Dead Grandparents vs Future Grandchildren

Singapore’s logic for heritage destruction. A version of this article was first published on, 16 Dec 2012.

Turquoise and yellow floral-print tiles on a typical omega-shaped gravestone, Bukit Brown Cemetery 2016.

The time was the 1960s. The debate at hand was about whether Singapore should clear cemeteries to make space for new public housing.

“Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want me to look after your grandchildren?” asked then-Cabinet Minister Lim Kim San in the 1960s. He meant it rhetorically.

Community leaders were very unhappy about the loss of the cemeteries (and along with them, the sites of ritual and remembering) but they were just no match for our strong-willed leaders.

But what would Singapore be like today if our dead grandparents had won?

For one, we wouldn’t have the clear, grassy slopes of Fort Canning Park for WOMAD and Ballet Under the Stars. No, in its place, we’d have a messy Fort Canning Cemetery crowded with 19th-century graves of governors, administrators, sailors, traders, teachers, many young women and children — some even buried two to a grave.

Instead of Bishan housing estate, home to 91,298 people at last count, the Cantonese Kwong Wai Siew Association might still have their Peck San Theng (Jade Hill Pavilion) built in 1870 — the largest cemetery in Singapore, with 75,234 graves eventually exhumed. Likewise parts of Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah would still have cemeteries where public housing now stands.

A Jewish cemetery dating from 1838 or 1841 would stand in place of Orchard MRT station, its small plot housing 160 graves. And instead of the shops at Velocity, Novena Square, Phoenix Park, we might see Jewish tombs designed by the famous Italian sculptor Cavalieri Rodolfo Nolli in the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery, in use from 1904 onwards.

Instead of KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, on the land between Bukit Timah, Kampong Java, Halifax and Hooper Road, we’d have a flood-prone Bukit Timah Cemetery packed with Catholic and Protestant graves from 1865.

Neither would we have Ngee Ann City, Mandarin Hotel, Cathay Cineleisure and Wisma Atria. Instead, in the heart of Orchard Road would sit a 28-hectare burial ground Tai Shan Ting, managed by the Teochew Ngee Ann Kongsi.

And of course, we wouldn’t have those clear, flat fields along Upper Serangoon Road, a space now emptying itself out in preparation for new condominiums and residential towns. In its place, we might still have the 10.5-hectare early 20th-century Bidadari Cemetery, with its delicate marble sculptures and tombstones etched with different languages in the Christian, Muslim and Hindu sections.

One might conclude that the 1960s generation did the right thing. They were self-sacrificial enough (or, were forced) to forgo their ancestors’ graves so that their grandchildren could have the space for housing, shopping, infrastructure, all these modern amenities we now enjoy.

Especially for those of us living and working in Orchard, Novena, Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah, this giving up of graveyard space for modern development seems good and necessary.

But the fact is, back in 1967, burial grounds only made up 1.1% (619 hectares) of land area on Singapore Island, and by 1982, after the clearing of Bukit Timah Cemetery, Peck San Theng (Bishan) etc, it was down to 534 hectares (approx 0.95% of Singapore’s land area).

Furthermore, this 0.95% figure doesn’t even include the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery (cleared by 1985), 10.5 hectare Bidadari Cemetery (cleared by 2006), and 7-hectare Kwong Hou Sua in Woodlands (cleared by 2009).

Is it really necessary to wipe clean these remaining precious spaces that take up less than 0.95% of Singapore’s land area?

And if Singapore desperately needs more land, why aren’t we first using the land area currently occupied by Orchid Country Club, Raffles Country Club, Singapore Island Country Club, Warren Golf & Country Club, and the golf and country clubs in Changi, Jurong, Keppel, Marina Bay, Kranji, Selatar Base, Sembawang, Tanah Merah?

Perhaps in the past, it was deemed necessary for our grandparents to relinquish their burial grounds for public housing and the development of the shopping belt in Orchard and Novena.

But how much is enough, and what is the optimum point between preserving tangible heritage and history, and allowing the land to be taken over by even more modern amenities, condominiums and wider roads? This concerns all of us and future generations, and we need proper, genuine discussion before bulldozers irreversibly destroy these old spaces.

Today, Singapore’s Bukit Brown Cemetery is next in line to go. In use from the 1880s to 1973, with more than 100,000 graves of pioneers, it is a wealth of cultural heritage. Yet, in spite of protests, parts of it have already been destroyed for construction of an eight-lane highway, expected to be completed by end 2017. The rest of Bukit Brown is slated for future housing and infrastructure development.

In 2012, then-Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin invoked Mr Lim Kim San’s question again, this time in relation to the destruction of Bukit Brown.

“I have been corresponding with many who actively champion the Bukit Brown cause. One shared with me that he felt moved when he was brought round the cemetery. … I feel it too, every time I go there to run and to explore the place, to bash through the bushes and stumble along new tombs that had been overgrown with plants and trees. The earlier exhumations at Tiong Bahru many years ago also raised similar community concerns. Recalling the opposition then, the late Mr Lim Kim San had asked a group who came to see him, and I quote: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want to look after your grandchildren?”
Mr Lim’s thoughts still ring true today. How do we preserve the past while we build the future? I will say this: this is a very difficult decision, but it is a decision we need to make.”

The decision has been made.

Mr Tan Chuan-Jin’s argument to develop Bukit Brown hinges on Mr Lim Kan San’s question, but asking Singaporeans to choose between our dead grandparents and our grandchildren is a severe misrepresentation of the issue.

I strongly suspect our grandchildren will not live in misery for want of that extra 0.95% of land. In fact, I hope our grandchildren will be more creative in their urban design, with efficient use of land and infrastructure, without resorting to the destruction of the few cemeteries left.

And if current public sentiment is anything to judge the future by, I suspect our grandchildren and great-grandchildren would have enjoyed walking in a protected, conserved Bukit Brown Cemetery, seeing and touching history in tangible forms.

But this is idle talk; they won’t get the chance. As it stands, Bukit Brown will go. Our grandchildren will have more roads, more housing, a crowd of new memories to replace the old.

Peranakan tile expert and volunteer guide Victor Lim with a group touring Bukit Brown. Volunteer guides from All Things Bukit Brown run events and tours to share the Heritage, Habitat and History of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Read more about Bukit Brown at All Things Bukit Brown or join their events and tours.

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