by Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua (First published in Today, 18 April 2013)
The public unhappiness over fears that Pulau Ubin was to be developed has two abiding messages for us. The first is that pockets of rural spaces are close to sacred for many Singaporeans.
Pulau Ubin is more than an underdeveloped island off the mainland. It is also a crucial space that offers psychological distance from the metropolis, allowing visitors to bathe in nostalgia and imagine themselves as more than mere city-dwellers, if only for a few precious hours.
The second is that the fortunes of Pulau Ubin, like many other spaces in Singapore, are in bureaucratic limbo. The fate of the island is held in suspension, contingent on the country’s housing needs, and this uncertainty has a long-term profound impact on Singaporeans’ sense of belonging and psyche.
The lesson here is not that spaces must be sacrificed for the country’s housing needs but that spaces, regardless of natural or heritage worth, are transient in Singapore and it is better not to get too attached to them.
FROM 1958 TO 2002
Indeed, the uncertainty of Pulau Ubin’s fate has been reflected in official documents through the decades.
The 1958 Master Plan designated the island as “Mineral Workings” and “Fisheries Reserves”. The 1977 and 1980 Master Plans labelled the island “Rural” and “Unplanned”, respectively. And from the revised 1985 Master Plan to the present 2008 one, Pulau Ubin is seen as an “Open Space, Sports and Recreation, Agriculture, Reserve Site”.
Hints of development grew clearer in the 1991 Concept Plan. It stated that “Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin will be safeguarded for leisure and recreation purposes for as long as possible. However, if the population exceeds four million, they will be developed by Year X — linked to the mainland by the MRT and a major road.”
The current 2001 Concept Plan removed mention of development but expressed plans to keep Pulau Ubin, Lim Chu Kang and other existing nature areas in their rustic state for as long as possible. A road link from the mainland to the island is still on the cards. The same position was reiterated in the Parks and Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan 2002.
This uncertainty also played out in the Chek Jawa saga. In 2001, news of impeding reclamation works on the eastern shores of Pulau Ubin provoked outcry from nature enthusiasts. At stake was the rich biodiversity of marine life. On Jan 14, 2002, the Ministry of National Development (MND) announced the decision to put off reclamation work for as long as the island was not required for development.
Interestingly, the 2001 reclamation announcement coincided with the 2001 Concept Plan which, as mentioned above, had already announced the state’s decision to keep the island in its rustic state for as long as possible. Today Chek Jawa remains just as vulnerable to development as there is no legal protection for the site, unlike the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.
HANKERING FOR PERMANENCE
Nothing is as unsettling as an open-ended existence.
In the minds of many, our reluctance to save such spaces goes against the grain of the official narrative. If we are, as we are often reminded, a country lacking in natural resources, why then are we so hesitant when it comes to protecting whatever little we have?
This dissonance between rhetoric and practice may not have been noticed during our developing years when economic well-being was the national priority. However, with a more mature and better-informed population, it will become louder and, given the current concerns of overcrowding, political.
Heritage is now part of the political conversation and new ways to enrich this conversation have to be explored.
Would the gesture of gazetting a part of the island — or even a small portion of Bukit Brown for that matter, say, the hill on which rests the Ong Sam Leong grave, the biggest in the cemetery — derail the nation’s housing plans? Or would it send the signal that heritage and national identity are worth sacrificing for?
Such a gesture would not only bring state-civil society relations to a new level but, more importantly, offer a much needed sense of permanence and durability to our national identity.
KEEP THE BRIDGES OPEN
The truth is nation-building is an inherently political project. One cannot expect citizens to sink roots into the land or be called to defend it without expecting them to be angry, even confrontational, when spaces like Pulau Ubin and Bukit Brown are vulnerable.
It is thus important for civil servants and civil society activists alike to understand that the bridges of communication must always be kept open in order for dialogue to take place. Without this dialogue, both parties will become more entrenched in their positions and less willing to compromise.
On one hand, civil servants have to break the habit of evoking “national interest” to counter heritage arguments. The state does not have a monopoly over the definition of “nation” and civil society groups, after all, have national interests at heart too. Furthermore, it may be counter-intuitive to some that destruction of heritage and natural land can be for the good of the nation.
On the other, civil society has to persistently reach out to civil servants and government agencies, offering their expertise and ground knowledge in order to produce better-informed policies. Civil society groups must find the stamina to continually seek out agreeable government representatives who are willing to engage them sincerely.
NOT THE SAME THING
Looking ahead, the question over Pulau Ubin is about striking a balance between withholding development and preservation — for they are not the same thing.
The Government’s recent announcement that it plans to keep Pulau Ubin in its current state for the foreseeable future is the withholding of development. This alone is not enough.
The Parks and Waterbodies and Rustic Coast Subject Group Report of the Parks and Waterbodies Plan and Identity Plan 2002 succinctly observed that inactivity will not preserve but, instead, lead to the further deterioration of the social and natural environment. This is because preservation is difficult when there is no community.
Hence, a balance must be struck. This takes considerable long-term thinking, planning and control over what happens to Pulau Ubin. With political will and civil society initiative, there is no reason why this cannot be done.
