Of late, I seem to have taken to wandering around spaces for the dead of late, spaces that my irrational fears would usually keep me well away from. I now find myself drawn to them, seeking out the stories they hold of a past we in Singapore have discarded, in the knowledge that the existence of such spaces in an island nation obsessed with building for a soulless future, can only be temporary.
We in Singapore would be well aware of the brouhaha surrounding the former Bukit Brown Municipal Cemetery. While that hasn’t prevented the intended construction of the road through it, which can perhaps be seen as the beginning of its probable end (work to exhume graves affected by the road has just started), it has raised awareness of the historical value of what may possibly be the largest concentration of Chinese graves outside of China. More significantly, found among the estimated 100,000 graves, are several of ethnic Chinese luminaries associated with modern Singapore’s development.
Besides Bukit Brown, another concentration of graves under threat that is thought to be of historical value, can be found close to the heart of the city, straddling Jalan Kubor, on the fringe of the historic Kampong Glam district. While much of the Kampong Glam area, once the seat of Sultan Hussein – the British installed Sultan of Johor and Singapore, has been identified as a conservation area, the two cemeteries at Jalan Kubor are located on the wrong side of Victoria Street – which delineates the northern boundary of the conservation area.
On the eastern side of Jalan Kubor is the plot of land on which what is referred to as the Old Malay Cemetery lies, along with what has become a very distinctive Masjid Malabar at its southeastern corner. While the recently released URA Draft Master Plan 2013 does identify the mosque as being considered for conservation, the land on which the cemetery rests has for several revisions of the 5 yearly Master Plan including the current draft, along with the second cemetery across Jalan Kubor (which translates from Malay into “Grave Street”) from it, been identified for future residential development (with a plot ratio of 4.9).
The cemetery, is also the plot identified in early maps of British Singapore, as the “Tomb of Malayan Princes” – a reference perhaps to the raised burial plot found in the site that is reserved for the family of Sultan Hussein. There are also several graves of significance on the site, about which Dr. Imran Tajudeen, an academic who has devoted much time to the study of the area and the cemeteries, has shed some light on in a talk on 7 July 2013 (which has been posted on YouTube).
Amongst Dr Imran’s findings, are the links the graveyard does have with the early immigrants from the Islamic world around us, including connections with the Bugis and Banjarese traders who were prominent members of the communities that grew around the Sultan’s compound. He also mentioned finding gravestones bearing inscriptions written in the Bugis script, Lontara – a indication perhaps of the use of the Bugis language in the early days of the settlement of Kampong Glam.
The are several interesting structures, otherwise mysterious, that Dr Imran has also identified during his talk. One, is the house-like structure under a banyan tree just behind Masjid Malabar. That contains the graves of a Bugis merchant, Haji Omar Ali and his wife. The grave of Haji Omar’s son, Haji Ambo Sooloh, is also found there, placed under an awning at the structure’s entrance.
The walled compound which contains the second cemetery at Jalan Kubor does also have several rather interesting stories. Referred to as the Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery, after the Islamic School nestled in its northwest corner, the land on which this (and the Madrasah) sits on a Wakaf that was donated by Syed Sharif Omar bin Ali Aljunied, a prominent Arab pioneer of modern Singapore. Besides being where Syed Omar and many of his descendants were buried (Dr. Imran mentions that the family has since exhumed the graves), the cemetery was also where Ngah Ibrahim of Perak was buried. Implicated in the murder of the first British Resident of Perak, James Birch, in 1875, Ngah Ibrahim died in exile in Singapore. His remains have since been moved back to Perak.
The cemetery is also associated with an incident in 1972 during which two gunmen, brothers at the top of Singapore’s most wanted list, took their lives after being cornered by the police. More on this incident can be found in a previous post: When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: a showdown at Jalan Kubor.
It probably is only a matter of time before the two sites, and the links to history they do hold, are erased from a Singapore that is reluctant to recognise the significance of its pre-independence past. As mentioned above, the URA Masterplan including a current draft, does point to the land on which the sites are on accommodating future high-rise residential developments. A check on the land ownership status with the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) maintained OneMap site, does also show that the land is already in the hands of the State. With the acceleration seen in pace of development that is taking place in and around it area, it is likely that time will soon be called on a world that takes us back two hundred years.
Some spaces for the dead that are under threat: