The Awakening of Bukit Brown

by Russell Ang

For the past three and a half years or so, as I travel to and from school, I would notice this cemetery, flanked by large bungalows, along Lornie Road.  It used to intrigue me as to how the occupants of these private houses seem unfazed by their proximity to the cemetery.  Little would I expect myself to be involved in two projects (Social Studies & Geography) back-to-back that would unravel the mystery that I always have about this cemetery, which I came to know of as Bukit Brown Cemetery.

My experiences dealing with death has by far been limited to one of the saddest moments of my life, when my maternal grandmother passed away in 2010.  She was laid to rest at Mandai Crematorium.  My knowledge of the customs and traditions of a Chinese burial was limited to what my parents told me, till this meaningful and eye-opening project.

The two projects on Bukit Brown have helped me to become a better person in numerous ways.  For one, I have overcome my attitudinal barrier towards cemeteries.  I no longer viewed cemeteries as a place encased in a light fog, with strange eerie sounds.  The numerous visits to Bukit Brown have removed the misconceptions that I had about Chinese cemeteries and burial practices alike.  In fact, what struck me most was that save for the tombstones and the tarmac roads that were laid for the convenience of Mankind, it is not surprising if a first-time visitor to Bukit Brown would mistaken it as a nature reserve, with its lush greenery, gentle slopes and lots of creepy-crawlies.

In addition, besides acquiring knowledge on the significance of gravesites and its accompanying customs and symbolism through sweat and toll — losing lots of perspiration through on-site research, depleting brain cells coming up with the handbook, board game and blog, and even arguing over what is best, I have come to appreciate the selfless philanthropic deeds of some of the pioneers of Singapore that are interred in Bukit Brown.  Their acts of altruism for Mankind will perhaps put youngsters like us, who more often than not, in our paper chase, overlook the importance of humanity in society.

At the same time, the two projects on Bukit Brown have given me exposure to facets which I would be unlikely to involve myself otherwise and enabled me to gain new insights and challenge my assumptions.  For instance, at the hype over the future of Bukit Brown Cemetery, when various interest groups and the public were contesting against its development, together with my Social Studies team members, we were at the Toa Payoh suburbs interviewing the general public response towards the government’s decision to develop Bukit Brown.

Contrary to my initial predictions that middle-aged locals would be more traditional and would not be supportive of sacrificing heritage for development, the street interviews have challenged my stereotyping of this group of people.  In fact, most interviewees, in their 40s or 50s, supported the Government’s move as they felt that housing is an immediate need and a foreseeable problem for the population in the future.  Much to our disappointment, most youngsters, like us, were not even aware of this hot debate over Bukit Brown, or the implications of it on a macro-scale.

Personally, I felt that the Bukit Brown saga has brought to light some issues facing society today.  On a positive note, the civil society can take pride that their voice is heard, as evidenced by the construction of an eco-bridge to minimize impact, an act which I feel is a compromise on the part of the Government.  From this project, it is quite apparent that active citizenry is gaining steam in Singapore, just compare the reactions of the public towards the development of Bidadari Cemetery less than a decade ago, and the current debate over Bukit Brown.  Additionally, as a result of the Bukit Brown saga, people have begun to pay more attention to the remaining evidence of our heritage.

Conversely, the Bukit Brown saga has also brought to surface some thorny issues in our country — a waning feel of social connectedness in our increasingly, segmented society.  Notwithstanding the aggressive ‘fight’ to save Bukit Brown put up by various interest groups and members of the public, regretfully, most people in Singapore are still indifferent towards social issues, especially those pertaining to conservation of heritage.  Also, with the population set to increase with the influx of foreigners, space crunch is another major problem.  Unless the urban planners can think of providing alternative housing, perhaps going underground, sacrificing heritage for development is just a matter of time.

It is just unfortunate that development in the 21st century has claimed Bukit Brown as one of its first victims.