A call was made to the community to provide feedback to the Ministry of National Development (MND), to preserve Bukit Brown as a heritage site for future generations in the draft Master plan 2013. The closing date for feedback is 19th December 2013. For those who don’t know how to begin, there is a template available to guide you here
To those who have written, We Thank You. Some of you have shared your letters with us. We gratefully reproduce extracts with your kind permission, with the hope it will inspire others to write in and give their feedback.
If you wish to share your feedback with the community, please bcc your letter to MND to email@example.com
“I am a fourth generation Singaporean. My great-grandfather, Chew Boon Lay, was one of Singapore’s very important pioneers. In April 2012, my parents and I, along with my husband who is English, and our 2 children, discovered where my great-grandfather was buried in Bukit Brown. Thanks to a Straits Times journalist who did a photo-editorial on several important pioneers’ descendants, a photo shoot was conducted at the site of Chew Boon Lay’s tomb. My parents who had not been to his tomb in more than 20 years came along as well, as did many of my extended family of cousins, uncles, and other relatives. Despite my parents both being aged and not able to walk or see well, they both made the uphill trek to Chew Boon Lay’s tomb in the dark as a huge storm was looming. That was such an important day for them and my family. I was re-acquainted with many relatives and met some whom I had never even met before. We have had several family gatherings since and as such, our April 2012 ‘reunion’ at Chew Boon Lay’s tomb in Bukit Brown served as a very important point of re-connecting with long lost relatives. My father who is 83 was so elated to have been able to visit his grandfather’s tomb and pay respects to him again after such a long period of time. He was even happier to meet his many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, many of whom he had never met before. My siblings live abroad and when they returned to Singapore, I brought them to my great-grandfather’s tomb. All of them were so amazed at how peaceful and beautiful Bukit Brown is, but more importantly they were so happy to be able to visit our great-grandfather’s tomb for the first time. Yes, ironically, most of us had never visited Bukit Brown before. We had only heard of it but never took the time or interest to visit it. However, having reconnected with my Singapore roots via my great-grandfather’s tomb, I feel so proud to be a 4th generation Singaporean of an important Singapore pioneer who had such humble beginnings and contributed much to Singapore’s growth and prosperity. My children are both Singaporean and English and I want them to grow up feeling connected to Singapore and to be able to trace their roots in Singapore back to my great-grandfather. It was important for me that they visit his tomb and pay respects to their great-great-grandfather and to feel proud to be his descendants. I want them to be able to do this when they are older and when I am no longer around….such a connection in our young country that is forever trying to modernize and improve itself is, for me, one of the most important things if we want our children to have roots in, and feel connected to, Singapore.”
“We have sacrificed many historical sites for the reason of economic development. We may have grown as a nation in terms of wealth but we were much worse off than our ancestors when it comes to having a soul for the nation. This place allows me to hear stories of our ancestors sacrificing themselves for the good of the nation. It moves me to know that we have more personal stories than just Stamford Raffles, it makes a personal connection to me on what makes a Singaporean. Behind the tombstones are stories of our ancestors, stories that tell people that we accept immigrants and merging into one society. Given the context today that the world is global village and the need to take in foreign talents, this place serves as a valuable place for one to see that our Singapore’s philosophy of accommodating diversing talents and culture have not changed. It is a National Heritage to be preserved.
Other than the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves, Bukit Brown is a another place where I can bring my families out to Experience nature in a SAFE environment. National Parks are wonderful but they do not give the sense of one totally immersing in Nature. “We are in a jungle.” my 6 year old boy Isaac said that with excitement when I brought him to the Bukit Brown. We have built too many shopping malls and what values are we cultivating when weekend we see Singaporeans crowding the malls and yet complaining that we are bored to death? Our souls are not fed with Nature but shopping malls and how would that make us as a Nation? We fly out of the country during school holidays to visit other country’s nature while we are destroying one in our own backyard? An article written by a 12 year old boy lavanyaprakash ( http://
mynatureexperiences.wordpress. com/2013/08/05/bukit-brown- nature-heritage/ ) on Bukit Brown reminded me how important it is to preserve such AUTHENTIC nature and to educate Singaporeans on Nature Outings. I want my children’s generations to be able to experience this Nature and not just Bukit Timah Reserves or other man made National Parks. Thus, not only it is a National Heritage to be preserved, it is a World Heritage to be preserved!”
“We need not look any further than to Bukit Brown when we try to form our Singapore Identity because it is there for all to see. It is a living museum of our rich history that reminds us that our forefathers were migrants from various lands who decided to root themselves here in the Straits Settlement of Singapore, and we are their proud offsprings. The fact that Singapore started as a migrant nation also helps us understand and welcome those who come here today, like our forefathers, to seek their fortune and make Singapore their home.”
Arielle Ng Rae
As a local student and youth, I finally took the time out today to join one of the tour groups organised by SOS Bukit Brown today, which I have been wanting to do ever since my ‘A’-levels finished. I was pleasantly surprised with the beauty and heritage of the site, but I was also incredibly saddened. The tour guides were very passionate and knowledgeable about local heritage, and the knowledge I gained today about Singapore and its roots, about how the locals worked together with a myriad of other races to form modern Singapore, about the roots of our unique culture that we often take for granted, made me the proudest of Singapore that I have ever been. Through the tour, I finally appreciated exactly what it meant to be a melting pot of diverse cultures– how our customs came to be and as a result, how unique we are, and, ironically, the beauty of globalization in contributing to our shared heritage. I plead with the most earnest and sincere heart, that you will protect Bukit Brown, for the sake of Singaporeans, who are fast becoming disillusioned with this city-state. This tour has done nothing but cement my love for Singapore and my pride for it, and I want many of my peers to feel the same. It is perhaps the natural state of the cemetery, and the untouched beauty of the landscape that lent this genuine connection and pride, but whatever it is, Bukit Brown cemetery has proven to be a beautiful reminder of what it once meant to be Singaporean, and what it could mean for future generations to come.
“Bukit Brown has helped me achieve a better understanding of a history of a part of Singapore’s local history, and has helped me gain a stronger sense of where our nation has come from as a community. It is a reminder of where our society came from and the sacrifices earlier generations made. I hope my children will be able to experience the sheer physicality of our roots, as well as Singapore’s natural heritage.
The flooding in Singapore over the past few years, including the Bukit Timah and Thomson areas that are downhill from Bukit Brown, reminds me of the importance of having natural green spaces near already built-up areas.
Moreover, during the periods of heavy haze earlier in 2013, green areas like Bukit Brown were least affected. Singapore needs natural green lungs like Bukit Brown.”
“It is OUR oldest part of history. My grandfather’s grave at Bidadari was long gone more than 10 years ago to clear his “resting place” for more housing developments. Passing by that stretch of road gives us no connection anymore. Even though we have never met our grandfather before, we used to pop by his grave as a kid just to say “hello”, or just to remember how he looked like before by the photo on his grave. We felt the root of our roots. We felt proud of ourselves in some way too because of where we came from. Now I understand why history is such an important part of life.