Terence Chong and Yeo Kang Shua are executive committee members of the Singapore Heritage Society. This commentary was published in Today, 18 April 2013.
by Terence Chong, Yeo Kang Shua and Tan Wee Cheng (First published in Today, 6 April 2013)
The Singapore Heritage Society welcomes and supports the Government’s intention to nominate the Singapore Botanic Gardens for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Indeed, the Society had mooted this back in 2009.
It is also pleased that the Government finally ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention in June last year.
The 154 year-old Botanic Gardens is a worthy site. It was established in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society on gambier plantation land formerly owned by Whampoa Hoo Ah Kay. Besides collection and experimentation of trees and plant species, additional land was committed for an ‘economic garden’ in 1879 to aid the establishment of plantation lands and plots in the region.
As stated in the justification provided to UNESCO, it stands as a testimony to the history of the economic, social and scientific development in Malaya. The Botanic Gardens saw pioneering work on rubber cultivation techniques carried out in the late 19th century which helped pave the way for its mass manufacturing in the early 20th century.
The Botanic Gardens also had an important hand in the distribution of rubber seeds to plantation owners in Malaya, persuading them switch to rubber from other crops. This move ensured Malaya’s early economic growth by giving a sizeable foothold in trading markets around the world.
Furthermore, while the Botanic Gardens is an undeniable symbol of the colonial empire’s power and reach, we should never forget the crucial risk-taking of local entrepreneurs who embarked on the rubber industry and the contribution of the numerous workers to the economic development of Malaya. Such is the interwoven nature of history.
THE NOMINATION PROCESS
With heritage education as part of its mandate, the Society would like to take this opportunity to explain the nomination process for UNESCO World Heritage status.
In order to achieve World Heritage status, a government must first prepare an inventory, known as the ‘tentative list’, of the country’s significant cultural and natural sites, or ‘properties’.
In the case of the Botanic Gardens, overseas consultants were hired by the Government in 2010 to conduct a feasibility study of possible sites that could be included in this tentative list. The Government has submitted the Botanic Gardens as the sole item on the tentative list, and is currently preparing a formal application for World Heritage status.
When the application is formally submitted, it will be evaluated by the International Council on Monuments and Sites or International Union for Conservation of Nature which assesses cultural and natural sites, respectively. After which, the evaluation is submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for its decision.
Though the Botanic Gardens meets many of the criteria or ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ to qualify as a World Heritage Site, it should be remembered that it is already gazetted as a ‘National Park’ under the Park and Trees Act. It is thus safe from destruction or encroachment, regardless of World Heritage status. Indeed, government protection is required before a site may be considered for World Heritage status.
VITAL TO CONSULT AND ENGAGE
Moving forward, the Society believes that two things are vital to the nomination process.
The first is consultation with local experts. This consultation process is crucial under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and its Operational Guidelines.
These rules oblige governments to embark on consultation processes over the identification, nomination and protection of possible sites with a wide variety of stakeholders including the local community, academics and experts, and non-governmental organisations. This ensures that local knowledge and experience are taken into account throughout the application process, and not just as an afterthought.
It also encourages the government to be more communicative when it comes to its decision-making process. This will go a long way in enhancing long term interest in the site as the local community would have contributed to the process and feel that it has a stake in it.
The second is public engagement. What does achieving UNESCO World Heritage status mean for ordinary Singaporeans?
The Society strongly believes that the real value of winning World Heritage status lies not in global recognition or prestige. Rather, it lies in the opportunity to educate and raise awareness both locally and overseas, that contrary to popular belief, Singapore is a place rich with heritage.
More importantly, Singaporeans will be made to think deeply about what is meaningful us, why it is meaningful and, in the process, gain knowledge about a history that shapes our identity. The Society believes that all the accolades in the world will come to naught if citizens are not excited or engaged.
A BUDGET TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC
To achieve this, the Society would like to make several suggestions.
With respect to the Botanic Gardens, create a budget dedicated to raising public awareness of the historical significance of the Botanic Gardens and the establishment of research grants for scholars, local and overseas, to excavate stories, information and documents in order to enhance our understanding of the Botanic Gardens.
Educate the public about the importance of conservation and the significance of Outstanding Universal Values, by commissioning local studies and public forums on the other prospective sites in Singapore that may be considered for tentative listing.
Indeed there are other sites that might have Outstanding Universal Value, but without legislative protection by the Government, they will be unable to receive the UNESCO stamp of approval.
Some possible sites include Bukit Brown, a beautiful swathe of tranquil greenery full of historically important graves that tell a tale of our ancestors’ journeys and connection to the region.
There are also the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Central Catchment Nature Reserve, with tropical rainforests that are reportedly home to as many species of plants as the entire North America, and where a Belgium scientist discovered 150 new species of flies and where Alfred Wallace collected about 700 species of beetles in just two months about a century ago.
And then there are the Singapore Improvement Trust flats in Tiong Bahru, early examples of public housing development; and perhaps even our ubiquitous Housing and Development Board’s slab block flats that embodied modernist ideas that Le Corbusier tried to demonstrate in his Unitéd’Habitation.
