Category Archives: Bukit Brown

(3) Protecting Our Shared Cultural Heritage is Singapore’s Psychological Defence

If ‘heritage’ is composed of nothing but memories, Singaporeans can now deposit any random old photos and childhood anecdotes in the Singapore Memory online portal, and then pat themselves on the back for accumulating ‘virtual heritage’. But that’s not even collecting history. If we all decide to collect oral history from our parents or grandparents, we should collect not only sound bites of them speaking in their authentic language or dialect, but also their perspectives on social changes through the decades, we need to ask them how things were like and how things could have been. If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.

Standards for Heritage Protection

And in case anyone comes away with a wrong impression after the recent parliamentary debate (the speech “Celebrating and Co-Creating a Rooted Community” by Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin dated 5 March specifically), let us be clear: Heritage protection is not about us indulging in personal nostalgia, for that would mean any place in our country from Toa Payoh to Sengkang can be equally valuable and equally dispensable too, for there are no criteria then. Heritage protection involves scientific and technical studies in order to assess the historical, aesthetic, spiritual and other values of a site, and to counteract any threat against the physical site.

Perhaps Singapore just does not believe in any global standard or any international convention. Never mind the 2003 Intangible Heritage Convention. Singapore has not even ratified the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, for which Bukit Brown might qualify as a cultural landscape (and of course Kampong Glam and Little India must also be protected to complete the Singapore story, like how Melaka and George Town are now world heritage sites in Malaysia).

Singapore has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, but when it submitted its 2010 national report, it failed to mention Bukit Brown, which is not only important in its vegetation for the City Biodiversity Index, but also home to a quarter of bird species in Singapore, including 13 threatened species as the Nature Society has pointed out. Perhaps guarding a legacy of Mother Nature is just not as prestigious as building some man-made Gardens by the Bay next to a casino resort for its well-heeled visitors.

I wonder if I’m the only one feeling this way last week, as I read the news of our minister for national development insisting that a highway through the heart of Bukit Brown is necessary, and that such plans for road-building or housing cannot be shared with the public beforehand due to ‘market sensitivity’, or as I read that another building in Geylang Serai will be making way for a condo. I was thinking, at some point in time, people will just have to build condos in Johore instead, or those people who can no longer afford to live in Singapore may soon have to retire there. And I was asking myself, after all that NS, if ever war breaks out in Singapore, what should the soldiers of our country be defending? Vaults of gold in the IR?

Heritage and Harmony

There are people who may ask: Why this sudden interest in Bukit Brown? Why not, say, Bidadari Cemetery which was cleared away the last decade? Indeed, I ask myself: Why didn’t we have better heritage awareness back then at least? Why didn’t have something like Facebook to connect like-minded individuals as a heritage community? And surely a common respect for cultural heritage should bind us as Singaporeans, not segregate us?

I am sorry to say but I think people who describe cemeteries as nothing but ‘eerie’ in the newspaper are plain ignorant or just intolerant of whatever they do not identify with. I grew up living near Bidadari by the way, and till now, I consider that as one of the biggest blessings in my life. The word ‘Bidadari’ means ‘fairy’, for those who do not know; and for people who maintain that Singapore’s history did not begin with Stamford Raffles, they would be glad to know there was actually a school named after Sang Nila Utama, along that serene Upper Aljunied Road. And I remember seeing Gurkha soldiers jogging in the vicinity – tanned, stout and stoic-looking men who were supposed to protect us Singaporeans as a young nation, I was told as a boy.

To me personally, that was the most beautiful road one could ever find in Singapore, and it was not just about the green canopy of rain trees providing shade to whoever travelled up the road. What left an indelible mark on my mind was the fact that the area was meant to be a final resting place for people of different cultural and religious backgrounds – there was a Muslim section on one side, and a Christian section on the other, not to mention a Chinese columbarium with a towering pagoda on a far end, as well as a crematorium for people of any faith. It was a perfect place for one to learn respect for life before and after death. Every time one passed by, one could feel a mystic and radiant sense of wonder, what with rays of sunlight shining through and the soft whispers of time amidst the quiet tombstones and the greenery, and it left me with the conviction that there is only one heaven, where all souls will go as long as they are at peace.

Heritage and Sustainable Development

All that is now gone. The tombs have been exhumed, leaving an empty land, and there are hardly signs of housing construction after several years, which goes to show there was no urgency in the first place. Maybe it is just awaiting property development at a good price, but apparently the public is not entitled to know anything, due to ‘market sensitivity’. So, are we left with any logic in our society other than that of money? One felt similar pain as one learnt of how the shrine of Siti Maryam in Kallang was removed in 2010, when one could only find remembrance of the sacred space through the temporary exhibition of “The Sufi and the Bearded Man” at NUS Museum.

