Headline, March14, 2014



IN SINGAPORE,  a small crowded island, where the population has more than doubled in a generation, the dead have long had to make way for the living and the unborn.

In the 1960s,  as a graveyard cleared, a government minister dismissed objections with the question:

"'Do you want me to look after our dead grandparents, or do you want to look after your grandchildren?""

These days, however, resistance to the planned building of an eight-lane expressway through another cemetery, at Bukit Brown, is less easily swept aside.

Bukti Brown, 230 hectares of lush greenery in the heart of Singapore, is for much of the year a peaceful haunt. But at Qing Ming, the annual grave sweeping festival, it bursts into life, crowded with filial clusters visiting their ancestors graves.

They clean them, burn joss and candles, leave offerings of fruit, cakes, tea and other goodies and make bonfires of ghost-money and gifts for the afterworld.

One lucky grandmother that year got a handbag, a pair of shoes and a frock.

One elderly man kept the voracious undergrowth away from his great-grandfather's grave because  "I promised my granny",  but when he is gone his own daughter may not come:

And he does not want to burden her with this responsibility.

By the next grave cleaning festival, Bukit Brown may have been transformed beyond recognition, as work starts on the road. 

Expectedly, Bukit Brown soon became a focus for active protests by a diffuse but devoted band dedicated to trying almost certainly forlornly, to save it from the developers.

They argued that Bukit Brown was an essential part of Singapore's  "heritage" , which should these very days afford it some protection:

In a quick and well thought response, the government announced free entry for Singaporeans to all national museums; and then went on to pump more money into television programmes exploring Singapore's history.

The rekindled interest in heritage is part of a broader conversation about identity, which in turn is bound up with the biggest political issues; population and immigration.

Singaporeans are having very few children; their women's average fertility rate is among the lowest in the world.

Already, probably more than half of the country's population was born elsewhere, and that proportion seems likely to increase. 

In January last year, a government white paper projected that the population would increase from  5.3m now to 6m by 2020 and to  6.5m-6.9m by 2030.

This did not go down well with many less-off Singaporeans, whose mainly daily grouses are the cost of housing and the difficulty of getting onto the underground at the rush hour.

Many, many blame both problems, as well as their low wages, in part on an influx of foreigners. So the government also talks of the importance of keeping a  "Singaporean core".

But it has not dispelled fears of a congested, high-rise future in which even more new arrivals compete for space with the   "core".

This is what Singapore's government has always done; look around corners on behalf of its people and plan ahead, confident enough in the infallibility of its policymaking and in the inevitability of its re-election:

To ignore pressure groups and to scorn pandering to populism. Even its critics concede that it has been successful.

But times have changed. Social media have turned silent, isolated dissent into more concerted, vocal protest. The political opposition with less than 10% seat in the parliament  -seems a long, long way from power.

But with 40% of the popular vote in 2011, it could  no longer be dismissed as irrelevant. For its part, the government made much those days of its willingness to "listen".

In this context the struggle over Bukti Brown took on a wider meaning. The improbable coalition of birdwatchers, conservationists, and heritage buffs trying to stop the road were testing the government's promises of a new responsiveness.

Or put another way, the strength of its conviction that it still knows best. The arguments over the fate of the graveyard may have looked  like a tussle over Singapore's past. But it is really about its future:

That glows as a beacon to the world that too has one too many of its own Grave concerns.

Many,  many countries in the world will do well to learn from Singapore, on how best to value the past and plan for the future!  

With respectful dedication to the Students, Professors and Teachers of Singapore. See Ya all on !WOW!   -the World Students Society Computers-Internet-Wireless:

"' Your Next Big Idea "'

Good Night & God Bless!

SAM Daily Times - the Voice of the Voiceless


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