Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown


ST News, Dec 14, 2015


Madam Ong Poh Neo, great-granddaughter of Straits-born Chinese merchant and philanthropist Tan Jiak Kim, with her cousin, Mr Lloyd Tan (left), and grave hunter Raymond Goh at the Choa Chu Kang cemetery, where the graves of Mr Tan Jiak Kim, his wives, descendants and relatives were found.

The graves went "missing" after they were exhumed from a private family burial ground in Stirling Road in 1964 and relocated. The graves are among approximately 30,000 due to be exhumed under the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Exhumation Phase 5 programme in the fourth quarter of next year.

Nov 13, 2015 Channel News Asia

SINGAPORE: Authorities have called for a detailed study into the architectural, historical and community significance of two areas in central Singapore - Caldecott and Mount Pleasant.

This was revealed in a tender document published by the National Heritage Board (NHB) on the Government's procurement website. The Board told Channel NewsAsia that the study will guide its work in research, planning and outreach.

"The Mount Pleasant and Caldecott area is home to several notable sites and buildings, such as the existing MediaCorp Broadcast Centre, which will be relocating to Mediapolis at Buona Vista, the former Police Academy and colonial bungalows," said an NHB spokesperson.

The area of research is divided into two parts. One covers the Thomson Road and Marymount Road area, which is where the former Police Academy, the Singapore Polo Club and Kopi Sua Cemetery are situated. The other part involves the vicinity around Lornie Road, which includes buildings like MediaCorp Broadcast Centre, Masjid Omar Salmah and Marymount Convent School.

The research will cover aspects like the age of buildings and structures, historical and sociological importance of the sites, as well as information on notable personalities buried in the cemetery. Added to that are personal accounts and memories associated with the areas. A historian said the Government is commissioning the study before it decides on future development.

Said Dr Kevin Tan, who is the president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore: "They clearly want to make sure that any kind of planning decision on the area should be done on the basis of proper information, good information, historical data, so that going forward they know exactly what to do and they can't seem to have less information than the civil society actors."

The research will cover aspects like the age of buildings and structures, historical and sociological importance of the sites, as well as information on notable personalities buried in the sites.

One of the most iconic landmarks in the Caldecott area is Caldecott Hill. For nearly 80 years Caldecott Hill has been synonymous with broadcasting in Singapore. Come December, national broadcaster MediaCorp will start to move to its new premises in Buona Vista. When the move is complete, it will free up about 70,000 square metres of prime land. However, there are some limitations to how the area can be developed.

"Unfortunately, they do have some constraints," said Mr Nicholas Mak, executive director for Research and Consultancy at SLP International. "Firstly, it is surrounded by a lot of luxury landed houses, including some good class bungalows. Secondly, the roads are fairly narrow and there is very little possibility the roads can be expanded, hence that plot of land on Caldecott Hill may not be able to sustain very high density development.

"For example, I don't think it's possible to build office buildings or commercial developments on that hill because the traffic conditions are going to increase tremendously and this will lead to a lot of complaints from the residents in that area. Even during the construction period it will affect the existing residents. Hence, the development of that plot of land is going to be very gradual. It's going to take quite a long time and the most likely type of development is going to be landed residential houses."

Mr Mak said any conserved site must still serve a future need. Dr Tan added that deciding what to conserve goes beyond just the architectural merit of a building.

"A building is a building," said Dr Tan. "You can have one use of it today, you can switch to another tomorrow. But what are people's memories about a space that evoke certain emotions, that tie them to Singapore? I think that's what the state is finally getting around to and saying, 'We've really got to look at the entire social history, so that we understand why people feel the way they do about a particular space'."

One area that will definitely see redevelopment is the former Police Academy. The future Mount Pleasant MRT station along the Thomson-East Coast Line, to be completed by 2019, will be located within the site.

The research is expected to take 12 months, from the date the tender contract is awarded. NHB said the data collated will "contribute substantially to our existing pool of heritage knowledge, while complementing our broad-based island-wide heritage landscape survey launched in Aug 2015" aimed at building up a database of heritage sites, buildings and structures across Singapore.

Said the NHB spokesperson: "Due to the scale and objectives of the survey, it will not yield detailed information of all areas and buildings. Hence, it is important to complement the island-wide survey with research studies on localised areas of noteworthy heritage value. These studies are intended as deep-dive studies that involve comprehensive research and documentation of the areas, including the various sites, buildings and structures."

Nov 12,  ST Forum

Grave hunter Charles Goh (right) with brother Raymond squatting next to a lone grave in Outram. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

I read yesterday's report ("Unearthing history of early S'pore occupants") with interest and share the sentiments that more can be done to archive and collect historical information on tombs and cemeteries, as they present a huge amount of interesting findings.

In land-scarce Singapore, it is important for the authorities, such as the National Archives of Singapore, the National Library Board or the museums, to partner independent tomb explorers in collecting artefacts and information of significant historical value from places that are inaccessible to the public.

This is to allow the preservation of historical information found in these tombs and cemeteries, for future generations to know more about the history of Singapore and its early occupants.

There is potential to turn what has been collected into a public exhibition.

Since some of the findings hold important historical significance, more can be done to highlight these interesting artefacts and stories.

