"How do I preserve the past while building the future?” Minister of State (MOS) for National Development and Manpower Tan Chuan Jin on March 5th 2012.
Indeed, in land scarce Singapore, it is a question that is often asked, not just by the government but by its citizens. As of today, the government has conserved 7000 heritage sites within the country, with the fervent hopes that this nation’s people will visit the historical sites to learn about their past and connect with its history.
To be frank. It is a laudable effort on the government’s part. However, a trip to most of these 7000 sites will find you greeted by a lack of human presence within them. Johore Battery, Changi Chapel, Ban Siew San Temple, Abdul Gafoor Mosque, the Church Of St Peter And Paul, Bawaeanese Pondok, Haw Par Villa, these are just some of the designated heritage sites in Singapore that are on most days devoid of visitors.
And where are the people you might ask? Why in the shopping malls, the hawker centers, the disco clubs and HDB homes of course. No one wants to go to an old building and watch history come alive. So what makes Bukit Brown so special that there are young people out there who are fighting to conserve it?
For one thing, it is the largest Chinese cemetery in the world outside of China. The place is rife with Chinese art and craftsmanship that cannot be found in Singapore in this day and age. All you need to do is visit the place and just look at the tombs littering the landscape to soak in the pure unadulterated Chinese culture that is missing from the rest of a westernized city.
With it’s lush forests and wildlife, Bukit Brown is literally a living museum for Singaporeans to revel in. And yet on most days, the place is virtually deserted. It seems that today’s young Chinese Singaporeans feel no connection with the final resting place of their forefathers and thus have no sense of communal ties with their homeland.
The announcement by MOS Tan Chuan Jin that development of the road through Bukit Brown will proceed is a true exercise in democracy. How you might ask? The voices of the MPs, NMPs and activists who clamored for the conservation of the place represent a minority of the population. A minority that recognizes the value of Bukit Brown as a heritage zone, an environmental haven, and most importantly a community foundation point with links to national, no, global history.
In contrast, MOS Tan’s voice represents the silent majority of the population. A silent majority whose needs require good infrastructure and housing to raise a new generation that will make new memories for the nation.
The proposed road through Bukit Brown is no longer just a perk for motorists who want a shorter drive time anymore (speech by MOS at MND's budget debate); it is a piece of infrastructure that will allow future residents of the soon to be developed old police academy housing district to travel more conveniently to work and home. The road will be a road home for many.
MOS Tan had a point when he quoted the late Mr Lim Kim San: “Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents or do you want to look after your grandchildren?” Answer that question with how you would do both and you will have a game changer on your hands. Answer that question and the way to save Bukit Brown will reveal itself.