In an era where the international community values sustainable development, the preservation of such sites in what is essentially one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and their successful listing as World Heritage, will be an ultimate tribute to the foresight and creative genius of our leaders and urban planners.
Terence Chong, Yeo Kang Shua and Tan Wee Cheng are Executive Committee members of the Singapore Heritage Society. This commentary was first published in Today, 6 April 2013.
Singapore Heritage Society Press Release: Singapore Botanic Gardens as UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2 April 2013
The Singapore Heritage Society welcomes and supports the submission of tentative listing of properties comprising the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Indeed, the Society had mooted the listing of SBG on the World Heritage Site in 2009.
The Society is also pleased to note that Singapore has finally become the 190th State Party to the 1972 World Heritage Convention on 19 June 2012. The Society learned about the ratification through the UNESCO News Release on 19 September 2012.
Moving forward, the Society hopes that there will be greater transparency with regards to the government’s plans and actions. It urges the relevant agencies to embark on consultation processes over the identification, nomination and protection of World Heritage properties with a wide variety of stakeholders including the local community and non-governmental organisations because they are required under Article 13 of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention under Article 12, 64, and 123 (see Appendix).
SBG is a repository of many histories, including standing as a testament to the colonial empire’s power and reach, the crucial risk-taking of local entrepreneurs who embarked on the rubber industry, not to mention the contribution of the many workers to the economic development of Malaya.
It is a repository that Singaporeans must be encouraged to draw from in order to feel connected to this site, share collective memories and to strengthen our national identity. SBG’s successful listing as World Heritage Site will mean little if citizens are not engaged. The Society therefore encourages efforts to engage and educate the public.
Finally, while the Society welcomes the tentative listing of SBG, it recognises that SBG is gazetted as a National Park under the Parks and Trees Act, and is thus already safe from destruction or encroachment. It urges the government to remain open to the possibility of listing other sites in Singapore that are equally deserving of recognition.
Singapore Heritage Society’s Spokespersons:
Among UNESCO’s World Heritage mission objectives are the following: (http://whc.unesco.org/en/about/)
- encourage countries to sign the World Heritage Convention and to ensure the protection of their natural and cultural heritage;
- support States Parties’ public awareness-building activities for World Heritage conservation;
- encourage participation of the local population in the preservation of their cultural and natural heritage.
World Heritage Convention:
The Committee shall co-operate with international and national governmental and non-governmental organizations having objectives similar to those of this Convention. For the implementation of its programmes and projects, the Committee may call on such organizations, particularly the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (the Rome Centre), the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), as well as on public and private bodies and individuals.
Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention:
States Parties to the Convention are encouraged to ensure the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders, including site managers, local and regional governments, local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other interested parties and partners in the identification, nomination and protection of World Heritage properties.
States Parties are encouraged to prepare their Tentative Lists with the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders, including site managers, local and regional governments, local communities, NGOs and other interested parties and partners.
Participation of local people in the nomination process is essential to enable them to have a shared responsibility with the State Party in the maintenance of the property. States Parties are encouraged to prepare nominations with the participation of a wide variety of stakeholders, including site managers, local and regional governments, local communities, NGOs and other interested parties.
A one-day celebration of Bukit Brown, with photo exhibitions, expert presentations, a public forum and the premiere of a new documentary film on Bukit Brown!
Celebrating Bukit Brown
By The Singapore Heritage Society and All Things Bukit Brown
Sunday 20 January 2013, 2pm – 8pm
The Substation Theatre
Admission: Free of charge
Since the government’s decision to build a road through Bukit Brown Cemetery wasannounced in 2011, Singaporeans from all walks of life have flocked to the 200 year-old cemetery to accquaint themselves with its rich heritage and lush greenery. Local volunteers, academics, and artists have dedicated their time and craft to capture, recordand understand the legacy and meaning of Bukit Brown and its place in our nation’s history.
This year mass exhumations and the construction of the eight-lane road will begin. Celebrating Bukit Brown aims to showcase the efforts of ordinary Singaporeans who have worked tirelessly on Bukit Brown. It is a one-day event comprising photo exhibitions, poetry, expert presentations, theatrical readings, a public forum and a film screening. We invite you to bring artefacts, family mementoes and creative output (art, painting,poetry, music) to share your stories, and pen on the wall what Bukit Brown means to you. Descendants will share their journeys with you. Come celebrate our national heritage with us. There will be books and other merchandise available for purchase.
1. Talks by battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper on WWII
2. Presentation on the material culture of Bukit Brown and the Chinese diaspora by Dr Lai Chee Kien
3. First public-screening of the documentary Bukit Brown Voices by Khoo Su-Mae and Brian McDairmant. This 45-minute documentary follows Singaporean families asthey carry out Qingming rituals and exhume their ancestors.
4. Update on the documentation project by Dr Hui Yew-Foong, with input from DrTerence Heng and Jasmine Ng.
5. A public forum.
A Seminar by Educators and Students
The Singapore Heritage Society and the Singapore Association for Social Studies Education (SASSE) invites you to a seminar on Singapore’s heritage. There will be presentations by scholars, teachers and students coming from a broad representation of schools in Singapore.
