By Hoe Yeen Nie
SINGAPORE : It is likely that the proposed new road that cuts through Bukit Brown cemetery will get a new alignment.
Channel NewsAsia understands that the road could bypass a cluster of graves belonging to key historical figures.
In September, plans for the road triggered an uproar among some Singaporeans, who said the cemetery should be preserved.
But authorities said the road can’t wait, as congestion in the area needs immediate relief.
The silence of Bukit Brown cemetery, located in central Singapore, will soon be broken by the roar of machines.
It is expected that the dual four-lane road will slice through a portion of the 80-hectare site, affecting 5 per cent of the 100,000 graves.
Construction will begin in 2013.
In land-strapped Singapore, there are very few places immune to the forces of development. And a central theme in the Singapore story is the constant tussle between land for the living and space for the dead. Since 1965 for instance, 156 cemeteries have been cleared for development, according to figures from the National Environment Agency.
One can also see that tension played out in Bukit Brown, which itself houses many graves shifted here from private burial sites that had been acquired by the government throughout the 1900s.
Between 1922 and 1973, Bukit Brown was the only public Chinese cemetery in Singapore, and received the graves of many who were re-interred from other cemeteries.
Among those moved here were graves of prominent men like Tan Kim Cheng and Cheang Hong Lim.
Charles Goh, an amateur historian, said: “It is not just a cemetery of dead people. It is a cemetery of the early Singaporeans that came, and in a way built up to what we are now. If you understand the heritage value, you will say, let’s not do it.”
The proposed road alignment led to concerns over the future of the graves.
But according to Mr Goh, who is in the construction business, survey pegs in the area now suggest that the alignment has changed.
The Land Transport Authority’s original plan indicated a route that would require many iconic tombs to be cleared. These are located on a hill known commonly as Hill Three.
But the construction corridor appears to have shifted closer towards Lornie Road, raising the possibility that the graves of Ang Seah Im, Tan Kheam Hock and many others will be spared – for now.
The construction corridor measures about 130 metres wide, and delineates the area needed to be cleared for construction purposes. The actual width of the road will be about 40 metres, and – according to Mr Goh – appears to skirt around a few of the hills in the area. In response to queries by Channel NewsAsia, the Land Transport Authority said the final alignment will only be fixed in February.
Authorities said nothing has been fixed. But the news is of little comfort for Tan Seok Bee.
The grave of her grandfather-in-law, Tan Boon Hak, will have to go.
He was a wealthy timber merchant, and the cousin of noted philanthropist Tan Kah Kee. He died in April 1923, and was one of the first to be buried at the cemetery.
Ms Tan said: “He stays here, in a good place, under a good shade, so his descendents all have good jobs. So it is best that we still keep him here. (If) you suddenly move him, he may not be happy.”
The controversy over Bukit Brown isn’t just about a road.
In 40 years’ time, the rest of the cemetery and the surrounding land, about 200 hectares, will be cleared for a new housing estate.
Plans for the future town, which will take up the 200-hectare site, have been contained in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s masterplans since 1998. The road will eventually serve the new town.
Land south of Bukit Brown, near the old Police Academy, will be developed sooner, in about 10 to 15 years’ time.
Conservationists object to this, saying the area is a carbon sink, and an important feeding ground for birds.
Along with heritage groups, they want the land to be preserved.
Dr Ho Hua Chew, a member of the executive committee of the Nature Society, “People’s needs can change. They may value the wooded area more, the cultural heritage more 20, 30 years down the road. So why destroy that option for the younger generation? Leave it open.”
Dr Terence Chong, member of the executive committee at the Singapore Heritage Society, said: “It is because we agree with the idea that land is scarce that we think it is so important not to just think in the old paradigm. I think some concessions should be made for heritage concerns.”
Dr Chong added: “Right now, the rest of Bukit Brown has a window of about 30 years. They are not specific because they want the flexibility to decide depending on future needs. This means that the fate of the cemetery is not assured. As such, gazetting parts of the cemetery as heritage parks to ensure preservation regardless of changing circumstances is crucial.”
Authorities said the road will go ahead. But they are open to ideas on what to do with the remaining space, and have started discussions with various groups.
For Ms Tan, all this talk is far removed from her family’s immediate concern.
They have started preparations to exhume their ancestor’s grave, knowing that the Qing Ming Festival next year will be their last at Bukit Brown.