After the data collection is completed, public guided tours can be conducted and trails demarcated.

Through the independent tomb explorers' work, more Singaporeans could perhaps trace their family roots and share interesting accounts of their family lineage with the public, so that such historical information can be preserved as well as conserved.

It is also important that with the sharing of such experiences, the younger generation can be educated on Singapore's past, as history can be easily forgotten through the modernisation of society.

I urge the authorities to support the hard work and determination of these independent tomb explorers, in the hopes of archiving the past, and informing and educating the public on the historical value and impact of documenting these places, which might otherwise be forgotten.

Darren Chan Keng Leong

Nov 11, 2015 The Straits Times
By Melody Zaccheus

Tomb-hunting brothers' finds in MacRitchie area include account of 2 early landowners

Mr Charles Goh (far left), 47, and Mr Raymond Goh, 51, who are researching Bukit Brown and its vicinity, discovered the significance of two markers, which pieced together the story of Mr George Mildmay Dare and Mr Seah Eu Chin, who were among the first land owners in the MacRitchie area. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

Deep in the heart of MacRitchie Reservoir Park once stood a lakehouse built in the 1890s and owned by Briton George Mildmay Dare, a former secretary of the Singapore Cricket Club.  (See correction note below)

Both Mr Dare and prominent local merchant Seah Eu Chin were among the first to own land at what was then known as the Impounding Reservoir, or Thomson Reservoir. The colonial government later acquired the privately owned land to widen the reservoir.

What remains today are two stone markers inscribed with the words "Dare" in English and "Seah Chin Hin" in Chinese for Mr Seah's plantation, as well as the stone and brick foundations of Mr Dare's former home. This account of the area's early occupants and how land use there evolved was pieced together in July by tomb-hunting brothers Charles and Raymond Goh, after they began studying the markers and land ownership records.

They also learnt Mr Dare's wife, Ms Annie Dorothea Caroline Earnshaw, was the first female motorist in Singapore and the first car owner here with the licence plate S-1.

The Gohs first found the artefacts in 2011 as part of their research on Bukit Brown and its vicinity.

Their quest to piece together the history of Singapore's early occupants takes them to thick forested areas every weekend, in search of remnants of the past such as markers and graves.

Raymond, a Hwa Chong alumnus who is well-versed in Chinese culture, is also focusing on the approximately 40.4ha Lao Sua cemetery near Mount Pleasant Road. He has dedicated the past year to studying the graves there.

Among Raymond's latest finds are the graves of 10 pioneers buried in Bukit Brown, who have roads named after them. These include businessman Kiong Siok Wee, one of the proprietors of the Singapore Free Press, who died in 1888 and was buried in the Hokkien cemetery adjacent to Bukit Brown. The Siok Wee Road near Chin Swee Road has since been expunged.

Raymond, 51, director of a healthcare company, said: "These early Bukit Brown graves hold the stories of Singapore's first generation of pioneers who came here soon after Stamford Raffles. We need to do research on them to learn where they came from and how and what they contributed to the island."

Last month, he uncovered the tombs of Chinese Singaporean Peranakans Chua Kong Yak and Ong Cheo Neo - the great-great-great grandparents of Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin.

Dr Chua said that his find has helped her to trace her lineage beyond just her great-grandfather. "The brothers' work has had a major impact on Singaporeans struggling to trace their roots. They help to demonstrate Bukit Brown's links to living individuals and families today," she said.

The brothers hope to set up a digital library repository by early next year to archive their finds since 2006. Raymond also plans to etch out a public trail in Lao Sua to highlight 50 tombs of interest.

Younger brother Charles, 47, head of workplace safety and health at a Japanese firm whose expertise lies in digging up land records, hopes for more support from the authorities. He said: "A lot of this historical work relies on our own steam, manpower and finances. We hope the relevant bodies can recognise the significance of our work and the historical value of Bukit Brown and its cemeteries which are rich in data. After all, we're making new discoveries each week."

Correction note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that George Mildmay Dare was a former president of the Singapore Cricket Club instead of a former secretary. We are sorry for the error.

Nov 7, 2015, The New Paper

It all started with a news report about Bukit Brown cemetery.

Mr Kostas Ikonomopoulos at the St Joseph Church cemetery.

A Greek national developed such a strong fascination with local history that he wrote a book about it. 
NATASHA MEAH (natmeah@sph.com.sg) speaks to the author and shares some of his more unusual stories

Greek national Kostas Ikonomopoulos, 39, was fascinated by the decision to build a highway and eventually a new town over the cemetery. Mr Ikonomopoulos, a permanent resident here, said he took on the challenge of uncovering Singapore's hidden past through unexplored places, including cemeteries.

For six months, he trekked around Singapore, including the surrounding islands. He visited up to 30 locations, including more than 15 cemeteries. He walked alone along rows of headstones. He rubbed dirt off the stones with his bare hands to uncover the names engraved beneath as mosquitoes feasted on him. At each cemetery, Mr Ikonomopoulos would take pictures and notes and examine the state of the grave. He would pay close attention to some names that grabbed his attention and then study the architecture of the place. His mission? To find out who these people were and what their lives were back then. He searched the National Archives of Singapore at the National Library Board, reading through both Malay and English newspapers to uncover stories and truths of the lives of people long forgotten.

