Friday 18 November 2011

More Bukit Brown

Bukit Brown road project 'can't wait'
LTA says it is needed to ease Lornie Road traffic, though estate will be built only later
By Christopher Tan, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2011

THE controversial four-lane dual carriageway through Bukit Brown cemetery is slated to be one of two crucial backbones of a road network that will serve the residential estate to be developed there.

Although this future estate that spans more than 200ha - bigger than Serangoon and slated to have a mix of private and public housing - will be developed only in 30 to 40 years, the new road is necessary today to bring relief to the increasingly congested Lornie Road.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) said Lornie Road, which forms an outer ring road system designed to allow traffic to bypass the Central Business District, already sees 6,000 to 7,000 vehicles an hour during peak periods.

That is equivalent to the peak load on expressways. And the LTA sees demand rising by 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020.

So, instead of building alternative roads that may spare Bukit Brown in the short term, the LTA decided to kill two birds with one stone - by building a road through Bukit Brown that will be an arterial carriageway to be joined by smaller roads in the future estate.

'We would not have to waste money building one road now to take some load off Lornie, and then another in 30 years' time when Bukit Brown is developed,' said LTA group director of engineering Paul Fok.

Also, the LTA said, alternatives such as building a viaduct or an underground road were found to be unfeasible, and might even be more detrimental to the environment.

The LTA held a joint briefing with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) last Friday to explain why the four-lane dual carriageway had to be built now, and why it will cut through Bukit Brown.

It was the first time the two agencies had come out together to elaborate on the plan which has caused unhappiness among conservationists, the Singapore Heritage Society and ordinary citizens.

Opponents wanted the site preserved as it is the resting place of many early migrants, including prominent ones. They added that the site is also an important green lung and home to several species of birds and plants.

Strangely, the URA said, no one raised a ruckus when plans highlighting the area's intended future use were displayed for feedback.

URA deputy director Zulkiflee Mohd Zaki said: 'We showed it in the 1991 and 2001 (*Press release) Concept Plans, and it was also in the 2008 Master Plan (*Master Plan legend).'

No one came forward to object, he said.

It was only after the URA reaffirmed its development plans to the media in May that the protests began. The outcry intensified when the LTA said in September that a new road will run through the cemetery.

The LTA has reiterated that the road would affect only 5 per cent - or about 5,000 - of the 100,000 graves there. The remainder will go only in 30 to 40 years, with redevelopment of the area.

Asked why the LTA could not wait until then to build the new road, the authority said it could not allow the congestion to worsen further. It said it has been getting an average of 10 complaints a month from motorists about the Lornie Road jam in recent years.

'Cars are still an important part of the land transport system,' said LTA deputy chief executive Lim Bok Ngam. 'It is not possible for us to rely completely on public transport.'

Mr Fok added that it would not be right to erect Electronic Road Pricing gantries there because the outer ring road is an alternative to the priced expressways.

Automobile Association of Singapore chief executive Lee Wai Mun said that although there is a need to have new infrastructure from time to time, existing roads can be improved 'to increase mobility and to have better circulation'.

He said it was also vital for road usage to be better spread out. 'We should do more to stagger working times. It calls for a mindset change,' he said.

Businessman Baldev Singh, 30, whose daily commutes are affected by the Lornie Road jam, said: 'Heritage value is important. But it is important to be practical as well. It would be good to strike a balance.'

Lively debate over fate of cemetery
By Yen Feng, The Straits Times, 20 Nov 2011

There was no end to the questions, so much so that the symposium ran for more than three hours, and the organisers had to start ushering people out.

The issue? Bukit Brown.

More than 250 people turned up at a public forum on the historic cemetery yesterday. Volleys of probing queries were fired at the expert panel working to document and preserve the site's graves and ecology.

The symposium, the first of its kind on Bukit Brown, was co-organised by the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) South-east Asian Studies Society.

Packing a small hall in the Asian Civilisations Museum, the audience heard out the five experts - moderated by NUS architectural historian Lai Chee Kien - who made presentations on the cemetery's heritage and ecological value.

The blitz of queries followed in the Q&A session.

A few did offer the panel tips on furthering the conservation work. One person suggested creating a publicity video on the historic site and uploading it onto YouTube; another proposed putting the cemetery up for Unesco world heritage site status.

But for every tip there were many more questions, and as the evening wore on, past its second hour, the crowd grew restive, eager to be heard.

To many, talk about documenting the graves seemed to signal that the experts had given up the fight to stop the road construction altogether - though two of the five had said earlier that it was not the graves, but the proposed road, that should give way.

