Singapore: The Fight to Save Bukit Brown

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Singapore: The Fight to Save Bukit Brown

Government plans to redevelop a cemetery spark a debate on the compatibility of conservation and progress.

Half-hidden in Singapore, the Bukit Brown cemetery is a sprawling ground of greenery and heavy gravestones. On many of the stones the miniature portraits are fading or faded, their names unrecognized and stories forgotten. But other graves are still visited by faithful relatives, bringing flowers and incense for their ancestors. Along the paths one finds joggers and children riding horses in a rare space of untouched nature.

At around 200 hectares, the land on which the cemetery sits is a luxury for a city-state hungry for space. In 2011, the government announced plans for a dual four-lane road that would run through part of Bukit Brown. Construction would require the destruction and exhumation of 5,000 graves.

Conservation groups such as SOS Bukit Brown and All Things Bukit Brown have come together to fight to preserve the cemetery. In October 2013, Bukit Brown was included in the 2014 World Monuments Watch list.

"I hope it shows that we are serious, that we want a seat at the table, just so we can present what we have heard from the community, what we have heard from the people who have encouraged us, and we can share their voices too,” Claire Leow from All Things Bukit Brown told Channel NewsAsia. “And hopefully that yes, you want development, but let’s have a discussion perhaps — if we could contribute just a little part of that discussion, perhaps we can all have a more sustainable strategy for development." 

But the government remains resolute. “[P]lanning for the long term in land-scarce Singapore does require us to make difficult trade-off decisions. We will have to continue to ensure that sufficient land is safeguarded island-wide, and find ways to make good use of our limited land in order to meet future demand for uses such as housing, industry and infrastructure,” a spokesperson of the Urban Redevelopment Authority told the press.

Exhumation of the graves are set to begin in the fourth quarter of this year, and the road planned to be completed by 2017.

Bukit Brown’s story is a familiar one in Singapore. Small but affluent, the country is a model of rapid development. All over the island one finds impressive displays of modernity: the steel-and-glass of shopping malls and private condominiums alongside brightly colored concrete blocks of public housing. The population density is already one of the highest in the world, and set to grow: the government projects a population of 6.9 million by 2030. To accommodate further growth, the government and its city planners need to build, and build fast. Land is at a premium, and, as the government often says, trade-offs need to be made.

These “trade-offs” have triggered controversy. The debate has broadly divided into two camps: on the one hand, some argue for the need for Singapore to accommodate its large population, and sentimentality is framed as an indulgence. On the other, others insist that a nation needs its heritage, and new generations need to be aware of their past to build a better future.

Bukit Brown is not the first to fall victim to Singapore’s stubborn march towards progress. The island’s residents are no strangers to re-purposing land previously possessed by the dead.

A little further east of the Bukit Brown is Bidadari. The Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Hindu graves that once lay in that cemetery have now been exhumed to make way for public and private housing estates. A Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train station already sits on a portion of the site.

If it had remained a cemetery, it would have been a heritage park teaching Singaporeans about Singapore's pioneers and burial customs, and an excellent example of religious harmony, since Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Hindus were buried there,” says Eisen Teo, a freelance researcher specializing in history and heritage issues. Now, only the Bidadari Memorial Garden stands to remind people of what once was.

The construction never ends in Singapore. A planned Cross Island MRT line included in the 2013 Land Transport Masterplan will be the ninth train line in the country. Its proposed route drew alarm from conservationists when it was found to cut through MacRitchie Forest, a green space rich with biodiversity, popular with families and schoolchildren on their cross-country runs.

The line was set to run underneath the forest, but the Nature Society (Singapore) – an organization dedicated to the conservation of natural heritage – says that the machinery and surface works associated with construction would be enough to damage the environment. “Once these disturbances occur, there is a real and demonstrable risk of soil erosion and siltation of what are now the most pristine streams in Singapore, which support a diversity of native critically endangered fauna and flora,” explains NSS spokesperson Tony O’Dempsey.

The government has said that the proposed route is not yet confirmed. Talks and studies are ongoing, and other routes will be considered. In July, the NSS published a position paper suggesting two alternative rail alignments.

We certainly hope that the NSS proposal will add weight to the consideration of the southern route,” O’Dempsey says.

The government is not in an easy position. It recognizes the importance of preserving Singapore’s history and heritage for future generations, but also needs to provide for a growing population on an already crowded island.

While Teo concedes that land is scarce and needed, he argues that priorities might need to be reconsidered. “We must be reminded that there are other land uses that take up enormous amounts of space, yet hardly anyone is questioning the utility of those spaces. Singapore has 18 golf courses, one of the highest numbers per country area in the world. They take up a total of 1,800 hectares. By contrast, Bukit Brown takes up 233 hectares; one-ninth of that area. Does Bukit Brown seem very big now?”

Military bases and camps, he says, also take up plenty of land area on the island. “My take is that cemeteries are, in terms of urban redevelopment, the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. They are easy game. They don't belong to the rich and famous, they don't belong to a sensitive ministry like the Ministry of Defense. They are viewed by many as scary places and wasteland! It is easy to just reclaim the land and build. Golf courses and military camps are far, far trickier,” he says.

In discussing the future of Singapore, a change in mindset is needed. People need to stop seeing conservation and progress as opposing ideals, where one comes at the expense of the other. “Conservation is part of progress and development,” Teo explains. “For Singapore to progress and develop, we need physical reminders of our history everywhere. That is why we preserve monuments such as City Hall, the Supreme Court, the National Museum, Chjimes, St. Andrew's Cathedral. Physical landmarks of historical value do more than any history book in teaching people about our past.”

Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging NonviolenceAsian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.