Saving Bukit Brown Cemetery

Singapore is a little piece of paradise, the island-country is enjoying all benefits of modern life, its population is hard working and its success is an example for nearly all if not all of Asian countries. At the same time it is plenty of nature, culture and history. Singapore is also an ambitious country which works hard to grow to attempt continuing the success it has enjoyed since a century or so.

Bukit Brown Cemetery is an old Chinese cemetery in the middle of Singapore which is a testimony to Singapore’s Nature, Culture and History. It is now endangered by the development of Singapore: the construction of a new expressway. I have taken many pictures there and I naturally wish to protect this area, but beyond this selfish view I am convinced that it is in Singapore interests to protect the Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Wikipedia has a good description of the cemetery

Bukit Brown Cemetery, also known to the local community as Kopi Sua or Coffee Hill, was a public Chinese cemetery that had been established in the early 20th Century. It is located between Lornie Road and Mount Pleasant Road, and off Sime Road and Kheam Hock Road, and is still in existence today, despite being abandoned. The cemetery was named after its first owner, George Henry Brown. Brown had been a ship owner who had arrived in Singapore from Calcutta in the 1840s, and had bought the area and named it Mount Pleasant. The land was then later bought by Ong Kew Ho and the Hokkien Huay Kuan, who gave it to the Ngee Ann Kongsi.

The 213-acre (0.86 km2) site at Bukit Brown had been acquired and passed into municipal hands by the municipal authorities in 1919 after pressure had been put on it to provide a municipal cemetery for the Chinese communities in Singapore. The cemetery was opened on 1 January 1922 and was managed as a public burial ground by a committee led by committee leaders Tan Kheam Hock and See Tiong Wah–who was at that time comprador of the Hong Kong Bank.

By 1929, Bukit Brown Cemetery accounted for about 40 per cent of all officially registered Chinese burials within municipal limits. The cemetery was eventually closed. In the 1970s, the cemetery faced the threat of being cleared for redevelopment, but it was eventually granted reprieve. Now, the cemetery is home to many bird species and wild life, and has as such become popular again–this time, with nature lovers.

It is the only “built” area that is near the Bukit Brown MRT Station (part of the Circle MRT Line). Since there are no other developments in the vicinity, the station will remain non-operational till a later date.

It was originally announced by Minister Tan Chuan-Jin in Feb 2012 that 5000, out of more than 100’000 graves, would make way for a new 4-lane road that would cut through the cemetery. This number was reduced to 3746, from the original 5000, on 19 Mar 2012. It was also revealed that the rest of the cemetery would make way for a new public housing town in about 40 years time.

Whilst the LTA (Land Transport Authority which is the governmental office in charge under the Ministry of Transport of the Singapore Government) initially planned to start the destruction of the 5’000 tombs in early 2013, it has now been postponed to 15 April 2013. We are only at a few days from the irreversible destruction of a unique site in South East Asia.

Why is this very unfortunate? The answer counts multiple parts, so bear with me.

1. Nature

The Bukit Brown Cemetery, while being maintained, is no longer in use for new tombs since the 70’s, as such it is very little affected by the hands of man and has become a sanctuary for many of the birds in Singapore (about a quarter of all species of birds in Singapore) and 13 of them being endangered species. This is without counting species of snakes (not all popular such as the king cobra or the spitting cobra, but nature is not about popularity, it is about balance) and other reptiles, rodents and other species. The planned destruction, even partial, will without doubt render the Singapore bio-environment more fragile and increase the pressure on already threatened species of animals. This is not to mention beautiful old trees which would be lost as well.

2. Culture

The Bukit Brown Cemetery is quite a huge park with its 100’000 Chinese tombs, which makes the park not only a Singapore jewel but also is the biggest Chinese cemetery outside of China. I think quite appropriate to mention the cultural importance of this cemetery during the period of the Qing Ming Festival (清明节) which is a period for Chinese to clean the tombs and show respect to their ancestors. If you have a chance to visit Bukit Brown this week, do so and get to know more about the Chinese culture.

3. History

A number of important figures in the history of Singapore have their tombs in Bukit Brown. There are tombs from the 19th century as well which have been moved to Bukit Brown in the early 20th century after other ancient cemetery had been closed for development, as such Bukit Brown is unique. For foreign readers, and although the analogies are not perfect, it is a bit if your respective government wanted to replace Arlington National Cemetery in USA, VA or Père Lachaise Cemetery in France by a highway.


Barn swallow on a tomb stone at Bukit Brown Cemetery

Barn swallow on a tomb stone at Bukit Brown Cemetery

Bukit Brown Cemetery is not the only endangered piece of greenery in Singapore. There is also the Muslim Bidadari Cemetery, which thousands of tombs have already been destroyed and which should be developed into housing this year. Similarly to Bukit Brown this site will increase the pressure on endangered species of birds. For the future, but the LTA seems to be serious about it, the Singapore Central Catchment — by far the biggest and most precious natural reserve of Singapore — is being considered to be traversed by a line of urban train (at this stage it is unclear if the line will be entered of not) which could have catastrophic consequence on the wildlife of Singapore.

Singapore government plans to increase its population over the next few years from 5.3 millions to about 7 millions inhabitants. This in hope that it will sustain growth for Singapore and continued increased in living standards for Singaporeans. Obviously this causes major challenges such as where to house the additional 2 millions, how to get them to commute to work. For the big picture view it seems that the government has made its mind as to where the priorities are.

I however hope that more Singaporeans will ask the good questions and help find creative solutions, otherwise Singapore might soon look very much like Hong Kong, without its peak.

For more information you can visit Bukit Brown Heritage Park and I invite you to visit and support the Nature Society of Singapore by becoming member and liking their Facebook page.



Saving Bukit Brown CemeteryChristian C. Berclaz

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