The two were cemetery guide Raymond Goh and NUS anthropologist Irving Chan Johnson. The other panellists were Dr Hui Yew- Foong, the anthropologist leading the documentation project; Dr Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society (Singapore); and Mr Chew Kheng Chuan, the great-grandson of pioneer Chew Boon Lay, who is buried at the cemetery.

Why the air of resignation, teacher Lisa Li, 30, asked the panel, earning appreciative nods in the audience.

'As a concerned citizen, I just cannot accept that this will happen,' she added.

Logistics director Gregory Loh, 48, wanted to know if SHS was concerned that in proceeding with the documentation project, the wrong idea would be conveyed to the Government that the SHS accepted its decision.

Ms Tan Beng Chiak, 48, a teacher, said she did not want to volunteer for the documentation project for this reason precisely - she felt it signalled that the graves were a lost cause.

Frustrated by what she felt was missing in the debate so far, Ms Claire Leow, 44, a heritage enthusiast, blurted: 'Why has the Heritage Board stayed so silent on this issue?'

Amid calls for the heritage groups and experts to stand up for the cemetery in their discussions with government bodies, Dr Ho urged the audience to do their part too.

He said heritage groups had not given up the fight, but that the work could not be done by the groups alone.

'If you don't agree, say something,' he said.

'Things can happen, but the ground must be moving too.'

Saving Bukit Brown
By Terence Chong & Chua Ai Lin, The Straits Times, 17 Nov 2011

IN LAND-SCARCE Singapore, the tension between heritage and modernity is not unusual, as the on-going debate over Bukit Brown cemetery demonstrates. This debate is the latest in a long line of struggles over important national spaces such as the National Library building in Stamford Road and Bidadari cemetery in Upper Aljunied Road, both of which have been irretrievably lost to the nation.

In July this year, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced that Bukit Brown would be needed for future housing and in mid-September, the Land Transport Authority revealed plans to begin constructing a dual four-lane road through Bukit Brown in early 2013. The road will affect about 5,000 of the approximately 100,000 graves.

Critics in cyberspace and the mainstream media have made three primary arguments for the destruction of Bukit Brown.

The first is that Bukit Brown is a burial ground for the elite, and that most Singaporeans do not have genealogies that link them to the cemetery. Advocates of this argument assert that many of the prominent pioneers like Chew Boon Lay and Cheang Hong Lim interred there have streets and places named after them, and there is thus no further need to preserve their graves. This assertion is short-sighted as the graves allow Singaporeans to draw links between abstract street names and real people.
The elitist accusation is reverse snobbery. We would never contemplate selling the Padang to a condo developer just because neighbourhood boys do not play football there. And just because most Singaporeans do not have ancestors interred there does not mean they cannot claim the space for strolls and jogs, appreciation tours, or to enjoy the rich flora and fauna there.

Tens of thousands of ordinary migrants are also buried at Bukit Brown. Furthermore, in preserving the graves of ordinary people we are acknowledging the blood, sweat and toil of those who have contributed to the development of our city port. Such a move will enrich and democratise the Singapore story.

The second argument by critics of Bukit Brown is that the loss of the cemetery can be adequately mitigated by virtual mapping and documentation. The assumption here defies all logic for heritage preservation. After all most historic monuments from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat have lost their functional value but are no less important as signposts to past communities.

The heritage value of Bukit Brown is conveyed to us in the provincial origins of the dead, the names of their descendants, as well as the tomb design, artistic embellishment and fengshui orientation. The sacredness of Bukit Brown can be found in the practices of people who continue to pay their respects to their ancestors in the form of ceremonial rituals as well as highly personalised ways. Such sacredness is not static or dead but embedded in living habits of people.

Bukit Brown is sacred also by virtue of its biodiversity. Of the 85 species of birds that have been recorded there, two are deemed 'vulnerable', six are 'endangered', and three are 'critically endangered'. Bukit Brown has been designated a Tree Conservation Area by the National Parks Board under the Parks and Trees Act. Virtual technologies and documentation cannot replace the loss of ecology.

Bukit Brown is also valuable to the broader nation-building project. Much has been made about how Singapore is becoming more hotel than home for many citizens and many worry that Singaporeans are but rootless 'cultural orphans'. The expressions of identity and culture found in Bukit Brown are unique to local communities, reflecting the history of the Straits Settlements and broader Nanyang. They are specific to the region, differing from those in South China where most of our forefathers came from. In short, Bukit Brown anchors firmly our sense of belonging to this region.
The third, and most commonly heard, argument is that 'the dead have to make way for the living'. This argument makes matters seem more urgent than they may be - without destroying Bukit Brown, there would be no space for the living. But has every other space for housing been considered before turning to Bukit Brown?

