The following blog entry was written by Denyse Chua Pei Yun, a first year Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate at Tembusu College. She and her classmates visited Bukit Brown on 8 March 2014.
Cemeteries to me seem to extol the notion of death and seat its weight in the society of the living. A collectivized piece of land plotted to house the dead community, to which the living visits to give flowers and incense and their respects. These skeletons habiting under our feet are commanding our ways of life without as much of a murmur. Yet even with such daunting and ghoulish imaginations of cemeteries, Bukit Brown posits a sense of familiarity and nostalgia – not the eerie predispositions of the phasma phasmatis, but a reminder of culture and nature tumbled in an isolated park-like setting of greenery and avid runners; a platform that accommodates both the living and the dead at a grassroots level.
Conditioned by the media’s chilling and unnerving perspective of such death collectives, and coming from a community where life and youth is celebrated, the fourteen of us wide-eyed and intrigued undergraduate students didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the largest gravesite in Singapore. Fortunately, we visited the site in the afternoon when the sun was still up and the possibility of the specters of our dead forefathers being in our presence didn’t spook us too much.
We visited Bukit Brown as part of a research field trip for a module on the topic of death hosted by Tembusu College, a University Town College in the National University of Singapore. Our lecturer Dr Connor Graham, who was also present at the site, teaches this module with an unusual level of enthusiasm for the departed. A bus ride down to Bukit Brown cemetery took us on a trip down Singapore’s memory lane, and much was to be explored around the willowing trees and hastily buried graves.
We found ourselves touring with other cemetery enthusiasts on International Women’s Day. The tour was led by a group of avid volunteers eponymously named Brownies, who help to manage and educate the public on Bukit Brown’s history, strategically centered on the graves of women, their stories, and their legacy.
Altruism was a key theme throughout the tour, as the guides shared stories of women both of status and none, who played significant roles in creating and contributing to today’s Singapore, amongst other quirky figures. One specific story of a 19-year-old lady who encompassed the virtues of bravery and heroism spoke to me. The grave of a 19-year-old maiden and her story was reminiscent of the willingness to sacrifice oneself for others, a virtue and value that can I feel can hardly be seen in today’s youth, and I include myself here. Soh Koon Eng was my age in the 1941 when she was unfortunately killed by an air raid during the Second World War, throwing herself in front of her family to shield them from flying fragments of furniture from the explosion. This selfless act cost her life in the most painful way possible, but saved the lives of her family, who lived on to tell her story.
With so much happening in the living world, it is easy to overlook the abundance in culture Singapore provides, contrary to the belief that this island is all but a concrete jungle with nowhere to get away. In Bukit Brown, an area isolated from the perpetual churning of our roaring lion city, the voices of those forever silenced are deafening. Thankfully, we have the Brownies to be grateful for voicing their rumbles, recanting stories of the dead with a whisper of vivacity while maintaining the gravitas of their life, legacy and contribution to Singapore’s modern success.
Coming from a generation of Singaporeans where cremation is the last step in life (and death), it hadn’t occurred to me that cemeteries in Singapore were such an important part of the landscape and were so entwined in national discourse, not only in her history, but also in our present. The sequestration of a part Bukit Brown would be the final effort of legendary figures untold in history books for Singapore, paving the way for the future, and for the living.
By Claire Leow
This week marks the second anniversary of this blog, started to support a volunteer effort to raise awareness of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value: its heritage, habitat and history. More importantly, it marks the 72th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore to Japanese occupation during World War II. The two anniversaries dovetailed neatly as All Things Bukit Brown hosted a special tour to mark the Remembrance of the War Dead, tracing the routes of the Japanese advance and the British retreat to defend the city as the battle spilled over from Bukit Timah and Adam Park to Sime Road and into the cemetery grounds, a prelude to dreaded hand-to-hand combat in the thick forest. This is the battle at Bukit Brown in the last hours before the fall of the “Impregnable Fortress” that was Singapore, the jewel of the British empire. James Tann contributed a moving chronology of events.
On Feb 15, 2014, we were able to guide 55 participants in an energising walk to retrace the steps of the soldiers as Bukit Brown is unique as a battle site from WWII that is still largely intact, according to the findings of battlefield archaeologist Jon Cooper, who serendipitously landed in Singapore to find himself living at Adam Park, the site of a battle and near to the Sime Road prisoners-of-war (POW) camp during Japanese Occupation (February 1942 to September 1945). This has enabled Jon to advance his research and fieldwork, reinforcing the historic value of the endangered heritage site, as the government has started its project to exhume more than 4,000 graves to make way for an 8-lane highway despite arguments for alternatives.
