Destruction of the environment in the pursuit of relentless economic development

“Geography is never just geography, and buildings are never just buildings. They are repositories of shared memories for a lot of people.” – Local film director Kelvin Tong

THe NSE is expected to cost upward of S$7 billion. One wonders if the funds could have been used to expand MRT capacity or develop better bus services. Tremendous human costs are incurred as residents are displaced, and in Bukit Brown’s case, historical and institutional memories are destroyed.” Kenny Ching Hwe Seong

“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.” –

“If you think of yourself, you will play the casino with the resources that others entrust to you to get a better bonus, and cause misery to yourself and others.” – Dr Matthieu Ricard, Dalai Lama’s French interpreter and a top Tibetan Monk

First the iconic 7th storey building, then Bukit Brown, now Rochor HDBs …. and the list goes on. And it all points to unrelentless increase of car population over the years, even during the recession years when there was no need for increase in car ownership, yet the car supply was more than demand that the COE plunged to below $10,000 for quite a long time, before the floodgate was open for immigrants and the complaints of traffic jams and shortage of parking spaces kicked in. The side effect? Need to build more roads and car park spaces and as a result disturbing the dead and the living alike. The question is how many minutes of improvement in driving time after spending the millions of dollars? Is it worth it? It is no doubt in my mind that LTA, while not the main culprit for the poor immigration planning, is the bad guy that takes the rap by just solving the symptoms. In Chinese sayings, we call it “if the head pain heals the head, if the leg pain cures the leg” without solving the real cause of the sickness.

Other heart-wrenching disappearing acts include the dilution of the hawker culture and dialects, mom-and-pop businesses and heritage landmarks such as the old National Library and Bukit Brown were some of the things that had to make way for the Government’s “single-minded pursuit of development.

related links:

  • What would S’pore be like if our grandparents had won
  • Bukit Brown and the soul of Singapore
  • A plea to the President – Discover your Roots in Bukit Brown (an amazing details of history discovered which I bet the President himself probably does not know)

    Letter from Sandra Jayandran

    Source: Todayonline  17 Nov 2011

    I refer to reports about the construction of the North-South Expressway (NSE) and the buildings that will be affected, in particular Rochor Centre (“Paving the way for a smoother ride”, Nov 16).

    The building, with its unique architecture and quirky colours, is to me a cheerful sight along that stretch of road. Areas like this on the fringe of the city add colour and life to our city state.

    In fact, the whole Rochor/Beach Road and Bugis area is slowly being transformed into yet another upmarket area that I feel this country does not need.

    We already have the whole of Orchard Road, all the way to the City Hall area, for the likes of tourists and locals to shop and dine in style. Why this need to always keep meddling with areas that are working well and, organically, have become part of people’s lives?

    What’s next, I wonder: More “upgrading” for other historic areas? What about the older parts of Beach Road like the food centre and Golden Mile Complex? Will these parts of town be deemed too “unglamorous” and need to be refurbished?

    I cannot help feeling that the authorities are too keen to bulldoze buildings that have little economic value, all in the name of increasing traffic flow and speeds. The same can be said of the removal of tombs from Bukit Brown cemetery, which the authorities say is necessary in order to build a road to ease traffic congestion at Adam/Lornie roads.

    We need to seriously reconsider ways to improve the public transport system, rather than falling back on building more roads, in the process ruining our landscape and losing our history.

    by Dr Gan Su-lin

    Source: Todayonline  15 Nov 2011

    It started innocently enough; a notice in the newspapers about a Chinese cemetery making way for an MRT depot. This prompted me, in early 2008, to drive over with some colleagues for a look-see.

    That visit saw us spending the next 13 months actively collecting information, oral histories, and documenting exhumation and temple-related rituals. Our photos reveal that we literally watched as the verdant serenity and historical riches of Kwong Hou Sua Cemetery (KHS) off Woodlands Road were utterly and irrevocably erased.

    The lush greenery with its bird calls and cicada shrill were steadily replaced with the stink of excavator fumes and the barren lifelessness of uprooted trees and shrubbery. Pieces of once beautiful carved headstones and statuary lying, incongruously, in neat piles of smashed rubble.

    Our work in KHS helped me realise I did not feel rooted to Singapore because I had few people, place and thing markers that made me feel proud of Singapore.

    Physical markers I valued from childhood and adolescence – such as the National Theatre, National Library and what I remember as Pasir Panjang Beach – have been, like KHS, obliterated.

