Save Bukit Brown

Keeping these sites the way they are is about who we are and want to be as Singaporeans, about what we value and how we connect to our nation.

-  CHAH KAH TIM writing in Today Online

Exploring Bukit Brown

Bukit Brown is more than a cemetery. It is symbolic of so many things at so many levels. The fact that it is one of the last few remaining patches of wilderness in an island state of barely 710 sq km in area, should multiply its worth, especially with the documented biodiversity value, but economic decisions seem to override this, to make way for a 8-lane highway across it.  

To many, Bukit Brown is a memory of their ancestry – it lays to rest 100,000 forefathers, many of whom helped shaped the nation. For a young country like Singapore, visible reminders of history are critical for current and future generations to connect with their past, their culture and their collective memories. As James Burke said, ” If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are.”

This article has two parts. An introduction is made by Cuifen, a Singaporean who shares her thoughts and feelings about Bukit Brown as her awareness of its beauty and importance grew since she first saw it.  The second part by Erika of SOS Bukit Brown gives an overview of the factual arguments in support of retaining Bukit Brown, and petitions that you can sign in its favour.

What Bukit Brown means to me

By Cuifen 

Nature at Bukit Brown

My first visit to Bukit Brown was in May of last year.  Bukit Brown is a cemetery, and it took me quite a long time to overcome my inertia to check out the place.  I finally did, though I didn’t know what to expect. I tagged  along  with Nature Society Singapore (NSS)  on one of their guided walks.  The place was totally abandoned.  Then it struck me how amidst the buried dead, life was  teeming. Majestic rain trees stretched out on all sides, filled with activity- ferns, orchids, climbers, insects, bats and birds. We were pleasantly surprised to see horses strolling by.  I remember thinking, “This place is so beautiful, and so close to MacRitchie reservoir. Yet MacRitchie is full of people, and Bukit Brown is so quiet. This feels like our little secret garden.”

Just as my curiosity was getting piqued, it started pouring. I couldn’t explore much more that day. I wanted to come back…

And return I did, not once, not twice, but at least 10 times – sometimes with a guided tour, sometimes with a few friends exploring the place on our own.

Through various walks, I learnt that this is home to many uncommon plants and birds. Some are forest species or species that are only found in maturing secondary forest areas, indicating some colonisation of species from the neighbouring MacRitchie forest. Dr Ho, a bird expert of NSS shared with us that Bukit Brown, being a large patch of greenery just next to MacRitchie was a likely stepping stone for forest birds to fly to other forested areas of Southern Singapore, including the Southern Ridges and Labrador Nature Reserve.

Enjoying Bukit Brown

Each time I went to Bukit Brown, I’d observe how other ordinary people were enjoying the space.  Some came to enjoy the scenery.  At some places the view is simply breathtaking, with valleys in the foreground and the tall forest trees of MacRitchie in the background. Some came to jog or cycle with their family and friends.  Yet others came to appreciate the area’s historical, cultural and spiritual aspects. And there are others still, like Raymond and Claire (of All things Bukit Brown blog)  who dedicate their free time to locating and cleaning graves of pioneers unrelated to them, simply because of their passion for heritage.

I remember my shock on reading the news that the government had plans to build an 8-lane highway right across Bukit Brown, to ease the congestion off Lornie Road. The government had, out of goodwill, funded a documentation project headed by the Singapore Heritage Society, for graves that would be directly impacted by the construction.

Questions were racing through my mind. How could the government do this? Have they consulted the public? Have they considered all the environmental and societal issues before making the decision? Do we even need an additional highway? Surely there are alternatives. Can we allow something to disappear forever, when we are only just beginning to discover its value?

A sense of urgency overcame me. I had to do more. Time is short. But what can I do as an individual?

In January 2012, Raymond and Claire had organised an informal training session for guides, focusing on the historical and cultural aspects of Bukit Brown. It was  the most valuable course I had ever taken. I had difficulty reading Chinese characters on the graves, but with Raymond’s patient assistance, I improved. For once, I understood that there’s a lot one can learn about a place’s history by reading the tombs, and connecting the dots together.  It allowed me to get a clearer grasp of Singapore’s history in its early days. It helped me connect with it in a much more profound way than through my textbooks when I was at school. For example, I learnt there was a municipality next to Bukit Brown in the late 1910s. The town was filled with people of all backgrounds, and the municipality commissioners decided to buy over the area from the Hokkien clan, to ensure sufficient burial grounds for ordinary people.

