A Personal Reflection: Bukit Brown and what it means for all our pasts and our futures

By BG (NS) Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister of State (Manpower), one of the two Ministers of State (National Development) and is one of the five Members of Parliament (MPs) for the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (Marine Parade GRC).

I was interviewed by The Straits Times and LianHe ZaoBao on Bukit Brown. These are my thoughts on the matter.

What it means to me

Our history and heritage is precious. They are anchors to our past even as we look forward to our future. It matters because in some shape and form, it makes us who we are and not just any global citizen. There is something distinctive and special in being Singapore and Singaporean. Our past belongs to us and no one else. For me, it is this sense of our nation that makes it all worth fighting for.

I miss the old National Library. The architecture does not mean much to me but it was a place where I spent many a holiday working as a librarian, sorting out library cards and slotting books back on the shelves. I miss Bidadari Cemetery and its wonderful sculptures, as I would its present wide open expanse where I bring my kids to run and cycle. I have fond memories of the old National Theatre where my mom brought me to watch the inter-school drama competitions. I remember the old open-air cinema in Holland Village as I do the drive-in in Jurong. One of the earliest memories I have of yueh char kway was in the Margaret Drive Hawker Center. Loved the way they pulled the dough, fold it, and repeat it again. And the final deft press with the single chopstick before it slides into the hot vat of oil. I know this well as I had practiced it often with my plastacine at home! The Hawker Center was just pulled down. That same store had been there all these years. I do not know where they have gone to.

These are our memories because we lived through it. But it will not be my children’s memories. They will create their own. I have a sense and feel of the images and experiences of the past but it would not be the same as how my parents felt as they lived through their years. And the cycle continues with new memories created and old ones stored and become etched in time. Some will fade, some will endure. And we need to keep what we can. Physical markers are important because they help us remember our past. Original markers would be best. But can markers exist in different forms?

Wearing different hats

When I came to Ministry of National Development, I asked for a brief on our efforts on this front. Bukit Brown was one issue I wanted to understand better. I wanted to know if we had thought it through. Like many, I wondered if we could have kept more of our past and not just give them up in the name of progress and development.

I have come to realise that my colleagues in Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) care a great deal about these things. More than many give them credit for. I respect them for it. In our earlier years, our priorities had been to quickly develop, get the economy right, house our people etc. But we also realised that we were losing some of our precious past. The conservation arm of URA was set up to ensure that we tread carefully. We have conserved more than 7000 buildings and have earmarked areas like Kampong Glam, Little India and Chinatown for conservation. There are many other areas and buildings where we have also deliberately left undeveloped. But URA also have the uneviable responsibility of planning for our future while preserving our past. How do we strike a balance?

Some have chided us for not taking a holistic all round view.

We have an entire country squeezed into just over 700+ sq km. We need to decide how best to allocate land to live in, play and work, land for catchment and defence needs, and how we preserve our environment, heritage and history. Few countries, if any, need to make these choices. They all have a hinterland to shift things to.

We need to also look ahead and project our needs. I have taken a look at our 2025 plans and beyond till the middle of this century. The Bukit Brown area would be required for future developments. We will defer the bulk of Bukit Brown Cemetery till much later. Perhaps 20 years and beyond. In the next 10-15 years, we would develop the southern part, where the Police Academy presently stands, as part of the extension of the Toa Payoh area.

We do not only wear the Bukit Brown Cemetery hat, but the many other hats of our present and our future. And yes, we also wear the hat that cherish our history, heritage and environment.

Why the road? Where was the consultation?

The immediate concern, which had been building up, is the traffic needs of the outer ring road. This is the series of roads (Still-Eunos Link-Bartley-Braddel-Lornie-Adam-Farrer-Queensway) which from British days serve as an alternate bypass to the city. We have been broadening all the roads. Lornie is a present 7-laner (and narrower lanes at that ie. not your typical width lanes). It is now a bottle-neck at peak hours and traffic will increase by a projected 20-30% by 2020.

