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Saying Goodbye to One of Singapore's Last Historic Cemeteries

Saying Goodbye to One of Singapore's Last Historic Cemeteries
Mimi Kirk

SINGAPORE—The June 28, 1921, edition of the Malaya Tribune noted that tensions were commonplace between British colonial authorities and the Chinese community over the administration of Singapore's Bukit Brown cemetery. “Bukit Brown persists in getting mention at every meeting,” one article lamented. “[It] will be a prolific source of controversy later on.” Close to a century later, the prediction rings true via a battle simmering between Singapore’s government and civil society groups over the question of whether the cemetery should be developed in this land-scarce island city-state.

Bukit Brown, the largest Chinese burial ground outside of China with an estimated 100,000 graves, became a municipal cemetery in 1922. It serves as the resting place for some of Singapore’s most illustrious families as well as thousands of long-forgotten middle and lower-class citizens. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first and longtime prime minister, has a grandfather buried here (next to a descendant of Confucius, no less), as does Tony Tan, Singapore’s current president. Baked goods magnate Chew Boon Lay (1852-1933) also lies here. Like other pioneering merchants buried in Bukit Brown, Boon Lay’s name graces Singaporean public spaces such as subway stations and housing estates.

Despite this Singaporean ethos, Bukit Brown is a distinctly un-Singaporean space. Abandoned since 1973, overgrown tombs and large swathes of lush and unkempt land play host to groups of macaque monkeys, colorful African tulip trees, close to 100 bird species (some endangered), and other mammals, including the Large Flying Fox, a rare and enormous bat that was likely the inspiration for vampire movies. Nearby residents use Bukit Brown for jogging and dog walking, and others from all over the island still come to give offerings and perform rituals to honor their ancestors. A far cry from the tidy roads, malls, and condos of Singapore proper, Bukit Brown is touted as one of the country’s last wild spaces.

Last September, the Singaporean government announced plans to build an eight-lane highway through Bukit Brown, with housing developments (mostly public and subsidized) to follow in the next 15 to 20 years. Concerned citizens formed groups to protest the project, asking for at least more time to document all the graves and ascertain the historical as well as environmental value of the land. They had little success in swaying the government. Late last month, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) announced that the highway project will begin in early 2013, though as a concession a section of the road will consist of a bridge allowing wildlife access to creeks below. Regardless, seven groups issued a joint statement conveying their “dismay and disappointment” at not only the outcome, but that the government was “inadequate…at genuine engagement and discussing alternatives.”

The fight has come as a surprise to some. Heritage has generally not been a front burner issue in the globalized and ultra-modern city-state, and protesting government policies has never been a hallmark of Singaporean culture. “Singaporeans have trusted the government to do the right thing,” says Jennifer Teo, a founder of the group SOS Bukit Brown. “But at the same time they are resigned to the fact that the government takes a ‘we know best’ attitude and does what it deems fit, regardless of their opinions.” Teo says she and her group felt that it was important to make a stand. “We believe the cemetery is an integral part of our country.”

While a significant number of Singaporeans are no doubt agnostic when it comes to Bukit Brown, activists like Teo appear to have spread the word. A recent (albeit unscientific) poll on Yahoo! News Singapore saw 59 percent of respondents clicking "definitely" for saving the space, while 31 percent were in favor of the highway or saving taxpayer money.

Some observers say that last year’s elections paved the way for Singaporean citizens to challenge their government. In May 2011, the opposition won six of 87 seats in Singapore’s parliament—unprecedented in a country that has seen the same party, the People’s Action Party, enjoy total or majority rule since 1965. “That opened up people’s eyes that, hey, they have a voice. An active citizenry is on the slow boil,” says Charles Goh of Asia Paranormal Investigators who, with his brother Raymond Goh, has been researching Bukit Brown’s graves.

Still, there's reason to be cautious about overstating the election's effect. Dr. Terence Chong, who serves on the executive committee of the Singapore Heritage Society, notes that NGO groups have always had a voice in Singapore. “It becomes analytically convenient to attribute everything to the elections,” he says. Teo and anthropologist Dr. Hui Yew-Foong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies both point to an increase in the use of social media as a crucial reason for the spike in backtalk. “The mass media is closely linked to the government,” says Teo, “so its bias is almost always the official stance. With social media, people have more options.” Dr. Hui adds that tools like Facebook give Singaporeans a sense of community. “People realize they’re not the only ones concerned. And if they voice their concerns, they hear echoes.”

On a steamy Sunday afternoon, Teo leads a two-hour tour through the cemetery. Insects and birds drone and chirp, and a pair of corgi dogs rush back and forth between two enormous acacia trees, barking excitedly at several irritated monkeys. The smell of rotting fruit from grave offerings occasionally wafts by. Teo stops the group in front of a tomb to explain the shape of traditional Chinese graves. A circular mound fans out behind the gravestone, symbolizing the womb from which we come and to which we return. Ideally, a grave is set up on a hill so that rainwater flows down around it in concrete gutters. Such a spot helps ensure the good fortune of the deceased’s descendants. Teo points out one grave that has already been disinterred; the stone ledge in front of the mound has been broken. "This tells the spirit not to return," she explains.

Cemeteries like Bukit Brown are no longer active in Singapore. Chinese Singaporeans are on the whole cremated now, the ashes placed in urns and stored in columbariums. The approximately 3,700 graves that will be affected by the highway (not to mention the thousands more if housing development plans ultimately go through) will go this route. The LTA has begun to publish the names of affected graves so that descendants can claim the remains, with a deadline of December 31, 2012. Those remains not claimed by the deadline will be cremated and the ashes held for three years, at which time they will be scattered at sea.

The government has empowered Dr. Hui, the anthropologist, to head up extensive documentation of the affected graves. Hui has done this kind of work before at now-defunct cemeteries, but notes that he was previously an unpaid volunteer. “We are glad to support this effort,” writes Minister of State for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin via email, noting that while “the decision has been made” on Bukit Brown, the government welcomes suggestions on how best to celebrate its heritage. Tan also recently defended the government’s decision by publicly stating that though “we have not been able to fully accommodate the wishes [of those who want to conserve Bukit Brown], we have taken many of their views into consideration.” He cited the documentation project and the design of the road, chosen to “minimize impact to the cemetery, hydrology, and biodiversity.”

For Teo, this is admirable but not enough. “It’s great that they are funding the documentation project,” she says. “But no amount of documentation can replace a lived experience.” She notes that Singapore is still in the early days of a shift toward a more participatory form of government, one that will "do more than pay lip service" to engaging the public.

In the meantime she and other activists are mourning their upcoming loss. "The road will cut the cemetery in half, and it will never be the same," Goh says. "I think I will lose a part of myself when it happens." Yet he still holds out a bit of hope—if only in jest. "I’m thinking of chaining myself to the gate," he laughs. "That’ll get people’s attention."

Mimi Kirk is an editor and writer living in Washington, DC. All posts »

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