Heritage Guide Training

I found the courage to initiate walks. I invited various friends to Bukit Brown with me as their guide. It has been an amazing experience for me as most of my friends are unsure of what to expect, except what they see in my photos on facebook. They go away happy that they have seen another side of Singapore that is not on the tourist map.

I come back today feeling a sense of fulfilment after a morning of exploration at Bukit Brown. Armed with a GPS, I had assisted Von Bing, a plant expert with Nature Society Singapore (NSS) to mark the locations of interesting and rare plant species. Along the way, we occasionally ventured off the roads, to check out the tombs of prominent early pioneers, like Mr Cheang Hong Lim and Mr. Chew Boon Lay, after whom many public places are named in Singapore today.

As Jane Goodall once said, “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. Only if we help shall they be saved.”

Can we save Bukit Brown? I think we can. I hope we can. But it means that we must all show we care for it enough. And to care, we must first understand what it means to all of us, inside our hearts.


Why Bukit Brown should be saved

By Erika of  SOS Bukit Brown

Located in the central part of Singapore off Lornie Road, Bukit Brown Cemetery is the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China. With a land area of 230 hectares, it is almost half the size of Sentosa Island (500 hectares).

Initially a burial ground for the Ong clan, the land was acquired by the government and officially opened in 1922 as a cemetery for the Chinese community. The oldest grave dates back to 1833 while the largest tomb covers an area equivalent to ten 3-bedroom Housing Development Board (HDB) flats.

Today, Bukit Brown has approximately 100,000 graves and is the last remaining cemetery of its kind in Singapore. Closed for burial since 1973, the area has become a verdant woodland much loved by hikers, runners, horse riders and bird watchers for its beauty and serenity.


In May 2011, the government announced that Bukit Brown would eventually make way for housing. In September 2011, they announced plans to build an 8-lane highway through the cemetery to alleviate the peak hour traffic congestion along nearby Lornie Road and the Pan Island Expressway (PIE). Meanwhile, anticipating future developments, a shell station for a future Bukit Brown train stop has been constructed at the edge of the cemetery.


Civil society groups that oppose the authorities’ plans stress that Bukit Brown’s destruction is unnecessary. They have raised several concerns, with the main ones as follows:

  1. There are alternatives to easing the Lornie Road congestion without having to build a destructive new road. In its position paper on Bukit Brown, the Nature Society offers suggestions for dealing with the traffic problem, including the expansion of existing roads in the area. There are also concerns that the new road could inadvertently exacerbate traffic woes by creating additional bottlenecks along other sections of the PIE.
  2. As part of its nation-building efforts, Singapore has to value and preserve important heritage sites, especially since many have already been lost. Bukit Brown, home to the remains of pioneer Singaporeans from all walks of life, can play a significant part in local efforts to evolve a unique Singapore Story.
  3. In light of growing environmental awareness about climate change, Singapore should step up efforts to protect existing greenery. Singaporeans are already experiencing the effects of warmer temperatures and increased flooding, and the clearing of land in green areas like Bukit Brown could worsen these problems.


In addition to offering alternative solutions to the Lornie Road problem, civil society groups are recommending that Bukit Brown be gazetted as a heritage park for public enjoyment. And if Bukit Brown must be developed, then a comprehensive impact assessment ought to be conducted first. As the Nature Society puts it, “We should not be in a hurry to build the expressway – given that so much is at stake at Bukit Brown, which once destroyed cannot be resurrected.”


To learn more about Bukit Brown Cemetery, visit Bukit Brown.com

Read the position papers of Nature Society and Singapore Heritage Society

Join Save Bukit Brown Cemetery – the roots of our nation on Facebook 

To download and sign a petition to save Bukit Brown, click here.


Pictures Courtesy: Cuifen 

Further links you may be interested in:

The Online Citizen:  Sorry to hear Tan Chuan Jin’s priorities

Wild Singapore: Hope springs eternal 

Today Online: Important not to trivialise Bukit Brown debate 


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Posted by on Mar 10 2012. Filed under Green Action, Green Cities, Green Events/Campaigns, S.E.Asia/Australasia, Singapore. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Save Bukit Brown”

  1. Bukit Brown should be saved for the sake of nature protection.

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