Download the programme and presentation abstracts (as of 1 September).
Location: Possibility Room, Level 5, National Library Building
Time: 8.30 am to 3.00 pm
Date: 8 September 2012 (Saturday)
Refreshments will be provided. Admission is free, but as seats are limited, please register at the following URL: http://heritageatcentrestage.eventbrite.com/
On a rainy Saturday afternoon on 14 April 2012, over 150 people were treated to an informative and enlightening public forum on ‘The Cost and Value of Heritage in Singapore: The Belitung Shipwreck and Bukit Brown.’ The forum panel included Dr Michael Flecker, Managing Director of Maritime Explorations, Dr Hui Yew-Foong, Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Mr Kwa Chong Guan, Member of the National Heritage Board and the Chairman of the National Archives Board, and Assistant Professor Jack Tsen-Ta Lee, faculty member at the School of Law, Singapore Management University. The panel was chaired by Dr Kevin Tan, Immediate Past President of the Singapore Heritage Society.
The forum was organised by the Singapore Heritage Society and the School of Law, Singapore Management University, and was held in the Mochtar Riady Auditorium in SMU’s Administration Building along Victoria Street. One purpose of the forum was to raise public awareness of recent heritage issues concerning Singapore, and another was to try to deepen understanding of such issues beyond conventional perceptions.
The forum was opened by Dr Chua Ai Lin, Vice-President of the Singapore Heritage Society. She shared some thoughts on the theme of the forum, and encouraged more conversations about aspects of our past that are important to us — at all levels, from the family dinner table to national-level discussions. These private and public conversations form the starting point from which we can all play a role in determining the direction Singapore wants to adopt in identifying and conserving its heritage.
The forum was then divided into two portions: (1) presentations by the panelists to introduce their area of expertise to the audience as well as to deliberate on the theme of the forum, and (2) a dialogue between the panel and the audience.
Michael Flecker spoke first, sharing his experiences and insights gleaned from more than two decades of archaeological excavations of ancient shipwrecks, in particular the Belitung Shipwreck. The shipwreck is a ninth century Arabian dhow found near Belitung, an island off the east coast of Sumatra. It was carrying a near intact cargo of Tang Dynasty artefacts, all of which was bought by the Singapore government in 2005. Commenting on the controversy which engulfed the Smithsonian Institution last year, Flecker thought it was a pity the artefacts from the Belitung Shipwreck were not exhibited as they held significant educational value. He also noted that the Belitung artefacts are a valuable heritage resource for Singapore, as they shed light into an earlier part of Singapore’s history not fully researched just yet.
Hui Yew-Foong followed with a presentation on a more local (and perhaps a slightly ‘hotter’) issue, that is the debate over the present and future situation of the Bukit Brown area. As the primary researcher in the on-going documentation of graves affected by the proposed eight-lane expressway through the historic cemeteries (and a veteran too of other grave-documentation exercises), Hui introduced, with quiet authority, the audience to the Bukit Brown area and the cemeteries situated within, and the intrinsic heritage value they hold for Singapore. While acknowledging the merits of the on-going documentation process, he cautioned that documentation is only a mere representation of the heritage value, and cannot act as a substitute for what stands to be lost.
Jack Tsen-Ta Lee was next and his presentation on the legalities posed by the Belitung Shipwreck and Bukit Brown were thought-provoking. Regarding the former, Lee noted – as Flecker did before – that the excavation and recovery of the Tang-era artefacts were in fact legal, i.e. excavation was conducted with permission from the Indonesian Government. The debate and controversy were over ethical issues, i.e. should the shipwreck be left alone, should they be sold for commercial purposes. Regarding Bukit Brown, Lee deliberated over the possibility of bringing a judicial review to the Government, in other words to sue the Government to prevent the construction of the eight-lane expressway. Although Lee concluded mostly in the negative – as it would be difficult in this case to prove the Government has acted unreasonably, his presentation provided much insight into workings of the law and the responsibilities of the High Court and Government. It is not the role of the High Court to ensure Government makes the ‘right’ decision, but rather it is there to ensure Government has acted lawfully.
Kwa Chong Guan wrapped up the first part of the forum with a more scholarly but no less significant and insightful take on both the Belitung Shipwreck and Bukit Brown issues. An experienced ‘operator’ within the fields of heritage and historical scholarship for over three decades, Kwa suggested that there was little doubt over the value of both issues to understanding and broadening Singapore’s heritage landscape. The question perhaps is how the value would be interpreted and whether it would be accepted by most if not all. The Belitung Shipwreck for instance was an Arabian dhow in Indonesian waters. Still, its cargo provides a window into a world before Singapore was a colony or a nation-state, allowing for a different yet relevant interpretation of Singapore’s past. Similarly, the current debates over the status of the Bukit Brown area and the cemeteries within arguably bring to light the value of cultural and natural heritage to Singaporeans, and perhaps also how they wish for Singapore to be remembered now and in the future.
