2011/09/05

No room for the dead in Singapore

SINGAPORE, September  5, 2011 (AFP) - The days are numbered for Bukit Brown Cemetery, one of Singapore's oldest burial grounds, but concerned citizens are campaigning for history to win over high-rises.

Graves in the thickly forested cemetery are set to be exhumed to make way for more apartment towers in one of the world's most densely populated countries, which has 7,126 people per square kilometre (0.4 square mile).

The fate of the graveyard, where several of the island's early ethnic Chinese businessmen are buried, has sparked an emotional call for the preservation of the hilly expanse located in a prime bungalow district.

"Bukit Brown possibly contains Singapore’s oldest Chinese grave, and that says a lot," Irving Johnson, an assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.

"A cemetery is not where you just bury people... It's about all the history and meanings of the past that tends to be neglected for the most part."

Bukit Brown, officially opened in 1922, is named after an English shipowner called George Henry Brown who arrived on the island in 1840.

"Bukit" means "hill" or "mountain" in Malay, the language of Singapore's original inhabitants before British colonialism and immigration changed the island's ethnic mix.

It is now 74 percent ethnic Chinese and one of the world's wealthiest cities, hosting a population of more than five million.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) explained that land scarcity meant priority would have to be given to other pressing needs including housing and infrastructure.

"Tradeoffs will have to be made between what we can keep and what we need to accommodate," said a spokesperson for the URA, which is tasked with land use planning.

"The clearance of closed cemeteries in areas that are needed for development enables us to recycle land to accommodate new needs."

The 86-hectare (212.42 acre) graveyard has been earmarked as a future housing site but the time frame has not yet been decided.

According to government data, Bukit Brown is one of 60 cemeteries left in Singapore, but only one accepts new burials -- the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery Complex in the northern suburbs.

And the burial period there is limited to 15 years, after which graves have to be exhumed.

For those whose religion does not require mandatory burial, the exhumed remains will be cremated and ashes can either be kept in a columbarium niche, at home or scattered at sea.

The remains of those whose religion demands burial, such as Muslims, will be re-buried in smaller plots in the Choa Chu Kang cemetery.

Local media said the island-state had 229 burial grounds in 1952 but most had since been exhumed to make way for housing, roads and industrial developments.

One of the most popular shopping malls along posh Orchard Road, the Ngee Ann City complex which houses designer boutiques like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, used to be a burial ground.

Supporters of Bukit Brown said it should be spared from bulldozers to help preserve what little is left physically of the island-state's rich and colourful past for future generations to appreciate.

"You can imagine the next generation of kids and their sense of Singapore history, it is very limited," said Johnson.

"To me, Bukit Brown is just one of many aspects of Singapore's heritage that ought to be given a second chance," he said.

The private advocacy group Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) argued for the preservation of Bukit Brown in a book launched in May entitled "Spaces Of The Dead: A Case From The Living."

"In a short span of 40 years, we have seen the destruction of more than 200 cemeteries in Singapore," wrote SHS president Kevin Tan.

"While much of this is inevitable, given the scarcity of space on the island, a case can be made to at least preserve some of them.

"Bukit Brown appears the ideal candidate, given the wealth of its cultural, structural and historical elements, as well as its rich flora and fauna."

In Bukit Brown lies Singapore's largest and possibly most elaborate tomb where Ong Sam Leong, a successful businessman who died in 1918, is buried. His wife, who passed away in 1935, is interred next to him.

Two life-size stone carvings of Indian Sikh guards armed with rifles stand in front of the tomb, with a dried-up narrow moat surrounding the tombstone, one of 80,000 graves in the cemetery.

Wealthy businessmen used to hire Sikh guards in old Singapore.

Decorative mosaic tiles, their colour faded with the passage of time, form a huge rectangle in front of the tomb, whose walls are decorated with carvings of Chinese deities as well as ancient poems.

"We call this tomb the eighth wonder of Singapore," said Raymond Goh of Asia Paranormal Investigators, which runs cemetery tours on request. "It is so amazing."