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A recent controversy has erupted over plans to transform one of Singapore’s historic cemeteries, Bukit Brown cemetery, into a residential district. The plans begin with construction of a new dual four-lane road through the site, announced by Land Transport Authority (LTA) Singapore on September 12th 2011.
The announcement was met with a wave of protests from conservationists and cultural heritage advocates, who believe that the decision would lead to an irrevocable loss of historic value and natural wildlife.
Located in the North-East of Singapore, the Bukit Brown cemetery is one of few remaining lush green vegetation areas in the country. Affectionately known to the local community as Coffee Hill, Bukit Brown cemetery (“bukit” meaning hill in Malay) was a Chinese public cemetery established in the early 20th century, named after its former owner George Henry Brown who arrived in Singapore in the 1840s.
After acquiring the site in 1919, municipals opened a cemetery for local Chinese communities. Cultural heritage is a topic close to many hearts. In land-scarce Singapore, which has embraced a relentless drive to develop and modernise, little has stood in the way of development.
Prioritising land use for infrastructure development has meant that many historical landmarks, such as the colonial-styled National Library, have been demolished. Singapore’s hard-nosed decisions to implement urban and economic imperatives over preservationist impulses have always been a thorny issue with locals, who feel that it is eroding the country’s identity.
According to Wall Street Journal Southeast Asia, Singapore Heritage Society spokesman Terence Chong said, “Bukit Brown serves as a potent reminder that our nation arose not only on the backs of the rich, but on the faceless ghosts of our collective familial past, thus enriching the tapestry of the Singapore story.”
A resting place for many prominent early migrants, the cemetery resonates with much of Singapore’s early history. Lee Hoon Leong, grandfather of Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was among those interred at the cemetery. In an attempt to assuage public outcries, LTA has reiterated that the road will only affect 5% of the 100, 000 graves in the 0.86km2 cemetery.
This is not the first time that the Bukit Brown cemetery has faced threats of being cleared for redevelopment. In the 1970s, the site was granted reprieve. Now, however, its fate has been sealed: Singapore authorities have confirmed that the development of the future estate in Bukit Brown will take place in 30 to 40 years’ time.
In the interim, the dual road will be constructed to ease traffic during peak periods. Traffic along one of the adjacent roads to Bukit Brown is predicted to increase between 20% to 30% by 2020. Currently, peak periods see 6,000 to 7, 000 vehicles travelling on these roads.
What was surprising, noted Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Singapore deputy director, Zulkiflee Mohd Zaki, was that no one came forward to object the Bukit Brown Concept Plans and Master Plans for redevelopment that were displayed for feedback in 2001 and 2008 respectively, reported the Straits Times.
The furore only begun after LTA confirmed that construction plans for the new road will begin in 2013. As Singapore’s population continues to expand rapidly due to a growing number of expatriates and foreigners relocating to the country, the government’s decisions toward prioritising land use will come under greater scrutiny.
The dilemma remains: to fulfil short term practical needs or to cultivate a long term sense of belonging for a country with little historic sentiment?