    I do not envy our urban planners who must balance the need for modernisation with conservation. It is the work they are doing that helps keep Singapore an attractive place for investors whose contributions to our nation’s economic wealth and comparatively advanced national development afford me the luxury of railing against policies with which I might not always agree.

    Still, with each generation, our memories of our beginnings grow dimmer. How can we feel proud of and rooted to a home that offers mostly transient proof points for belonging?

    How do we reconcile today’s push for character education when our forefathers along with ecological riches and cultural heritage are ploughed under to ease traffic congestion?

    With each visit to Bukit Brown, I have again felt the pain from the destruction of Kwong Hou Sua.

    I lament the looming loss of the irreplaceable tangible history of our nation. I lament that we selectively remember the past that has made possible much of the present. Worse, that we have failed to systematically record and recount these stories so that our progeny and theirs will remember the many sacrifices and gifts that built Singapore.

    Yet, in all my lamentations, I am also grateful for the gifts I have received through my cemetery documentation work. The people I have met, stories that have inspired me, lessons that I have learned, values that have been reinforced. I have been spurred to trace my Chinese Peranakan heritage and to learn more about Chinese culture and customs. These have, in turn, done more for my sense of Chinese-ness than did years of being forced to learn Mandarin.

    Dr Gan Su-lin is with Republic Polytechnic.


    Letter from Kenny Ching Hwe Seong

    Source: Todayonline  23 Nvo 2011

    I WRITE as a concerned citizen about how the Government’s repeated exhortations for residents to utilise public transport do not resonate with its actions.The North-South Expressway (NSE) and Bukit Brown redevelopment plans especially do not cohere with the Government’s stated aims of reducing the number and use of cars.These developments will serve only to encourage residents to drive more as traffic congestion is alleviated temporarily.It is especially worrying when one considers the costs involved. For example, the NSE is expected to cost upward of S$7 billion. One wonders if the funds could have been used to expand MRT capacity or develop better bus services.Tremendous human costs are incurred as residents are displaced, and in Bukit Brown’s case, historical and institutional memories are destroyed.It may be worthwhile to consider if there is indeed an over-arching and coherent vision with regard to car use and public transport in general.

If so, the relevant authorities need to articulate clearly what that is and reconcile development plans with it.

Letter from Philip Kwek
Source: Todayonline  Nov 28, 2011
CAR ownership is both a necessity and a status symbol. Despite the cost, many people aspire to own one, if the wallet permits.With the car population increasing, roads and car parks are being expanded, for a freer flow of traffic.Measures such as Electronic Road Pricing and Certificates of Entitlement, introduced to supplement the existing “deterrences” of import duties and road taxes, have only added to government coffers, though, with minimum effect on traffic management.While car ownership is not discouraged, the use of cars is. The latter contributes to pollution, congestion and economic costs from time lost in traffic jams and rising demand for parking spaces.While there are no one-glove-fits-all solutions in traffic management, there are some socially acceptable ones.Ideally, public transport should be as seamless, reliable and punctual as possible. If it is convenient and reasonably priced, many will switch to public transport.Apart from this, incentives such as ERP discounts should be given for car pooling. I notice that most cars, during congestion, only contain the driver. Car pooling would help and may enhance social interaction, build cohesion among people and, who knows, increase the number of marriages.

Co-ownership of cars between two or more families should also be allowed, without the constraints of co-operative rules and sub-leasing regulations.

As for parking, the cost of full-day parking should be lower at all Mass Rapid Transit stations and bus terminals.

Incidentally, the buildings in our shopping belt (Orchard Road) and business district (Shenton Way) are not all linked, nor are there sheltered walkways. It is not uncommon, in our weather, to drive down the road instead of walking to another building.

The above suggestions are non-exhaustive but it is noticeable that our traffic management has been based on disincentives and are punitive in nature. Why not try a softer, more incentive-driven approach?

It would not only lower the cost of living but also build a happier, more cohesive society.

Don’t forget Bukit Brown’s vital green role

Source: The Straits Times 4 Dec 11

I would like to thank the Land Transport Authority and Urban Redevelopment Authority for making the effort to explain their rationale for the carriageway through Bukit Brown cemetery (‘Bukit Brown road project ‘can’t wait’‘; Nov20).

It appears that the designated route cutting through the grave site is a result of a Master Plan target to develop a residential estate in that location in three decades’ time.

My question: Why do the planners think that in 30 years’ time, they will have no alternative sites to plant the estate other than at Bukit Brown?