In January last year, we discovered his research had taken him to Bukit Brown and collaborated with him to start battlefield tours and talks.
Indeed as exhumations started in recent months, Jon accelerated his search for missing soldiers, initially the nine missing Suffolks soldiers. His research recently led him to archival materials from a Reverend Eric Cordingly about a massacre of five Indian soldiers, with burial records that they were laid to rest at a now-defunct village on the outskirts of Bukit Brown. Their last known resting place is unknown.
As Jon writes, “it was noted in the initial report that we only had details for missing Suffolk men and that most likely there are many more of other units who could have gone missing on Bukit Brown. This addendum to the report is a great case in point. Here we have independent reports which tie in nicely with the existing documents and shed light on more missing soldiers. The fact that they were Indian troops reminds us of the global heritage that is encompassed in this battlefield site. Also the suggestion that men were rounded up bound together and then shot is a vivid reminder that the Kheam Hock road was a scene of one of the horrific atrocities that were taking place across the island at the time.”
Tomorrow, February 18, marks the 72th anniversary of the start of the Sook Ching massacre, after the Japanese forces conducted an island-wide scourge to execute able-bodied Chinese men aged 18 to 50, partly in revenge for the overseas Chinese support during the Sino-Japanese war. There are no records of the final numbers killed but the official estimate stands at 50,000 men.
Grace Seah is one of many descendants of the victims of Sook Ching, as she tells here in this blog post, Sook Ching: Our Loss, of how her uncle Tan Kim Cheng failed to heed her father’s plea to flee. Our tours to the ornate tombs of Tok Cheng Tuan and his widow Oon Tuan Cheng always moved participants, in a personal tragedy in reported in “Oon Tuan Cheng: A Life of Loss“ as a young widow with six children to raise, only to lose her sons to Sook Ching. A young lady Soh Koon Eng was cut down in her prime in a bomb raid. Her story was brought to light after a niece opened up to the volunteers. These are moving stories of the civilians caught up in the throes of war.
Among the most wanted on the Sook Ching list was Wong Chin Yoke. Wong, a decorated police inspector (he received the Coronation Medal) who had escaped Singapore with 10 men before the fall in 1942, fleeing to Indonesia to start an underground resistance movement. He was betrayed and then caught and eventually killed by Japanese in 1943. His body was whisked away by a friend from the Japanese Military hospital and buried. It was not for another 11 years before this war hero was re-interred in Singapore. Nonetheless, his remains were buried with full police honours in Bukit Brown on 21st September 1954. Suitably, a fearsome pair of Sikh guards stands guard at his tomb. They never fail to wow visitors.
Next on the most wanted list was another war hero, Tay Koh Yat, a community leader. Tay was admired for his patriotism and daring-do in leading a 20,000-strong self-defence force which he formed just before the Japanese invasion to aid those injured by the Japanese air raids. His rallying cry was “20,000 people, one heart.” The force helped to maintain order and prevent panic and chaos as people started to flee the country with the invasion of the Japanese forces.
Tay stood his ground until the eleventh hour and fled to Indonesia to escape certain death only on the eve of the fall of Singapore. After the war, Tay returned and immediately started to compile the fatalities from his volunteer force and lobbied the colonial government for the same compensation given to widows and children of servicemen who died during the war. Tay next went on to form the Singapore Chinese Appeal Committee for the Japanese Massacre victims to seek justice and compensation for the estimated 50,000 people massacred. In March 10, 1947, the War tribunal committee found Lieutenant General Kawamura Saburo, Singapore garrison commander and Lieutenant Colonel Oishi Masayuki Kempeitai commander guilty of war crimes and sentenced them to hang.
Tay was one of only six people to witness their execution; such was his standing in the community. And, on seeing the two generals, he burst out in anger and sorrow: “You have committed big sins and really deserve to die, but even when your soul descends to hell to suffer further punishment, still it is not enough to atone for your sins.”
His great granddaughter Jaime Ho read of his exploits on this blog and wrote her of her mother’s emotion. It was equally prescient that as we ended our tour at Tay’s tomb, the Civil Defence siren went off at noon, very similar to the air raid sirens that haunted Singapore in 1941 and 1942. We held a minute of silence for Tay.
