anything. In fact, no more than about a third of the 3,746 graves to be disturbed have been registered. Only some 200-odd families have arranged private exhumations. When you are dead, passive resistance is the only form of protest left. But it can be quite effective.



Bukit Brown has become a focus for active protest, too. Here I should declare an interest: the protesters have my sympathy. Banyan, his family and their dog all love the place. They like its beauty, its trees (including some favourite specimens of my arboreal namesake), its birds and monkeys and the inexhaustible discoveries the tombstones offer. And we like the people who frequent Bukit Brown, including the diffuse but devoted band of activists who are dedicated to trying, almost certainly forlornly, to save it from the developers.

Naturally, I like to think that mine is more than a selfish sense of outrage. Bukit Brown is an important part of Singapore’s “heritage”. That should give it a certain protection, these days. Liew Kai Khiun, a local academic, noted in a post on a Malaysian blog (http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/sideviews/article/untidy-memories-for-a-loveable-singapore-liew-kai-khiun)  how in the 1960s a government minister had dismissed objections to the clearance of another graveyard by asking “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents, or do you want to look after your grandchildren?”

These days, Mr Liew reckons, the government feels that it has to tread more delicately. It has just announced free entry for Singaporeans from May 18th to all national museums; and the government is to pump more money (http://www.asiaone.com/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130308-407318.html)  into television programmes exploring Singapore’s history. An explicit model is this year’s “History from the Hills (http://video.xin.msn.com/browse/tv/show?tag=history+from+the+hill) ”, which used Bukit Brown to tell Singapore’s story.

The rekindled interest in heritage is part of a broader conversation about what it means to be Singaporean, which in turn is bound up with the biggest political issues: population and immigration. Already, probably more than half of Singapore’s people were born elsewhere. Singaporeans are having very few children—their women’s average fertility rate is among the lowest in the world.

The government argues that, if living standards are to go on rising, the population has to grow. In January a government white paper on the population (http://www.nptd.gov.sg/content/NPTD/news/_jcr_content/par_content/download_98/file.res/population-white-paper.pdf)  projected that it would increase from 5.3m now to 6m by 2020 and to 6.5m-6.9m by 2030. But this angered many of the less well-off Singaporeans, whose main daily grouses are the unaffordability of housing and the difficulty of getting onto the underground at rush hour. Many blame both problems, as well as their low wages, in part on an influx of foreigners.

So the government also talks of the importance of keeping a “Singaporean core”. For the ethnic-Chinese that make up three-quarters of that core, Bukit Brown—until it closed in 1973, the only municipal pan-Chinese cemetery, as opposed to those dedicated to different clans or dialect groups—is a central part of their heritage.

It is also the scene of an important battle in the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Jon Cooper, a British battlefield historian, paints a vivid picture (http://bukitbrown.com/main/?p=219)  of the horrors of that struggle, as young British soldiers from the 4th Suffolk regiment, newly arrived in Singapore after the long sea voyage, took shelter from an artillery barrage in the tombs of Bukit Brown, and fled through its tangled undergrowth and scattered structures as the Japanese advanced with naked bayonets and swords, and screams of “Banzai!”. Some were never seen again.

The expressway through Bukit Brown seems of questionable utility. The government has said it is needed to combat congestion on nearby roads, where, according to its forecasts, the volume of traffic will be 20% greater by 2020. Activists argue, first, that it would be better to find ways to curb car use, and, second, that the true point of the road is as the first step in a bigger plan. The whole area was designated for residential use as long ago as 1991.

This is what Singapore’s government has always done: look around corners on behalf of its people and then plan ahead, confident enough in its own infallibility and in the inevitability of its re-election to ignore pressure groups and resist pandering to populism. Even its critics concede it has been very successful. But times have changed. Social media have turned isolated, silent dissent into more concerted, vocal protest. In response, the government makes much these days of its willingness to “listen” and consult. The political opposition—with fewer than 10% of the seats in parliament—seems a long way from power. But it can no longer be dismissed as an irrelevance, and for now at least, the political momentum (http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21571159-despite-national-conversation-many-singaporeans-feel-government-does-not-listen-limits)  is with it.

In this context, the struggle over Bukit Brown takes on a wider meaning. Among the improbable coalition of birdwatchers, conservationists and heritage buffs trying to stop the road are a few who see a broader political goal: of testing the government’s promises of a new responsiveness. In that sense, as in many, the argument over the fate of the graveyard may look like a tussle over Singapore’s past. But it is really about its future.





(Picture credit: Banyan)

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