The public Q&A discussion which followed was efficiently moderated by Kevin Tan, allowing for a broad range of views and questions to be aired. Given its recentness, it was no surprise that Bukit Brown dominated the comments and opinions posed by the audience. Some of the more interesting comments included possible issues that could form the basis of a judicial review of the Government’s decision to build expressway – a query which also brought Tan, a leading constitutional lawyer and scholar, into the mix; and a comment about how Singaporeans seemed to be stung into action only when historic places such as Bukit Brown or the former KTM railway land were being threatened, which led to some discussion as to how Singaporeans can be more proactive about identifying, protecting and promoting their heritage.
All in all, it was an educational and enjoyable afternoon. The insightful presentations, the ensuing panel discussion and the incisive and passionate comments and questions from the audience left no one in doubt that heritage issues in Singapore will be well-tended to in the near and distant future.
See also the reflections of a member of the audience on the forum: Minimyna on History or Heritage
Assistant Professor Jack Lee has also blogged his presentation: Bukit Brown Cemetery – You Can Sue, But You Won’t Win
The Singapore Heritage Society’s response to the announcement of the aligned road through Bukit Brown….
STATEMENT BY SINGAPORE HERITAGE SOCIETY (21 March 2012)
We refer to the government’s announcement on Monday, 19 March 2012, of the 8-lane highway through Bukit Brown, which includes the building of a vehicular bridge.
The Singapore Heritage Society acknowledges the effort to minimise the disruption caused by the 8-lane highway to the flora and fauna of Bukit Brown, and we appreciate the resources spent on the documentation of the affected graves.
While we acknowledge the efforts to minimise disruption, the Singapore Heritage Society still has the following reservations. The 8-lane highway will destroy almost 4000 graves as well as the key landmarks of the internal road network, such as the main roundabout and the main gate, all of which form a central part of people’s social memories of Bukit Brown.
Beyond the 8-lane highway, there are also issues to address regarding the future of the largest Chinese cemetery outside China. They include:
In the meantime, and to reassure concerned Singaporeans that all possibilities were considered in making this decision, the Singapore Heritage Society hopes the government will share publicly:
As the URA’s Concept Plan is a long-term plan that responds to changing circumstances, needs and assessments, the Singapore Heritage Society looks forward to continuing an open discussion with the authorities over the need to develop Bukit Brown for housing in twenty years’ time.
4 February 2012
The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) has published its Position Paper on Bukit Brown. Please read and forward the paper to all concerned parties.
For immediate publication
Singapore, 4 February 2012: The Singapore Heritage Society has published a position paper on Bukit Brown Cemetery. Among other things, the paper puts forth three recommendations, namely, gazetting Bukit Brown as a heritage site for legal protection; full documentation of Bukit Brown; and turning it into a heritage park for Singaporeans to enjoy.
The publication of the position paper follows a similar one published by the Singapore Nature Society late last year, and comes before exhumations begin in April. The exhumations will mark a critical juncture in a debate that has seen the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China become the focal point for a wide-ranging discussion in Singapore. Questions have been raised about the loss of national identity, the need for biodiversity conservation, the elevated risk of flooding and the increasing need for the Government to better engage the public.
Key points from the Singapore Heritage Society position paper include:
– The reality of the Bukit Brown consultation process (Section 5B)
– The heritage value of Bukit Brown – and its importance to Singapore’s nation-building effort (Section 2)
– The elevated risk of flooding from development of Bukit Brown, as assessed by a hydrologist from the National University of Singapore (Annex 2)
– The question of whether the Bukit Brown case study demonstrates the kind of balance between prudent long-term planning and sensitive medium-term planning needed in an increasingly land-scarce Singapore (Section 3)
– Three alternative futures for Bukit Brown (Section 6)
The Singapore Heritage Society understands the need to provide public housing and relieve traffic congestion. However, it does not believe that enough effort has been invested in the search for a solution that would also allow Singaporeans to hold on to this valuable piece of our history. Ultimately, the Singapore Heritage Society believes that the decision we as a society make about the future of Bukit Brown will reflect the value we place on our roots, our collective identity and the sense of belonging we wish to inculcate in future generations of an increasingly globalised Singapore.
In his National Day Rally 2011 speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said:
“We are Singaporeans together on a small island. We are anchored by our emotional links with family and friends and by our shared sense of our history and our common destiny. We are not just here, materialised out of nowhere, appeared out of a Transformers movie maybe. We came here somewhere, sometime there was a history to it and it is crucial to remember where we came from, how we got here.”
The Singapore Heritage Society believes that a thorough public consultation process regarding the future of Bukit Brown Cemetery is valuable to the nation-building project outlined by PM Lee in his National Day Rally speech. Crucially, such a consultation should take as a starting point the fundamental question of whether a road through Bukit Brown Cemetery is needed in the first place.
It would demonstrate the Government’s sincerity in forging the shared sense of history and destiny the Prime Minister has correctly pointed out that all Singaporeans should treasure.