There were notable volunteers, such as Tan Chow Kim, one of the original members of the Singapore Voluntary Infantry (S.V.I) , a company within the Singapore Volunteer Corps. Another was Tan Huck Wan, a Corporal of the Singapore Voluntary Field Ambulance, Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, who probably died as a prisoner of war on 31st May 1944. That same year, his daughter Ruby Tan died on the 26th Oct 1944. She was only 6 months old. His widow had to raise two sons alone. (Sadly, both father and daughter have been exhumed to make way for the highway.)
The losses were great during the war. Many died in unmarked tombs. Norman Cho found his grandfather’s grave after 66 years, and retells the story of a man of wealth and repute who lost his fortune during the war. Though Cho Kim Leong survived the occupation, he died a broken man mere months after Singapore was liberated. His bereft widow was too impoverished, a single mother with two young sons, and had no money for a tomb. Norman built a tomb for his grandfather only in 2012.
Many others are remembered only as burial entries which record that “SMC” (Singapore Municipal Council) trucks dumped their bodies in trenches at Bukit Brown in March and April. It is not clear how they died. We are still searching for these mass graves.
From the civilian defence force to the police force, community leaders to defenceless civilians, many were felled during the war. Families suffered. Children died premature deaths. Poverty, disease and malnutrition were rife.
Bukit Brown is not just another cemetery. It is the final resting place of pioneers from the 1830s right up to victims of the war in the 1940s. It represents universal heritage and a reminder of our frailty and also a measure of our resilience.
The volunteers have now guided more than 10,000 visitors to Bukit Brown. As much as this is a testimony to the dedication of these amateur historians and researchers, it is a greater testimony to the intrinsic value of Bukit Brown as a repository of historical artifacts and resources as well as heritage values. It would not have been possible to move so many with mere passion. Once there, the participants recognise immediately the natural serenity and lushness of the habitat, bird calls rising from the forests. With the aid of some story-telling, the meanings of the sculptures, inscriptions, motifs and tomb designs become clear.
With research comes deeper knowledge of the lives and times of those interred there, a story arc of Singapore from the early years, through good times and bad. Fortunes were made and lost. Lives ordinary and deeds extraordinary came to pass. It would be a great loss to the nation and to students of history to have Bukit Brown lost to a highway and housing.
by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh
My wife and I went on a lovely tour of Bukit Brown, conducted by Fabian, lawyer-cum-history buff and very proud “Brownie”, on the morning of Saturday, January 25th 2014.
Before then, the last time I had visited Bukit Brown was in Junior College, when classmates and I would go there for a spooky tipple, more focused on whisky than history.
Only now do I realise how much I have missed. On that Saturday, I learned so much about Singapore’s past. Love the crazy characters: polygamists, guerillas, tycoons, benefactors, sometimes one and the same.
Although I have read much about the Bukit Brown controversy over the years, it is only after visiting that I have a deep appreciation for what we—as a country, society and culture—are about to lose.
Many of us decry Singapore’s rush to development, and GDP-maximising policies. When we speak about, say, high population growth or unnecessary destruction and rebuilding, it can sometimes get a bit abstract, the story lost in numbers and details. A visit to Bukit Brown illustrated the problem to me in a very visceral sense, in a way a thousand articles can never do.
It seems almost perverse that Singaporeans, myself included, will travel abroad and marvel at historical ruins and temples in places such as China and India, yet can stand by and allow a place of such historical import to be ripped from our soul. Our collective Singaporean identity is suffering, slowly, with each grave exhumed. I feel ashamed.
As a writer, I also drew a lot of inspiration from my visit. First, in terms of history, I learned a lot about Singapore’s connections to China and India. I am currently working on a book about the two countries, and Bukit Brown threw up some fresh ideas for stories. For instance, I started to think more about the role of Singapore-based revolutionaries, aside from Sun Yat-Sen, who is oft spoken about, in China’s 1911 revolution.
Meanwhile, it also occurred to me that there are many more interesting intersections of Chinese and Indian culture in Singapore, for instance the Sikh guards who protect the Chinese tycoon’s grave (see picture).
Second, in a broader sense, I was also inspired by the greenery, architectural beauty, and solitude that Bukit Brown offers. Artists in Singapore often bemoan the city’s dry, insipid environment. A walk through Bukit Brown left me rejuvenated, in a way that the artificial icons like Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay will never do.