Mr Ikonomopoulos, who moved here in 2010 and lives with his Singaporean wife and daughter, said: "People have a skewed perception of Singapore. They think Singapore is just Orchard Road and those who come here from other places think it's just a place to make money. "It seems that the focus of society is on the technical and material progress and the fact that country also has a cultural past gets overlooked." KRANJI BARRACKS For example, he said, the old military barracks in Kranji where the British used to station the soldiers during colonial times have been demolished or repainted a very bright white and now house banks and other enterprises. Things like colonial bungalows were also demolished to make way for high-rise buildings, he said. So he decided to write a book to capture the cultural past that would otherwise disappear.

Remains: A Singapore Journey was released on Sept 10. Remains: 
A Singapore Journey by Kostas Ikonomopoulos WHAT Book on Singapore's cultural past PRICE $19.26 inclusive of GST

WHERE TO BUY Online at www.ethosbooks.com.sg/ Booktique at CityLink Mall Books Kinokuniya

My family spent last month's Hari Raya Haji holiday making our own pilgrimage of sorts, as more than a hundred descendants of my late great-grandfather gathered for the first time.

The idea to summon the entire clan arose a few months earlier after my father decided to patch the missing gaps on a family tree my granduncle was working on.

It was a tree that was sprouting new branches by the day, partly because my great-grandfather had no fewer than six wives and 14 children, one of whom was my paternal grandmother.

Oct 25, 2015, The Straits Times
by Yeo Sam Jo

My great-grandfather Chia Yew Siang was a philanthropist and merchant who possibly traded in rubber and spices. I say possibly because historical records of him are patchy. His only surviving child, my granduncle, does not know either as he was just five when his father died in 1930 at the age of 63.


Most of us know little else about the man except that he has a road in Pasir Panjang named after him.

In a way, the gathering aimed to not only track down long-lost relatives, but also to learn more about our common ancestor.

So there we were at a condominium function room, 85 years after our forebear was lowered into the ground at Bukit Brown Cemetery, among a sea of strangers who were actually our relatives.

To say it was a Chinese New Year reunion on steroids would be an understatement. I had never encountered so many relatives under one roof. There were 115 of us - from bawling babies and brooding teenagers to kaypoh aunts and, of course, my 90-year-old granduncle.

Some had even travelled from Malaysia just for the occasion.

We needed coloured name tags to keep up with the archaic concept of polygamy. Orange meant you were descended from the first wife, gold the second and so on.

It was the first time most of us were laying eyes on one another. Naturally, it seemed a tad awkward to acknowledge each other as kinfolk. But blood quickly proved thicker than water.

An aunt we had never met before marched up to me and my cousins and peered at us intently.

"Yes, you can tell we are family," she declared. "We all have the same jawline."

I wasn't so convinced until moments later when I mistook a nephew whom I had never met before for my cousin Roy. In my defence, they even had the same spiky hairstyle.

We spotted familiar faces in the crowd too. My cousins' junior college physical education teacher, for example, turned out to be our second cousin.

"How small this world is," remarked another newfound aunt. "I guess it's good to know who you're related to because, you know - incest," she whispered with genuine concern.

We took turns introducing ourselves and sharing anecdotes about my great-grandfather. It was fascinating listening to what different relatives knew about the man.

An aunt revealed that he helped to build a school in Pasir Panjang. That's why a road there carries his name, she said.

We also learnt that one of his sons and two of his grandsons were taken away and killed during the Japanese Occupation.

Bit by bit, we pieced together the enigmatic jigsaw puzzle that was my great-grandfather.

I don't think we came close to completing the puzzle and I'm not certain that we ever will. And the family tree, while updated, may never be complete as we have lost touch with some relatives.

But I couldn't help walking away from the gathering feeling somewhat comforted.

As humans, we are curious about our provenance. This get-together not only answered many questions, but also bound each of us to a common page in our history.

I don't think my great-grandfather ever dreamt that his descendants would one day track one another down the way we did. But I have a feeling that he would have appreciated not being forgotten. While we might never have all 115 of us back in the same room again, it's a start.

A week after the gathering, a second cousin whom we had lost touch with reached out via e-mail.

My uncle is also planning a family excursion to my great-grandfather's tomb, which many relatives have never visited.

Perhaps, aside from the annual Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping Festival) rituals, reconnecting with one another is the least we can do to honour our predecessor's memory.

As American author Liam Callanan once wrote: "We're all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us."

Sep 30, 2015, The Straits Times

by Melody Zaccheus

SINGAPORE - The iconic cast iron gates that greeted visitors entering Bukit Brown Cemetery for close to a century have been removed from their posts to make way for an eight-lane road.

The cast iron gates and four concrete columns (above) at the entrance of Bukit Brown Cemetery are making way for an eight-lane road.

Still, the good news for heritage groups is that the rusting metal structure in Lorong Halwa will be refurbished and eventually relocated at the mouth of a new access road near its original location.

On Monday, construction firm Swee Hong removed the iron gates and placed them in an on-site Land Transport Authority (LTA) storage facility alongside other cemetery artefacts such as tombstones. The concrete columns will be removed in the coming weeks.

