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Hong Kong

Bukit Brown Cemetery

Bukit Brown Cemetery (BBC) was opened on 1 January 1923 as a public Chinese cemetery and closed in 1973. The cemetery is the resting ground for more than 100 000 people who lived through different historical periods of Singapore and they include some of the well-known community, political and business leaders.

Bukit Brown Cemetery is one of the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China and one of the very few left in Singapore as other cemeteries have been cleared for real estate and other urban development.

The past in the way of the future?

In 2011, the authorities announced plans to construct an eight-lane road that would cut through Bukit Brown, displacing about 4,000 graves in its path. The remaining graves will also make way for a housing project in the next few decades.

Such announcements were rather commonplace as Singapore’s growth and development required more space in land-scarce Singapore. Perhaps unexpected by the authorities, the public sentiment has changed.

Over the past few decades of economic growth and pursuit of 5 Cs, (condo, car, club, cash and credit card - Singapore’s status symbols) people have also began searching for their identity and their cultural roots.

Bukit Brown, as one of the last few cemeteries with its long history, now represents a site of cultural capital waiting to be discovered. Various groups have emerged to study the tombs and to appeal to the government to preserve Bukit Brown Cemetery.

The government has so far not indicated that it is willing to listen although the number of graves to be destroyed for the proposed highway has reduced from 5,000 to 3,746 due to some engineering challenges of building over Bukit Brown’s valleys.

The land scarcity arguement

Reasons for not preserving Bukit Brown Cemetery are not convincing. While it is true that Singapore is land scarce, the number of golf courses in Singapore far exceeds the size of Bukit Brown.

The recent high profile and high budget Gardens by the Bay project and described by CNN as "artifical" essentially uses expensive city centre land for a fancy high maintenance garden, to a tune of S$1 million a week.

These land uses suggest that while land is scarce, it is a matter of priority which and whose use of land is more important or desirable.

The economic argument

If it is an issue of economic argument, then the authorities might want to take note that cemeteries are sites of tourist attraction.

Relocatica in Argentina is Buenos Aires’s top tourist attraction while Highgate in Britain where Carl Marx is buried continues to attract tourists.

If Bukit Brown is not as well known, it is only because it has not been promoted.

Ironically, the attempt to save Bukit Brown has caught the attention of international media giving it considerable international limelight paving the way for it to be a tourist attraction in its own right. CNN has described the attempt to save Bukit Brown as the "battle ground for "soul of Singapore".

Given the historical importance of and growing interest in Bukit Brown and coupled by the fact that much important information awaits to be researched, destroying Bukit Brown amounts to Singapore's equivalent of First Emperor of China's burning of books or the recent Cultural Revolution where important relics are irrevocable destroyed.

Once destroyed, forever gone

Some of the graves in Bukit Brown Cemetery are more than a hundred years old and they will be eternally ruined to make way for a road that will definitely not last beyond a hundred years. Ironically, the planned road is to replace the existing Lornie Road, expanded only in 2004 and to be reduced to two lanes after the highway opens in 2017.

It is easy to destroy but once destroyed, there is no way to recover these graves. Unlike a temple that can be dismantled brick by brick to be reconstructed on another site, a grave cannot be relocated in the same way. Nor should it be.

In 2012 election, the prime minister of Singapore apologised for mistakes and promised to listen. The ruling party managed to win but with the worse majority in the history of Singapore. To listen means to also hear things that one might not like. Otherwise, it is like the Chinese saying of listening but not hearing, 听而不闻.

What do you think?

Singapore is now a much disrupted place with many citizens unhappy with government over issues such as immigration, housing cost and million dollar salaries of ministers.

Bukit Brown can be an excellent opportunity for the government and people to work together to preserve and create a common sense of identity.

Further, the state has recently nominated the Botanic Gardens as a UNESCO Heritage Site. It may make sense to propose the gardens with Bukit Brown for a complete history of pre-independence Singapore, and enhance the status of Singapore as a true Garden City, the one honouring the pioneering work of the colonial government and the other, the immigrant sacrifice and work ethics and both representing the green heart of the city.

One is manicured, the other, wild and waiting to be explored. They are perfect counterfoils.

To use the famous quote of one Singapore minister,

“What do you think?”


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