Preventing a grave error

SINGAPORE - For the longest time, Bukit Brown had been a forgotten cemetery, removed from public view, awareness and scrutiny. But now it has been identified as a 2014 World Monuments Watch site – a gravely endangered place of cultural heritage – about to be irreversibly damaged with the construction of an entirely avoidable eight-lane expressway, built through its most scenic and historically precious grounds, forever altering its unique nature, and destroying not just a huge swathe of nature, but 4,000 graves in its path. Even as I write, the bulldozers are about to rumble. The point of no return is nigh.

I am a great admirer of Singapore’s civil servants. They are highly competent, incorruptible, and think hard of solving present and future problems that Singapore faces. They got us to where we are today, with an enviable reputation of being a place that “works”. But in the case of their plans for Bukit Brown, they have fallen short. So a rethink is needed. An intervention. Having previously approved this plan, in the light of new circumstances and considerations, their political masters should now act to halt a grave error.

The plan to drive an eight-lane highway through Bukit Brown was to meet a problem of traffic congestion. The LTA, SLA, URA and MND saw that a new highway could be built between point A and point B bypassing Lornie Road, connecting more directly to the PIE. All it needed was a straight line through a closed-down cemetery called Bukit Brown.

The eight-lane highway is just the beginning. The plan is to remove the entirety of Bukit Brown and contiguous cemeteries – all 400 acres (162 ha) – and to use this prime location to house up to perhaps 50,000 new homes in 15-20 years’ time.

But Bukit Brown is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China, with more than 200,000 immigrant members of the Chinese diaspora buried there. There are reburials of older graves that date back to 1833, just 14 years after the founding of modern Singapore. And this is the burial ground for most of the pioneers of Singapore, whose names identify the familiar roads of this country – names such as Joo Chiat, Keong Siak, Kheam Hock, Eng Neo, Ong Sam Leong, Chong Pang, Tan Ean Khiam, and my great grandfather, Boon Lay. In Bukit Brown lie our heritage and our history as a people.

To restate the case

The removal of Bukit Brown will serve Singapore’s needs of managing traffic congestion and flow, and provide space to house the growing population. Yet, the benefits are too little; the costs are too much.

Consider the cost to our heritage and history. This is the final resting place for our pioneers, and our unknown and unsung forefathers and foremothers. Buried at Bukit Brown are the earliest generations of immigrants who built this society, the towkays and the coolies, and the wide swathe of society in between. Bukit Brown is not just a cemetery for the dead, it is a unique ethnographic museum for the living. Hokkiens, Teochews, Cantonese, Hakka, Chinese of all dialects are buried here, with the names of their descendants on the tombstones, looked after by the Jade Girl and the Golden Boy, accompanied by carved stone lions, dragons, phoenixes, tigers’ paws. Guarded by turbaned Sikh guards, and angels clothed and naked. Recorded with different calendar systems – Qing, Confucian, Republican and Gregorian. Rich layers of history and ethnography in the material culture of the graves and tombstones of Bukit Brown have only recently been discovered, documented and expounded by researchers from the architectural faculty of National University of Singapore (NUS). It might be thought that once they have been documented they can be destroyed. But if this were right, then one might argue that once Stonehenge has been filmed and recorded, why not build a Tesco and a parking lot on its site?

Consider further, the cost to habitat and the green environment. Here is home to fauna that includes the endangered Sunda Pangolin, monitor lizards, as well as several butterfly species, some uncommon. Thirteen threatened bird species – 23 per cent of the nationally threatened bird species – four rare resident bird species and 15 uncommon resident bird species reside at Bukit Brown.

As the crow flies, Bukit Brown is three kilometres north-west of Orchard Road, which makes it a rare, naturally forested area in an urban setting. Rich equatorial vegetation covers much of Bukit Brown. Local flora includes mature banyan trees, durian trees, raintrees, figs, and wild orchids. Its size – 400 acres, and its contiguity to the Central Catchment Area of MacRitchie and Pierce reservoirs – forms a critical mass that influences the rainfall, the micro-climate of the district and the climate of the island. The whole – not deconstructed into numerous smaller composite bits of parks and gardens to be scattered in other parts of the island – is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Take away the natural sponge that is the verdant flora and soils of Bukit Brown, and rainfall may possibly be channelled to flood Orchard Road! A visiting hydrologist wondered on this, but no environment impact study has been done to see if this will be so.

Too high a price to pay

If the planners and civil servants in MND, URA, LTA and SLA cannot see or understand this because they have a more immediate micro-perspective, then it is rightfully up to the political leadership to step in to take corrective action now. A rethink is needed. A change of plan is called for. A political leader has now got to step up to the plate, step into the breach and switch off the engines of destruction that will obliterate our heritage. Call it off. Save the day. The decision to build that highway, or those 50,000 houses, can still be made in the future – 30 or 50 years from now. But to proceed is to perform an irreversible act of destruction.

What’s Plan B (for Bukit Brown)?

Then the question naturally arises as to what should be done about Bukit Brown. How should it be preserved? Bukit Brown can be preserved and developed as a new, transformed national heritage park. It will be a place of sanctuary, sanctity, sacred burials, cultural and historical heritage, education, research to our origins and identity as a nation. It will be a place for the larger economic growth of Singapore, a unique tourist attraction, a park that caters to the recreational needs of citizens and visitors alike.

There are alternatives to a better traffic flow on Lornie Road. There are alternatives to a great residential space for 50,000 more population. Bukit Brown Heritage Park will be a new public space that will cater to the physical, educational, cultural, environmental and economic needs of 7 million Singaporeans and 15.5 million annual tourist visitors. What does it take to see that what benefits 16 (7+9) million versus what benefits 50,000 – an outnumbering of 450 times – and generations to come, needs to be saved and not destroyed?

Political vision; intelligence; and clarity that will be transformative for Singapore. A single bold decision. Leadership.

The writer is chairman of The Substation and a consultant fundraiser. He gratefully acknowledges the editorial assistance of Chan Lishan in this piece.

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