After that, the National Heritage Board (NHB) will hire a contractor to carry out refurbishment works.

The Bukit Brown entrance gates comprise several components including a pair of cast iron gates through which cars used to drive in, two side gates for pedestrians, and four free-standing square columns.

Likely prefabricated in Britain, the cast iron gates were shipped to Singapore while the square columns were cast on the spot. The cemetery opened in 1922.

The refurbishment is an initiative by a recently formed multi-agency work group chaired by the Ministry of National Development (MND). It includes the NHB, LTA and civic organisations All Things Bukit Brown and the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS).

Some parts of Bukit Brown have been razed as the LTA constructs a major eight-lane road through the cemetery to connect the MacRitchie Viaduct to the Adam Flyover. The LTA said the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

NHB assistant chief executive of policy and development Alvin Tan said the gateway is significant: "It is one of the last remaining cemetery structures of its kind and serves as an iconic place marker for the cemetery and its heritage."

SHS president Chua Ai Lin said said the SHS played an "important role advising the working group on conservation best practices".

Among its suggestions: to construct a wooden frame to support the iron gates' structure upon removal and during storage; to minimise handling and movement; and to enlist a specialist metallurgy conservator.

On the gates' future position at the mouth of a smaller road, Dr Chua said this would affect the visitors' sense of arrival.

"The old entrance was majestic and had a sense of grandeur as you stepped forth down a wide road to the historic graves beyond," she said.

But she added that "the relocation of the original gates does help to preserve some sense of continuity".

A spokesman for MND said the working group is looking at issues such as future use of the cemetery's artefacts and enhancing the site for visitor access.

All Things Bukit Brown's co-founder Catherine Lim said the group's discussions have been "fruitful and productive" so far.

She added: "Our belief is that Bukit Brown is definitely a heritage site worth preserving. We are contributing ideas to the working committee to see what we can do for it in the short and long term."

Said the MND spokesman: "The Government will continue to support the efforts of civil society, interest groups and interested individuals to discover more about Bukit Brown, and for the heritage of Bukit Brown to be shared and celebrated with more Singaporeans."

Sep 21, 2015
By Mayo Martin

Drama Box’s poignant tribute to Bukit Brown Cemetery wraps up festival

Construction for an eight-lane highway cutting through Bukit Brown Cemetery has already begun, but questions surrounding its fate continue to haunt us.

And, as this year’s edition of the Singapore International Festival of Arts came to an end over the weekend, the issues behind the world’s biggest Chinese cemetery outside of China — the campaigns to save it and the debates that surround it — got an airing once more with theatre group Drama Box’s second production under its It Won’t Be Too Long series, titled The Cemetery.

It had come after The Lesson, which took place during the General Election and saw audiences deciding on what site they thought most expendable in the name of a fictitious new MRT station and progress. With a fictitious columbarium-cum-heritage site chosen as the least important site to keep in two of the four nights, Bukit Brown was thrown into even sharper relief in The Cemetery.

Directed by Kok Heng Leun, it comprised two distinct shows: Dawn and Dusk. The former took place at the famous cemetery, with audiences gathering at 5.30am to witness a wordless performance of what could be interpreted as a gathering of the place’s own ghosts — a group of dancers in white performing on a candle-lined inclined road, on top of which was a piano.

In the show, they slap their hands, move around playfully, sometimes monkey-like, and in this specific context, their actions have literal narrative meanings: When someone tries in vain to prop up his slowly collapsing fellow performers, you imagine the latter as the tombstones. When a truck briefly (and unexpectedly) interrupts the performance by passing through, you think of the highway. All these without a single word being said, and instead, you have the audible exhalation of breath, as if a sigh, or a humming of a poignant melody, later ending with a piano performance by dancer Leong Jian Hao.

All these take place in the middle of the cemetery, lending the performance not only ambience but immediacy. And as the show ends, volunteer tour guides (aka Brownies) offer a brief trip around the premises, highlighting the now-famous Sikh guards watching over graves and even the grave of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s grandfather — even as construction hoardings stand as a reminder of a different kind of passing.

Forming the Dawn show’s counterpoint is the Dusk performance, held at School of the Arts at night. The real-life cemetery has been transformed into a map outline inside a theatre, the early morning’s performers are back but there is now the added layer: Actors Jo Tan, Karen Tan and Tim Nga were reading lines.

Whatever emotions were evoked by the physical performances and ambience of the morning show is now grounded in fact and history, as we hear the different accounts of a saga that began in 2011 when the Land Transport Authority announced plans to build a new road across a cemetery that had disappeared from public consciousness for the past three to four decades.

The voices, compiled by playwright Jean Tay, are varied: You had the Brownies, nature lovers, relatives of those buried at the cemetery, amateur historians, a tomb keeper, and civil society and government leaders such as Singapore Heritage Society’s Chua Ai Lin, SOS Bukit Brown’s Jennifer Teo and then-Minister of State for National Development and Manpower, Tan Chuan-Jin.

It is a saga that many of us are familiar with: The clash of history, culture, heritage and nature on one side, and urban development, economic growth and so-called land scarcity on the other (with 24 golf courses in Singapore, someone pointed out in the show).

