Update of news and articles on Bukit Brown

July 2015

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


ST Forum, Jul 11, 2015

I disagree with Mr Edwin Pang's suggestion to boost the status of Bukit Brown Cemetery ("Bukit Brown deserves World Heritage status, too"; Wednesday).
Considering the cemetery's state, it would be ludicrous to make it a Unesco World Heritage Site and it may even damage Singapore's reputation if it became one.
Take Borobudur, a ninth-century Buddhist temple in Indonesia, and Cambodia's Angkor Wat - both Unesco World Heritage sites. These are architectural wonders of the world and have long histories.
Our land area of 718.3 sq km now holds a population of 5.5 million and this will increase in the years to come. The needs of the living should supersede those of the dead.
The Land Transport Authority has started work on building a new road to join the Adam Road flyover and the MacRitchie viaduct. With it, the traffic jams of Thomson Road will be eased considerably.
We cannot afford to be too sentimental over preserving an old cemetery like Bukit Brown, which is today nothing more than a forlorn place with broken tombstones and overgrown lalang.
Bukit Brown Cemetery pales in comparison with Bidadari Cemetery, which was started in 1908. Early pioneers Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang were buried there until the site was exhumed in 2004.
The beautiful marble statues there were demolished and some were sent to the Garden of Remembrance in Old Choa Chu Kang Road. The HDB is building homes there, to be ready by 2018.
The so-called flora and fauna of Bukit Brown are too insignificant to be preserved as you can see only butterflies, snakes, spiders and some trees such as the African tulip. By comparison, Pulau Ubin has a more diverse range of flora and fauna worth preserving.
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Pasir Ris Park have some rare flora and fauna, too, which, if not protected, will soon be extinct.
Heng Cho Choon

By  | Yahoo Newsroom – Wed, Jul 8, 2015

Now that the Singapore Botanic Gardens have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with all the attendant plaudits and financial benefits, it is perhaps time to revisit the old question: What is worth preserving in Singapore?
On the fact of it, heritage and history enthusiasts have much to cheer. After all, the authorities seem to be paying a lot of attention to Singapore’s heritage - the UNESCO award itself was the result of a five-year campaign. There have even been official promises that the award will spur the Government on to do more for conservation efforts.
In a recent interview with Channel News Asia, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong was quoted as saying: “It will motivate us to do even more to strengthen our conservation efforts in the gardens and elsewhere in Singapore and to invest even more in heritage development in Singapore.”
But this leads directly to the issue that invariably turns contentious: Which sites should be preserved, and which should go?
It’s worth noting that the Gardens themselves were chosen from other possible sites such as Chek Jawa and Little India, to be put up for UNESCO’s consideration. They were ultimately nominated because, according to The Straits Times,  they had “outstanding universal value” and met two of UNESCO’s 10 criteria - having a historical landscape, and playing a role in the interchange of human values.
It might be argued that the 233-hectare Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is more than a century old, would have been a worthy candidate too. It houses Singapore’s oldest graves, including those of entrepreneur Ong Sam Leong and his sons, whose tomb is reportedly the largest in Singapore. Thanks to extensive media coverage, Bukit Brown has also gained popularity as a weekend destination. 
Several years ago, word of plans to build a new highway through the cemetery spurred civil society activists such as the Singapore Heritage Society to lobby authorities to preserve the cemetery.
Yet, thousands of graves there have already been unearthed to make way for the new road. Back in 2013, Bukit Brown was even put on the 2014 World Monuments Watch (WMW), an international list of cultural heritage sites which are being threatened by nature or development.
In a letter to The Straits Times Forum last year, activists Dr Chua Ai Lin and Claire Leow said that despite their best efforts, there had been no “consultation or protracted engagement” by the authorities on Bukit Brown. They added that there had also been no consultation about the zoning of the greater Bukit Brown area in its entirety for residential use in the 2013 Draft Land Use Master Plan.
There was a similar furor over the Old National Library Building, which was knocked down in 2005 to make way for the Fort Canning Tunnel. The building traced its roots to before the Second World War. 
Back in 2000, efforts to have it preserved culminated in a proposal by architect Tay Kheng Soon to have the tunnel re-routed, in order to save the old library. All this was to no avail. Today, all that remains of the Old National Library Building is two red-bricked entrance pillars, which stand near the Fort Canning Tunnel. 
Perhaps this spare, unsentimental approach to conservation had something to do with the late Lee Kuan Yew's practical approach to all matters. Asked by The Straits Times in 2011 what should be done with his house at Oxley Road after his passing, the former Prime Minister's answer was simple: "I've told the Cabinet, when I'm dead, demolish it."
When asked why, his reason was practicality itself: "Because of my house the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up. You know the cost of preserving it? It's an old house built over a hundred years ago. No foundation."
Today, it seems that practical philosophy has found room for adjustment. Let's hope that Minister Wong's words ring true in the years to come. 

ST Forum   Jul 8, 2015
Students exploring Bukit Brown cemetery. PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has said that Singapore could have a second Unesco World Heritage Site after the Botanic Gardens.
We need look no further than Bukit Brown Cemetery.
As one of the largest Chinese cemeteries in the world outside of China - in terms of its number of graves, with its oldest grave dating back to 1833 - Singapore will be doing this historic landmark grave injustice by not nominating it for the accolade.
Although a Chinese cemetery, Bukit Brown can be said to be uniquely Singaporean, being named after English trader George Brown and having the largest tomb in Singapore - that of late businessman Ong Sam Leong and his wife - which is "guarded" by statues of Sikh soldiers instead of traditional Chinese stone lions.
Peranakans, too, are buried there, such as the Dondang Sayang Association's founding member Koh Hoon Teck.
Bukit Brown is also the final resting place of pioneer entrepreneurs and philanthropists, such as Tan Lark Sye, Ong BoonTat, Lim Chong Pang and Chew Boon Lay.
Bukit Brown has huge potential. Spruced up, it could become an even bigger draw to both tourists and locals.
Already, foreigners are joining Singaporeans in exploring not only the graves, but also the area's sprawling grounds, which are teeming with local flora and fauna that have been left to thrive almost untouched for decades.
Bukit Brown could be converted into a heritage park with an education and research centre for students, conservationists and other visitors to learn not only about Singapore's natural history, but also about the Chinese diaspora in Nanyang - as South-east Asia was known in the old days.
I hope the Ministry of National Development and other relevant bodies will consider having Bukit Brown nominated for Unesco World Heritage status, so that it may join the ranks of its counterparts in New Orleans in the United States and Bukit Cina in Malacca, Malaysia, as world renowned heritage attractions.
Edwin Pang

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