Can Singapore both value the past and plan for the futu

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. (