By Vinita Ramani Mohan
I continue to read with dismay, the ongoing plans to develop the Cross Island Line (CIL), which will cause serious habitat damage in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
As someone interested in regional development issues, I have travelled widely in ASEAN. Citizens I’ve met from large, densely populated cities like Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta seem somewhat resigned to the pollution, traffic and poor urban planning that characterises their cities. But they are proud of their country and its vast hinterlands – the beaches, hill country, forest reserves and ancient monuments or temples nestled in jungles. Friends from smaller cities like Dili and Phnom Penh, or from the rapidly developing Yangon are determined to ensure their cities are green and that their governments are mindful of conservation values and proper urban planning. But they too have hinterland to be proud of. They tell me to get out, to venture into provinces beyond the capital or main city.
And here lies the critical difference between Singapore and almost every other country in the region: we have no real hinterland to speak of.
We would tell the visitor to head to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, to Bukit Brown, the rail corridor or the farms in Lim Chu Kang. There are pockets, but they are few and far between. These are the places we are proud of, since we have nothing by way of vast countryside, mountains, ancient temples or other heritage sites.
Each time I go away and return to Singapore, I long for our nature reserves. I feel a proud sense of stewardship. I am not a botanist or zoologist, but I marvel at what exists on such a tiny island. I see people withdraw from the crowds in the urban areas and visibly relax in an environment that alleviates stress. I take foreign visitors to these places. I always emphasize this to them: what we lack in size, we more than make up for in the sheer diversity of species that our natural environment, the primeval and old secondary growth forests support.
There is also a strong spiritual and cultural value attached to these places. I daily see Singaporeans meditating, doing tai ch’i and stilling their minds in the forest reserves. I see families teaching their children about the natural environment. People behave differently here. The older Singaporeans I see seem to mimic the practices of what they probably remember from Singapore’s kampung days: they are less fussy, they get mucky and dirty, they sing, they wash up at the outdoor taps at the reserve entrances, they banter and they laugh.
The Cross Island Line and other urban development plans being proposed by the LTA are worrying because they send the message that we need not care about stewardship and responsibility. It also sends the message that these spaces which enable us to slow down, to feel some sense of humility before the wonders of the natural world, are dispensable.
Unlike the Burmese, Cambodians, Timorese or others in the region, we have little else to point to as our heritage and our legacy. The forests are our heritage and are a vital relic of old Singapore. They existed long before immigrants arrived in Singapore and they survived colonial rule and wars. It would be a pity to see them irrepairably damaged by hasty transportation developments to accommodate a vast increase in population that poses serious threats to environmental sustainability in this tiny island.
In a word, it would be tragic to see the ecological wonders hidden away in this remarkable little island destroyed by the very Singaporeans who have a sacred responsibility to protect their own land.
BIO: VINITA RAMANI MOHAN is a writer and contributing editor of Kyoto Journal. Starting out as a musician, she was a singer-songwriter under the moniker Self-Portrait, and was later the bassist of Singapore bands etc. and “V”. She has worked as a film and music critic and as a journalist. She was also the founding editor of the National Museum of Singapore’s Cinematheque Quarterly. She has worked for the Singapore International Film Festival (2002, 2004 and 2005) and Toronto International Film Festival (2004) as a writer and publicist. Her blog is here.
By Raymond Goh:
Sng Choo Sian was the founder and first president of the Foochow Association. His tomb used to be a landmark of Lao Sua (in Greater Bukit Brown) due to the two pillars, now almost hidden by the forest. His tomb has not been attended in more than 40 years. His granddaughter married the eldest son of See Teong Wah, buried in Hill 2.
Looking forward to unveiling this grand tomb with the help of tombkeeper Soh (seen here).
Note the calendar dating system: Tian Yun, loosely translated as the will of heaven.
From Ee Hoon:
孙仲玉父亲孙子善（Sun Choo Sian)，
■住在大门内（63, Club Street)。
■他也是福州会馆发起人与首任总理(founder and Chairman of Foochow Association)
■育有三子仲玉、叔玉(Soo Geok)和佩玉(Puay Geok)。
Fu De Zheng Shen protecting the tomb of Yeo Lock Ghee who died in 1925, as found by Raymond Goh:
Notice the tiles, as well as the tiger guardians.
Yes, another pair of elephants found at a tomb near Bukit Brown:
The elephant tomb belongs to a Madam Song Chit Neo (Mrs Chia Leong Chuan). Chia Leong Chuan is the father of Chia Hood Theam. From the Chia family tree, we can confirm Mdm Song is wife no 2. Mdm Song had 1 daughter, Miss Chia Lim Neo who married Mr Ong Teck Lim. (Info from Peter Pak)
According to a descendant, Chia Leong Chuan died in 1889.
This tomb was found in Lau Sua, “Old Hill”, a cemetery abutting Bukit Brown. Lao Sua was named ‘Bukit Brown’ on the map by the Survey Department in the 1890s. Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery ‘borrowed’ the hill’s name when it was established later on, in 1922. (Info from Mok Ly Ying)
There are a few samples of elephant carvings at Bukit Brown, notably on the panels of Ong Sam Leong and Teo Chin Chay.
