Instead of Bishan housing estate, home to 91,298 people at last count, the Cantonese Kwong Wai Siew Association might still have their Peck San Theng (Jade Hill Pavilion) built in 1870 - the largest cemetery in Singapore, with 75,234 graves eventually exhumed. Likewise parts of Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah would still have cemeteries where public housing now stands.
A Jewish cemetery dating from 1838 or 1841 would stand in place of Dhoby Ghaut MRT station, its small plot housing 160 graves. And instead of the shops at Velocity, Novena Square, Phoenix Park, we might see Jewish tombs designed by the famous Italian sculptor Cavalieri Rodolfo Nolli in the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery, in use from 1904 onwards.
Instead of KK Women's and Children's Hospital, on the land between Bukit Timah, Kampong Java, Halifax and Hooper Road, we'd have a flood-prone Bukit Timah Cemetery packed with Catholic and Protestant graves from 1865.
Neither would we have Ngee Ann City, Mandarin Hotel, Cathay Cineleisure and Wisma Atria. Instead, in the heart of Orchard Road would sit a 28-hectare burial ground Tai Shan Ting, managed by the Teochew Ngee Ann Kongsi.
And of course, we wouldn't have those clear, flat fields along Upper Serangoon Road, a space now emptying itself out in preparation for new condominiums and residential towns. In its place, we might still have the 10.5-hectare early 20th-century Bidadari Cemetary, with its delicate marble sculptures and tombstones etched with different languages in the Christian, Muslim and Hindu sections.
One might conclude that the 1960s generation did the right thing. They were self-sacrificial enough (or, were forced) to forgo their ancestors' graves so that their grandchildren could have the space for housing, shopping, infrastructure, all these modern amenities we now enjoy.
Especially for those of us living and working in Orchard, Novena, Tiong Bahru, Henderson, Redhill, Serangoon, Jalan Bukit Merah, this giving up of graveyard space for modern development seems good and necessary.
Burial grounds now occupy less than 0.95% of Singapore's land area
But the fact is, back in 1967, burial grounds only made up 1.1% (619 hectares) of land area on Singapore Island, and by 1982, after the clearing of Bukit Timah Cemetery, Peck San Theng (Bishan) etc, it was down to 534 hectares (approx 0.95% of Singapore's land area).
Furthermore, this 0.95% figure doesn't even include the Thomson Road Jewish Cemetery (cleared by 1985), 10.5 hectare Bidadari Cemetery (cleared by 2006), and 7-hectare Kwong Hou Sua in Woodlands (cleared by 2009).
Is it really necessary to wipe clean these remaining precious spaces that take up less than 0.95% of Singapore's land area?
And if Singapore desperately needs more land, why aren't we first using the land area currently occupied by Orchid Country Club, Raffles Country Club, Singapore Island Country Club, Warren Golf & Country Club, and the golf and country clubs in Changi, Jurong, Keppel, Marina Bay, Kranji, Selatar Base, Sembawang, Tanah Merah?
Perhaps in the past, it was deemed necessary for our grandparents to relinquish their burial grounds for public housing and the development of the shopping belt in Orchard and Novena.
But how much is enough, and what is the optimum point between preserving tangible heritage and history, and allowing the land to be taken over by even more modern amenities, condominiums and wider roads? This concerns all of us and future generations, and we need proper, genuine discussion before bulldozers irreversibly destroy these old spaces.
Minister of State Tan Chuan-Jin's argument hinges on Mr Lim Kim San's question, but asking Singaporeans to choose between our dead grandparents and our grandchildren is a severe misrepresentation of the issue.
I strongly suspect our grandchildren will not live in misery for want of that extra 0.95% of land. In fact, I hope our grandchildren will be more creative in their urban design, with efficient use of land and infrastructure, without resorting to the destruction of the few cemeteries left.
And if current public sentiment is anything to judge the future by, I suspect our grandchildren will enjoy walking in a protected, conserved Bukit Brown, seeing and touching history in tangible forms, and will one day ask, what would Singapore be like if our grandparents had won? That is, if we don't win today.
By Lisa Li
Lisa Li is a member of SOS Bukit Brown. The Community of Bukit Brown calls for a moratorium on all plans for Bukit Brown, until there is clarity over long-term plans for the area and discussions over alternatives have been exhausted.
Tan, K. YL, 'Introduction: The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore' from Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011.
Tan, B.H. & Yeoh, B. SA, 'The Remains of the Dead: Spatial Politics of Nation-Building in Post-war Singapore' from Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011).
Singapore has 22 golf courses on leases and 3 temporary golf course sites, which together occupy 88% of the 1,600 ha of land used for sports and recreation, or 2.2% of Singapore’s total land area. (URA Land Allocation Focus Group Final Report 2000, page 46, point 4.7.)
We thank Ian Chong, from Heritage Singapore - Bukit Brown Cemetery Facebook group & SOS Bukit Brown - for this clarification.