The different perspectives have already played out on mass and social media. But the show also offers added context and perspective: How the specter of the old National Library’s demolition in the name of a tunnel loomed over this issue; that the Bukit Brown saga was post-GE2011 and there was also the Rail Corridor issue with the railway land given back to Singapore that same year.

At the same time, it also draws on distant history: The government’s hand in the cemetery’s current transformation is uncannily similar to what took place in the early 1900s — albeit in a reverse fashion when it decided it needed a municipal cemetery and acquired a portion of land owned by wealthy Hokkien businessmen.

But, this is not just the story of a cemetery. In many ways, it is also the story of Singapore’s civil society in its infancy, a motley group of people seemingly unprepared as they were thrust into the sudden role of the cemetery’s champions. It was not so much the lack of support, one of the interviewees mentioned after the disheartening news that the project was to push through. It was the lack of “making-noise-ability”.

And as the floor’s map outline is eventually covered by many footprints, noise does surface near the end: Instead of the tinkling of piano keys, you had the loud guitar-driven song August Is The Cruellest by the band The Observatory. “Soon we forget what is wrong, what is right,” goes its lyrics, as the music evokes anger, frustration, despair and destruction — but perhaps also the slightest trace of hope (from a band with an album titled Time Of Rebirth, after all). As a sign of respect, the names of all the dead whose graves were exhumed are flashed on the screen one last time before we are left to ponder what is next for the living.

The Guardian  Aug 6, 2015

Overgrown and littered with dead leaves, Bukit Brown cemetery does not feature in many tourist guides to Singapore. But its 200 hectares are one of the island’s few green spaces, home to a quarter of the bird species - and the final resting place for more than 100,000 people. Yet its days might be numbered. Over 3,700 of those 100,000 graves have now been exhumed, to make way for an eight-lane highway that will cut the cemetery in half.
This gruesome business is nothing new. In Singapore, hundreds of thousands of bodies have already been hauled up from the ground to pave the way for malls, roads and apartment blocks. The entire city-state of Singapore covers a mere 71,830 hectares, less than half the size of Greater London, so land is always at a premium here - and the needs of the dead generally give way to that of the living.

As the country marks 50 years since independence with a weekend of golden jubilee celebrations, however, questions are finally asked about how to preserve what little heritage Singapore has left. In a city where many buildings are brand-new, cemeteries are a rare link to the past. What’s more, as the exhumations continue, the custom of visiting and worshipping at an ancestor’s tomb – once so integral to Chinese culture – is starting to become unfamiliar to Singapore’s Chinese population.

Authorities say digging up Bukit Brown for the road will ease congestion from the Pan-Island Expressway, the first step towards further development of the area: the Ministry of National Development (MND) is considering converting all of Bukit Brown into housing by 2030. The exhumed remains are either reinterred in smaller plots, or cremated, according to the National Environment Agency (NEA). Relatives can then visit their ancestors at the shared plots or at various columbaria.

Only one cemetery is still open for burial at all: for between S$315 to S$940 (£146 to £435) per adult, you can be buried at Chua Chu Kang cemetery, in a less developed part of western Singapore. But, as with most things in the city-state, there’s an expiry date. Under the New Burial Policy of 1998, you can lease a plot only for a maximum of 15 years. (In Hong Kong, another similarly sized city, the problem is even worse: urns filled with ashes often sit in funeral parlours for months while waiting for the next available spot at a public columbarium, and the maximum burial period is just six years.)

Next to be exhumed in Chua Chu Kang is part of the Chinese section, with graves buried between 1947 to 1975. Relatives have been asked to claim the remains of family members before the end of July next year. The NEA said they did not know about any future plans for the area.
The country’s political leaders have often cited the challenge of balancing competing urban interests. In a statement, an MND spokesperson said: “The government needs to prioritise the use of our land for various needs such as housing, green spaces, utilities, transportation, ports and airports and amenities to support the functions of a nation. ... The bulk of Bukit Brown Cemetery will only be developed in the longer term.”

In 1978, there were 213 burial grounds on 2,146 hectares in Singapore, or about 3.7% of the island. Many were already facing clearance even then. Minister EW Barker told parliament that “over the next few years, all private cemeteries… which have been closed for burials, will be acquired as and when required for development.”

