Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

February 2014

Business Times
February 28, 2014

Saving Bukit Brown calls for huge sacrifice of land

I REFER to the article "Preventing a grave error" by Chew Kheng Chuan (BT, Feb 22-23).

The article rightly points out that Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China. Let us take a macro view of the issue of burials in a modern context.

A New York Times article dated Oct 30, 2013, titled "Too many bodies too little space", highlighted that the world's cities are running out of space to bury human bodies. The Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom reported on June 6, 2012, that the Yarkon Cemetery is building multiple vertical graves, with elevators, across Israel, due to the lack of land.

This is also happening in various countries with considerably greater land space than Singapore. In an article "Why China is turning graveyards into farmlands", on news website www.worldcruch.com dated Nov 22, 2012, it was reported that there was a historical reform implemented after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 "when burials were discouraged and cremation became mandatory, in order to save land".

It is clear that even countries with large tracts of land have no option but to convert land with graves for the benefit of living human beings. It is well known that Singapore is facing a severe crunch of land space and young couples have to pay high prices for public housing, not to mention cars being beyond the reach of the average Singaporean family.

When the writer states that in Bukit Brown "lie our heritage and our history as a people", "the final resting place for our pioneers" and "the earliest generations of immigrants who built this society", surely he is referring only to the Chinese immigrants to Singapore. Singapore is a model of a multi-racial society admired by many countries in the world; these statements attribute the early history of Singapore specifically to one racial group.

With great respect to the writer's great grandfather, there are many landmarks in Singapore named after Boon Lay, i.e. a well known road named Jalan Boon Lay and Boon Lay Way, an MRT station called Boon Lay MRT Station and even a primary school called Boon Lay Garden Primary School. Surely, this is according tremendous respect to the writer's great grandfather. Requesting political leaders to step in to save this graveyard is surely asking for the current and future generations to make a huge sacrifice of precious state land.

Manmohan Singh

My Paper
Feb 26, 2014

Honour pioneers - by preserving Bukit Brown


I REFER to the letter "Leadership needed to halt grave error" by Mr Chew Kheng Chuan  (MyPaper, Feb 24).

Mr Chew has put forth a well thought-out letter to support the view on why using a world monument to save a few minutes of driving, and to house an "invited" increased number of people, is a grave error indeed.

As a Singaporean who has experienced the rapid changes over the last 20 years, I am flabbergasted by how certain decisions by the authorities are made.

It gives me the impression that many of the decisions made are aimed at "solving" certain problems which have arisen from earlier mistakes, or in response to some self-created issues that will give rise to problems in the future.

For instance, if immigration is controlled properly, is there an urgent need to build 50,000 new homes in 15 to 20 years' time?

Thanks to Mr Chew, I now know that Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China.

If the authorities are able to be visionary, they would see how this world monument may become a historical attraction like Stonehenge, maybe in 30 years' time.

It will serve to remind people of the human side of life, that life is not all about convenience and GDP numbers.

Preserving Bukit Brown would indeed show that the authorities are true to their word, that they appreciate pioneers, including those no longer in their bodies.

Business Times
February 25, 2014

Keeping Bukit Brown cemetery not a wise choice

I FELT very uneasy reading the article "Preventing a grave error" by Chew Kheng Chuan (BT, Feb 22) arguing fervently for the preservation of the Bukit Brown cemetery and the eventual scenario.

Like Mr Chew, I am also a Chinese of Chinese descent and perhaps value that so-called "green lung" much more than he does as I have lived right next to it since 1993.

I enjoy the serenity, the singing of the birds every morning, the calmness, the comfort and the security which the cemetery provides. As the saying goes, the dead are safer than the living.

I certainly wish to see it left untouched, but given our peculiar situation, an independent nation barely 700 square kilometres in area and with a density of around 7,000 persons per square kilometres, the highest in the world, we can ill-afford the kind of luxury that Mr Chew is arguing for.

Up till early 1970, there were hundreds of cemeteries in Singapore, both big and small, and if the government then had not taken bold steps to get rid of the majority of them for development, we certainly would not have what we have today and the present generation would have been the poorer.

To cite some examples: Part of Dhoby Ghaut MRT Station (opposite MacDonald House) is on a Malay cemetery, Novena Square is on a Jewish cemetery and Ngee Ann City is on a Chinese cemetery. And so were cemeteries along Serangoon Road where blocks and blocks of HDB flats now stand. Over the years, all these and many more cemeteries were taken over to make way for other developments.