So, please do not do to the oldest cemetery in Singapore, the Bukit Brown Cemetery what the government had already done at Bidadari. How much more land or our past that you want to “sacrifice” for economic development? Bukit Brown CAN BE an economic source if it can be converted to a tourist area, natural reserve etc. We do not want more roads, please.”
“I am a British citizen who has settled in Singapore with my family and now call it home – and I am proud to do so. My daughter was born here and we are happy here. However, my husband and I are trying to teach our children about the importance of preserving our environment and our natural heritage. We often tell them “once it’s gone, you can’t get it back” and we quote the Native American Cree prophecy “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money”. It is heartbreaking to think that in a few years’ time, such a place as Bukit Brown – with its natural, historical and cultural significance – might be concreted over. Please, please consider saving it for our future generations.”
The following is a template for making a representation on Bukit Brown in the draft master plan 2013. It outlines the applicable statues, presents the case for preserving Bukit Brown and provides an option for you to pen in your own words, why Bukit Brown is important to you and Singapore.
The closing date is 19 December, 2013. Please do not delay and send it directly to the email of Benny Lim: MND_benny_lim@mnd.gov.sg.
Please bcc your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org if you are agreeable to allow bukitbrown.com to extract personal anecdotes for a separate blog post
More on the master plan and feedback process here
The URA draft master plan website here
Mr. Benny Lim
Ministry of National Development
Dear Mr. Lim,
I, the undersigned, am writing to make a submission about the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013 under rules 5 and 6, Part II of the Planning Act (Chapter 232, Section 10), “Planning (Master Plan) Rules”, “Objections and Representations” and “Approval of Proposal”, which state the following:
Objections and representations
5. Any objection to or representation concerning a proposal for an amendment to the Master Plan shall be in writing and shall be —
(a) submitted to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of National Development within the period specified under rule 4(a); and
(b) accompanied by a statement of the reasons or explanations therefor.
Approval of proposal
—(1) Except where the Minister is of the opinion that an objection or representation is of a frivolous nature, the Minister shall afford to any person whose objection or representation was received by him within the period specified under rule 4(a) and has not been withdrawn, an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person or persons appointed by the Minister for the purpose, or cause a public inquiry to be held in accordance with Part III.
(2) The Minister, after considering —
(a) the proposal for an amendment to the Master Plan;
(b) the Master Plan;
(c) any objection or representation which has been received by him within the period specified under rule 4(a) and which has not been withdrawn; and
(d) in a case where a hearing or public inquiry has been held in accordance with Part III, the findings and conclusions submitted to him in accordance with rule 14, may approve, with such modifications as he may consider necessary, or reject the proposal for the amendment to the Master Plan in whole or in part.
(3) Notwithstanding rule 4, the Minister, if satisfied that a proposal for an amendment to the Master Plan is not material in nature, may approve the proposal without any notice of the proposal being published.
Specifically, I submit my representation concerning the preservation of the Bukit Brown area (which includes Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery, Lao Sua, Kopi Sua, Seh Ong) for the conservation of Singapore heritage and nature. The Draft Master Plan 2013 indicates that much of Bukit Brown will become a built-up residential area with a dual four-lane carriageway (hereafter, “highway”) passing through. The area marked for residential use in the Draft Master Plan 2013 is different from the previous 2008 Master Plan, and significantly reduces the size of Bukit Brown Cemetery. The highway cutting across Bukit Brown was not in the 2008 Master Plan. The Environmental Impact Assessment for the bridge component of the highway has not been made public for the public to understand the situation and if applicable, take any necessary mitigating actions to their own properties on lower ground than Bukit Brown.
I would like the Ministry of National Development and relevant state agencies to conserve Bukit Brown, given its multi-layered historical significance for our young city-state.
First, it is the final resting place for many of Singapore’s pioneers going back to the nineteenth century. While the cemetery was in operation between 1922 and 1973, the period it covers extends beyond that, as tombs as early as the 1830s have been found there, indicating the earliest pioneers from the time of Sir Stamford Raffles. Therefore, Bukit Brown is an important time capsule of the historical story arc of Singapore as an important maritime node of Southeast Asia to its present day incarnation. The links to other Straits Settlements sites and thriving regional towns make Bukit Brown important not just for Singapore history but underscores the links to our neighbours, all the more important in today’s globalized economic system. It is a story arc that covers practices under imperial China and colonial Southeast Asia right up to independence and recent history. There are tombs with Chinese imperial, Chinese agrarian, Japanese imperial, Roman, Confucian and inventive calendars, and inscriptions in Dutch, Thai, English, Hokkien, Mandarin and Japanese.
A battle was fought there in World War II and according to the second generation tomb keepers, their parents spoke of mass civilian graves. The battle felled English, Australian, Indian and Japanese soldiers as well as local civilians. There are still soldiers missing in action in this battle. Battlefield archaeologist Jon Copper has described Bukit Brown as one of the rare battlefields that remain intact from World War II, as demonstrated by the British and Japanese wartime maps, during the Battle of Adam Park. This is all the more poignant as we soon approach the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Singapore in 2015.
Malays used to live in the kampungs along Kheam Hock Road and the greater Bukit Brown area on the Police Academy side near Lao Sua. Jon Cooper has uncovered evidence Indian soldiers were massacred along Kheam Hock Road, abutting Bukit Brown and Lao Sua.
Bukit Brown therefore presents itself as a destination for education for local schools and great potential for education tourism for schools overseas keen to study history, society and culture, as well as war histories. (This is already happening.) The artifacts there are unique and not found anywhere else in the world. The potential for tourism is great, including war site tourism, making Bukit Brown unique.
In essence, Bukit Brown has clearly demonstrated multi-cultural, multi-ethnic histories and wartime history intertwined into its seemingly mundane role as a mere cemetery. This gives it unique value that deserves re-consideration under the Masterplan.
Beyond its historical significance, the Bukit Brown area serves as an urban heat sink and refuge for endangered bird species. As a heavily vegetated area, Bukit Brown also mitigates against surface run-off and consequent flooding. Bukit Brown’s flood mitigation function may be especially important given that the 2013 Commission on Drainage Design and Flood Prevention Measures Final Report states that Singapore may be facing increasingly heavy rainfall. I also note that the recently concluded Our Singapore Conversation notes that 62% and 53% of Singaporeans respectively support the protection of green spaces and heritage sites over infrastructure construction. This is a majority of Singaporeans.
Conserving Bukit Brown is also consistent with the current effort to inscribe the Singapore Botanic Garden as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, since the former is listed on the 2014 World Monument Fund Watch List for endangered heritage sites. Many World Monument Fund Watch List sites like Georgetown in Malaysia later became inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Protecting Bukit Brown in our Nation’s development plans demonstrates Singapore’s consistency on heritage protection and commitment to the UNESCO Convention, to which Singapore is a signatory. Obvious damage to and destruction of Bukit Brown may stand at odds with efforts to inscribe the Singapore Botanic Gardens as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Bukit Brown’s proximity to the Singapore Botanic Gardens allows visitors to easily combine their experience of Singapore’s colonial history with a rich understanding of Singapore’s immigrant history.