Since then, dozens of cemeteries have been lost. Prime among them was Bidadari cemetery, which served Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sinhalese communities. Many notable people were buried there, including Augustine Podmore Williams, an English mariner on the SS Jeddah, whose story inspired Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Bidadari Cemetery was cleared between 2001 and 2006, in an operation that exhumed 58,000 Christian and 68,000 Muslim graves. In its place, the government is building a new town, complete with an underground, air-conditioned bus interchange and the city’s first underground service reservoir. The first public housing flats will go on sale this September.
Even the city’s main shopping belt, Orchard Road, is built on a former graveyard that was dug up. Ngee Ann City, a looming brown building that’s home to a major department store and up-market boutiques, marks the location of what used to be the largest Teochew community cemetery on the island. Now the gleaming mall generates revenue for Ngee Ann Kongsi, a charitable organisation for the Chinese Teochew community, allowing them to fund programmes in education.
Just a little down the road, Orchard Residences – a fancy private condominium built above the ION Orchard mall – is also built on what used to be Teochew grave sites. Four-bedroom, three-bathroom units in Orchard go for up to S$11m (£5m).
Conservationists are hoping to save Bukit Brown from going down this path. They say the cemetery should remain a free, public space, not be converted into an exclusive zone for the rich.
Norman Cho’s great-uncle Tan Kay Tiang occupies one of the graves that will be exhumed in Bukit Brown. Tan died in 1938, many years before his grandchildren – who are now in their 60s – were born. The grandchildren “were not particularly enthusiastic about the exhumation,” Cho said. So he stepped in to claim his great-uncle’s remains and cremate them.
“I did so with his great-granchildren in mind,” he said. “In a way, I try to preserve the memory of the man for his descendants.”
Khoo Ee Hoon, who volunteers to contact the descendants of people buried in Chua Chu Kang cemetery in the hopes that they will claim the remains upon exhumation, says many are not interested. “They no longer feel the anguish or the pain” associated with ancestors from three or four generations back, she said. Although many Chinese Singaporean families continue to visit cemeteries and columbaria during the Qingming festival, many others no longer follow such traditions.
“The whole cemetery culture is already gone,” says Darren Koh, a volunteer guide with All Things Bukit Brown, a group who organise guided walks through the cemetery. “The idea of worshipping or honouring the Earth deity first before you go to the grave, it’s gone. How many people on our tour had actually visited a cemetery before?”
This ever-growing estrangement from the “culture” of cemeteries has led to burial being seen as a waste of space in Singapore. Moreover, now that remains are almost certain to be exhumed eventually, more people are opting for cremation in the first place. In 2011, 80% of those who died chose cremation – almost everyone, in other words, except for people whose religions specifically dictate burial, such as Muslims, Baha’i and Parsees.
The activists of All Things Bukit Brown (they call themselves Brownies) hope to increase awareness of the cemetery’s ecological diversity and historical wealth, so Singaporeans can better decide if the space is worth conserving when it faces being dug up even further. The history contained in places like Bukit Brown is what gives Singaporeans a sense of belonging, Koh says.
“The difference between a home and a luxury suite at the W Hotel are the memories,” he said. “If you keep digging up all the memories that remain in a particular location, it may be the most beautiful place in the world but it will become a hotel room.”
It’s easy to see what Koh means about memories about Bukit Brown: the graves, which date back to 1833 and are arranged following Chinese beliefs in feng shui rather than in strict rows, are home to businessmen, manual labourers, industrialists and revolutionaries. “So much history is left uncovered here. If we lose all of this, will we ever get it back again?” Koh said.
Conservationists argue that Singaporeans shouldn’t always be required to choose between preserving cemeteries and the country’s development. Citing the example of how cemeteries in other cities such as Kuala Lumpur have been converted to heritage parks, Koh says alternative solutions can always be found, allowing Singapore to continue advancing while also preserving its history.

As we walk towards the old gates of Bukit Brown, now ringed by a construction site, Koh gestures with his walking stick towards the remaining tombs. “Romantically put, until the last grave is dug out I think we’ll still guide, because there’s a lot of history that we want to make sure we can save.”

If you dig up all the memories, [your new development] will become a hotel room’ ... Darren Koh, one of the tour guides of historic Bukit Brown. Photograph: Kirsten Han

ST Forum   Jul 28, 2015

We agree with Dr Wee Yeow Chin that any "piece of land left undisturbed for a prolonged period... will see the vegetation regenerating and the biodiversity increasing" ("Bukit Brown habitat can be recreated"; Forum Online, July 20), but for us, it doesn't simply follow from this that it would have no ecological/biodiversity significance at all.
Take the case of the Sungei Buloh area, now officially designated the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. It was almost bare of mangrove, consisting mainly of abandoned aqua-culture ponds in the 80s. But it has developed within three decades into a healthy mangrove ecosystem with increase in wildlife species there.
Apart from the many migratory shorebirds, it now also harbours nationally endangered species like the great-billed heron, mangrove pitta, buffy fish owl and smooth otter. To say now that the mangrove ecosystem there is not worth conserving because this type of habitat can be regenerated over just several decades lacks eco-sense.

Given that the forest of Bukit Brown has attracted forest wildlife, many of which are endangered, it is worth conserving because it is better to have what is already there than to create from scratch a similar habitat elsewhere.
Even in the case of Dr Wee's backyard, we would regard it as brash for any conservationist to dismiss it as ecologically insignificant if he can welcome wildlife like the endangered pangolin to find nourishment there.
True, forest wildlife from the nature reserves can also move elsewhere but if that area is rich in such wildlife with rare/endangered species thrown in, we would be ready to also put a case for its conservation - as we did recently for the unprotected forest contiguous to the north-west portion of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
If the relatively small acreage of our protected forest can be expanded by conserving unprotected forests that have attracted endangered wildlife, the population of such species as well as others would be larger or have room to grow larger.
This would be an invaluable safeguard against any collapse or destruction to the forest ecosystem and its wildlife caused by any such disturbances, like disease, forest fire, wind-storm and gene-pool decline through isolation.
Given also the cultural significance of Bukit Brown, as presented by the Singapore Heritage Society, there is all the more reason for it to be designated a park integrating both its cultural and natural assets.
Ho Hua Chew
Conservation Committee
Nature Society (Singapore)