Did you miss the documentary on Bukit Brown, History from the Hills?
Episode One introduces George Henry Brown, after which Bukit Brown got its name and how Bukit Brown became the first Municipal Cemetery for Chinese.
Repeats start from Thursday May 16 at 9 p.m. on Channel 5. For the listing guide, click here.
By Alfian Sa’at
“I admit that for a while I resisted visiting Bukit Brown. Yes, it is a heritage site, but for me a cultural heritage identified with a specific community in Singapore. As people rallied for its preservation, I often thought to myself, what about Bidadari, the waqf lands, the Istana Kampong Glam, the Malay Settlement, even the madrasahs whose existence was once imperiled? Is the Bukit Brown cause another instance where immigrant history is valorised over indigenous history? Yesterday I finally visited, and as I walked down the winding paths, I thought…I can’t claim this history as my own, because I don’t identify with the immigrant narrative.
But as my passionate guides (Jennifer and Tien) helped to decipher the layout of the graves and the inscriptions on the headstones (some of which offered moral instructions for future generations), I thought about Singapore history not as a contest between strands of histories.
Instead, in that space of contemplation and translation, I saw it as a dialogue between histories, between the Nanyang and the Nusantara, between the past and the future, the living and the dead. I knew that there were connections to be made, through the soil, the earth deities, the semangat (life-force) in the trees, the mute sentinels of weathered rock. As I ran a finger down the grainy beard of a stone Sikh ‘guardian’, I knew that time ‘saved’ in a cemetery is so much more important than the time saved on an eight-lane highway.
We have so little heritage left in Singapore. I thought, I shouldn’t be waylaid by questions of whether certain types of heritage are considered more important than others, questions of what a ‘common heritage’ really means. These questions can wait, because if Bukit Brown is not saved, then we won’t even get a chance to consider these questions in the future.”
Alfian Sa’at, Resident Playwright, W!LD RICE theatre company
Editor’s Note: Alfian posted this note on his Facebook page. It is reproduced here with his express permission.
Read Raymond’s moving plea for Bukit Brown here.
It is a living museum like no other and what we are searching for, our shared identity, our roots, our heritage, a cultural gem from which future generations can benefit, that is uniquely Singaporean.
For those who has come to Bukit Brown and experience it for themselves, it is a live on-site museum, touch stones of living memories, the physical and emotional anchors for the future generations of Singapore that can root them and make them feel connected.
Can Bukit Brown be a UNESCO Heritage Site?
Criteria for the assessment of Outstanding Universal Value
The World Heritage Committee considers a property as having Outstanding Universal Value (see paragraphs 49-53) if the property meets one or more of the following criteria. Nominated properties shall therefore :
(i) represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
(ii) exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
(iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
(iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
(v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
(vi) be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria) ;
(vii) contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
(viii) be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
(ix) be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
(x) contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of Outstanding Universal Value from the point of view of science or conservation.
inspired by the impending exhumations, someone penned a poem which was published in the chinese papers today, rough translation by Yik Han follows:
the forgotten hills the family’s glories
coffins press down on the passing years
altars imprison the murmurs of the nether world
the shadow of the steel arm gradually closes with the setting sun
the leaves and trees are all whispering
peace is made out to be alarming talk
in the future it will not be the blue sky which covers us
but the undercarriages of cars
neighbours, arise all of you
since the living do not cherish
why should the dead stubbornly remain?
you who have come to offer your respects, i know not which family’s descendant you are
can you place a joss stick for me as well
after all i am your ancestor’s neighbour, laying together for tens of years
can you recognise on the tablet
the “fu” (fortune) character painted over by chicken blood
do you remember during the burial
the sutras recited by the monk …
“guan gui yi huo, fu mu wei tu” (lines from the 64 hexagrams, not translated)
“guan gui yi huo, zi sun wei tu”
mr ong from the east end
mrs teo from the west end
it is indeed time to arise
with furious scribbles in front of the king of hades
record in the annals of the unfortunate the history which the living does not comprehend
the spirits return and wander
the tombstones have fallen into disrepair for long
the hoe’s hurried movements pick at bones
but the claimants of the tomb do not come
a voice loudly proclaims
three years later!
all will bade farewell to the soil!
only in the sea!
will there be peace!
By Raymond Goh
I met with three generations of a family visiting Bukit Brown to see the history and heritage this morning.
No, they don’t have family buried here. They learnt who the merchant who recommended Anna to the king was. And the old man knew Khoo Seok Wan and Lim Zhe Yang when I mentioned their names.
He told me some of these pioneers like Khoo Seok Wan spent their family fortune helping to further their motherland’s future, but now their own future is uncertain. His children and grandchildren went ahead to look at Cheang Hong Lim and the merchant Tan Kim Ching.
This is our heritage and history.
Raymond reflects on the value of Bukit Brown on his blog,