Notably, Bukit Brown is one of Singapore’s top visitor sites and a Traveler’s Choice Award Winner for 2013 according to TripAdvisor, a respected online tourism portal, despite limited public transportation access and amenities. This is potential that should be looked into seriously.
<Insert any personal anecdotes here on why Bukit Brown should be conserved, or how it has moved you to a deeper understanding of Singapore and your own identity>
I hope you will protect Bukit Brown and Singapore’s historical, cultural, wartime and natural heritage for future generations, and will have an open discussion on how best to protect Bukit Brown and other heritage and nature sites affected by the proposals in the URA Draft Master Plan 2013. National development includes supporting our Nation’s sense of identity and belonging across generations in addition to infrastructure. I look forward to hearing from you. Please feel free to contact me at:
<email; contact number>
How you can give feedback on Bukit Brown in the Draft Master Plan 2013
by Ian Chong
I would like to encourage readers who have an interest in protecting Bukit Brown and other parts of Singapore’s natural and cultural heritage to send in your thoughts about the recent draft Land Use Plan to the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Apart from the regular feedback channel on the Land Use Plan site, you can send your feedback directly to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of National Development, MND_benny_lim@mnd.gov.sg. Under Singapore’s statutes on the matter, such non-frivolous feedback should receive a due response from the Ministry of National Development.
Basically, when the URA seeks approval of the Minister for National Development to amend the Master Plan, as is the case presently (the previous Master Plan was 2008) it must:
“publish a notice by advertisement of the submission specifying —
(a) a period of not less than 2 weeks within which objections to and representations concerning the proposed amendment may be made; and (b)the place where a certified copy of the proposal is deposited for public inspection during such period”: rule 4.
Anyone who wishes to object to or make representations concerning a proposal to amend the Master Plan may then make a written submission “accompanied by a statement of the reasons or explanations therefor” to the Permanent Secretary of MND within the specified period: rule 5.
Unless the objection or representation “is of a frivolous nature”, the Minister “shall afford to any person whose objection or representation was received by him within the period specified… an opportunity of appearing before and being heard by a person or persons appointed by the Minister for the purpose, or cause a public inquiry to be held…”: rule 6(1).
Even though people making representations cannot insist on a public inquiry – whether an inquiry takes place depends on the Minister. However, given the use of the word “shall”, the language suggests that the Minister cannot refuse the opportunity of being heard. The Minister then has to decide whether the Master Plan should be amended given the objections or representations from a public inquiry: rule 6(2). (Part III of the Rules — rules 10 to 14 — sets out the procedure if there is a public inquiry.
As many know, the URA recently released a draft Land Use Plan and is inviting members of the public to provide feedback until December 19 this year. After that time, proposals in the plan will become gazetted and part of policy. Included in the draft Land Use Plan are proposals to zone much of Bukit Brown as a residential area, even though there are no further details at present.
Large areas of Bukit Brown are “reserve land” for future development, even if areas of “cemetery” remain on the Land Use Plan. The eight-lane highway that cuts across Bukit Brown is also part of the current plans. Maps released along with the draft Land Use Plan detail these developments.
We experienced how development can affect our daily lives – from flooding and crowding on public transport to the destruction of heritage and nature. This makes it imperative that we, as citizens, let the government agencies that are supposed to represent our interests understand our legitimate concerns. Your response matters and concerns matter whether they are about protecting heritage like Bukit Brown and Jalan Kubor, which is also slated for construction, or redevelopment in your neighbourhood.
(Note: This is a lay person’s perspective, I welcome someone with legal knowledge to correct me.)
Read more by Ian Chong on Bukit Brown, Development and Possibilities for Singapore
By Ishvinder Singh
In search of a shared heritage – how a once-forgotten Chinese cemetery re-connected me with my Singapore heritage.
In 2011, when the government announced that a part of Bukit Brown was to be re-claimed for a highway, I was not too concerned. Bukit Brown did not matter to me because the material culture was foreign and I had no intentions of messing with the supernatural. Growing up in a conservative Indian family I was often warned not to venture into unknown territories or investigate matters that did not concern me. Hence, I initially thought that I did not have any business being in Bukit Brown. As a result this non-Chinese Singaporean did not care about Bukit Brown until one fine Saturday morning spent on Facebook.
As I was scrolling through my news feeds on Facebook, a whole bunch of turbaned and bearded statues appeared on my screen that look so much like me!
They were the Sikh statues of Bukit Brown and more than 24 pairs of them have been re-discovered by Peter Pak who has carefully documented them on his blog, Rojak Librarian.
I was struck by the careful detail of the turban and every handcrafted curl of the beard. Simply, I fell in love with Bukit Brown. I was sold and soon I found myself rallying around the “Save Bukit Brown” campaign, now feeling that this place mattered to me. Bukit Brown preserved this identity and this ideal of what it meant to be a Sikh, which made me and my turban feel at home at the cemetery. There is a pair of Sikh statues which I adore very much, given the fine workmanship and attention to detail. They stand guard at the tomb of Wong Chin Yoke who received the King’s Police medal for his efforts in suppressing subversive organizations as a police Intelligence officer in 1938:
The statue is seen with an ammunition belt, is accompanied by a little dog and even the folds of his shirt are so realistically captured. It also has a riffle in his hands. It was a standard issue riffle known as the Lee-Enfield Riffle which is still used by the Singapore Armed Forces’ Military Police for ceremonial purposes. I also like this other statue very much that is much smaller in height and has a small dagger by its side:
This is known as Kirpan, one of the five Sikh articles of faith and symbolic of a Sikh’s commitment to defending his community. It is just so amazing how much attention is given to make these statues as life-like and accurate as possible.
Over time as my curiosity grew, I began studying Bukit Brown deeper and did things I never imagined doing such as understanding tomb architecture, appreciating grave art and its symbology. The schematic of a tomb resembles a compound, consisting a few layers before you reach the tombstone. Typically in the front section, there would be a pair of Warrior Gods, Sikh Guards or some similar representation protecting the overall property. This is followed by the celestial servants, a pair of Golden Boy and Jade Maiden statues. The earth deity comes next and followed by a pair of lions or lion-dogs to ward off evil spirits. It is fascinating to see that every element had its place in creating an auspicious aura.
The Sikh guards are not just security guards here. Instead they are elevated to guardians of the afterlife and I find that truly remarkable as it shows the degree of respect and reverence the Sikhs have received.
Ong Sam Leong’s life and death exemplifies this. He was Peranakan and the coolie labour contractor on Christmas Island, a former asset of the British known for its phosphate deposits. Besides labour he also operated a Kongsi, a society on Christmas Island which supplied food, opium and entertainment for the labourers. The Sikh guard statues at his tomb were probably inspired by Sikh police force posted on Christmas Island. British colonialist had capitalized on the commanding appearance by stationing Sikhs to protect British assets and even to squash riots by the Chinese coolies.
