~ By C C Y ~
Central to the discussion surrounding the maintenance of Bukit Brown in its unspoilt state is the question of how to best use space in Singapore, particularly one that is not high-rise steel and concrete. Skeptics of maintaining Bukit Brown in its natural condition argue that the land can be put to better use. Such positions clearly underplay the fact that a green Bukit Brown benefits Singapore by retaining rainwater, lowering ambient temperature, and preserving biodiversity. Bukit Brown does so much better than the twenty-two golf courses that take up 2.2 percent of our land and 88 percent of all recreational space in Singapore ever can.
But leaving aside environmental issues for a moment, I believe that conserving Bukit Brown can serve to celebrate and promote Singapore to both Singaporeans and visitors alike. A Bukit Brown in its natural glory can connect Singaporeans to the spirit that shaped who we are as a nation and introduce visitors to a Singapore that is much more than simply steel-reinforced concrete, asphalt, and glass. Of course, many may wonder who in their right mind would visit a cemetery. Here, I would like to suggest that having a cemetery as a major site of historical -- and potentially tourist -- interest is very common internationally, even in cities that otherwise clamour for space.
Strong precedent to preserve cemeteries
Just north of the causeway, Malacca is proud of its Bukit Cina and Penang, its Jewish and Protestant cemeteries, just as Tokyo openly extols its Aoyama and Yanaka cemeteries. Few would think to destroy the catacombs in Rome or Paris, just as most would not consider constructing roads through and buildings over Pere-Lachaise, Montparnasse, Montmatre, Brompton, Highgate, or Kensal Green. Los Angeles has Hollywood Forever Cemetery, New Orleans has Lafayette and St. Louis, while New York City keeps Marble Cemetery, Trinity Church Cemetery, and the African Burial Ground National Monument on Manhattan. Even land-starved Hong Kong Island has its Happy Valley Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery. The list can go on and on.
Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
These spaces help define the urban and social landscape in which they belong, and help shape the character of their cities. Locals go to these cemeteries for walks and to physically connect with the past, children visit these places as part of school tours to learn about where their cities and even countries came from. Visitors from out of town make special effort to see these cemeteries because they are an indelible part of the experience of visiting these cities. From “Interview with a Vampire” to “Easy Rider” and “The Da Vinci Code”, many of these cemeteries have been immortalised on the silver screen. Aoyama Cemetery is even a traditional location for Japanese families to picnic and view the cherry blossoms each spring.
Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo
Inside of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris
Land price argument is flawed
If prices are an indicator of the relative scarcity of land, then many of the cities mentioned earlier have as much a concern for the availability of space as Singapore, if not more. According to the credit-/debt analysis firm Credit Sesame, land in Singapore cost an average of US$1,561 per square foot as of 2011. This is less than the US$3,287 per square foot in Paris and the US$1,590 per square foot in London, but more than the US$1,090 in New York City for the same year. The same study lists a square foot in the middle income Taikoo Shing area in Hong Kong as going for US$1,118. In comparison, average land prices in Tokyo stood at US$2,080 per square foot in 2008, the year of the Global Financial Crisis. In none of these other urban areas were there calls to pave over their historic cemeteries.
Offering a cheaper attraction
That Singapore is able to spend substantial funds on creating spaces for recreation strongly suggests that we can well afford Bukit Brown. Gardens-by-the-Bay cost S$800 million to construct, while Marina Bay Sands took S$8 billion to erect and Resorts World Singapore, S$6.59 billion. The collection from the Belitung Shipwreck came at a price of US$32 million. The purchase and exhibition of a dinosaur family from the United States by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research has a tag of at least S$46 million. Bukit Brown may prove no less an attraction for visitors than these other locations. It can even offer a more accommodating and affordable to place visit as an open, public space.
Has a unique selling point
Among Bukit Brown’s draws is the fact that it is one of the largest Chinese burial grounds in the world outside China. It is unique in featuring Overseas Chinese, including members of Sun Yat-sen’s Tongmenghui and prominent individuals in the modern history of Southeast Asia. The intricate tomb designs found at Bukit Brown are particular to this part of the world. Bukit Brown also includes the communal graves of many who perished during the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation, possibly including some killed during the Japanese Imperial Army’s brutal Operation Sook Ching. Compared against Singapore’s other expenditures on new recreational facilities, protecting Bukit Brown costs almost nothing. Its cultural and historical significance as well as natural beauty provides an extra texture to Singapore that buildings and artificial landscapes just cannot.
Saving Bukit Brown simply makes sense. Beyond its importance to the natural environment and biodiversity in Singapore, Bukit Brown may be a key to sustainable development on our increasingly urbanised nation. This comes together with its significance to Singapore history and heritage, which can help bind future generations to our shared past and root them in Singapore, supplementing longstanding efforts at national education and nation-building. Doing so with generic modern buildings and artificial landscaping tends to be much more difficult. In addition, a natural and protected Bukit Brown can prove inviting to visitors, giving them an experience that is different from what is available elsewhere on the island -- it is truly and uniquely Singapore.
Conserving Bukit Brown is neither difficult nor expensive to accomplish. Do the right thing. Push to protect Bukit Brown.
Colin Dobrin, “America’s Top Cities: Cheapest Real Estate in the World?” - 26 September 2011
Shibani Mahtani, “State-of-the-Art Gardening, Singapore-Style”, The Wall Street Journal, 10 March 2012
“Las Vegas Sands says Singapore casino opening delayed”, AsiaOne Travel, 08 July 2009
“Genting says integrated resorts bill could rise to S$6.59b”, Channel News Asia, 19 February 2009
“Sentosa Proceeds to Buy 9th Century Treasure: New Maritime Heritage Foundation Set Up”, Welcome to Sentosa, 08 April 2005
“Generous mystery donor makes $8 million dino deal possible”, AsiaOne, 07 September 2011
To find out more, you can visit SOS Bukit Brown (and its facebook page) and Bukit Brown Cemetery (and its facebook page). Information on weekend tours of Bukit Brown conducted by volunteers are available from All Things Bukit Brown (and its facebook page).
You can also join the petition to save Bukit Brown at the SOS Bukit Brown website and individually write to your MP asking to save Bukit Brown, or demand for the public release of details surrounding the LTA's road-building plans, hydrology studies, biodiversity impact assessment, and other related evaluations, none of which have been made fully available to the public.