Please forward any queries or clarifications to Secretary, Singapore Heritage Society at email@example.com
Nothing concrete in earlier plans for Bukit Brown (27 November 2011)
Last Sunday’s article, ‘Bukit Brown road project ‘can’t wait”, reported that ‘strangely, the URA said, no one raised a ruckus when plans highlighting the area’s intended future use were displayed for feedback’ in 1991 and 2001, when the Concept Plans were released.
This argument is being used to refute current public opinion against the transport and housing developments in Bukit Brown cemetery.
In 1991 and 2001, there were no concrete announcements on the intrusion of physical infrastructure like the road. If there had been a public outcry then, the Government would have replied, understandably, that such an outcry was premature as nothing concrete had yet been planned.
More importantly, we were a different country two decades ago. Thanks to nation-building efforts by the Government, Singaporeans today are more conscious of their national identity and are thus sensitive to any loss of heritage. With a bigger population now, Singaporeans are hungry for more open spaces and recreational areas, of which Bukit Brown is one.
We also now have new knowledge of just how rich a historical and ecological resource Bukit Brown is.
Arguments for the conservation of the area were put forth by the Nature Society (Singapore) in its Feedback for the Inter-Ministerial Committee Project on Sustainable Singapore: Lively and Liveable City in 2009, and by the Singapore Heritage Society in the book, Spaces Of The Dead: A Case For The Living, published in May this year.
The Urban Redevelopment Authority Concept Plan is intended for long-term planning and its zones are broad and flexible.
For example, Pulau Ubin was also zoned for residential use in 1991 but it was later re-zoned as ‘open space and reserve land’ in the 2001 Concept Plan.
To imply that present-day concerns are invalidated by not having been raised 10 or 20 years ago is a flawed premise that leads to sub-optimal decision-making based on outdated information and analysis.
It also denies the possibility for any generation to determine its own immediate future and those of its children.
Chua Ai Lin
Executive Committee, Singapore Heritage Society
In the article “Lively debate over fate of cemetery” (Sunday Times, 20 Nov 2011), it was wrongly reported that an audience member had asked “Why has the Heritage Society stayed so silent on this issue?”. Our video recordings show that the person was referring, instead, to the National Heritage Board.
SHS would like to take this opportunity to state its efforts in the Bukit Brown issue thus far. These efforts have been three pronged.
Firstly, SHS has served as a resource network for the grave documentation process. SHS believes that documentation is crucial to heritage preservation and should be undertaken regardless of whether the road is built or not. To this end, it has supported the documentation process led by Dr Hui Yew-foong by spreading the call for fieldworkers. SHS will continue to support this documentation process.
Secondly, SHS has sought to raise heritage concerns to different government agencies. It has done this in a series of meetings with the Ministry of National Development (MND), the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in recent months.
Finally, SHS seeks to raise public awareness over the rich heritage of Bukit Brown. To this end, Dr Terence Chong and Dr Chua Ai Lin have made the case for preservation in their article “Saving Bukit Brown” (Straits Times, 17 Nov 2011). SHS is also the co-organizer of Saturday’s symposium Spaces for the Living: A Discussion on Bukit Brown Cemetery held at the Asian Civilisations Museum. The book “Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living” documenting Bukit Brown Cemetery and other cemeteries in Singapore was published by the SHS in 2011.
SHS will continue in these efforts as best as it can
In land-scarce Singapore, the tension between heritage and modernity is not unusual, as the on-going debate over Bukit Brown cemetery demonstrates. This debate is the latest in a long line of struggles over important national spaces such as the National Library building in Stamford Road and Bidadari cemetery in Upper Aljunied Road, both of which have been irretrievably lost to the nation.
In July this year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced that Bukit Brown would be needed for future housing and in mid-September, the Land Transport Authority revealed plans to begin constructing a dual four-lane road through Bukit Brown in early 2013. The road will affect about 5,000 of the approximately 100,000 graves.
Critics in cyberspace and the mainstream media have made three primary arguments for the destruction of Bukit Brown.
The first is that Bukit Brown is a burial ground for the elite, and that most Singaporeans do not have genealogies that link them to the cemetery. Advocates of this argument assert that many of the prominent pioneers like Chew Boon Lay and Cheang Hong Lim interred there have streets and places named after them, and there is thus no further need to preserve their graves. This assertion is short-sighted as the graves allow Singaporeans to draw links between abstract street names and real people.
The elitist accusation is reverse snobbery. We would never contemplate selling the Padang to a condo developer just because neighbourhood boys do not play football there. And just because most Singaporeans do not have ancestors interred there does not mean they cannot claim the space for strolls and jogs, appreciation tours, or to enjoy the rich flora and fauna there.
Tens of thousands of ordinary migrants are also buried at Bukit Brown. Furthermore, in preserving the graves of ordinary people we are acknowledging the blood, sweat and toil of those who have contributed to the development of our city port. Such a move will enrich and democratise the Singapore story.
The second argument by critics of Bukit Brown is that the loss of the cemetery can be adequately mitigated by virtual mapping and documentation. The assumption here defies all logic for heritage preservation. After all most historic monuments from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat have lost their functional value but are no less important as signposts to past communities.