It also assumes that continued population growth is inevitable. And yet there is no public discussion on the optimal population size that the island and infrastructure may accommodate before the space crunch is felt. Population projections by government agencies are not yet widely circulated for debate.

Ultimately, the struggle for Bukit Brown goes beyond saving a few graves or greenery. It is the struggle for the soul of Singapore. The decisions we make will determine the value we place on our collective identity, our multi-textured heritage and our sense of belonging. They are decisions we will have to explain to our children.

Terence Chong is a sociologist and Chua Ai Lin is a historian, writing on behalf of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS). SHS is co-organiser of the Bukit Brown Symposium to be held at the Asian Civilisations Museum on Saturday, 19 Nov.

Let's be practical on land use

TWO road projects to ease traffic congestion have raised the hackles of conservationists because they involve using part of the Bukit Brown Cemetery ('New road to ease Lornie Road jams'; Sept 13) and the relocation of all residents living in an old urban landmark, Rochor Centre ('More than 500 homes to make way for highway'; Nov 16).

I am glad that long-term practicality has triumphed over other issues. While the governments of other countries are striving to fulfil their citizens' short-term needs, the Singapore Government is planning for 30 to 40 years ahead, keeping in mind the needs of our children and grandchildren, when many of our current leaders will no longer be around.

Conservation and filial piety are cited for arguing against clearing Bukit Brown Cemetery, which is largely for future housing needs and partly for road building. The very critics who push hard for government flexibility are themselves being inflexible.

If the Government is not prudent, there is no guarantee that our grandchildren will have proper housing.

Show filial piety to parents when they are around, and care for the future needs of our children and grandchildren.

Let us be practical - Bukit Brown should be developed and Rochor Centre should make way for the North-South Expressway.

Ang Chin Guan,
ST Forum, 28 Nov 2011

Written Answer by Ministry of National Development on balancing needs for development and conservation
22 Nov 2011 03:00 PM

Question by Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong

Ms Irene Ng Phek Hoong asked the Minister for National Development (a) whether building a road to ease traffic congestion justifies destroying the Bukit Brown cemetery which is considered a heritage site by some groups; and (b) how does the Ministry balance the needs of development with conservation.


The Land Transport Authority’s proposed road across Bukit Brown is needed to ease traffic congestion in that area during peak hours. Today, the tailback on the slip road from PIE onto Lornie Road is often more than 500m during the evening peak hours. With new developments in the centre and north of Singapore, the Land Transport Authority expects this traffic demand to further grow by as much as 30 per cent by 2020.

We recognise the historic and heritage value of Bukit Brown Cemetery. This is why several alternative options were carefully studied before the decision to build this road was made.

One option was the widening of Lornie Road. This however adversely impacted the existing nature reserve and also required the acquisition of private homes. The idea of a viaduct above Lornie Road or Bukit Brown was also looked at. This was found unsuitable because the building process itself would have the same if not greater impact than a road on Bukit Brown Cemetery. Likewise for the option of a tunnel, conventional excavation would have to be employed due to the required width of the tunnel and this would have an adverse impact greater than a road option. On the balance of these considerations, the road option was chosen as it posed the least adverse impact on the existing nature reserve, on Bukit Brown Cemetery, and also does not require the acquisition of residences.

There are more than 100,000 graves at Bukit Brown cemetery. The road works will be conducted in a manner to ensure that it will not affect most (viz 95%) of them. And before these works start in a year’s time, an Advisory Committee formed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority will oversee the documentation of the 5% affected graves. Members of the Advisory Committee include the Hokkien Huay Kuan, Singapore Heritage Society, The Peranakan Association, and other relevant scholars and experts. Many volunteers have also stepped forward to help in this work.

The Government has always needed to make difficult decisions over competing interests, about how we use our land. This is necessary because land is scarce in an island like Singapore with its plural ethnic character and corresponding diversity of interests. Whether such choices and decisions had entailed the acquisition of private land, or communal spaces including cemeteries and religious buildings, such decisions were and are never taken lightly. This Bukit Brown road project for instance was delayed by several years to ensure that all the various alternative options were studied and evaluated.

We remain committed to conserving our heritage. More than 7,000 buildings, including those located in entire heritage districts such as Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India, as well as 64 national monuments, have been kept. Where development is needed, we will endeavour to exercise care and sensitivity to preserve our past. However, we must remain also no less committed to and responsible for meeting the practical living needs of our people as well.

Issued by: Ministry of National Development
Date : 22 November 2011

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