Be that as it may, Mr Chew, a Chinese descendant, is writing and arguing solely for the Chinese from the perspective of a Chinese, to the exclusion of the interests of citizens of other races. These other citizens, having the same aspiration of the Chinese, also want to have a share of Bukit Brown for themselves and for their children - a place to live, to travel through or to go to and enjoy.

Singapore is a multiracial society, and being a multiracial society in such a tiny area, all races must share, as there is not a lot left for sectarian interests, particularly Bukit Brown which occupies such a large tract of precious land.

No independent nation in the world, I dare say, can afford to reserve such a huge land size in relation to its total land mass for cemetery and, worse, for only one race. Singapore certainly cannot.

Granted only the Chinese were buried there and Bukit Brown could be the biggest cemetery outside China - nothing really that we can be proud of, as too little an area will be left for the living majority, both present and future.

But if every race demands to preserve their own heritage in this tiny red dot, many of our children may eventually have to follow the way of life of the Egyptians in Cairo, living atop hundreds of hectares of unexhumed graves.

We are a very pragmatic lot and our pragmatism has elevated us to this stage of development. Therefore, let us continue to be pragmatic and work for the next generation and subsequent generations today, and not tomorrow.

This is a cruel world, a real world with full of uncertainties and tomorrow may be just too late. The earlier we act on it, the less we will have to contend with in the future.

Andrew Goh

My Paper, Feb 24, 2014

FOR a long time, Bukit Brown had been hidden from public view, awareness and scrutiny.

But, now, it has been identified as a 2014 World Monuments Watch site, about to be irreversibly damaged by the construction of an entirely avoidable eight-lane expressway.

This will forever alter its unique nature, and destroy not just a huge swathe of nature, but also 4,000 graves in its path.

Even as I write, the bulldozers are about to rumble. The point of no return is nigh.

I am a great admirer of Singapore's civil servants. They are highly competent, incorruptible, and think hard on solving Singapore's problems.

They got us to where we are today.

But in the case of Bukit Brown, they have fallen short.

An intervention is needed. The political masters should act now to halt a grave error.

The plan to drive the highway through Bukit Brown was to solve traffic congestion. The new highway would let motorists bypass Lornie Road and connect them more directly to Pan-Island Expressway. All that was needed: A straight line through a closed-down cemetery called Bukit Brown.

The highway is just the start. The plan is to remove the entirety of Bukit Brown and contiguous cemeteries - all 162ha - and to use this prime location to house up to 50,000 new homes in 15-20 years' time.

But Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, with more than 200,000 immigrant members of the Chinese diaspora buried there.

There are reburials of older graves that date back to 1833, just 14 years after the founding of modern Singapore. And this is the burial ground for most of the pioneers of Singapore, whose names identify the roads of this country - such as Joo Chiat, Keong Siak, Kheam Hock, Eng Neo, Ong Sam Leong, and my great-grandfather, Boon Lay.

The removal of Bukit Brown will serve Singapore's needs of managing traffic congestion, and provide space to house the growing population.

Yet, the benefits are too little; the costs are too high.

Buried at Bukit Brown are the earliest generations of immigrants who built this society, the towkays and the coolies, and the wide swathe of society in between.

Bukit Brown is not just a cemetery for the dead, it is a unique ethnographic museum for the living.

Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hakka - Chinese of all dialects are buried here, with the names of their descendants on the tombstones, looked after by the Jade Girl and the Golden Boy, accompanied by carved stone lions, phoenixes, tigers' paws. Guarded by turbaned Sikh guards and angels. Recorded with different calendar systems - Qing, Confucian, Republican and Gregorian.

Rich layers of history and ethnography in the material culture of the graves of Bukit Brown have only recently been discovered, documented and expounded by researchers from the architectural faculty of the National University of Singapore.

It might be thought that once they have been documented they can be destroyed. But if this was right, then one might argue that once Stonehenge has been filmed and recorded, why not build a Tesco and a parking lot on its site?

Consider further, the cost to the habitat. Here is home to fauna that includes the endangered Sunda Pangolin, monitor lizards, as well as several butterfly species, some uncommon. Thirteen threatened bird species - 23 per cent of the nationally threatened bird species - four rare resident bird species and 15 uncommon resident bird species reside at Bukit Brown.

Its size and its contiguity to the Central Catchment Area of MacRitchie and Peirce reservoirs form a critical mass that influences the rainfall, the micro-climate of the district and the climate of the island.

Take away the natural sponge - the verdant flora and soils of Bukit Brown - and rainfall may possibly be channelled to flood Orchard Road!

