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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
"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.