The grave Bukit Brown error

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The bulldozers are about to rumble into the Bukit Brown cemetery to pave the way for an eight-lane highway. Despite it being a done deal, the chairman of the substation and a consultant fund raiser, Chew Kheng Chuan, wants the government — especially the  political leadership, to step in and stop the destruction. He wrote a commentary in Business Times recently. He elaborates in this interview with The Independent Singapore.

You seem to be very passionate about Bukit Brown. Why is that so?

Two years ago I would not have thought I would be interested in Bukit Brown, assuming frankly, that it would be exhumed eventually and the land used for development. In a country with a land-scarce national consciousness, that was not unexpected. And this, notwithstanding the fact that my great-grandfather and my grandfather are both buried there. My father’s ashes were scattered at sea, as was his request.

But when the Brownies started giving their dedicated voluntary tours of Bukit Brown, every Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine, I got to attend a few tours and came to better appreciate the immense and irreplaceable value and significance of Bukit Brown as something other than just a once-forgotten cemetery. So my interest in Bukit Brown now is borne of a recent education in its intrinsic value as a place of heritage, history and natural habitat.

You called for a halt to the “irreversible act of destruction” of Bukit Brown in your commentary in Business Times. What do you think should be done now that the decision has already been taken on the cemetery

I think the authorities should essentially “think again” and come to a difficult and bold decision to halt this plan to build the highway, and rethink the whole plan to develop the place as a future residential estate. It is a “difficult” decision only insofar as the fact that the bulldozers are beginning to roll, the contract has been awarded, etc. and so there will be not small costs involved for cancelling the work order for a massive civil engineering work. But it is physically doable. The destruction can be halted in its tracks before it has done irreparable damage. And I believe that the cost of doing so is ultimately very, very small compared to the unbearably higher costs involved in proceeding with this grave mistake.

 

You wrote that the civil servants don’t seem to understand the ecological issues of replacing the cemetery with a highway. Can you elaborate?

I believe that a deeper Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not been made for Bukit Brown. At the very least, the government should do this. In particular, I believe that the removal of this large area of greenery that is contiguous to the MacRitchie Catchment Area will also have an impact on Singapore’s rainfall and weather pattern. And I also suspect that a proper hydrological study on the geography of Bukit Brown may reveal that removing the flora at Bukit Brown will lead to a channelling of rainfall runoff water into the Orchard Road area, causing possible err … “ponding” or worse.  But here I am thinking more of the ecological consequences of redevelopment of the entire Bukit Brown into future housing zone, not just the building of the highway. That highway will cut through the most scenic and beautiful parts of Bukit Brown, its streams and valleys.

You argue that the politicians must show leadership in this issue. But haven’t they already decided that Bukit Brown has to go?

Yes clearly the plan to proceed with the highway is the result of the politicians’ earlier approval of this course of action. But I believe this decision was taken before the public outcry, before the documentation work got started, and before new research showed the significance of the history and heritage of the place.  So I am saying that in the light of new information, the critical leadership decision to be made is to hit the PAUSE button, re-look, re-think, and re-imagine the future use and significance of a preserved and re-developed Bukit Brown — not as a highway and residential zone, but as a new National Heritage Park for the benefit of the present and future generations of Singaporeans.
Do you really expect them to change their mind?

I believe that they can, they may, and they should.  It will be a signal reflection of their quality as political leaders.