Sometime back, our beloved Urban Redevelopment Board (‘URA’) – true to its namesake – announced the bulldozing of Bukit Brown Cemetery in Singapore. Click ‘here‘ to read a reader’s comment about the destruction and URA’s subsequent reply. URA’s reply that “Bukit Brown is needed in the future for housing” is understandable, coming from a ‘redevelopment’ authority in land-scarce Singapore.
Lately, there’s been a new twist to the news (click ‘here‘). The Land Transport Authority now wants to build a new road through the cemetery. But the end of that press release is quite heartening: “To preserve the heritage of Bukit Brown Cemetery, URA and LTA will work with the Singapore Heritage Society and other stakeholders to identify and document key heritage elements of the cemetery”
This bit of local news has also gone international (click ‘here‘), with local NGOs like Singapore Heritage Society weighing in on why the cemetery should be preserved.
What I find baffling is this: where is Singapore’s lead heritage government-agency in all of this?? The National Heritage Board (‘NHB’) has a huge mandate – on its website ‘here‘, it claims that the board “promotes public awareness and appreciation of our heritage through educational, outreach and community programmes”. Surely the imminent destruction of Singapore’s largest and oldest cemetery must elicit a response from NHB, right?
Well, the NHB has been S-I-L-E-N-T all this time…. It has not issued any statements about Bukit Brown at all. Ok, I suppose that NHB and URA/LTA are all working for the same government, and perhaps NHB doesn’t want to step on the toes of its sister agency. Also, NHB’s CEO Michael Koh was formerly from URA; another reason for the two agencies not to cross swords.
But for goodness’ sake, NHB should by now have come up with a plan of how to preserve Bukit Brown if it cannot be saved – from saving tangible aspects like the collecting of the most significant tombstones and intangible aspects like the recording of the ‘memories’ that the living have of their connections with the cemetery. Nothing. Zero. Sorry-not-my-problem.
I can only conclude that our NHB is great at putting up neat museums that do neat exhibitions (mostly) and the umpteenth travelling exhibition to Choa Chu Kang featuring our kampong-games-of-old. But when it comes to the preserving of in-the-ground heritage in Singapore – like Bukit Brown cemetery – I suppose NHB thinks that it is somebody else’s mandate, not theirs.
In this light, can I propose a name-change for NHB to better reflect its priorities: ‘National Museums and Travelling Kampong-Exhibitions Board”???
UPDATE (9 Oct 2011): Remember Bidadari Cemetery, which was opposite Potong Pasir? This cemetery was started in 1904, and the 58,000 graves were all bulldozed in 2001 (click ‘here‘ for more info). In a speech in 2006, it was announced that NHB actually did something to ‘preserve’ the memories of the space. This speech (click ‘here‘) claimed that “… a selection of gravestones and gates relocated from Bidadari Cemetery (were preserved by NHB).” However, to this day, I’ve not heard of anything about them: where are they? how many are there? have they been exhibited/published? are they made available to researchers/relatives?…. So in the VERY LEAST, we know NHB is likely to keep a few tombstones from BB, if that’s any consolation……