Documenting the heritage of Bidadari Cemetery

Ng Jing Yng Today Online 26 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — The National Heritage Board (NHB) will be documenting the historical elements of the former Bidadari Cemetery and its surroundings, which have been slated to be turned into a housing estate.

According to a tender called by the NHB on June 5, it is seeking an agency to “conduct research and to prepare a detailed report on the heritage of the former Bidadari Cemetery and the wider Bidadari estate”. Among other things, the project due by August will include an account of the developments and events that have taken place as well as the origins and history of the place — one of Singapore’s oldest burial grounds. The NHB has also asked vendors to conduct interviews with relevant individuals.

In February, the Government announced Bidadari as one of three new housing estates, alongside Tampines North and Tengah. The authorities later assured that the development of Bidadari, which is set to offer 11,000 units over the next three years and is located at the junction of Upper Serangoon Road and Upper Aljunied Road, will incorporate its green landscape and historical elements.

The former cemetery includes the Bidadari Garden, which is home to tombstones of 21 notable Singapore pioneers. They include medical doctor and social reformer Lim Boon Keng and former Speaker of Parliament George Oehlers. Dr Lim and Song Ong Siang, a lawyer who was also buried at Bidadari, founded the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School in 1899.

The former Bidadari Cemetery, which is almost as big as four-and-a-half National Stadiums, is currently used by joggers. The graves were exhumed in 2001.

Responding to media queries, the NHB said: “This project is in preparation for the development of Bidadari estate.” Adding that the NHB and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) will be working closely on the project, the NHB spokesperson said: “Bidadari’s history and heritage elements will be considered in the planning of the (Bidadari estate).”

Heritage and history experts TODAY spoke to applauded the NHB’s efforts to consider historical elements during the Bidadari development process, noting that the move signified an increased awareness in preserving Singapore’s heritage.

Last year, the Government’s decision to build a road through the Bukit Brown Cemetery drew flak from both conservation and nature groups. Some parties felt that there was a lack of consultation before plans were finalised, while others were up in arms over the loss of nature and heritage spaces in the country.

History academic Goh Geok Yian from Nanyang Technological University felt that the Bukit Brown episode could have been “instrumental” in alerting the NHB to the importance of documenting gravestones and other structures in Bidadari.

She suggested giving members of the public a chance to participate in the research process, including giving views on how they want historical places to be remembered.

“Places, like the Bidadari estate and cemetery, form parts of a history of Singapore which is multifaceted and longer,” said Dr Goh. “The obliteration of many of these places only serves to make our country’s history poorer and less interesting.”

Singapore Heritage Society Vice-President Chua Ai Lin said that it is important to provide urban planners with the research findings during the early stages of development, “so that the research can inform the planning in a meaningful way”.

“It is important not to look at Singapore as if it is a blank slate, but to incorporate a sense of continuity from the past in our future plans,” she added.

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