Sikhs were therefore seen as protectors of property and guards in the eyes of prominent Chinese merchants and traders, both on Christmas Island and in Singapore. My research took me from Bukit Brown all the way to Christmas Island and in this excitement I asked myself if there were other forms of Sikh imagery in Singapore? I was not left disappointed. There are two instances in which Sikh and Indian guards are captured on motives imbedded into the walls of shophouse entrances at Geylang Road and Balestier Road. The shophouse at Balestier road was owned by Madam Sim Cheng Neo in 1928. The Sikh guards here seem to be a stand in for the Chinese Warrior Door Gods typically used in Chinese Temples to ward off evil spirits.
This is remarkable evidence of how Singapore’s unique ethnic diversity inspires local architecture.
There is also a pair of Sikh statues at Katong Park presented in a more contemporary form:
And if you think that these statues could not get any bigger, wait till you see these guards which were placed in front of a Chinese residence in Singapore in bygone times:
In fact, Singapore is not the only country which has such Sikh imagery. Penang, Malaysia has one too. This is the Sikh statue standing guard over the prayer hall of the Khoo Kongsi Temple in Penang:
As all these re-discoveries grew over time, I felt that this information had to be shared, so the idea of the Singapore Sikh Heritage Trail was born and will include other sites of interests. I hope that through this trail, Sikhs and Singaporeans will be better able to re-connect with their Singapore heritage. This trail is still in its conceptualization stages and should be ready by 2014. It should be pretty evident that I grew up with the idea that Sikhs are a martial race, that we are fierce fighters and defenders of the community. Most Sikhs come from Punjab, India, that sits right at the gateway of invasion into India. From 9th century till the formation of Sikh empire in 18th century, India was routinely invaded via the Khyber pass by central Asian armies and empires. Sikhism, a peaceful community of believers in the concept of unity and social improvement had to adapt to becoming defenders of their land. The saint-soldier concept evolved when the repeated invasions made it tough to live peacefully. There is a small community of Sikhs known as the Nihangs:
They are the guardians of the Sikh martial spirit and still maintain the traditional styles of an early 17th century Sikh army, much like the Samurai warriors. When the Sikh Empire fell to the British, the British decided to harness the martial spirit of Sikhs by deploying them as arms of British dominance over the colonies. As instructed in British recruitment handbooks: “the Sikhs displayed masculinity, [were] fairly uncorruptable and made good policemen.”
In policing the colony, the British further reinforced adherence to the Khalsa Sikh identity through their recruitment policies. Only turbaned and bearded men of a certain height and weight and from specific clans were accepted into the ranks. As such, military service became a domain that could produce and police the British vision of a coherent Sikh identity.
The import of this particular image eventually led to many prominent figures in the Chinese community employing Sikh guards as well, which I see it as a reproduction of that Sikh image masculinity and martiality.
In that space of Bukit Brown, I saw an intermingling of histories, between the Chinese pioneers and the Sikh guards. It was an era frozen in time. Then it dawned upon me that this was not just about “my” people or “my heritage”, but rather was about “our” heritage.
I asked myself, if it was possible to conceive the notion of a “shared heritage”? I surprised myself for having discovered a commonality amongst that bewildering array of personal and collective identities. That was how I reconnected with the Singapore story where Bukit Brown reminded me what it is to be a Singaporean; that we are willing to invite, embrace and accept differences, even taking them to our graves.
If a nobody like me can have the audacity to put myself in an uncomfortable position by learning about another culture, by being in a cemetery, by questioning my own faith, than so can you. Get out there, search and you too might just find a crazy relatable connection that binds us all together.
This article has been adapted from Ishvinder Singh’s speech at TedxYouth@SG on the 17th December 2013. Acknowledgments: Ms. Vithya Subramaniam and Mr. Amardeep Singh in researching and documenting the Sikh statues of Bukit Brown Cemetery, along with the development of the Singapore Sikh Heritage Trail. Vithya is a recent South Asian Studies and Political Science graduate from NUS interested in the intersections of these fields with the visual. Amardeep is a creative photographer: www.amardeepphotography.com
With a passion for history, Ishvinder Singh has set out to document the history of the Sikh community in Singapore. His goal is to create a heritage trail in Singapore that traces places of historical significance to the Sikhs. This idea was first conceived in Bukit Brown cemetery, where numerous Sikh statues stand guard at the tombs of Chinese merchants. Intrigued by this curious sight, he wanted to learn more about the motivations behind those statues. What began as a personal endeavor to reconnect with his past, has evolved into a project to share the collective history of the Sikhs in Singapore.
Ishvinder is a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore and is currently a supply chain professional for an American Oil and Gas company. He has also spent a significant amount of time in the United States pursuing his other passions of entrepreneurship and business management. At any other time, Ishvinder may be found in Bukit Brown documenting the statues, or in the archives reading up on Sikhs in Singapore.
What are you waiting for? Join us on our tours at Bukit Brown. You may well run into a Sikh guard statue, or even Ish himself.
Claire Leow’s TEDx talk on how Bukit Brown helped her come home from abroad. Ish’s talk has not been uploaded yet. Stay tuned!
The Case for a Bukit Brown (National) Heritage Park
by Chew Kheng Chuan
7 November, 2013.
Sometime ago when I was looking at Google Earth to check out Bukit Brown, I was struck by what a huge green lung it was that was contiguous to the main Water Catchment Area of MacRitchie and Pierce Reservoirs. In that sense the greenery was part of a single “critical mass,” whose significance – ecological and environmental – depended critically on its mass to create the climatic and rainfall needs of Singapore. I felt that taking away this greenery would be a major detraction and subtraction that cannot be replaced by the addition of many other smaller parcels that may add up to the same area if aggregated.
Otherwise I am very sympathetic to the pressures of the planners needing to look to the provision of housing and road requirements of a developing city and nation.
However I feel it is highly regrettable that Bukit Brown Cemetery has to be sacrificed on the altar of development. It will be an irretrievable loss. This is a resting place of the pioneers of our nation and is a cultural and historical heritage that is the physical expression of our sense of origins and identity.
Are there alternatives? This is a serious question that must be considered further and deeper. When Bukit Brown is developed into a future residential estate, the beneficiaries are limited to the fortunate people who will live there, next to the greenery of MacRitchie Reservoir. However it will be lost to the larger public.
Yet if Bukit Brown were to be gazetted as a National Heritage Cemetery Park, and developed as such, keeping all the graves which represent the earliest of burials in Singapore, and are an authentic expression of the anthropological rituals, ceremonies and culture of a people (still alive and active annually every Cheng Beng period), it can benefit all residents of Singapore, and into the future. Let me explain why.
Indeed the National Parks Board can look to developing this into a National Heritage Cemetery Park (or should that be the Bukit Brown Heritage Cemetery National Park?), develop the landscape and plantings, preserving the old trees, and grow new flora. Then it becomes a NEW environmental, recreational, cultural, historical, educational, natural, and yes, economical-tourism resource for all residents in Singapore – citizens, PRs, migrant workers, visitors, tourists, students, nature lovers, birdwatchers, filial descendents who observe the rites and rituals of Cheng Beng
It then becomes a public space rather than a private, historical, forgotten, “under-utilised” cemetery. Perhaps a stronger case can be made that this serves more powerfully the larger public good than the limited number of the lucky few future residents of the new residential estate of Bukit Brown?