After all, already-concretised plots like Turf City are left untouched for years, golf courses are not acquired, and much of western Singapore is still available for development.

I would also like to know if an environmental impact analysis (EIA) had been conducted prior to the decision to undermine the invaluable roles that Bukit Brown cemetery plays – most importantly as an ecological sponge for rainfall, carbon dioxide and heat.

What were the EIA’s findings, and what steps are planned to mitigate the foreseen risks?

Bearing in mind that flash floods already plague us now and global sea levels are predicted to rise substantially, how much more risk are planners taking in eliminating priceless, natural catchment areas?

Should my generation pass on the legacy of a Singapore full of housing, but held captive by incessant floods?

Marian Tay (Madam)


Askmelah’s Note, 9 Dec 2011: The following two writers are way off the mark, the Bukit Brown Cemetery, and for that matter other calls for conservation of collective memory, is not just for the dead but also for the living as well. There are no lack of space in Singapore, just go look around, there are plenty of vacant lots around the more than 2/3 of all the MRT stations that are vacant for years – talk about lack of space. In the 19 Nov 2011 Straits Times article “Theatre Majestic No More“, the writer listed some of the hits and misses of the preserved buildings. And some of these buildings are simply magnificent. Imagine they were torn down and replaced by yet another tall commercial building?  In less than 30 years, we have destroyed all the (and some beautiful) Kampongs except one which is owned by a respected and not money-faced private owner Ms Seng Mui Hong (which will no doubt in my mind to go down Singapore history for her contribution),  because no one has fought for the demolition then, do we want to repeat the mistakes all over again?

So don’t give me the crap story about land versus development, just do not increase the population year after year, it is not sustainable. For the records, all Singaporeans are more than 100% housed, the new buildings are for foreign buyers and new citizens and PRs, period. Make do we what we have and optimise all the available resources. We will have a happy and prosperous population without having to import lots of workers of foreigners to tear down old buildings, diverting road traffic, digging roads and build more flats to accomodate ever increasing population. That is my plea and solution for the money-faced Government. Enough is enough!


Make way for living

Source: The Straits Times  19 Nov 2011

I was struck by the reasons put forward  by sentimentalists to preserve  the old National Library Building  in Stamford Road, the Malayan railway land and, now, Bukit Brown cemetery.

I  have only one simple question to ask the proposers: In the context of the land here, who needs it more —the living or the dead? Let us get real. We require land to build lands and roads.

Steven Chia


Let’s be practical on land use

Source: The Straits Times  Nov 28, 2011

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.

‘Consider the bigger picture.’

MR JEREMY TEO: “While I understand Ms Wendy Yuen’s concerns (‘Much to sacrifice for North-South Expressway’; Forum Online, Nov 19), we should consider the bigger picture. Singapore must constantly improve its infrastructure to attract more foreign investments, which will translate into more jobs. Preservation of buildings, especially those without much historical value, should not be the first priority when we are a land-scarce nation. Sacrifices have to be made for Singapore to become a First World country with a world-class transport system.”

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

Bt Brown too eerie to attract culture buffs

Source: The Straits Times Feb 11, 2012

MINISTER of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin stated in his Facebook post the idea of bringing in more Singaporeans to appreciate the heritage, culture and biodiversity of Bukit Brown Cemetery (‘Green light for road through Bt Brown’; last Saturday).

He also wants to maintain its rustic charm and preserve the environment and heritage.

But a cemetery is a cemetery; a place to bury the dead. Most ordinary Singaporeans, especially the Chinese, may not want to live next to a cemetery, or any grave.

I have lived next to Bukit Brown Cemetery for almost 20 years. Some graves are barely two to three metres from my house. Few people visit the cemetery, even during Qing Ming, the annual Chinese festival dedicated to cleaning ancestors’ graves.

Hardly anybody takes a stroll there, even during weekends.

What I have seen regularly are horses and riders from the Bukit Timah Saddle Club. Horse droppings proliferate and are washed off only when there is a heavy shower.

Naturally, the cemetery is deserted when night falls. A vehicle repair yard filled with rusty scrap metal and engine oil sits at the entrance of the cemetery; lorry and car owners take their vehicles for repairs there on weekdays.

That would describe the ‘rust-ic’ charm of Bukit Brown Cemetery.

It was only after a new road was proposed, cutting into the cemetery, and subsequent brouhaha, that I began seeing a few more Singaporeans visiting the area.

