290 people join effort; new advisory panel to include representatives from heritage groups
Work to record some 5,000 graves at Bukit Brown may have started more than a week ago, but the exercise has now grown from an initial 10 to 290 field workers, and with new technological tools to boot.
A new historian has also come on board to record the oral histories of the area’s former residents. These, when compiled, will be available at the National Library from 2013.
The Government yesterday also unveiled a new advisory committee for the project. The 11-member panel comprises representatives from government agencies and heritage groups. Its chairman is Mr Ng Lang, chief executive of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
The committee is there to help the documentation team gain access to the various interest groups when needed.
The authorities, meanwhile, are looking beyond heritage experts to cemetery and Chinese cultural advisers, concerning the graves that a new road might cut into. It is understood this would enable the Government to find a path that would leave the least impact on the graves.
Such efforts to balance preservation and redevelopment in this new consultative climate are unprecedented – something civil servants and civic society both acknowledge. When Kwong Hou Sua and Bidadari cemeteries were dug up between 2001 and 2009, precious little of their records was stored.
In Bukit Brown’s case, however, the body of knowledge about its graves has grown with time.
Yesterday, the cemetery’s appointed documentarian, Dr Hui Yew-Foong, announced that the exercise would now include collecting the global positioning system points of the affected graves, to allow a three-dimensional mapping of the cemetery.
He was also given $250,000 by the URA to do the job, and work began on Dec 1.
For the two former cemeteries, there was no budget, and attempts to record its graves – if any – were done on a smaller scale, said Dr Hui, 39, who worked on documenting Kwong Hou Sua for a year in 2008.
The anthropologist said of his efforts back then: ‘It was amateurish. I was still trying things out.’
Over the last three months, the Government has also helped to open doors for him at its various ministries for the documentation work.
‘If I want maps, I get it. Information is available,’ Dr Hui said.
Significantly, the state has put forward Minister of State for National Development, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, who led the rail corridor talks, to clarify the Government’s position on Bukit Brown.
He has, in turn, drawn the top brass from various government agencies – including the URA and Land Transport Agency (LTA) – to meet and field questions from both interest groups and the media about the area’s redevelopment plans.
Dr Chua Ai Lin, a historian and committee member of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), recalled one such meeting last month where five SHS members, including herself, met more than 20 ministry officials to talk about Bukit Brown’s future.
The meeting lasted over two hours. ‘We asked them so many questions… Nothing like this has ever happened before,’ she said.
Officials said they also monitor closely online exchanges about Bukit Brown.
Mr Tan himself often posts comments, and replies to questions from heritage activists, on Facebook.
Responding to The Sunday Times’ queries about these new channels of dialogue, the minister said that while it is true that such efforts were carried out to a lesser degree for other cemeteries, he hopes the Bukit Brown issue can ‘refresh’ the perspectives of both the Government, and cemetery and heritage conservationists.
‘My colleagues in URA and MND (Ministry of National Development) share a similar belief in the importance of preserving our heritage and history… This effort with Bukit Brown Cemetery is important,’ he said.
According to survey data from LTA, the proposed road may cut into the cemetery’s hilly areas, where the remains of many of the country’s pioneers lie.
Many who oppose the road works have argued that these should be kept for their historical and educational value.
Mr Charles Goh, 43, a cemetery guide, said it would be impossible if one had to choose one pioneer over another to be moved.
‘If you curve (the road) left, you affect Nee Soon and Chong Pang. Curve right, and it is Kheam Hock and maybe Eng Neo.
‘So, how do you decide who to dig up?’
LTA said it is unable confirm the road layout as its engineers are still investigating the area.
While it looks like the Government is making major concessions this time to make sure it meets the expectations of the various interest groups, some political observers and heritage leaders put all the effort down to a matter of public relations.
Law professor Eugene Tan said because the decision to develop Bukit Brown seemed to be ‘firmly made’ when it was announced, consultations have struck many as a case of ‘damage control’.
And while its public relations may have improved, the fact is that the Government continues to ‘arrogate to itself decisions on key policies’, said Mr Derek da Cunha, a political commentator.
Striking a more sympathetic tone, Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore), said he found the Government to be sincere in balancing development and heritage pressures.
‘To be fair to the planners, they have really agonised over this.’
Bukit Brown will be a ‘test case of sorts’ for state and civil society relations, said sociologist Tan Ern Ser.
In the end, he said, the issue has to be decided ‘by the people, in partnership with the Government, and for the people’.