An MRT has been planned and will be built for Bukit Brown – indeed, that will not detract from nor be wasted by the new identity and purpose of this National Heritage Park, for all of Singapore will need good transportation access to it to enjoy its benefits. The Bukit Brown MRT in a new status of Bukit Brown will in the longer run better justify its location and existence, bringing a far greater number of commuters to it than that planned for just residents of the area were it to be an exclusive residential district.
I would argue for considering such an alternative future for Bukit Brown to preserve its past of pioneer burials, and enhance its future, even if my ancestors were not buried there. Indeed, as a child I used to accompany my father and relatives every Cheng Beng, but with their passing I have discontinued this ritual for many decades, which explains why my children have never visited the grave of their great-great-grandfather Chew Boon Lay until recently
I asked my children what thoughts they might wish to share. They said:
“Our father told us we are 5th generation Singaporeans, which we think is cool. We wonder how many of our friends have been in Singapore for 5 generations? Our great great grandfather Chew Boon Lay and great grandfather Chew Hock Seng, are both buried at Bukit Brown. We’re kinda sad that when the cemetery is gone they will be just a memory and lost in our future.”
Chew Kheng Chuan is the great grandson of Chew Boon Lay.
by Walter Lim
(Published in Zaobao on 1 November, 2013, translated by Fabian Tee )
Taking a Closer Look at Singaporeans’ “Interest in the Wild (side)”
I refer to the commentary by Mr Goh Choon Kang ( a media professional and a former MP) entitled “Looking from the sidelines at Singaporeans’ interest in the wild side” dated Oct 23, 2o13. In it he posed the question : “why did the dialogue between civilian and government not take place before unilateral action was taken by one party with the expressed hope of opening more channels of communication? Just reflect for a moment, how the official in charge of heritage affairs must be feeling right now.”
This article has created considerable public misconception. The Prime Minister, after all, had on the occasion of the opening of the Heritage Festival 2013 said that:
“The government does not own the Singapore heritage. It does not define the Singapore heritage. Our heritage is a collection of individual memories, woven together into a national story. It is something that belongs to every Singaporean, and which each one of us can contribute to and help to preserve, individually and collectively”. PM Lee.
Therefore, it stands to reason that any civilian initiative to help Singapore preserve its heritage should be a source of comfort for the authorities. Besides, the National Heritage Board’s Alvin Tan is a broad-minded and enlightened official, and not a petty/small-minded individual as implied by Goh.
In Goh’s article entitled “The basis and limits of dialogue”, he stated that “perhaps I lacked culture or cultural depth, but I feel that most Singaporeans are unlikely to bring their old or young to a desolate place in the middle of nowhere during their free time”.
(I agree) Most people are of this (Goh’s ) same mindset – civilians and officials alike, think that way. It was under such dire circumstances that the application to World Monuments Fund was made. Can anyone imagine holding a dialogue under such circumstances? It would have been laughable. Fortunately the unrelenting efforts (of many) have paid off and many parents do bring their children and elderly parents to Bukit Brown. For his sake and society at large, I sincerely hope that Goh will deepen his cultural depth so that more young and old will come to Bukit Brown for leisurely walks.
On the government’s heavy burden of providing for the basic necessities for millions, Goh said that the volunteers are of the opinion that “you (government) can resolve to solve the existing traffic problems, just leave our Bukit Brown alone. For the record, many alternative plans/suggestions were submitted to the government once the road announcements were made. Subsequently there were suggestions to leave the tombstones by the roadside, blending the past with the modern. Recently, we also took part in the exercise to incorporate Biddari’s history into the planning of the new town. These efforts collectively demonstrate that the volunteers are trying to strike a balance between preserving the past and developing the future. Unfortunately, none of our suggestions/feedback for Bukit Brown found fertile ground and they have since fallen by the wayside.
On the other hand, the plan for Lornie Road reflects a lack of foresight and planning. Three years after expanding the number of lanes on Lornie/Adam Roads in 2009, the government now anticipates a reduction in the (Lornie) lanes after the Bukit Brown highway is built. Instead of expending money on the expansion and subsequent shrinking of Lornie Road, why not just build the Bukit Brown highway in the first place? The excitement that followed the government’s undertaking to quicken the pace of housing and transport infrastructural development after the last General Election quickly morphed into a hidden worry. Plans for building Bukit Brown highway were carried out without the benefit of any impact assessment particularly that of a heritage impact assessment in face of a large scale destruction of historic artifacts. In the final analysis, is the Bukit Brown highway really meant for development or is it an unmitigated disaster?
When the plans were announced last year, an estimated 5000 gravestones were to be affected and LTA then reduced that to 3746 due to a change in road plans. Now the official number has been re-estimated at 4153. What is really going on here? Even more worrisome for us is the sense of how heritage preservation is considered in this country. Minister Tan Chuan Jin said in parliament that (the preservation of) material culture including gravestone, carvings and tiles etc are very important. Yet after discussions at the higher level, there has been no concrete plans for a proposed memorial garden for the preservation of gravestones of important personalities. The imminent threat of destruction to thousands of graves has not provoke the local museums or Chinese clan associations to show any interest in preservation whatsoever. Dare I ask , is any government body or department truly satisfied with this (state of affairs) or process?
Leaving aside Goh’s portrayal of the Bukit Brown volunteers as a bunch of “wild enthusiasts”, this unlikely group of individuals who busy themselves over all things related to Bukit Brown, stands in stark contrast with the total lack of interest displayed by the leaders of the Chinese Clan Associations. This lackadaisical attitude even extends to the discovery of the tombstones of founding fathers of their clans.
At a time when the Gan Eng Seng alumni paid their respects to his grave during Qing Ming, the Chinese High and Nanyang Girls High and Industry Commerce Schools etc have instead chosen to forget their history.
When a country’s polity has no regard for our collective history and the hallowed grounds of our Chinese pioneers and civilisation, evoke nothing but disdain, are policies to blame and have the people all forgotten (the past)?
As Bukit Brown is doomed to its fate, a group of volunteers -whose ranks comprises Indian, Dutch and Japanese and others who know not a single Chinese character – are picking up the Chinese language to decipher tomb inscriptions, studying the various pioneers’ connections with old temples, clan associations, schools and some even extending their research into local history and the Chinese civilization. This abiding interest of the so called “wild enthusiast” calls for a deeper sense of reflection. Surely, this phenomenon is hardly one that can be understood by anyone looking from the sidelines.
More on the road expansion at Lornie Road here.