Only with the cacophony of concerns about heritage, culture and biodiversity has some human activity been recorded.

But let us be clear – this cemetery remains by and large uninhabited and neglected by humans.

As a long-time resident, I doubt that Bukit Brown Cemetery, or for that matter Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, can be part of our active heritage, culture and biodiversity.

They are, by and large, too eerie for the likes of average Singaporeans.

Andrew Goh

[Askmelah’s Note: while I agree largely with the writer’s argument esp on the part of culture buffs, conveniently demolish the green place and replaced with a vacant plot for years is just not right as well. I visited the place a year prior to the Bukit Brown incident, the place was not void of visitors on the weekends. I saw many Caucasian bringing their family for a slow walk, I also saw a few jogging and a few westerners were there on a discovery trip. I definitely don’t want to see another vacated cemetery plot like the one near the Potong Pasir MRT.]



MDA deserves a bouquet for taking a risk with 7 Letters

The SG50 movie 7 Letters hits the sweet spot, reminding us of the multi-variegated hues of home

7 Letters, a collection of seven short films, moved me to tears. But I don’t know why.

The last scene of the last movie, Grandma Positioning System (GPS), was particularly moving. When the young Chinese boy jumped out of the car and ran back to his grandparents’ graves to continue telling stories of places that had gone or changed, I was particularly moved.

But why should I have been moved? I was born a Hindu. We cremate. We don’t have graves. I have never visited a grave to pay my respects to a loved one.

Perhaps it was nostalgia that moved me. The young boy was carrying on the stories that his grandmother had told in the previous years of malls and highways replacing familiar landmarks. As director Kelvin Tong said: “Geography is never just geography, and buildings are never just buildings. They are repositories of shared memories for a lot of people.”My soul, like that of many Singaporeans, feels a deep yearning for the places we experienced in our youth. The seven films gently immersed us in the very different Singapore which we used to know.

The scenes of the Tanjong Pagar railway station in the second-last movie, Parting by Boo Junfeng, also brought back vivid memories. Many times had I gone to the station to receive or send off family and friends. I also remember boarding a train there to begin a journey which eventually took me to Bangkok. The Malay Peninsula seemed so close then. Several of the movies resurrected these old sentimental associations.

I felt no nostalgia for the British Empire, the subject of The Flame, the movie by K. Rajagopal. This was strange. In the first 15 years of my life, I was a British subject. Like many in my generation, my mind was colonised. We believed then that the British were a superior race. They lived in a better country. However, strangely, even though many in my generation had an aching desire to migrate to Britain or its key colonial offshoots, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, I never experienced that desire. Something held me to Singapore soil.

The most charming movie for me was Bunga Sayang by Royston Tan. As Straits Times film correspondent John Lui writes: “The use of period detail is both understated and evocative… Its humanity and humour speak volumes of Tan’s eye for visual storytelling.”

Kenneth Paul Tan, my colleague at the LKY School who has written a book on Singapore cinema, describes Tan as having “an intuitive eye for visual beauty, an innate sensitivity to music, a cheeky and flamboyant sense of humour, and most of all a talent for putting together films that are simple yet challenging on so many levels”.

In the film, a little Chinese boy returns home to find the water supply cut off in his Housing Board flat because his father had not paid the utilities bill. His mother advises him to bathe in one of the neighbours’ homes. Fortunately, he finds a flat occupied by an old Malay woman. A wildly improbable bonding takes place. The little boy, who speaks no Malay, sings eloquently in Malay with his new friend. And I was deeply moved.

The Malay dimension of the Singapore soul has become less visible in recent years. Malay culture has always been a strong element. However, modernisation and urban development have erased many of its traces.

This is why it was brilliant to begin 7 Letters with a movie featuring a Pontianak, in the film titled Cinema by Eric Khoo. The haunting scenes of a young Malay woman singing in the forest will remain in my imagination for a long time. As Khoo noted in the conclusion, in the 1950s it was common to have Malay, Indian and Chinese movie-makers collaborating in Singapore film studios, which united the sensibilities of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. I don’t know how or why this tradition died. As a child, I remember that there were Cathay Keris film studios along East Coast Road, but they left before I had any chance of peeking into them.

I hope therefore that with the success of 7 Letters, directed by seven local film-makers, Royston Tan, Tan Pin Pin, Jack Neo, Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal and Kelvin Tong, we will make an effort to strengthen the movie industry of Singapore.