If planners in the Ministry of National Development, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Land Transport Authority and Singapore Land Authority cannot understand this because they have a more immediate micro-perspective, then it is up to the political leadership to step in now to take corrective action.

A political leader has now got to step up to the plate, step into the breach and switch off the engines of destruction that will obliterate our heritage.

Call it off. Save the day.

The decision to build that highway, or those 50,000 houses, can still be made in the future - 30 or 50 years from now. But to proceed is to perform an irreversible act of destruction.

How should Bukit Brown be preserved? As a new, transformed national heritage park.

It will be a place of sanctuary, sanctity, sacred burials, cultural and historical heritage, education, research into our origins and identity as a nation.

It will be a unique tourist attraction, a park that caters to the recreational needs of citizens and visitors.

There are alternatives to a better traffic flow on Lornie Road. There are alternatives to space for 50,000 more homes.

What does it take to see that Bukit Brown needs to be saved and not destroyed?

Political vision; intelligence; and clarity that will be transformative for Singapore. A single bold decision. Leadership.

SO MUCH LIES HERE: Rich layers of history and ethnography in the material culture of the graves of Bukit Brown have only recently been discovered, documented and expounded by researchers from the National University of Singapore.PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES


The writer is chairman of The Substation and a consultant fundraiser. This article first appeared in The Business Times Weekend.

Bukit Brown is at once a study in the social and cultural history of Singapore and a green oasis in the heart of a densely developed urban environment. As a cemetery for pioneering Chinese immigrants from all walks of life beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Bukit Brown showcases Singapore's origins and connections to regions beyond. Physically manifesting the links between southern China and Southeast Asia are the Hokkien and Teochew tomb designs and their inclusion of local Peranakan as well as European features. Buried at Bukit Brown are prominent Southeast Asian supporters of China's 1911 Republican Revolution. As a World War II battleground and grave site for casualties, including victims of the Japanese occupation (1942–1945), Bukit Brown also serves as a reminder of Singapore's recent past. Descendents and others visit Bukit Brown regularly, not only to pay their respects, but to gain a unique insight into Singapore’s heritage and to experience its great natural beauty and diversity.

In 2013, the government initiated plans to bisect Bukit Brown with a major thoroughfare, and has proposed the redevelopment of significant areas of Bukit Brown for housing in the coming years. This is a significant loss to the families of those interred there, as many graves are being relocated (or unclaimed remains dispensed at sea) for the road construction; but in destroying the cultural landscape of Bukit Brown, it is a loss to all of society. Local groups and residents, as well as the international community, are calling for more transparency on the part of the government and for a participatory environmental impact assessment that would evaluate the full social, economic, and ecological costs of the development plans and the effects on this historic cultural landscape. Inclusion on the Watch seeks to bolster these efforts and promote a better future for Bukit Brown.

ST News
Feb 08, 2014
Tracing Confucius' bloodline in Singapore

A family pieces its history together following the discovery of an ancestor's tomb in Bukit Brown

By Linda Lim For The Straits Times

The writer’s great-grandfather Kung Tian Siong shares an empty tomb in Bukit Brown with his second wife, Lie Sio Nio. It is a popular stop on tours of the cemetery as its inscription notes that he is a descendant of Confucius. The writer’s family had no prior knowledge of this tomb however, as Tian Siong had been buried in the Christian cemetery at Bidadari in 1958. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF HUI YEW-FOONG

MY FAMILY always knew that we were directly descended from Confucius.

This is because my Malacca-born great-grandfather Kung Tian Siong (1876-1958), who died when I was seven, was very proud of his lineage. His most prized possession was a "family tree book" that he kept under his pillow, but it disappeared when he died. I surmise that it is the 1937 version of the Confucius Kong family genealogy, which must have listed him and his younger brother, Kung Tian Cheng (1879-1915).

The family attributed the physical height of various members (myself included) to our "Shandong ancestry". An Aug 27, 1934, Straits Times article (wrongly) noted that Tian Siong was from the 74th generation. He was from the 72nd.

Both brothers were educated at the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) in Singapore and went to China to fight for the Kuomintang against the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Tian Cheng later died in Peking while in the service of China's warlord, President Yuan Shikai. A multilingual scholar-librarian and "prolific writer", he is written about and pictured in Song Ong Siang's 1923 book, One Hundred Years' History Of The Chinese In Singapore.

Tian Siong met my great-grandmother, Siauw Mah Lee, in a Methodist church in Singapore, and proposed to her through Miss Sophia Blackmore, founder of the Methodist Girls' School (MGS), where Medan-born Mah Lee had been the first Chinese student and became one of the teachers.

