Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cemetery closure means loss of Singapore heritage

I’m copying this Straits Times Contribution onto this blog in case SPH deletes the original post.

The Straits Times
April 15, 2008

I REFER to last Friday's article, 'Teochew cemetery's last Qing Ming'. It was about one of Singapore's oldest Teochew cemeteries which will be cleared in October to make way for the Downtown Line depot.

This is indeed sad and regrettable as, with the destruction of the cemetery, goes a slice of the nation's history. Since independence, Singapore and its people have been on a constant quest to define a national identity. An integral part of any national identity is historical awareness.

History is not merely about preservation of impressive buildings such as architecturally rich churches and temples. Rather, for most people, it emerges from everyday experiences - the jobs they do, the places they visit and the many rites and ceremonies that mark one's life and ultimately, death.

Unfortunately, in Singapore, many of these everyday histories are not well documented and are therefore forced to surrender to the consuming jaws of modernisation.

Hence, the historically rich and very beautiful Bidadari cemetery was cleared recently. With its regrettable destruction went not only the tombstones of generations of Singapore men and women but also the culture of a time past, and a small part of our national heritage.

Cemeteries provide a rich window on the past. By looking at the arrangement of tombstones, the aesthetics of headstone carvings and the people they envelop (both living and dead), we get a better picture of what Singapore society was like. Cemeteries also reflect religious and ritual life.

The old tombs at Kwong Hou Sua Teochew cemetery still attract a large number of families who come to pay their respects to the departed during Qing Ming every year. The cemetery is thus a living place. It tells an important story, not only of Singapore's Teochew community but also of changing concepts of family life, wealth, power and class.

Times have changed. It is undeniable that the past will have to surrender to the present in land- scarce Singapore. Yet, if Singapore hopes to instil in its citizens a sense of nationhood, it will need to consider the importance of everyday histories. I therefore urge the Land Transport Authority to reconsider the clearance of Kwong Hou Sua which, despite its age, is a treasure trove of Singapore's cultural and historical legacy.

Dr Irving Chan Johnson

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