We had been deferring work for the last few years to determine how best to meet the needs. We did not consult because it would not be appropriate as it could have implications on existing houses along the way. Land development is market sensitive and it impacts on people’s house values or if assymetric, people could profiteer. We are not able to discuss some of these plans openly.

We decided that we should not eat into our nature reserve. Bukit Timah and our Central Catchment are two particularly precious tracts of our environmental heritage. It is already precarious being too close to the road. Encroachment would cause the forest to slowly die more than the number of metres taken up. (And to reiterate. Golf courses are part of the re-development plan going forward. A road via the golf course will go nowhere unless you bulldoze through the nature reserve. In any case, it is within the catchment zone and heavy development cannot take place.)

We explored the range of options. Building a viaduct entails much foundation works and will require space to build. This would be the same if we had done that in Bukit Brown Cemetery.

Tunneling would seem the most logical option. I thought so too. But it is not. MRT tunnels are small compared to what would be needed for 8 lanes. It’d need to be 30+ metres deep to be viable. And it would be a technological challenge. All our other underground roads are cut and cover meaning we dig the hole and then cover to form a tunnel. Boring a tunnel for 8 lanes is not something we are able to do.

We finally concluded that the road via Bukit Brown Cemetery was the best option. It was not an overnight decision. We spent the last few years working out possibilities as we widened the rest of the other roads.

What about our heritage?

We were well aware of the implications and the value of our nature reserve on one side and the history captured within Bukit Brown Cemetery on the other. It was not an easy decision. It’d have been far easier to defer it and not do anything.

When we finally decided that it was to be a road through Bukit Brown Cemetery, my URA colleagues began to discuss with the main stakeholders before the announcement of the road plan. They had discussed with some members of Singapore Heritage Society, met a few personalities passionate about the place and importantly, to talk to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. We wanted to settle some of these broadly before bringing in formally a larger group to be the advisory committee. It was not about whether to build the road or not but to see how best we can document this part of our heritage, with emphases on the area affected by the road and a longer term effort for the rest of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

This is a great opportunity to bring together different groups to not only document, but to see how best to raise greater awareness of the history that is captured within Bukit Brown Cemetery. As I mentioned earlier, the bulk of Bukit Brown Cemetery would not be developed for awhile. Like what we are doing with our Rail Corridor, we can discuss considerations to be factored in when development does take place (again, it is many years hence and may be premature in any case). In the interim, we can talk about what we may want to do in the next few decades. And what we may wish to do with the place in the next few years.

Bukit Brown Cemetery need not be a place for the dead. It should be a place for the living. I do not know how long the interest will last. I look at our other historical memorials. Much as we wax lyrical about them, the numbers who do visit are very low. We should take the opportunity to kindle new interests and re-kindle old ones.

In an ideal world, I keep everything. Why not if I can afford that? I can cite how London cherishes its past and prevents unnecessary development. But I do not have the space of greater London nor the land that the rest of UK affords.

But I can figure out how best to keep this history and heritage alive in different ways. If we are not ‘pantang’, I can see small clusters of cemetery parks amidst development. Some prominent tombs can be re-located (a number were re-located to Bukit Brown Cemetery anyways) to other places. I should document not just the physical but also the stories and rituals that will fade with the generations.

Next steps

My colleagues and I share the sentiments of many who are championing the cause of our past. I respect the passion that many have shown. It shows that we have many who care. That is important.

Some have accused us of selling out and for not caring for our heritage they way they do. Some issue political threats. Each will have to decide on the approach we wish to take. I discuss and share perspectives where I can. But I have to admit that at times, when I read the posts on the Facebook groups, it does not sound that I would be able to meaningfully contribute to their conversations.

But I am grateful to those with whom I have corresponded. I appreciate those who have stepped forward to join Dr Hui who would be heading our effort on the documentation front. Thanks to those who have also agreed to come on board to help in different ways. I am also thankful to the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, Peranakan Association and Singapore Heritage Society, as well as our partners from National Heritage Board, National Library Board and National Archives of Singapore. URA will take the lead as we work this effort collectively.

As we remember our past and build our futures, I believe that it is a path best journeyed together.