“Dead End” is an original work by Urban Explorers of Singapore. Special thanks to Walter Lim for the extraction of names.
Land scarcity in Singapore means that old burial grounds frequently give way to residential, commercial, leisure, or military developments. For instance, Ngee Ann City was built on the site of a Teochew cemetery, Bishan Park was once a Cantonese cemetery, and the residential neighbourhood stretching from Outram Road to Alexandra Road was once a sizeable burial ground for the Chinese.
Interestingly, the relics of old burial grounds can still be found in various locations around Singapore, possibly due to an incomplete land clearing. Before exhumation, families are allowed to take home or donate sculptures or gravestones from the graves of their deceased; however, most people choose not to do so since they feel uncomfortable having cemetery objects in their homes. When clearing these old cemeteries, contractors thus need to break hundreds of monuments into pieces for proper disposal, and sometimes this objective is not completely met.
Perhaps the best evidence of this was reported by The New Paper on 25 March 2011. During HDB lift upgrading at Block 711 Yishun Avenue 5, the grave of Madam Sim Seok Inn (who died in 1971 at the age of 83) was accidentally uncovered, along with some clothes buried near the coffin. In the article, a spokeswoman from the National Environment Agency (NEA) said that the land “may have been where a cemetery was once sited and then exhumed for public housing development by the HDB in the late 70s to the early 80s”. Before HDB development, the area was part of Chye Kay Village; Madam Sim may have been one of the villagers buried nearby.
Also in Yishun, in March 2007 a heavy downpour unearthed about 34,000 earthenware urns at the foot of a slope near Block 299 of Yishun Ring Road. These probably belonged to the former Teochew Guang De Shan cemetery situated just across the road.
In 2013, during a geocaching session, we found multiple tombstones at the former Bidadari Muslim cemetery (https://goo.gl/X3f5eD). We also recently stumbled upon two Chinese tombstones at Old Holland Road. The open field there is presently one of Singapore’s drone-friendly spots, where hobbyists can launch their unmanned aircraft (UA) into the sky without worrying about flight restrictions. The area is also currently used as a “driving centre” for those seeking a UA licence. However, this lush green field was once a Hakka cemetery which stretched all the way to the former Bukit Timah Railway station.
There were once two now-expunged roads with Malay names at the site. Lorong Makam (Tomb Lane) once served as the boundary of the eastern side of the Hakka cemetery and refers to the sight of many Chinese tombs seen along the path. The idea behind this toponym is similar to that of Jalan Kubur (Grave Lane). The other road, Lorong Panchar, was the boundary for the Hokkien cemetery located on the other side of the stream. Panchar could refer to either the flow of water in the stream, or to a spring there since the word “panchar” can also mean “gushing out”.
Walter Lim, an independent researcher carrying out the documentation at Bukit Brown cemetery, helped us to extract the names from the two tombstones that we found, while also informing us that they may not be entirely accurate. The first slab is inscribed with the names Lye Kong Tiek and Madam Hao Kah (Died: July 1960), while the second slab bears the names Khoo Yew Chong Tiek and Tan Keow Ngor. This second slab also states that the tomb was rebuilt (重修) in 1967. These grave slabs marked couple graves, with husband and wife buried together. Couple graves are different from double graves, which house two people not married to each other. For example, the tomb of Chua Seah Neo and Wuing Ye Ho at Outram Hill is a double grave, since the two women buried there were relatives and not a married couple.
Singapore’s continual hunger for land remains a threat to our existing cemeteries. The Jalan Kubur cemetery, the Kassim cemetery at Siglap, and the Bukit Brown cemetery have all been marked as residential zones in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s 2014 Master Plan. On 8 June 2014, the Straits Times reported that the Hakka cemetery at Holland Close may have to go in order to free up space, while on 18 July 2017 Channel NewsAsia reported that 80,000 graves at Choa Chu Kang cemetery will be exhumed for the expansion of Tengah Air Base when Paya Lebar Air Base relocates there after 2030.
Will Singapore in the future be a city without graves, or will we find a better solution to accommodate the growing population while at the same time conserving what is left of the country’s built heritage? This is an urgent question that must find an answer soon before it becomes too late.