Exhumations are slated to be completed by the end of this year. For those of you who have yet to visit, please do. Especially those with children. Do take them—who knows what will be left of Singapore when they’re older?
(For more on my book about China and India, tentatively titled From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)
About Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh:
After seven years at The Economist Group, in early 2013 Sudhir left the professional world to write full-time. His literary interests concern the way grand socio-political systems influence ordinary people’s lives, their worldviews and their interactions with each other. He hopes to follow his first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, with narratives on Asia’s other great societies—he is currently working on a book about China and India. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist, The Straits Times and Yahoo! News.
Sudhir blogs at sudhirtv.com
Sharing our feedback on Bukit Brown in the Draft Masterplan. We are grateful to all who wrote and shared your feedback with us. Without your support, awareness of Bukit Brown would not be where it is now – not just a talking point but- a rallying point to enrich our identity, a respect for our heritage and a Singapore we can all call home. We are humbled.
“We met as volunteers and in response to a groundswell of feedback after the announcement of the plan for Bukit Brown, formed All Things Bukit Brown as a loose group of volunteers to support amateur historian Raymond Goh, people who might want to contribute time, research, translation skills, etc to raise awareness of the value of Bukit Brown. We subsequently created the blog, All Things Bukit Brown, (http://bukitbrown.com) and started organising social events onsite in December 2011 to gauge interest in Bukit Brown as a destination. We were happily surprised by the enthusiastic turn-out for 3-4 events and started guiding tours onsite with whatever knowledge we received from February 2012.
Since then, we have cobbled together a dozen committed volunteers who research and/or guide. We are pleased to report that in that time, we have guided 10,000 people to Bukit Brown, including secondary schools and tertiary institutions, overseas academics, and participants from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Civil Service College. Former Foreign Minister George Yeo was an early visitor guided. We have also guided grassroots communities led by their MPs, including DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Sylvia Lim. This weekend, Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee will bring his grassroots community there too. Groups which have come include the elderly Chinese, the hearing impaired and the docents from the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall , National and Peranakan Museums.
Bukit Brown has already inspired the students of Pioneer Junior College to co- write the book “1911 Revolution: Singapore Pioneers in Bukit Brown” which was launched last Friday at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. On our part we have applied for a grant from the National Heritage Board to put together useful information we have gathered over the past two years as a guide book to Bukit Brown.
Imagine this, a grassroots effort to bring 10,000 people to a site without any amenities – no toilets, drinks stalls, resting stations, shelter from the rain, marked trails or trash bins. How much more can we do together when we put our resources together? Give us a chance.
As Singaporeans, we are very proud to share what knowledge we have and encourage interest in Bukit Brown. We have met many engaged Singaporeans, academics, students, tourists, photographers, artists, etc – a diversity of participants who have reinforced the notion that Bukit Brown is more than a cemetery but a public space that draws different communities there for different reasons. We are witness to the grassroots movement which has built up a valuable community with a strong outreach component. We hope that you see this element of a place in fostering communal ties and meaning. These are valuable to building a strong and cohesive society, people rooted to their identities and bringing Singaporeans and residents together in a meaningful way. It is not something that can be easily replicated without the actual space that first drew us together in the first place.
It is this community-building effort that also drew the attention of the World Monuments Fund in awarding Bukit Brown World Monuments Watch status. We are proud of this international recognition and hope that one day, we can twin Bukit Brown with the Botanic Gardens for a unique world heritage site unmatched anywhere else in the world. That it is set in such lush and spectacular settings makes Bukit Brown all the more special.
State recognition of Bukit Brown’s intrinsic value will lift tourist awareness of Singapore in a different way, opening up ideas (and revenue streams) for education tourism, battle site tourism, cultural tourism etc in the same way medical tourism has brought international attention (and revenue) to the world-class medical services available in Singapore. Already, heritage associations in the region, specifically Penang and Malacca, have displayed keen interest in Bukit Brown and we hope there would be attendant tourism effects for the better good of Singapore and her neighbours. Not only would Singapore benefit from state recognition of the heritage value of Bukit Brown, we can work together with tourism agencies around the region and reap the benefits of good neighbourliness and joint tourism campaigns. Indeed, we are not short on ideas. We ask for the state to demonstrate leadership in this.
We 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.”
Claire Leow & Catherine Lim
I’ve been alerted through World Monument Watch in New York about the imminent destruction of Bukit Brown Cemetery, an important heritage site not only for Singapore but with great significance to the history of Penang.
Bukit Brown, named after George Henry Brown whose tomb is now found in the Old Protestant Cemetery of Penang. This cemetery is now a protected Category I Heritage Site within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of George Town.
Under the order the Penang state authorities, archeologists, historians, botanists and conservationists have been looped in to complete a comprehensive heritage management plan to preserve this historic cemetery in entirety. We are also in the process to document the people buried there including the story of George H. Brown.
During a site visit to Bukit Brown Cemetery in September 2013, I’ve discovered tombs which witness the strong family links between Penang and Singapore (e.g. Tan Kheam Hock) and members of Tong Meng Hui who frequented both cities in the early 20th century and these will serve as important clues for the academicians to conduct historical and social researches between Malaya and Singapore in the pre-war years. The obliteration of old tombs and historical sites with a natural setting is a serious mistake in the current age when awareness of heritage preservation is a global trend and every member state in UNESCO including Singapore is vying for World Heritage Listing on one of its sites and trying its best to showcase good examples of conservation efforts.
I’m appealing to the Singapore authorities to be sensitive to the heritage conservation causes, especially to this historic cemetery which is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be tapped by historians from both sides of the Causeway.
Penang Heritage Trust
26 Lebuh Gereja, 10200 George Town,
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. We encourage you to copy the email to your MP.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
“We are custodians of our country’s heritage not just for ourselves but for our future generations. It is important that they continue to see for themselves how respect is being shown to our forebears and learn the very real lesson of conserving our roots even, or especially in the face of rapid urban development. Precious “history lesson materials” like Bukit Brown, once lost, may never be recovered. Let no regret come about.”
“The biggest threat to Singapore is apathy, and when Singaporeans do not feel a sense of belonging and are not bothered with what goes on here, then Singapore is in trouble. For Singapore to survive and prosper in the long term, it is necessary to have more opportunities in preserving our shared memories and creating our shared vision. And preserving Bukit Brown is an excellent opportunity that enables Singaporeans to feel that they belong here by remembering our past and creating our future.
Bukit Brown tells the stories of our forefathers who built Singapore, and creates opportunities for history education and discovery. The cemetery connects Singapore’s past and present, and allows us to understand that Singapore’s success is built up by our forefathers’ sweat and tears, and should not be taken for granted. We should preserve Bukit Brown because it helps us remember our past and keeps us rooted to Singapore.
Bukit Brown presents the opportunity for transforming the cemetery into a world-class living outdoor museum or heritage park. If this transformation adopts a bottom-up approach and with stakeholder engagement, it would allow us to come together, plan and work towards a future Singapore where heritage, nature and our economic needs can co-exist. We should preserve Bukit Brown because it enables us to work together and build bonds and resilience, and to create a space where our children and their children can enjoy and be proud of.
Singapore is a young nation and needs more common spaces like Bukit Brown to remind us how we got here and why this is home, and to create opportunities for building our future social resilience.”
“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.
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.”
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 lavanyaprakash 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!”
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 lavanyaprakash 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!”
Ang Hock Chuan
“As recently as September 2011, Bukit Brown was just another cemetery to me. I only remember it as the place I learnt to drive and as the place my grandfather was buried.
My father visited his father’s tomb every Ching Ming till an illness made it difficult for him to walk in that terrain. He had prepared for the eventuality of exhumation and already bought a niche for my grandfather. Unfortunately, I stopped following my father to visit years ago and forgotten where my grandfather was buried.
When my father passed away a few years ago, I became interested to look for my grandfather’s tomb. It would be the last thing I could do for my father to ensure his father’s remains are properly taken care of.
When I heard the news about the proposed highway, there was an urgency to locate my grandfather. I started to search for people who can help me locate him and stumbled on a group of volunteers sharing about Bukit Brown.
My initial interest was to look for my grandfather’s tomb and determine if it would be affected so I can make the necessary arrangements to relocate him.
I joined their guided tours in October 2011. That opened up my eyes to the rich heritage and history contained in Bukit Brown.
Over many visits I was also introduced to the rich bio-diversity and wildlife thriving in this habitat. Whilst I enjoyed listening to the birds in the woods, I was never an avid bird-watcher. But now, I keep a look out for the birds when I am there. I have seen uncommon and endangered species like the Changeable Hawk Eagle, the Red Jungle Fowl, the Greater Coucal and still learning each day about the special flora and fauna of Singapore there.
