“What We Have Really Lost”

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“Bukit Brown : What We Have Really Lost” by Joshua Chiang

(This essay first appeared on The Online Citizen on March 20, 2012 and is reproduced here with the permission of the writer)

Towards the end of our hour-long tour at Bukit Brown cemetery (which culminated with a visit to the biggest tomb of the cemetery, that of businessman Ong Sam Leong) one of the participants, suddenly declared, “I have learnt one thing today, and that is, history has to be seen, and not just read about in textbooks.”

Ong Sam Leong (Photo: Luke Chua)

 

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The person who made this statement wasn’t an academic, nor did he look like a history buff; rather he is a twenty-something ‘everyman’ whose interest in Bukit Brown Cemetery was piqued by the news that a highway would be built through it, effectively splitting the cemetery – the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, with tombs dating as far back as the Qing Dynasty – into two.
By the time you’re reading this, the government has all but decided to go ahead with the ‘dual-four-lane road’ – which is of course just a nice way of describing a eight-lane highway. In fact the news of the finalized plan was released on Asiaone before Minister of State Tan Chuan Jin was to meet with various concerned NGOs who had been requesting for a meeting with the relevant authorities since February to discuss the issue and propose alternatives, only to have the meeting turned into one which the finalized plan was presented to them. (read the press release here to find out more)
But this isn’t about the government’s unique way of consulting and engaging civil society. It is about the government’s habit of removing our truly unique historical heritage for the sake of development, and then lamenting that Singaporeans have no sense of culture or belonging, without recognizing the irony of it all.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that the majority of Singaporeans care about Bukit Brown – in fact, if a national referendum on whether a road should be built across Bukit Brown, there is a likelihood that many will say “yes”. We’re a ‘pragmatic people’ after all. We’re probably so busy with moving ahead, planning for the next twenty, thirty years, that we’ve never stopped to ask where this pragmatism comes from. Some would say, we do not have choice, we’re a small nation, with limited resources we have to do what it takes to survive. Fair enough, if it were an issue of survival.
But it isn’t.
Let’s face it – much of our pragmatism nowadays has more to do with force of habit than anything else. We’re a young nation whose collective memories get shorter by the day, because so many of those things that will help us remember are no longer around. And because we no longer feel that sense of history, we don’t feel anything when we further sever our ties to the past. It’s a vicious cycle.
For so many of us, history is a bunch of text accompanied by black and white photos, a grotesque mannequin in period clothes in a sterile air-conditioned room accompanied by a detached voice in the headphones telling you just who the hell the mannequin is supposed to represent, and more recently, thanks to wonders of technology, a virtual 3D tour. No wonder we find history boring. No wonder we find it easy to give up history for a few minutes of convenience. History is always something outside us. Detached. How can we feel otherwise if the kind of history that ties past and present together is systematically wiped out, and if it isn’t, turned into yet another fancy wining and dining zone? (Maybe some folks believe that history can be best experienced when intoxicated)
There is something sublime about being at a historical site which no state-of-the-art museum can ever match. Standing at the grave of Lee Kuan Yew’s grandfather listening to the guide telling us how Mr Lee’s father used to bring him here when he was just a child, I suddenly experienced Lee Kuan Yew as a real person who once was a kid too, and not merely as a political icon.  And then there was the tiny grave of a baby girl who died at nine months old in the 1930s. It is impossible not to empathize with the anguish of the parents. Suddenly the past is no longer distant.
The authorities would like you to think that less than 5% of the 100,000 graves are affected. But you see, Bukit Brown isn’t ‘just any cemetery’. Relatively speaking, for a nation barely 200 years old, the historical significance of Bukit Brown to Singapore is what Angkor is to Cambodia. Now imagine a highway running through Angkor. That is what we’ve really lost. Not just for ourselves, but for future generations.
If you’re wondering why many people don’t have a sense of rootedness, you don’t have to look very far.
There were people who commented on Tan Chuan Jin’s Facebook page that until recently they’ve never heard of Bukit Brown, and it’s not part of their shared memories, so not worth preserving. My response – that you’ve never heard of Bukit Brown or identified with it is not the fault of Bukit Brown. I bet you’ve probably never been to the Changi Chapel as well, nor visited it. Does it mean therefore that it should also give way to development should the time come?
Bukit Brown is seldom known because the people who decide on our historical narrative does not deem it important – but it doesn’t make it any less important than say, Fort Canning Hill.
In fact historians have been searching for the tomb of Ong Sam Leong, the largest tomb in Bukit Brown for years before it was found at a knoll in the cemetery. The sheer architect of the tomb – one which I’ve never seen elsewhere in SG – is good enough reason to even gazetted Bukit Brown as a UNESCO site. That it isn’t and in fact will make way for bland houses for people who have never heard of this part of our history is a crying shame.
And then there’s another comment on TOC FB – “I’m sure our nation building pioneers would want Singapore to continue to progress. They strived to make Singapore a better place to live in, everyday day of their lives. Holding on to the romantic ideals for too long will come with a great price. Will we become backwaters one day if we do not renew and rejuvenate?”
What the commenter conveniently ignores is that many of these pioneers have a deep sense of the past and their roots, which explains the many elaborate tombs in Bukit Brown in the first place.

On a separate note, I found out from one of the SOS Bukit Brown volunteers that Tan Tock Seng’s grave on a knoll at Havelock Road would also have made way for a road because – get this – the people who planned the road had no idea that the grave belonged to him. It was only through the intervention of activists that the tomb was saved. This is what happens when we’ve lost our roots. We even believe our ancestors are as equally pragmatic as us.

All Things Bukit Brown notes: Till today, there has been no engagement from the relevant bodies on Bukit Brown and development plans are proceeding,  deaf to the  community of diverse voices which has grown. More have been coming for public tours conducted by volunteers; it has become the subject of lessons, videos, books, heritage forums on and offline  and incorporated into a play. Soon it will be the inspiration of the art of a New York artist. He is calling his next exhibition “Extinction”

 

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