Now with Bukit Brown, heritage activists are being dismissed by the same rationality of ‘development’ again. The same old quote referring to exhumation in Tiong Bahru eons again is being resurrected: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” Well that argument might have been valid decades ago when the government was telling people to stop at two in family planning, but not today when it is the government insisting that the population must grow for the sake of economy. Today the question may well be: “Do we want the government to look after the heritage of our forefathers and our pioneers, or do we want them to look after the grandchildren of the projected incoming population of new immigrants?” We need to ask whether such unbridled development is sustainable.

When BG Tan Chuan-Jin was using words like ‘our spirit’ and ‘our soul’ in relation to the Singaporean identity, I supposed the word he was looking for should just be ‘resilience’. It is not helpful to use those words so freely when the actual spiritual values of our heritage sites are clearly not even admitted into the equations of our cold reasoning. So let’s consider the ‘resilience’ of our nation then, in terms of ‘psychological defence’, since our ministers are mostly military men.

Non-racialised Heritage as Psychological Defence

Let’s consider how cultural heritage has sometimes been the unfortunate targets of war in the ugliest chapters of history. Towards the end of World War II, the beautiful German city of Dresden built in baroque and rococo style was bombarded senselessly by British and American air forces and destroyed along with the lives of 25,000 to 40,000 people. The beautiful Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) crumbled and fell. There was no justification for all this, the strategic railway facilities were far away, it was just a display of military might and an attempt to break the spirit or morale of the people. Now surely a nation’s cultural heritage is something to be respected and protected by all, and last of all to be destroyed by the nation itself, or what message would that be sending? Anyway, a church made of stones like Frauenkirche can still be reconstructed decades later, but not a cultural landscape like Bukit Brown.

Perhaps heritage activists in Singapore already know they have lost half the battle here, when it is down to a minister of national development instead of the minister of arts and culture in leading an attempt to document the heritage of Bukit Brown, and when URA, LTA and NLB come before efforts of NHB. But hopefully Singaporeans do not mislead themselves into thinking that heritage is a racialised matter, as if no one should care about a Chinese heritage site unless one is Chinese, and one would also need a Malay minister to protect the oldest Malay cemetery in Singapore, the royal cemetery in Kampong Glam which has also been marked by URA for development. If the Malay minister has no time to deal with it, then other ministers do not need to care either?

As a nation, we need monuments and sites to be protected by law and by reason of historical significance as well as cultural rights, and not just depending on exceptions made by politicians. As a nation, it does not augur well when the Lim Bo Seng Memorial was gazetted as a national monument only in 2010, after so many years of holding him up as a war hero in our National Education, and his tomb is still not protected, which suggests there is little precedence for any burial ground or shrine to be protected. Is there nothing sacred in Singapore, other than our national reserves? No wonder then, that we see the camouflage uniform compared to a clown outfit in a commercial on total defence. A lot of us see no pride as we watch those recent ads, we only feel the pain: Every soldier is a leader? “Sure or not?”


Virtual heritage is a poor ersatz for the historical, aesthetic and spiritual values of a heritage site. Many Singaporeans may choose to be the silent majority as our heritage is being destroyed, because they do not feel any personal affinity, they do not understand the historical significance, or they just feel powerless. But we must walk out of the shadows of a ‘divide and rule’ colonial past, and not walk into a new dark era, where Singaporeans see one another as alien cultures in a mutant world of neo-colonialism, where we are no longer a country, but a place of transit in a network of endless highways.

(Facebook note on 11 March 2012)


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The Raw and the Cooked (1): Finding Balance in a Battle of Heritage

How many of us followed that recent discussion on yusheng as Singapore’s intangible heritage? Raise your hands? Maybe not many. Let’s try another question: How many of us think Singapore should survive another 500 years? Now we should see more hands. But let’s try this: How many of us remember the Curry Day last year and feel very emotional about it? Kee chiu? Now we see many, many hands. The point is this: Cultural heritage is not merely a domain of archaeologists and antiquarians, it is also about living traditions that provide bonding in our society.

Unfortunately, ‘intangible heritage’ has been a most misunderstood concept of our time, often lending itself to exploitation by political interests. When Malaysians accused Singapore of appropriating yusheng as its own heritage recently, they were apparently under the impression, like many other countries, that the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage could grant a country exclusive rights for a cultural property, when in fact the legal instrument was only designed to raise awareness in safeguarding traditional expressions, of social or spiritual practices, against tides of globalisation.

Going beyond the ‘Chinese’ identity in Singapore

An issue of cultural affiliation was similarly at play when the idea of a ‘food museum’ was mooted in Singapore’s Parliament two years ago (incidentally by MP Baey Yam Keng, who has not been much appreciated by netizens last week for his defending of a PRC scholar that described certain Singaporeans as behaving like ‘dogs’). When one talks about ‘why our Hainanese chicken rice is different from that found in Hainan Island’, it might be interpreted as the usual rhetoric propagated in the last decade on how Singapore’s citizens are descendants of immigrants and therefore can be at home in two worlds of an essentially same culture, or how immigration is the norm. Highlighting such ancestral links is very different from, say, highlighting unique creations of a nation as a melting pot.