Bukit Brown turned into a living museum and classroom for me. History came alive. Our cultural heritage is enshrined here. A rich bio-diversity thrives here. It has an aesthetic beauty not found in our man-made parks. I count it my good fortune to have learnt about and visited this wonderful piece of our heritage before any wanton destruction takes place.
For these reasons and more, I hope to see Bukit Brown preserved, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake. Once lost, lost forever.”
“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 offspring. 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.”
While I have only set foot on Bukit Brown once, I am fascinated by the deep treasure trove of history it is. It is an unbias holding place of history as alot of our ancestor laid to rest. I remembered when I was young, I have to walk through Choa Chu Kang and there was this cemetery that fascinated me as it has very interesting tombs. I never get around to know it as it made way to development since. It would be a pity if we keep making concession on preservation in the name of progress as that would be a very up-rooting experience. No pictures or archive can replace the actual tombstone and the serenity is irreplaceable.
“I am the third generation of Kinmenese immigrants. My great grandparents were once buried in Bukit Brown cemetery. My father, Mr Tan Kok Meng 陈国民, had served as board member, treasurer and subsequently as vice chairman of Kim Mui Hoey Kuan 金门会馆 from late 60s to 80s. During that time, he organized many cultural activities and exchanges, including hosting the Asian literary festival. He had also proposed to setup a center to store valuable historical material of Kinmen and their diaspora. The subsequent setting up of the Cultural and Historical Resource Center 新加坡金门会馆文史资料中心 in 2003 and the publication of “I came from Kim Mui” 《我从金门来》in 2006 (which my father was one of the interviewees) were some of the visible fruits.
Now that my father has passed away for four years, I have kept this book close to my heart. My daughter recently used it to write a social science essay about her root. My father, after escaping the turmoil of war had decided to make Singapore his permanent home. Along with many others who came to Singapore between 18th – 20th century, they have contributed to who we are today. Even though we are still a young country, we do have our own history. And the major part of it, is inscribed on the tomb stones in Bukit Brown Cemetery. ”
“My daughter and I visited Bukit Brown and were deeply moved by the heritage and biodiversity of Bukit Brown. Lavanya,who’s my 13 year old daughter wrote about Bukit Brown in her blog here http://mynatureexperiences.
Singapore is not only about concrete buildings and integrated resorts: it has in Bukit Brown a huge repository of stories which when told, make people aware of Singapore as a hub of trade commerce and culture in Asia all this long time ago. It is so much easier to show a human Singapore when you bring back to mind the human stories told every week by the Brownies on their tours – these are stories that make this place, home.
Conservation does not mean no development
One point I wish to stress is that conservation does not mean no development: just as we can develop around an existing building and incorporate its uniqueness into our plans, it should be possible to conserve Bukit Brown without halting development. What is needed is more diverse, out-of-the-box thinking. For instance we will still need parks in Singapore – well, we have one already. While the older generations have reservations about going to a cemetery for a walk, the younger set do not, and Bukit Brown is already being used as one. Why not develop it’s potential? Here is a place where amidst the stones stories of old Singapore lie. The Brownies have bring the stories to life during their tours, which as noted above, have been receiving a lot of tourist publicity through word of mouth and social media. If self-funded volunteers can do so much, how much more can they achieve if they had help?”
“Each time I pay a visit there, it stirs up emotions from a sort of deep-seated ‘spiritual’ wellspring which I did not know I have. A spiritual awakening of sorts. Ironic isn’t it from a burial ground?
Maybe, it’s the tranquil surroundings, the wonderful tales of an almost forgotten past kept alive by the elan of the volunteer guides, or could it be just the spirits of the ancestors channelling….. I would often end up going away asking myself: How is it that we have neglected our past? Why? Who are we as Singaporeans? What keeps us going? What inspires us? Do we have a national soul? Did we start any fire or if there are any embers left? And so on. So here are some of those rambling thoughts…….after my latest ramble over the hills of Bukit Brown.”
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 email@example.com 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, then 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.
Ishvinder Singh’s TEDxYouth talk on a shared heritage at Bukit Brown.
Claire Leow’s TEDx talk on how Bukit Brown helped her come home from abroad.
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.