Viewpoint: Singapore Heritage Society

The Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) is deeply disappointed with the government’s decision to build a road that cuts into Bukit Brown cemetery because they believe Bukit Brown to have great heritage value, and deserves to be preserved and not destroyed. Bukit Brown cemetery is the largest Chinese cemetery outside China. With approximately 100,000 graves it is a remarkable historical space,
even in international terms.

First, Bukit Brown has great heritage value because it is a space specific to the region or Singapore. It tells us
who we are and where we come from. Bukit Brown is unique to the region. For example, the name Kopi Sua (羔盃山) is in Hokkien and
uses Chinese characters not used in standard Mandarin. Even in Hokkien- speaking countries like Taiwan, a different transliteration of
‘coffee’ is used.

Another example is in the tomb design and feng shui orientation of the gravestones. The aesthetics and design of these gravestones are specific to the Straits Settlement, though many of those interred here were from Southern China. The use of Sikh guard statues to watch over these graves, for instance, is unique and anchors our sense of identity and belonging firmly to the region.

Next, Bukit Brown provides a historical connectivity to the region. For example, Tan Kim Ching who is buried at Bukit Brown was the first Asian member of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society as well as the Kapitan China of the Straits Chinese community and was appointed as Consul-General for Siam in the Straits Settlements. Also, Bukit Brown is important to the mapping of social networks and family trees. Family relations recorded on tombstones include females who are often left out of official genealogies, thus enabling more thorough genealogies to be constructed. As such, buried individuals at Bukit Brown, with diverse links to other places in the Straits Settlements, hold significant historical meaning for Singapore.

Third, Bukit Brown’s heritage value may also be found in the living practices of people who continue to pay their respects to their ancestors in ceremonial rituals, offerings, as well as highly personalized ways. Such sacredness is embedded in the living habits of people. Similarly, preserving large number of graves of prominent pioneers will enable younger generations to make the link between abstract names and real and personal histories, given that many the local streets and roads are named after pioneers interred at Bukit Brown.

Evidently, Bukit Brown is valuable to the nation as a collection of cultural artefacts that so accurately portrays the soul of Singapore, the
hard work done by our forefathers. Though the construction of the dual four lane road will only affect 5% of the graves, it is a large number nevertheless. To remove these 5000 graves will be to erase our traditional culture and customs, to forget our forefather’s and history of this nation, and to say that the present and future has no place for the past.