The idiosyncrasies that arose from the Bukit Brown incident

22 Mar

My take on ‘heritage preservation’


No doubt we should preserve the heritage of Bukit Brown. Clearly the issue is how and in doing so balance the needs of development. However, not all heritage preservation runs contrary to the aims of development. Museums are an excellent example of how both heritage preservation and developments can be married. Generally, successful cultural resource management projects are often tied with living and vibrant communities. 


For heritage to be successfully preserved, it must have an outreach capability such that the masses would be aware. Heritage preservation is not only about conserving the original physical relics but more importantly about the passing down of history and tradition from generation to generation. Heritage conservation does not equate to heritage preservation. I can conserve an antique rock to 95% of its original condition but it does mean everyone looking at the rock would get the story. Not EVERY SINGLE minute detail of heritage must be conserved, hence curatorship is needed. 



Now back to what I had wanted to rant. 


The idiosyncrasies…


1. If democracy (i.e. rule of the mob/maases/majority) was allowed to work, we would have a ten lane expressway cutting across Bukit Brown. Try asking around and most Singaporeans would tell you another road along the exiting Lornie Road is long overdue. Almost everyone staying in the North, North-East and Central would take this route to the West and the massive jams in the morning and the resulting economic losses can be substantial (unless you wanna pay $5 CTE/PIE ERP gantry rates). Remember buses like Service No.74 crawling along Lornie Rd packed with students from the Bukit Timah schools, Polytechnics, SIM and NUS?


Hence, sometimes we need a few ‘wise men’ to force the issue (i.e. suspend democracy) and make the authorities sit up and listen. Although the various heritage and nature groups have not manage to prevent the building of the road but they have made an impact and raised important issues for all Singaporeans to consider. However, do remember that in the age of internet and social media, there are many goons who can easily masquerade as ‘wise men’ (including me ;p). 



2. If one of the dangers of building the Bukit Brown Rd was the loss of our heritage, then it might have turned out the other way. The Bukit Brown Rd debate actually helped the cause of heritage preservation (although it might not have helped its physical conservation) as more people learned about it and flocked there to tour it before it was ‘ravaged’ by the development of the road. I bet you my last dollar that not many knew about Bukit Brown before the media covergae and I didn’t recall Bidaari cooking up such a storm when it was cleared (and still sitting empty and pretty now). In fact, the increase in human visitor traffic might actually upset the natural habitat and endanger the super old tombstones. Isn’t it ironic that the more we care, the more we destroy?


3. Govt has a policy of “no wrong door” since 2004 where citizens would not be referred from one agency to another to have their concerns addressed. However, it appaers that Minister of State Tan Chuan Jin seemed to have given heritage and nature groups the turn-around. So, it seems that engagement by the government must not only be done but must be seen as being done. How sensitive and emo we have become. Was wondering why no one go Hong Lim Park to register their unhappiness? If you really care, just rant online. 





There was even a chap who compared Bukit Brown to Angkor Wat (from “The leading online source for socio-political news and views in Singapore”). I mean I really LMFAO. If that comparison was made with Bukit Larangan (later called Fort Canning) and the rich cultural heritage (dating back to the 15thC) found there, I would have found it kinda acceptable. Oh wait, sorry, did you know there were actually archaeological work done there? Angkor Wat was largely ignored by the locals until the French colonialists made a great deal out of it for their political reasons and later transformed it into a tourist site. Till today, it is funded mainly by NGO and foreign money and locals just see it as a place to make business (have u seen the mess there these days?). So please wake up and smell the coffee. 


The same author also cried foul that Tan Tock Seng’s grave on Havelock Rd was nearly destroyed by road works and was only saved by the intervention of activists. I see it as the road engineers doing their job and the activists playing their role. It was only Objectivism and the Virtue of Selfishness at work (Aye Rand). In any case, with or without his grave, the grand story of Tan Tock Seng was drilled into our heads during secondary school history classes. By the way, the grave, situated near the Havelock Rd hotels below an overhead bridge, is quite interesting. But don’t wander there in half-drunk state after visiting the nearby karaoke joint as you might really see Tan Tock Seng himself.





“Bidadari Garden was established at Vernon Park to commemorate 20 people who were considered important to Singapore’s history, and who had been interred at Bidadari Cemetery. They include doctor and philanthropist Lim Boon Keng, Ahmad Ibrahim, and R. A. J. Bidwell–the architect who had designed the Raffles Hotel, Goodwood Park Hotel, and Chesed-El Synagogue. The old gates of the Bidadari Cemetery, which bore the lion emblem of the Singapore Municipal Council, were then placed at the entrance of Bidadari Garden. “



I don’t think the Bidadari Garden is a popular heritage spot (yet). I haven’t visited it yet despite being a self-proclaimed lover of local history. Heritage preservation and the rememberance of our of history would not naturally come with the adundance of cultural relics conserved. It must come from within, a concerted effort and a change in psyche of parents, educators and leaders of this country. A move away from materialism and a dollars and cents approach with regards to development. At the same time, in our small country, although we cannot conserve more than we would liked to, we can preserve many stories and lessons through various other innovative means that amalgamate a living community (to take care of the dead so to speak) and yet achieve our aims of development.  





The Kranji War Cemetery is perhaps one of the very well-preserved cemeteries in Singapore honouring the war dead of WWII. But sometimes I wonder, what are we preserving at Bukit Brown? The graves? The nature? A unique location in Singapore? Its oldness? Some of the graves hold the honourable Chinese pioneers, while others hold interesting stories of various migrants and what we would today call “grassroots” leaders. Can we preserve their stories and lessons without the graves? Can we move the graves? Why do we remember men like Wee Kim Wee and Ong Teng Cheong without graves? There is MacRitchie nature reserve nearby some might say. Wherein lies the essence of Bukit Brown? 

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