The full report in Chinese:
官民就不能先磋商好才行动，而必须等到单边行动过后，才希望展开 更多的对话呢？试想，如果你是官方负责文化遗产事宜的单位，你会 有什么感受？”这番话已经造成公众的错误解读。
来定义，人们都可做出贡献和协助保留。”因此对民间自发性的协助 新加坡保留文化遗产，官方理应欣慰，而文物局陈子宇先生是位胸襟 阔达的开明主管，并非吴先生所形容的小家子气。
应有的文化与人文素养，但总觉得，一般国人不太可能在闲暇时间， 扶老携幼到这么一个四野荒冢的地方逛。”这是当时一般人的观感， 民间如此，官方亦然。
说磋商，恐怕告诉别人也会让人笑掉大牙。所幸在不间歇的努力下， 今天可以看到父母带着小孩或是长者到武吉布朗，祈望吴先生为自己 、为社会增添多一份文化与人文素养，一家大小也来武吉布朗逛逛。
法解决交通问题，只要别动到坟山分毫。”这已将志愿者描绘成一味 坚持保留而罔顾发展所需。事实上，政府宣布征用坟场之后就提出代 替方案，过后又建议保留墓碑在路旁，将过去融入未来，也讨论名人 墓园之建议；近期更参与将历史遗迹融入比达达里新镇，这一切都有 目共睹，说明志愿者是在旧事物和新发展之间谋求平衡，但各项建议 都进不了当局的视野之内，结果不了了之。
得开辟新道路缓和交通；而今开辟武吉布朗新道路完成后，又要减少 罗尼路的车道，请问当年为何不直接开辟武吉布朗新道路，却大费周 章的扩建又再收缩罗尼路呢？上届大选之后，政府在房屋与交通方面 加快建设脚本，这喜讯反而成为隐忧，道路未全面评估就匆匆建造， 尤其不曾评估对文化遗迹所带来的破坏。开辟武吉布朗新道路，究竟 是发展所需或许是无妄之灾？
3746座；今年8月却飙升到4153座，请问发生了什么事？令 人担忧的是文物保留意识，陈川仁代部长在国会上说，实质文物，包 括墓碑、雕塑、瓷砖等也很重要，过后召开名人墓园事项的会议，现 已沦为一记空炮；而本地展览馆华社并不热衷保留先贤墓碑，公路工 程即将展开，大批墓碑已陷绝境；敢问政府各部门主管诸位部长，对 整个流程是否满意？
夜为武吉布朗奔波的是一介平民，华社领袖对华人坟场，甚至创办人 或先贤的坟墓却无动于衷；在颜永成学校清明节到武吉布朗献花之际 ，华侨中学、南洋女中和工商等学校却选择遗忘过去。
或是人民已经遗忘？武吉布朗遭人遗弃之际，却有印籍、日籍、荷籍 与认识汉字不多的志愿者，为了理解碑铭而学起中文，更进一步探讨 古迹庙宇、社团、学校，甚至钻研本地历史与中华文化，新加坡人的 “野趣”，有太多值得令人深思之处，岂是斜眼侧观之士所能理会？
A Question of Public Value : Bukit Brown
by Z’ming Cik
(14 October 2013)
It has been a sweet triumph of sorts for the heritage enthusiasts of Bukit Brown who dub themselves the ‘Brownies’. They have now managed to earn international recognition for the site by placing it on the 2014 World Monuments Watch – even if that does not seem likely to change the government’s immediate plans to build a highway cutting through it.
It is not just an affirmation of its significance that Bukit Brown has been selected, alongside Venice in Italy, Yangon historic city centre in Myanmar and sites in war-torn Syria such as a 17th-century souk in Aleppo, as one of 67 cultural heritage sites currently “at risk from the forces of nature and the impact of social, political and economic change” – in the words of the New York-based World Monuments Fund.
It is also an affirmation of a universalistic ethos that any cultural heritage of the world can transcend the narrow confines of ethnic identities, and be protected by all mankind, against irreplaceable loss due to unchecked urban development or other factors. Such is indeed also the true spirit behind the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, best known for the mechanism of the world heritage list, on which Singapore is attempting to inscribe its Botanic Gardens.
The purpose of this little article here is not to make a case for the nomination of Bukit Brown as a world heritage site – though that can definitely make a fruitful exercise, given its historical and aesthetic values based on all the knowledge accumulated. Instead, I would like to approach the issue of Bukit Brown from a more general perspective, of what is stake in general with plans to sacrifice such a site for traffic and future residential use, and how decisions should be arrived at from the perspective of public administration. For as the Brownies have expressed at a press conference last week, there is an urgent need to ‘reframe’ public discussion, away from a false dichotomy that treats it as a choice between space for the dead and space for the living.
Indeed, the issue of Bukit Brown is not a dilemma between past and future, tradition and modernity, heritage and progress, or community and nation. It may be framed instead as a question of ‘public value’ for the average Singapore citizen, whereby one should weigh between the gains of constructing a highway to ease traffic (and allowing more cars on the road) and the environmental costs which may impact on the quality of life for all residents, not to mention the opportunity costs in compromising a heritage site with value in education and tourism use.
I am borrowing the term ‘public value’ here from Mark H. Moore, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, author of the book Creating Public Value. Under such a framework of public administration, one may discuss whether a public enterprise reflects the desires or aspirations of the citizens, and also analyse whether it is cost-effective for collective interests.
This gives us a clearer picture of the problem when we consider the following points. First, in terms of desires or aspirations, 54% of Singaporeans according to the recent Our Singapore Conversation Survey have expressed a preference for preservation of heritage spaces over infrastructure, and 62% have expressed a preference for preservation of green spaces over infrastructure. The Singapore Heritage Society also cites an earlier Heritage Awareness Survey whereby 90% of Singaporeans agree that preservation of heritage would become more important as Singapore becomes a global city.
Second, plans for the 8-lane highway through Bukit Brown were announced without full disclosure of its Environmental Impact Assessment, which should rightly be of public interest. Nature Society has cited the importance of Bukit Brown as a green lung with cooling effects on the climate and mitigating effects against flash floods. We have surely seen how Urban Heat Island (UHI) effects, due to increased urban surfaces and industrial and car emissions, lead to more flash floods. The National Environment Agency is now advising Singaporeans to brace for warmer and wetter days in the next century. Should Singaporeans be inspired then to make extra more babies? Would more population growth and urban development be sustainable in the long run?
The idea of ‘sustainability’ is incidentally concerned not only with economic development but also with environment and social equity; it begs us to rationalise the needs of the present generation, in order not to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. So who are we to decide for the future generations that they have no need for natural green spaces, for authentic cultural and natural heritage?
Third, an 8-lane highway may be cost-effective for the operations of LTA and its contractors, but is it ‘cost-effective’ for all Singaporeans? On the concern of infrastructure alone, will the benefits be well distributed among Singaporeans? I believe a lot of Singaporeans would prefer to see improvements in public transport – whereby they should be managed as public enterprises rather than as profit-making private enterprises, while controlling the growth or inflow of population meantime. COEs this month have just reached 90K, and ERP rates have been rising too, so how does a new highway represent the interest of the average Singaporean? Should the dictum of the government be what former head of Civil Service, Ngiam Tong Dow recalls: “What’s wrong with collecting more money?”?