ST Forum   Jul 20, 2015

Although Dr Ho Hua Chew believes that Bukit Brown is rich in biodiversity ("Biodiversity importance of Bt Brown"; last Friday), I agree with Mr Heng Cho Choon ("Bukit Brown not worthy of World Heritage status"; July 11) that such biodiversity is of no significance.
Any piece of land left undisturbed for a prolonged period, including my backyard, will see the vegetation regenerating and the biodiversity increasing. And if my backyard is next to a nature reserve, it is inevitable that forest animals will wander in. Rare or endangered animals that happen to visit, including colugo and pangolin, will not make the area worthy of conservation.
To claim that MacRitchie forest is isolated from the rest of the catchment forests and that its carrying capacity for forest species is being exceeded is mere speculation. The animals may move to Bukit Brown because it is nearby, but they also move to nearby areas elsewhere.
The Bukit Brown habitat can easily be recreated.
The Peirce and MacRitchie forests are more than a century old. They cannot be recreated within a lifetime. The Nature Society should give priority to such areas rather than fight for replicable habitats.
Wee Yeow Chin (Dr)

ST Forum  Jul 17, 2015

We disagree with Mr Heng Cho Choon's view on the insignificance of Bukit Brown's biodiversity ("Bukit Brown not worthy of World Heritage status"; last Saturday).
Since being de-gazetted as a cemetery, Bukit Brown has become forested with many forest plants, like the terentang and the giant mahang colonising it.
We have been monitoring its wildlife for many years.
Yes, or biodiversity, it is not comparable to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Pulau Ubin or Sungei Buloh.
But if it is in terms of the occurrence of rare or nationally threatened species, our records at Bukit Brown show 15 bird species listed on The Singapore Red Data Book, including critically endangered species like the white-bellied woodpecker, white-rumped shama, spotted wood owl, grey-headed fish eagle and black-headed bulbul.
There is a new butterfly record for Singapore, the banded line blue, as well as a rare one, the golden royal.
There is also an unconfirmed report of the Sunda pangolin, a critically endangered mammal, both globally and nationally.
For plants, you have the endangered Hoya latifolia and several species listed in the Singapore Red Data Book as vulnerable.
The biodiversity importance of Bukit Brown has more to do with its proximity to the MacRitchie forest, just across Lornie Road.
The presence of many forest species in Bukit Brown makes this area very important as an extended feeding ground/habitat for forest species whose populations have probably exceeded the carrying capacity of the MacRitchie forest, which is isolated from the main portion of the nature reserves by a golf course, reservoir and dam.
An example is the sighting of a Malayan colugo (flying lemur) at the very edge of the Bukit Brown forest contiguous to Lornie Road. This fascinating forest mammal must be desperate enough to risk gliding across a seven-lane road to reach the nearest tree across it.
Bukit Brown also serves as an indispensable stepping stone for the dispersal of wildlife to nature areas southwards, such as Malcolm Park and Botanic Gardens, as the animals search for habitats beyond MacRitchie.
For these reasons, we have proposed to the authorities that Bukit Brown be made into a cultural-cum-natural heritage park.
Ho Hua Chew (Dr)
Conservation Committee Nature Society (Singapore)

ST Forum   Jul 14, 2015

In comparing Bukit Brown with Borobudur and Angkor Wat, Mr Heng Cho Choon seems to suggest that Bukit Brown is not architecturally worthy and does not have a long enough history ("Bukit Brown not worthy of World Heritage status"; last Saturday).
Mr Heng will be glad to know that the Unesco World Heritage Site selection process is not as stringent as he is. To qualify as a site of "outstanding universal value", nominations must satisfy at least one of 10 criteria, which include "exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilisation" and being "directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance".
Bukit Brown has also garnered international recognition. It was on last year's World Monuments Watch List and has been featured in the international media and many publications around the world.
More importantly, Bukit Brown has triggered grassroots activism, which has seen volunteers learning about the histories of the personalities interred there and offering public tours.
The community engagement it has nurtured is immeasurable.
But, let's get to the heart of Mr Heng's question on why Bukit Brown should be considered.
Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, with more than 200,000 graves.
It is a uniquely South-east Asian space with a mix of cultural features such as Peranakan aesthetics, Sikh stone guards and Anglo-Chinese influence intermingling with the main Southern Chinese influence.
It is the final resting place of many of our country's pioneers, such as Chew Joo Chiat, Gan Eng Seng and Lim Chong Pang.
While the Singapore Heritage Society believes that Bukit Brown is worthy of inscription as a World Heritage Site, only the Government can submit a nomination to Unesco. For this to happen, the Government must agree on the site's value and be committed to its protection.
What we need in Singapore is a framework and platform for the open discussion of heritage issues and a thorough evaluation of sites with heritage potential.
Chua Ai Lin (Dr)
Singapore Heritage Society