Tian Siong and Mah Lee had three daughters - Darling Kim Neo, Susie Gin Neo and Edna Gek Neo (my maternal grandmother) - after which they divorced, most likely due to Tian Siong's desire for a son.

They remarried, but Tian Siong did not have any children by his second wife, a "rich widow" from Java named Lie Sio Nio/Lee Seok Neo (Nona). So, in the patriarchal Chinese tradition, his Confucian lineage ended.

Tian Siong became a prominent businessman in Singapore, noted as a pioneer in setting up some of the city's first cinemas, which were later sold to the Shaw family.

His diaries (written in English, though he was also fluent and literate in Mandarin and Peranakan Malay) note many visits to the theatre, and to Universal Studios in the United States, on one of his round-the-world voyages in 1928, when he also attended an 8,000-person Methodist convention in Kansas City.

When Nona died, her lavish funeral was reported in The Straits Times of Oct 18, 1926 as being "carried out in the European style" with the procession consisting of "one long stream of cars extending back for nearly half a mile". And that is where Bukit Brown comes in.

In July last year, a poster at the exhibition, Bukit Brown: Our Roots, Our Future featured Kung Tian Siong and his "live" (empty) tomb, part of a double-tomb with Lie Sio Nio that had become a popular stop on Bukit Brown tours, in part because the tombstone inscription noted that Tian Siong was a 72nd generation lineal descendant of Confucius.

A family member came across an ACS Alumni Facebook post of the Bukit Brown poster, which correctly noted that Tian Siong had been educated at ACS, but incorrectly assumed Lie Sio Nio was Siauw Mah Lee.

Our family had no prior knowledge of the tomb, though the names of his daughters, sons-in-laws and grandchildren born before 1927 are engraved on it.

Tian Siong, who ended his days as an evangelist and lay preacher at Geylang Methodist Church, had been buried in the Christian cemetery at Bidadari (from which his remains were exhumed and moved to a government columbarium in 2002). I attended his funeral in my MGS uniform.

Following the discovery of the Bukit Brown tomb, I decided to piece together information and photographs I had collected over the years on all the branches of my family, weaving them into a single narrative, Four Chinese Families In British Colonial Malaya: Confucius, Christianity And Revolution.

This was self-published for distribution to family members and research libraries as a small contribution to the history of the Overseas Chinese in South-east Asia, a subject which has also formed part of my own scholarly endeavours.

Besides the Bukit Brown researchers and family members, most notably my mother, Irene, this effort benefited greatly from the assistance of Singaporean historians Wang Gungwu and Hui Yew-Foong, and from the online archives of Malayan and Singapore newspapers at the National Library.

The three million to four million direct descendants of Confucius alive in the world today include many in South-east Asia, and they used to have an association in Singapore, which my great-grandfather headed.

The "line" and the "name" may be gone from our branch now, but many of the themes that emerged in my reflection on all my families' lives in the 19th and 20th centuries remain in the 21st - including Chinese tradition, Christian religion, intellectual and social engagement, women's education and empowerment, and above all, globalisation, ethnic diversity and cultural hybridity, as reflected in a recent photo of the 74th, 75th and 76th generations of Tian Siong's descendants in Malaysia.

There are also 77th generation descendants in Singapore, and others in Britain, the United States and Australia.

The experience of excavating my family's histories has reinforced my respect for the importance of physical landmarks - in this case, the Bukit Brown Cemetery and its tombs - in invoking and preserving our collective history. As the July 2013 exhibition title had it, our roots and our future are intertwined.

I hope that many other families will find their histories at Bukit Brown and other places in Singapore, and share them with future generations, as my great-grandfather did.

Kung Tian Siong (standing, right) and his wife, Siauw Mah Lee (seated, far right), in a 1899 picture with Tian Siong’s widowed mother, brother Tian Cheng and his wife, and their sisters, in Singapore. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE FAMILY OF LINDA LIM

When Kung Tian Siong’s second wife, Nona, died in 1926, her lavish funeral was reported in The Straits Times. Tian Siong is on the right wearing a tie. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE FAMILY OF LINDA LIM

Kung Tian Siong’s funeral in 1958. His remains were moved to a government columbarium in 2002, from the Christian cemetery at Bidadari. The writer is fourth from the right in the front row. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE FAMILY OF LINDA LIM


The writer is professor of strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, in the United States. Her book, Four Chinese Families In British Colonial Malaya: Confucius, Christianity And Revolution, is available at the National Library.

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