Goodbye Bukit Brown

I took this photo in Bukit Brown Cemetery last month. I visited the place because I wanted to see it before the government of Singapore destroys it.

This is not a political blog and I need to be careful about how much of my personal opinion I express: the Singapore government can revoke my ‘permanent resident’ immigration status without warning or explanation, and I don’t want that.

Nonetheless, as someone who has written three historical novels set in Singapore, I would feel remiss if I let this sacrilege go unnoticed.

Background: Bukit Brown Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in Singapore, the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, and an amazing repository of Singapore’s history not to mention the last resting place of many of the early Chinese pioneers of the country.

Or it was their last resting place until the government went ahead with plans to exhume their bodies and destroy precious and culturally significant gravestones in order to build a highway bypass.

For once, Singaporeans (or a few at least) decided to stand up to their government when it overreached—the online response to the destruction of the cemetery has been considerable (many links are provided below).

Singapore is not North Korea—no one is going to wind up tortured then buried in a pear orchard because of blog posts in opposition to government plans. Neither is it Thailand, where people protest by taking to the streets and hurdling petrol bombs. The Singapore protest response has been modest, polite, and has, to its credit, garnered international attention. The World Monuments Fund placed Bukit Brown on its watch list for 2014 of world monuments facing destruction.

That’s a step in the right direction but its not going to stop the government’s plans for development. It merely means the destruction will be objected to and recorded.

The government’s argument is that the land is needed to relieve ‘traffic congestion,’ and that in land scarce Singapore, the living take prescient over the dead. As several opponents have pointed out, this presents a false dichotomy, because the living still use the cemetery. Since it closed in 1973, it has become a sprawling park, and indeed provides some of the only semi-wild green space left in the dense urban construction of the island city-state.

Another study has shown that the economic benefits the government claims for the highway will mostly be felt by the already well-to-do. The road will connect the affluent enclave of Caldecott Hill with the central business district. Simply, public and private heritage will be destroyed and open green space transmogrified into industrial wasteland so that a few rich people can get to work a little faster.

As the blogger for The Economist magazine pointed out, “This is what Singapore’s government has always done: look around corners on behalf of its people and then plan ahead, confident enough in its own infallibility and in the inevitability of its re-election to ignore pressure groups and resist pandering to populism.”

The implications are clear: ‘heritage’ that is not housed in government run museums will be bulldozed; green space that is not managed by the government will be turned into roads or housing or infrastructure that is strictly controlled.

Short of chaining themselves to the tombs and trees, there is little left for opponents of the destruction to do. Many Singaporeans I spoke to about it are resigned to the ‘shame’ that the destruction will bring, but will do nothing to stop it. Some pointed out that the area will be haunted, but letting the dead seek their own revenge is a lame cop out. The living make a stand for their dead or merely wait to die themselves.

I advocate no action at all because I fear losing my immigration status. So instead I retreat into poetry and quote T.S. Eliot:

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

If the people of Singapore do not decide their own history, then their history will be decided for them. Redemption is never easy.

Virtual tour:

Grassroots organizations:

World Monuments Watch


The Economist


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One response to “Goodbye Bukit Brown”

  1. Bn G Lc Ow says :

    the only thing I could do is to share this..

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