An 8-lane highway may make good business sense if the objective is to attract higher demands for car traffic. But it is a road of no return where environmental costs and the loss in heritage are concerned.
Perhaps the word ‘heritage’ is not always useful here, for some people may mistake it as being synonymous with ‘tradition’, and they assume that to acknowledge a cemetery dating back to the Qing dynasty as heritage would mean having to wear a pigtail, or to bow before the image of some dead old merchants and ask for 4D numbers. They imagine ‘heritage’ as a form of liability, instead of as a form of resource for an authentic experience of national history, or of works of art.
How the historical significance of Bukit Brown as ‘heritage’ should be interpreted, is certainly open to debates. But being ‘modern’ does not mean discarding everything of the past. We are not living in an era of Cultural Revolution somewhere in China. The National Heritage Board has also recognised the importance of Bukit Brown Cemetery and the need to work with the community for its preservation.
Being ‘modern’ also means being able to rationalise how one should help steer the development of one’s country or the world at large. Hopefully more Singaporeans will be able to look at the issue of Bukit Brown not as a matter of whether one has personal affinity to it, but from a perspective of public value.
We may ask ourselves: What heritage values does it hold on a local level and on a global level, and how would that represent the desires and aspirations of Singaporeans? In what circumstances would redevelopment be justifiable, and in what way would that represent social equity and long-term interests among Singaporeans?
We as Singaporeans need to rethink what this land of Singapore means to us, and what the word ‘progress’ truly means.
Z’ming Cik is pursuing his Phd in heritage studies in Germany.
10 October 2013
The Singapore Heritage Society is heartened that Bukit Brown has been included in the World Monuments Watch list for 2014.
Founded in 1965, the World Monuments Fund, which runs World Monuments Watch, is based in New York and is the world’s leading independent organization dedicated to saving mankind’s treasured places. Its expertise and resources, including support from UNESCO, have helped restore some 600 sites in more than 90 countries.
On this year’s Watch List is also Pokfolum Village in Hong Kong, while other sites listed in previous years include the Buddhist Remains of Bamiyan (destroyed by Taliban in 2001), the historic Gingerbread Neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti (damaged by earthquake), the Cultural Heritage Sites of Syria (destroyed or damaged in the civil war) and Penang’s Georgetown Historic Enclave (2000 and 2002 Watch List) which is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This is the first time a Singapore site has been included in the World Monuments Watch. Together with the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ UNESCO nomination, Bukit Brown’s inclusion represents widespread international recognition of the historical importance of local heritage sites. Indeed, Bukit Brown’s narrative of early immigrants and regional histories complements the Botanic Garden’s narrative of colonial empire to provide a more complex and complete story of Singapore.
The nomination of Bukit Brown for World Monuments Watch inclusion was advanced by the community group, All Things Bukit Brown. This has been a grassroots initiative in response to Prime Minister Lee’s National Day Rally call to Singaporeans to step forth to make Singapore a better home for ourselves.
It is also in keeping with independent surveys on heritage awareness in Singapore. The 2006 Heritage Awareness Survey revealed that almost all Singaporeans surveyed (98.4%) felt that heritage plays a positive role in their lives and that an overwhelming 90% agreed that preserving our heritage would become more important as Singapore moves towards becoming a global city. The survey also revealed that 87% of Singaporeans agreed that a better understanding of Singapore’s history and heritage would increase their own sense of belonging to Singapore. Meanwhile the 2013 Our Singapore Conversation survey showed that Singaporeans wanted heritage spaces to be preserved as far as possible.
This World Monuments Watch inclusion is not a one-off event but part of an on-going series of Bukit Brown-related events such as symposiums, exhibitions and public talks that have been organised by citizens and community groups that have been taking place since November 2011.
Finally, the inclusion in the World Monuments Watch 2014 list is in keeping with the Singapore Heritage Society’s call for Bukit Brown to be gazetted as a heritage site. This inclusion should be seized as the opportunity to raise greater awareness of Bukit Brown and to conduct comprehensive documentation of the greater Bukit Brown space that includes the Seh Ong, Kopi Sua and Lau Sua cemeteries, which will provide the basis for future preservation plans.
 Channel News Asia (18 July 2007) Heritage awareness rising among Singaporeans: study; see also http://www.heritagefest.org.sg/2007/official/images/stories/Downloads/press_release_shf2007_opening_ceremony.pdf (accessed 8 Oct 2013)
 https://www.oursgconversation.sg/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/OSC-Survey.pdf (accessed 8 Oct 2013)
Bukit Brown, Development and Possibilities for Singapore
By Ian Chong
Recent events and public discussions about public transport, the environment, and heritage should give pause to the proposed construction of the dual four-lane carriageway across Bukit Brown. Singaporeans have one last opportunity to consider the consequences of irrevocably altering the face of an important part of our nation’s natural and cultural landscape before the planned exhumations begin in October 2013. Surveys for Our Singapore Conversation indicate that 62 percent of Singaporeans prefer preserving green spaces over constructing roads and other infrastructure, while 53 percent prefer heritage preservation over infrastructure building. (OSC Survey, p. 6) Staying road construction over Bukit Brown demonstrates responsiveness to public needs.
Simply building roads, such as one over Bukit Brown, does not address the fundamental reason underlying congestion in Singapore. As Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, pointed out, the fundamental challenge facing road space in Singapore is sub-optimal public transport, which heightens demand for car use. (ST, Sep 14) Recent steps by the LTA to raise ERP rates and introduce new considerations for the COE underscore the fact that controlling vehicle population should be key to addressing the traffic snarling our roads. The heavy traffic on Lornie Road during rush hours comes from vehicles filtering on and off a congested PIE, an issue a road through Bukit Brown is unlikely to solve. In fact, Singapore can probably never build enough roads if current approaches to car use and public transport are not thoroughly re-thought.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s last National Day Rally should provide more impetus for maintaining Bukit Brown in its current form. According to Mr. Lee, new plans to develop Singapore’s southern and eastern coasts along with Paya Lebar mean that, “we do not have to worry about running out of space or possibilities for Singapore. We are not at the limit, the sky is the limit! We are creating possibilities for the future.” This means that there is space for Bukit Brown in its current form in our future and those of our children.
As physical changes in Singapore become ever more prevalent, the remaining tangible markers of our unique heritage and history only grow in importance to society. This is a reality that digitisation can never fully replace or replicate.
In fact, the Prime Minister’s National Day Rally statement about being able to maintain possibilities for Singapore stands in stark contrast to National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s claim that it is necessary to sacrifice Bukit Brown and nature for construction. (Zaobao, Sept. 28) Today’s Singapore is no longer in the 1960s where infrastructure development was imperative.