Hence one needs to be careful with the representation of heritage. When French gastronomy was inscribed in 2010 as an item of intangible heritage in the global representative list of UNESCO, it also implied the privileging of a particular living culture and the suppressing of local identities or minority ethnic identities in France. This is something that can also become a sore point in Singapore, considering the issue of how people of different ethnic groups should ‘eat together’. (If I have to make a personal choice for the national dish, I would probably pick mee goreng – it is nothing fancy, but a form of truly syncretic culture. Then again I wouldn’t like so much tourist attention that it may soon come with a higher price tag like satay; let the tourists go for their chilli crab or fishhead curry instead.)

Cultural landscape as new trend in heritage protection

Singapore has little urgency for looking into intangible heritage anyway. The very creation of the Intangible Heritage Convention was motivated by the need for heritage lists to be ‘balanced’, considering that heritage of countries in Africa for instance is embodied in its performing arts, rituals and oral literature rather than in monumental architecture like in Europe. In Singapore, the urgent task now, considering the dominance of architecture and urban landscape in heritage protection, would be to take a cue from the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), which has recognised and protected cultural landscapes since 1992, with artistic and religious aspects included in consideration. Hence sites like the Bukit Brown Cemetery can also be considered as a special form of ‘cultural landscape’, exemplifying the idea of culture and nature being in harmony and not in opposition to each other.

In terms of historical and aesthetic interest, the site is also significant as a balance against Western monumental architecture of the British colonial period which dominates Singapore’s historic urban districts. In that sense, the site has universal values in cultural significance not only for Singapore but the world as a whole. It is the biggest Chinese cemetery in the world as such outside China, it is material evidence of itself, its authenticity makes it worth more than all the museums on history or heritage that may be created on a whim.

Balance between local and universal values of heritage

Whereas a site like Sun Yat Sen Villa may represent the history of modern China or the universal values of democracy, Bukit Brown Cemetery should be seen as reflecting the spread of the Chinese diaspora in this region in terms of cultural and aesthetic significance, and from a historical perspective, as representing the blood, sweat and tears of the local community and local personalities that helped to build Singapore, not to mention it being a site of spiritual values. We must be meticulous in identifying such local and universal values, not let the values of the site be equated with a vague ‘Chineseness’.

Bureaucrats often think they know what heritage is worth, but they also lack foresight. Places like Boat Quay were almost demolished in the name of modernisation, but look how much tourist money such quaint architecture and abandoned warehouses along the Singapore River have brought. For the longest time, the island of Sentosa has been developed as a paradise for tourists, but it is really the tropical charms of places like the Botanic Gardens or Pulau Ubin that make Singapore worth a longer stay or repeated visits. Of course, tourism is not the basic premise in heritage protection. Kreta Ayer (‘Niu Che Shui’) or ‘Chinatown’ is now good for tourists who are not bothered with whether the food they are eating is northern or southern Chinese, but it has completely lost its cultural character which used to be identified with the Cantonese community there.


Why do we need cultural heritage at all? Moralists would say it is a duty to our forefathers or to humanity. Social scientists would say it helps us to maintain our sense of identity and affirm our cultural values. Historians and conservators look at artefacts and monuments and they see historical and aesthetic values. Tour operators and government officials look at it and see economic values. Politicians may decide to see its value in winning trust of the people or in claiming affiliations. Educationists would see its importance in engaging the senses through material forms and natural settings, and in teaching respect for cultural diversity. Human rights activists may even argue that heritage tangible or intangible is also a form of cultural rights.

One thing for sure, authentic heritage once gone is lost forever. If one may be allowed to conclude on a moralistic note here, I would say: Don’t destroy heritage, don’t let our humanity go to the dogs. So far, I have not yet touched on the environmental issue of sustainability: Reckless urban development and removal of the soil in our natural landscape will only invite more flooding in our island when the rain pours.

(First published in Facebook on 26 Feb 2012)

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The Roots of a Nation and the Question of Value (It’s not only about Bukit Brown!)

For too long a time, our idea of ‘heritage’ has been devalued, removed from our lives and entrusted instead to the market forces, commodified for tourist consumption – a case in point being the displacement of residents and traditional trades from Chinatown, or the substitution of real kampungs with a replica called Malay Village. Where economic or use value lies in future housing development, a multi-religious site like Bidadari Cemetery is simply cleared away despite historical values being identified.