The heritage value of Bukit Brown is conveyed to us in the provincial origins of the dead, the names of their descendants, as well as the tomb design, artistic embellishment and fengshui orientation. The sacredness of Bukit Brown can be found in the practices of people who continue to pay their respects to their ancestors in the form of ceremonial rituals as well as highly personalised ways. Such sacredness is not static or dead but embedded in living habits of people.
Bukit Brown is sacred also by virtue of its biodiversity. Of the 85 species of birds that have been recorded there, two are deemed ‘vulnerable’, six are ‘endangered’, and three are ‘critically endangered’. Bukit Brown has been designated a Tree Conservation Area by the National Parks Board under the Parks and Trees Act. Virtual technologies and documentation cannot replace the loss of ecology.
Bukit Brown is also valuable to the broader nation-building project. Much has been made about how Singapore is becoming more hotel than home for many citizens and many worry that Singaporeans are but rootless ‘cultural orphans’. The expressions of identity and culture found in Bukit Brown are unique to local communities, reflecting the history of the Straits Settlements and broader Nanyang. They are specific to the region, differing from those in South China where most of our forefathers came from. In short, Bukit Brown anchors firmly our sense of belonging to this region.
The third, and most commonly heard, argument is that ‘the dead have to make way for the living’. This argument makes matters seem more urgent than they may be – without destroying Bukit Brown, there would be no space for the living. But has every other space for housing been considered before turning to Bukit Brown?
It also assumes that continued population growth is inevitable. And yet there is no public discussion on the optimal population size that the island and infrastructure may accommodate before the space crunch is felt. Population projections by government agencies are not yet widely circulated for debate.
Ultimately, the struggle for Bukit Brown goes beyond saving a few graves or greenery. It is the struggle for the soul of Singapore. The decisions we make will determine the value we place on our collective identity, our multi-textured heritage and our sense of belonging. They are decisions we will have to explain to our children.
Terence Chong is a sociologist and Chua Ai Lin is a historian, writing on behalf of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS). SHS is co-organiser of the Bukit Brown Symposium to be held at the Asian Civilisations Museum on Saturday.
The Singapore Heritage Society would like to encourage interested members of the public to step forward to help with the documentation process of Bukit Brown Cemetery. There is room for further collaboration and consultation on plans for Bukit Brown Cemetery and the SHS looks forward to being an integral part of the decision-making process.
BUKIT BROWN CEMETERY: CLARIFICATION ON COLLABORATION BETWEEN SHS AND URA/LTA (20 October 2011)
The collaboration between the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the authorities up till now has consisted only of connecting LTA and URA with individual experts on Chinese cemetery documentation and the history of the cemetery.
SHS was not consulted during the decision-making process leading up to the plans for the new road through Bukit Brown. SHS was merely informed of these plans, at which point SHS agreed to assist in documentation work, which is the very least that can be done. Thorough documentation is an important exercise even if there was no threat of redevelopment of Bukit Brown.
According to the LTA press release on 12 Sep 2011, documentation is to be completed by the end of March 2012 before the next phase where families will be contacted to arrange for exhumation. Given the large number of graves and the impossibly short timeframe, completing basic data recording itself will be a challenge. It remains to be seen if enough qualified volunteers can be recruited to complete the documentation work during this short time frame. Thorough historical surveys will require much more time.
At this point, it is imperative that the pace of redevelopment works be slowed down so that greater public consultation can be conducted with a much wider range of stakeholders, including the Nature Society Singapore, the descendants of people buried there (many of whom are members of the Peranakan Association) and the Singapore Polo Club who use Bukit Brown as a space for exercising their horses. Currently, it is unclear exactly which stakeholders and NGOs have been contacted by LTA/URA, but public voices, in letters to the press and on the Bukit Brown Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/bukitbrown/ indicate that there are many others who would like to have their views heard. More time is also needed for historical research.
Much new information about Bukit Brown has only been discovered in the last one month, with Mr Raymond Goh leading members of the public and state agencies around the cemetery. Increasingly more graves of significant individuals, as well as the histories of their contribution and lives are slowly coming to light. Earlier decisions need to be reconsidered in the light of new information.
SHS is co-organising a public forum on Bukit Brown, together with Dr Irving Chan Johnson of NUS Southeast Asian Studies Dept to be held on 19 November. We are also liaising with other groups and individuals who wish to play a greater role in public consultation with the authorities, and seeking expert views on how conservation and development of the Bukit Brown area can be balanced.
Those who wish to convey their views to the authorities should write to:
1. Minister of State for National Development, BG Tan Chuan-Jin, firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Chief Executive, LTA, Mr Chew Hock Yong, email@example.com
3. Chief Executive Officer, URA, Mr Ng Lang, firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact descendants, you will find many posting their stories on the Facebook group:
For detailed information on graves and their histories and Bukit Brown tours, contact Raymond and Charles Goh — the experts on Bukit Brown who have been leading regular tours to raise awareness and helping families to locate their ancestors’ graves:
For more information about Bukit Brown history:
17 September 2011
The Singapore Heritage Society does not support the decision to redevelop Bukit Brown Cemetery without:
a) a complete historical survey to assess the full impact of any such plans;
b) detailed information from LTA and URA on their decision making process, including the other alternatives that have been considered; and
c) public consultation.