The haste to construct the dual four-lane carriageway – and other follow-on developments – over Bukit Brown may even be counter-productive. Flooding earlier this month serves as a reminder of the need for development projects to proceed with caution. As the NEA subsequently stated, “Rapid development and urbanisation…are likely to be significant factors which may explain this trend [of heavy precipitation leading to flooding].” (Today, Sept 13) The Expert Panel on Drainage Design and Flood Prevention Measures likewise noted, “increased urbanisation in the Stamford Canal Catchment might have been a contributing factor to the 2010 and 2011 floods…” (p. 13)
Moreover, the panel observed that “other than generating higher and faster surface run-off, increased urbanization may also bring about other impacts such as increased heat production, changes in rainfall patterns and other climate change impacts…” (p. 13) Panel recommendations to mitigate the effects of urbanisation is recognition of the relationship between rapid, large-scale development and flooding. (p.1, 9, 15, 52, 55) Notably, the Environmental Impact Assessment for the road across Bukit Brown remains unavailable for public access.
Building the road over Bukit Brown may prove to be a temporary patch rather a real solution to the challenges of congestion, and can potentially create more difficulties down the line. The LTA and URA should hold off construction until there are more comprehensive ad appropriate ways to address the environmental, heritage, traffic, and development issues that intersect at Bukit Brown.
At a minimum, there ought to be a rigorous, publicly available study first. This is a first step toward finding a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to the issues above. Halting construction clearly comes with costs, but these may be much lower that those from building the road. Singapore is worth the extra effort.
Ian Chong works at a tertiary institution. His comments are in his personal capacity. An edited version of this commentary first appeared online in Today 30 September 2013
by A.J Leow
My trips to Bukit Brown Cemetry tend to stir up some deep-seated emotions within me. My first, which followed a trip to Gardens by the Bay, had evoked images of contrast. On one hand, there is this rich but neglected repository of our cultural and natural heritage amid the lush, unkempt undergrowth and the other, an artificial construct or what I would often refer to as a huge manicured bonsai.
At the Gardens, you put on a headset; pressed some buttons to listen to a disembodied voice on a guided tour. It’s like calling your bank to cancel the annual credit card charge. Quite impersonal. At Bukit Brown, there are no ticket queues, entry fees or closing hours. You get to pepper some guy – in a sweat-soaked T-shirt with a towel around the neck – with questions about our forgotten past.
The bonus is that you may be invited to join the Brownies at a zhi char place after the tour for a get-together makan. How much more Singaporean can you get!
My latest trip came about on National Day 2013 which was followed by a family viewing of the annual parade and the fly-past. While the vignettes of our forefathers by the guides at Bukit Brown – especially that of how they arrived by sea and spied the shimmering lights of the harbour of 星汌 (Isle of Stars) which must have lifted their hopes of a better tomorrow – touched many a chord; the vain exhortations by the emcees at the waterfront parade to portray the Merlion as a national symbol fell really flat, especially when the mythical creature wasn’t sure if it was a lion or a transgendered mermaid. To me, it was an apt metaphor of our confused national identity.
Not so the narrative of Bukit Brown.
At the official parade, there was an actress masquerading as a samsui woman. As a young boy heading off to school, I have seen scores of these weathered-beaten, hardy red-hat women from southern China squatting and lining the roadside, some of them holding rolled-up cigarettes with their calloused hands in the early hours of dawn at Redhill Road. I can assure you, none of them look like the ruddy faced actress on the national stage!
The contrast could not be more stark. Listening to the story-tellers at Bukit Brown to me would be akin to reading a rich body of literary work by local author Catherine Lim, or the playwright Kuo Pao Kun. Bukit Brown is our history; while some of the NDP performances came across like a fleeting piece of newspaper ad or TV commercial. Not quite authentic.
The next day, I picked up a copy of The New Paper to read its coverage of the Brownies’ tribute to our country’s early pioneers. On the following page was a piece on the make-up of the hardcore Singaporean. There were the usual comments about the use of Singlish, the tendency to gripe; pressing lift buttons repeatedly and oh dear, even ‘common resentment towards foreigners.’ The MP for Marine Parade GRC, Tin Pei Ling, mentioned the love for chicken rice, our hardworking nature and the willingness to stay and defend the country during a crisis. Except for the first item, I wouldn’t call that a uniquely Singapore trait.
There was little mention about our heritage and our forefathers who helped build the place we now call home. On an existentialist level, they seem to be no longer part of the wellspring of our national consciousness – the collective National Soul. Are we in danger of becoming the equivalent in Plato’s Cave, bereft of our true identity, which seems to have been reduced to the image of a buffet of laksa, char kuay teow and other hawker’s fare, and a limited lexicon of words such as ‘kiasu’, ‘chope’ and ‘shiok’? Surely, being Singaporean is more that that!
It’s unfortunate that for most of us (that includes me); the history of Singapore has been largely bracketed by or reduced to the two Rs – Raffles and the founding of our Republic. The first is a man in white; or rather a statue in marble white next to the Singapore River, whom most of us don’t really know much about except that his name has been hijacked for a hotel, school, business hub, shopping mall among others, including Singapore Airline’s business class. The second R would be the story of the Men in White, which I bet many of the younger generation would be clueless of who they are or were, with perhaps the exception of our elderly statesman, Lee Kuan Yew.
There’s a yawning chasm in between the two Rs. We need to fill them with what would be the equivalents of our own versions of Benjamin Franklin, Rockeller, Carnegie, and Edison in the largely blank pages of our own history. Names like Tan Ean Kiam (banker and philanthropist), Lim Kim Seng (Justice of the Peace and Teochew leader) and Tan Kim Ching (Kapitan Cina and diplomatic consul to Siam, China and Russia) and bring them back into our national consciousness and collective memory. Make it kind of a Lazarus Project with a uniquely Singapore theme.
That’s why I feel strongly that Bukit Brown Cemetery is a heritage landmark worth saving for the sake of all Singaporeans – now and the future. It’s where the national soul resides. It’s a living museum with names that most Singaporeans can readily identify with, such as the bus routes we take to work (Jalan Boon Lay); MRT stations (Boon Keng); schools we go to (Gan Eng Seng) and makan places (Joo Chiat Place), to name just but a few. There are more than 40 names of streets and places which can be traced back to Bukit Brown.
What’s more, I can imagine their descendants mingling among us – cheek-to-jowl in the MRT and buses; in the queues at NTUC supermarkets; for Toto and 4-D tickets and the char kuay teow stall at Hong Lim complex.
Our forefathers came from afar across the seas – many as coolies including my own grandfather – and caught a glimpse of 星汌 and like the biblical story of Abraham, their descendants have multiplied like the ‘stars’ they imagine to be the bright lights of the future. They chose to come, live, die and be buried here. We owe our presence to them. We need to remember and honour them. The story of Singapore is built on the backs of immigrants, and we should keep on telling their stories unceasingly. More will come because of they have built, what we will build on the foundations they laid. Those newcomers too will catch a glimpse of the shimmering lights of 星汌 (Isle of Stars) when their planes fly over Changi International Airport. Majullah Singapore!
Bio: A.J. Leow is the grandson of a coolie who has brought his children to Bukit Brown several times to understand their roots. His family celebrated National Day at Bukit Brown this year.