We may not make a lot of money producing films. Very often, we will end up losing money. But even if Singapore film-making manages to become a commercially successful enterprise, as it was in the golden age of film-making in the 1950s and 1960s, we will actually achieve something even more important.

Local movies express our innermost feelings about the past and hopes for the future. As Royston Tan, who initiated the

7 Letters project, said, each film represents “a Singaporean telling stories from his own eyes. I think it’s a homecoming experience where we can connect with our roots, our present and, most importantly, our future. With a better understanding of all these, we can create the future we want.”

I believe that our authors, playwrights and artists will agree with this. Let’s give our movie-makers free rein to tell us stories that will bind us together more closely.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was dead right in highlighting the importance of preserving and strengthening the Singapore identity in the next 50 years in his speech at the Ho Rih Hwa Lecture on June 30. Just as Hollywood told stories that helped to forge the American identity and Bollywood helped to forge the Indian identity, we need our own Hollywood or Bollywood.

To become financially viable, our Hollywood will face an uphill struggle. This is why it was wise for the Media Development Authority to sponsor 7 Letters as part of the SG50 celebrations.

Indeed, for me personally, 7 Letters has been one of the best elements of our SG50 year. As journalist Genevieve Loh of Today put it, 7 Letters “transcends the limits of its form, combining the advantages of its genre with heartfelt sincerity from its makers who are free from the constraints of narrative, and thus free to simply paint their impressionistic portraits of their homeland and create a living tableau of our island city-state”.

The movies brought joy and reminded us of our common roots. K. Rajagopal pointed out that “Singapore is represented by so many different cultures and different voices… Anything that represents a slice of Singapore means something”.

With their seven different slices of Singapore, the seven directors made us understand better why we call ourselves Singaporeans.

Boo put it well when he said: “We all have our unique ways of identifying with Singapore or being Singaporean. But at the heart of it is a sense of love for this place we call home.”

One of my biggest concerns for Singapore in the future is that we may be developing a public service that is becoming risk-averse.

A risk-averse public service is not likely to invest in a money-losing movie industry. This is why we should send a bouquet to the MDA. It has demonstrated that it is not too risk-averse.

By sponsoring 7 Letters, it could have ended up with seven slightly subversive movies that could have veered off the official national narrative.

But because it took that chance, we ended up with seven seductive and beautifully made movies which strengthened the real national narrative of an improbable society of different races and religions that forged a common soul. We should toast this unique Singapore soul that is our own creation.

• The writer is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, and the author of Can Singapore Survive?

Source: 10 Nov 2015

Limits to waste output a must for sustainable S’pore

From Cheong Kar Lai –

The National Parks Board has announced that it will conduct guided walks along the Eco-Link@BKE (“Nature-conservation bridge to open for guided tours”; Nov 5).

The S$16 million bridge was opened in 2013 to restore the ecological connection between the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Although it came with a hefty price tag, that cannot compare with the cost of losing the unique biodiversity in the reserves. I therefore applaud the move to engage members of the public and increase awareness of Singapore’s diverse species.

While the Eco-Link@BKE is a reminder of the environmental blunder we had made for the nation’s progress, the same cannot be said for our offshore landfill, Pulau Semakau. The measures taken to preserve the island’s unique biodiversity have been outstanding.

I was privileged to have taken a guided tour of Semakau last month. The corals around it have been brought to Sisters’ Island. Fish that were in sections of the lagoon to be converted to landfill were caught and released carefully into the surrounding waters.

More impressively, 400,000 mangrove saplings were planted to replace those destroyed when a 7km bund was constructed. The mangroves play an important role as a biological indicator that gives early warnings if toxins leak into the sea.

With S$610 million having been invested in the landfill, it was projected to last Singaporeans until 2045. That deadline has been brought forward, however, and Semakau is now projected to last until 2035.

Evidently, Singapore’s waste problem is costly, and landfills are not a sustainable solution. Our efficient waste management on the mainland has made us disconnected from the amount of waste we consume as individuals.

Despite rhetoric on the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), our household recycling rate remains at 20 per cent.

With 8,338 tonnes of solid waste being disposed of per day, Singapore risks fouling its own nest unless we acknowledge the problem and stop our culture of disposables. Singaporeans want many things and convenience is one of them.

Can Singapore, an island with an increasing population and hardly any land, still afford to waste? Perhaps our only hope is to follow in the footsteps of Sweden to reach zero waste.

There are no more islands like Semakau, and the price we would have to pay for environmental damage would be higher than if we did our part to segregate our rubbish into recyclables and non-recyclables.