ST Forum  Jul 13, 2015

If Mr Heng Cho Choon had spent time in Bukit Brown beyond a cursory glance, he would know that it is replete with history and culture ("Bukit Brown not worthy of World Heritage status"; last Saturday).
This can be summarised in three important points.
One, the tombstones are not, as Mr Heng states, all broken.
Many are well-preserved examples of Chinese grave architecture, exemplifying the best of Chinese stonemasonry, using specially imported stone to accomplish.
Two, as Mr Edwin Pang pointed out last Wednesday ("Bukit Brown deserves World Heritage status, too"), many of Singapore's pioneers are buried in Bukit Brown, including Cheang Hong Lim, Lim Nee Soon, Lim Chong Pang and Chew Boon Lay.
Three, Bukit Brown achieved World Monuments Fund Watch List status last year, a testament to its significance as part of a global heritage.
I have spent three years documenting Bukit Brown in both a personal and professional capacity, and during this time, have developed a deep appreciation for the cemetery - it is a connection to the past, a reminder of the sacrifices made by our ancestors.
If we dismiss every place in Singapore because of a lack of space or in the name of becoming a First World country, we risk forgetting where we began.
If there is any other place in Singapore worth considering as a Unesco World Heritage Site, it is Bukit Brown Cemetery.
Terence Heng (Dr)

Jul 12, 2015
SINGAPORE — The Republic’s successful bid to have the Singapore Botanic Gardens recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site earlier this month has sparked discussion, and hope, that more sites reflecting the nation’s heritage may gain recognition and protection.
Top on the wishlist of heritage experts and the public are Pulau Ubin, Bukit Brown and Jalan Kubor cemeteries, Jurong industrial estate, and even the types of public housing built over the years.
As the largest Chinese cemetery outside China with about 100,000 graves, Bukit Brown is a historical site comparable to others around the world, said Singapore Heritage Society vice-president Terence Chong. “More importantly, Bukit Brown is a showcase of the complexity of overseas Chinese culture with Fujian influence lying beside Peranakan aesthetics,” he added.

The society’s president, Dr Chua Ai Lin, said the cemetery was placed on last year’s World Monuments Watch, a global list of endangered cultural heritage sites. This is testimony to the fact that it has considerable heritage value, she said. Jalan Kubor, Singapore’s oldest Muslim cemetery and home to about 15,000 graves, is equally rich in heritage, she added.
The decision to build a road through Bukit Brown in 2012 resulted in consternation among conservation groups, which lamented the ensuing loss of heritage and biodiversity. Meanwhile, calls have been made to preserve Jalan Kubor by making it part of the Kampong Glam conservation district.
Last week, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the Botanic Gardens was “just the very first site” that Singapore could offer to the world, and that there was much to reflect upon with regard to the nation’s next heritage site.
Indeed, the Gardens’ success has led to much discussion about what else can be done to recognise other heritage sites — even if they do not have the potential to get on UNESCO’s list.
Singapore formally protects heritage sites through the inscription of National Monuments and conserved buildings. But Dr Chua noted that heritage-rich sites such as Bukit Brown slip through the cracks of protection.
“It is neither a building nor a monument,” she said, adding that there needs to be a comprehensive review of heritage legislation. “One of the things we’ve been saying is there is already existing legislation, but are they sufficient in protecting all sites?”
For instance, Singapore University of Technology and Design architecture assistant professor Yeo Kang Shua said public housing, ranging from Singapore Improvement Trust flats to more recent HDB homes, was worthy of consideration too, given the country’s success in this area.
Said Dr Yeo, who is also Singapore Heritage Society’s honorary secretary and whose work includes the restoration of Yueh Hai Ching Temple on Phillip Street: “We can look at the different periods of development and how we keep it as part of our landscape.” However, he acknowledged the challenges of getting public housing inscribed. “It’s a lived environment and, because of that, we have to accept that it’ll change over time.”
Architect and urban historian Lai Chee Kien pointed out that Jurong industrial estate, a “Garden Industrial Estate”, was revolutionary in its planning and design. “It’s the only industrial estate I know that crisscrosses industrial areas with greenery ... the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, Bird Park and lake area provide greenery for workers’ respite,” he said. “Jurong is a lesser-known but important idea that Singapore has given the world — that you can integrate green areas to ameliorate industrial areas, rather than setting them apart.”
Pulau Ubin, said Dr Chua, also needs further protection. “Pulau Ubin is not protected by any legislation now, but is a place that is rich in cultural heritage and deserves to be protected.”
Wishlists aside, Dr Chua said what is more pressing is the need to involve Singaporeans in the ongoing public conversation on heritage. Agreeing, Dr Yeo said: “Having a title tends to raise awareness. We congratulate ourselves for getting Botanic Gardens (listed), but what’s next?” He called for a public platform where people could “discuss heritage openly and transparently, be it our local community heritage, national heritage or world heritage”.
Responding to media queries, the National Heritage Board (NHB) said it has no plans to nominate other sites in Singapore for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. NHB CEO Rosa Daniel said putting up a bid for such a status requires a lot of resources from government agencies and the community, and the work continues even after a successful inscription. But the board is open to exploring possible sites with experts and stakeholders, she added.
While most may expect a World Heritage site to be of certain grandeur, such as China’s Great Wall, Dr Chua felt that in Singapore, it could be any place that is “deeply valued by the local community and which meets UNESCO criteria.
Members of the public on a guided tour of Bukit Brown Cemetery. Photo: Robin Choo/TODAY


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