In the absence of these three conditions at present, the Society cannot agree to the road construction plans.
In addition to preserving sites for their historical value, these spaces contribute to the greater public good as common areas that can be enjoyed by everyone.
As LTA and URA only contacted the SHS very recently regarding documentation of Bt Brown Cemetery, the society has as yet not been able to finalise any work plan for the documentation. This reiterates our stand that sufficient lead time has not been given with regards to urban planning decisions.
However, the Society has already been putting these government agencies in touch with relevant expertise, such as researchers specialising in Chinese cemeteries with experience of cemetery documentation. The intention will be to organise volunteers under the guidance of these experts.
Among the challenges of documentation:
a) currently, the amount of funding that will be available for documentation is uncertain;
b) the short time-frame of the development plans;
c) difficulties in recruiting sufficient volunteers with requisite skills;
d) the physically-demanding nature of the documentation work;
e) delays expected due to wet weather at the end of the year.
The Singapore Heritage Society believes that thorough historical surveys are needed in order to make wise urban planning decisions that take into consideration the intangible aspects of nation-building. It is regretful this has not been done for Bukit Brown Cemetery. Documentation and research must start immediately as the cemetery is a vast and rich source of primary historical data that is unique to Singapore.
The Singapore Heritage Society understands the pressures on land use in Singapore but believes that:
a) Public consultation and a thorough consideration of all the issues is important before major decisions are made.
b) Thorough historical and archaeological surveys should be carried out before any redevelopment decisions are made, in order to provide policy-makers and developers with the knowledge to make informed and sensitive decisions.
c) New, creative and visionary solutions to housing and transportation needs should also be actively sought and looked into, just as cutting-edge research into water treatment technologies has helped Singapore deal with the recent ending of the 1961 water pact with Johor.
d) The social and cultural history encompassed in Bukit Brown is unique to Singapore and must be appropriately valued.
The richness of Bukit Brown’s historical significance has thus far not been commonly understood and much more research remains to be done. Hence a proper evaluation of the opportunity cost of redeveloping the cemetery has not been factored into urban planning decision-making.
The preservation of Bukit Brown Cemetery is important as a physical reminder of Singapore’s rich history, which stretches back well before 1965, to the early 19th century. The paucity of historical awareness in Singapore is partly due to the fact that each successive generation loses the physical structures that anchor the memories passed down from their forefathers.
With a new awareness of the importance of maintaining these memories being encouraged by the Prime Minister, the value of Bukit Brown must be carefully considered. Once removed, there is no way to restore this historical landscape.
This opportunity cost of losing Bukit Brown is difficult to measure in purely monetary or statistical terms. In Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally Speech, he highlighted a major new initiatives by the National Library Board, iRememberSg, to collect Singaporeans’ memories in order “to weave the tapestry of the nation”.
The memories of our community go back far beyond living memory to include the hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried in Bukit Brown (an estimated 100,000 graves), including many significant historical personalities, such as Tan Kim Ching, Cheang Hong Lim, Lim Chong Pang, Gan Eng Seng, Chew Boon Lay, ONg Sam Leong, Tan Kheam Hock, Chew Joo Chiat, Tan Ean Kiam and Teh Ho Swee.
At the very least, a thorough historical documentation of Bukit Brown Cemetery must be carried out before any redevelopment work begins. This documentation should include the following aspects:
1) Tomb inscriptions — names, genealogy, place of origin, couplets, dates
2) Cultural features — eg. feng shui features surrounding the tomb, carvings, monuments of identity, epigraphic materials
3) Spatial mapping using GIS to understand the positioning of graves relative to each other and the topography
4) Historical research into the significant personalities buried there.
5) Personal and social memories — the family rituals around death, burial and paying respects to ancestors.
6) If exhumation is to be done, an archaeological survey can also be carried out.
The first three provide a vast amount of data for future historians to analyse and are rich materials for detailed studies of the local community. The last aspect documents practices still carried on today that have changed over time and are likely to change or disappear altogether in future.
Each Chinese dialect group has unique practices regarding all the above, and which are likely to exhibit local variations that differ to practices of Chinese on the mainland as well as other overseas Chinese communities. This historical data is unique to Singapore and contributes to both local history as well as the understanding of the broader field of Chinese diaspora studies.
All the latest on the Singapore Heritage Society and Bukit Brown…
LATEST: Response to announced road alignment (21 March 2012)
Position Paper on Bukit Brown (first online 5 Feb 2012)
The paper can be downloaded here.
The Singapore Heritage Society has been actively making its voice heard through various media platforms. The following are some examples:
Letter in The Sunday Times: ‘Nothing concrete in earlier plans for Bukit Brown’ (27 Nov 2011), by Dr Chua Ai Lin & Dr Terence Chong
‘Saving Bukit Brown’. An Op-Ed article for the Straits Times (17 Nov 2011), by Terence Chong & Chua Ai Lin
See also the Society’s general position and other information on Bukit Brown Cemetery.