For too long a time, the public may have presumed that heritage for preservation needs to be of national importance and initiative has to come from the authorities. But any such impression clearly has to change this time with the case of Bukit Brown, as there are not only initiatives by groups like the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), Nature Society (Singapore) and Asia Paranormal Investigators to preserve the site, but also other visible efforts by individuals and independent groups researching, networking and information-sharing on the social media, without depending on the National Heritage Board for interest and directions.

Social Value of the Communities in Heritage Protection

The principles of a people-focused approach to heritage protection are certainly not new in the world. Dating back to 1979, the Burra Charter (the Australia ICOMOS Guidelines for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance) has referred to ‘social value’ as part of the cultural significance at the heart of decision-making for heritage. The 1999 version of the charter refers to cultural significance as “aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations”. The 2005 UK Strategy for Sustainable Development not only discusses the importance of protecting natural heritage but also emphasises on the power of community action in shaping the environment against threats of climate change.

Incidentally, there is a practice in the UK, across 50 per cent of its region, of making ‘local lists’ of heritage sites which are not on the existing statutory lists, and this has drawn much community involvement and interest. Perhaps the time is ripe for such practice to be adapted as a model for truly ground-up and pre-emptive initiatives towards protection of heritage reflecting the history and identity of different ethnic communities in Singapore. One needs not always be fixated on the idea of gazetting monuments of ‘national importance’, which may unnecessarily drag us down with contestations of how to measure individuals’ contributions to a nationalist history.

I would like to argue here for the value of a cemetery like Bukit Brown as heritage site from a combination of different angles, beyond the aesthetic or historic values of individual tombs which many have already elaborated on. It has to be emphasised that preservation of such a place of memory or sacred space cannot be replaced by mere documentation. Since there are some people who would suggest that building highways and houses are more important in Singapore than preserving heritage, it is also important that we weigh different considerations against one another. They would try to convince us that such course of action will indeed be necessary for our common good in the long run, while we need to argue why heritage is important for our society, and why we may need ‘standard operating procedure’ in studying any heritage as ‘public good’, like what Singapore Heritage Society is advocating in its position paper.

Intrinsic Value versus Instrumental Value

There comes a time when we as individuals or even an entire nation may need to do some soul-searching on our value system, and one useful way to start would be to make a distinction between what we see as intrinsic value and what we see as instrumental value in our daily life. An example of intrinsic value is the aesthetic value of a good piece of music we enjoy as listeners or musicians, whereas instrumental value may be what a rock singer sees in the music when he is concerned with the fame and fortune that it can bring. Environmentalists who want to protect the biodiversity of plants and animals in the world would be looking at their intrinsic value as life forms, whereas some scientists may be more interested in the knowledge they may provide for technological advances.

To cite something closer to home, intrinsic value is what we see in human life itself, or in our relationship with our families and friends, whereas money is what we should rightly see in terms of instrumental value only, for unless you have a terrible fetish for the texture of dollar bills and coins, its value is only manifested, say, when you buy food to feed yourself and your family. Similarly, we should by right think of instrumental value of cars and iphones in terms of using them for the convenience and joy in spending time with our loved ones, rather than value in the material of these objects themselves. So there may be something fundamentally warped in our society, if let’s say we as a nation are all thinking like salesmen of cars and iphones: if, instead of thinking of how to produce such goods to improve the quality of human life, we are thinking of how the country should produce human population in order to feed the economy of cars and iphones!

Indeed there may be something fundamentally wrong with our value system, if some of us treasure the value of our housing property more than the lives of old folks who need a shelter, like what the controversial news from Woodlands suggested last week. What will be left of our humanity then? In fact, if we want to talk about the ‘function’ of heritage, we can say that it is not about the aesthetic pleasures that a painting or a calligraphy may give us per se, but rather about the social and cultural values that it represents to us, such as family bonding, kindness and filial piety, as traditions passed down from generation to generation. Coming back to the example of Bukit Brown Cemetery, we can say it is not just the intrinsic value of exquisite carvings and decorations per se that we have to preserve, but also the cultural tradition that is embodied in them, and the entire setting of rituals in paying respect to one’s ancestor, in a landscape set apart from the bustle of daily life, that one hopes the next generation can continue to experience. This is not to forget the belief of a tomb as a final resting place, in a setting that is one with nature – a belief which is respected universally, and hence transcends all communities.

Cemeteries therefore can serve as heritage sites to provide a sense of history and humanity that is educational for the younger generation, as they represent our shared values as citizens of the nation and of the world. One can still further elaborate on this point, but for now it would do good to remind ourselves that the cars that are shining on the highway today will soon depreciate into scrap metal while new cars are pushed into the market, and money generated from property investments will keep changing hands from one stranger to the next, but cultural and natural heritage mishandled in our generation will be forever lost and irreplaceable.

(First published on Facebook, 6 Feb 2012)

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