Text and pictures by Goh Si Guim
Bird pictures by Ong Kiem Sian
the early days after the founding of Singapore, its
small population was confined within the city environs in the south of the
island. The only Christian cemetery at that time was situated on Fort Canning
Hill. It was soon deemed that cemeteries should be sited far away from the
more populated areas. New cemeteries were created, first at Bukit Timah,
and later, at Bidadari. Soon after, the burgeoning population began to spread
throughout Singapore. Many plantations and the associated residential enclaves
sprouted. In recent decades, the rapid pace of redevelopment have seen many
old and disused cemeteries transformed into public housing estates and commercial
Having lived nearby
for more than 20 years, since the mid-1970s, I travelled regularly along
this scenic stretch of Upper Serangoon Road. I remembered being mesmerised
by glimpses of the cemeteries while on the bus. The greenery was certainly
a welcome relief after passing long stretches of built-up areas and congested
city roads. The countless tombstones would be all aglow in the evening sun.
has committed its latest coup, encroaching upon Bidadari Cemetery.
Like many cemeteries before, it, too, has to give way to the need
for living space.
the 1998 Master Plan, the Bidadari Cemetery sites along Upper Serangoon
Road will be developed into high-density housing and is projected
to yield about 12,000 public-housing dwelling units. There will
be modem amenities and facilities to complement the housing, including
a park and other open spaces."
Excerpt from HDB's e-mail reply
As my interest in Nature
grew, I began to wonder if this picturesque wooded landscape could be a
haven for wildlife. Many visits were made to uncover its natural richness.
These trips were rewarding, revealing that there was a wealth of wildlife
in this peaceful oasis. The grounds are covered with ornamental shrubs and
grasses grown wild. Together, they create an "island of greenery" in Bidadari,
providing many suitable niches for wildlife to flourish. Not surprisingly,
this relatively undisturbed verdant realm sustains a remarkable diversity
Bidadari Christian Cemetery
Bidadari Christian Cemetery
there was never the inclination of stepping into the cemeteries; perhaps
the idea seemed strange then.
My first venture into Bidadari's Christian Cemetery took place only
in the early '90s. Having seen people using it regularly for exercise,
I, too, overcame the "fear" of cemeteries.
I found the undulating roads suitable training ground in my preparation
for my Army Reserve in-camp training. As I jogged along the winding
roads, I marvelled at the elegantly carved tombstones. Calls of birds
and the occasional butterflies were constant pleasant accompaniments.
I had started my walk
in the late afternoon from the Christian Cemetery to the Muslim Cemetery.
As I came to rest on a small stone bridge over a drain, the sun was gradually
setting over the horizon. The sky slowly turned intense orange and then
started to darken.
More than 50 species of birds have been recorded here. Woodpeckers,
starlings, bulbuls, kingfishers and orioles are a common sight, Migrant
species were not lacking either. The rare resident Spotted Wood-owl
was a very recent discovery. Other animals include Changeable Lizards,
Monitor Lizards, Black Spitting Cobra and countless insects. With
numerous tall and magnificent old-growth trees, this place is like
a small open forest.
Viewed from a tall flat in Potong Pasir, the lush greenery covering
this part of Upper Serangoon Road is evident. Chief among the mature
trees are Tembusu, Sea Apple, Albizia, a variety of fig trees, Pong-pong
and Acacia. Other important trees include the Jacaranda, Golden Shower,
Mexican Lilac and Frangipani.
There was one early visit which left me with deep impressions that
this place was tranquil for more than the obvious reasons.
I have also encountered
them several times feeding amongst the tombstones. Ever alert, they are
easily startled, often giving out a rapid series of "clack" calls while
dashing for cover.
this twilight hour, the Slaty-breasted Rails become active, emerging
from under the thick cover of grasses to forage. This bird is very
shy and secretive and will only appear in the open when there is little
disturbance. It is absent for most of the day, preferring to rest
hidden in tall grass or thick undergrowth.
A family of White-breasted
Waterhens also emerged under the cover of darkness. The chicks were being
led into the drain for a bath. The adults got into the drain effortlessly
with a few flaps of their wings. Their black chicks, however, tumbled awkwardly
into the water. The ripples they created scattered the suds golden rays
with dazzling effects. In this relatively safe abode, the family had a delightful
bath amid shimmering lights.
Sadly, the building of the North-east MRT Line will bring about extensive
development along its corridor. Bidadari will have to go, replaced by a
concrete jungle. The proposed Woodleigh Station would sit astride the Christian
and Muslim Cemeteries, but this would not be so until a critical traffic
volume justifies its operation.
In a study by Yuen (1998/1999)* on this cemetery, several insights were
made regarding land utilisation in Singapore. This transformation of burial
ground to other usage represents the government's pragmatic approach of
devoting a smaller quantity of land for the dead and dedicating a larger
proportion for the living. Usage of land for burial is controlled, so that
sufficient land is kept to meet essential economic development such as industries
and housing. Over the years, cremation was widely promoted and has gradually
From surveys conducted of people living near and further away from the cemetery,
it was deduced that, if given a choice, the majority would like to see the
Bidadari Cemetery developed into a heritage or recreational park rather
than having it exhumed for other developments. In fact those who live nearby
do not feel that they are cemeteries but recreational parks. They use these
places for recreational activities such as strolling, jogging, cycling,
enjoying fresh air, relaxation and nature appreciation.
Hopefully, when the new housing estate stands on these grounds, the original
landscape is not totally obliterated. Some relies of the old place should
he incorporated into a park that would serve to inform the new occupants
of its history. The concept is similar to what was done at Fort Canning.
New residents could become familiar with the background of the place where
they would make their homes. Indeed, the housing authority plans to devote
some space for a park within the new housing estate.
Whenever I think of
Bidadari, I will always have fond memories of the waterhen chicks silhouetted
against a backdrop of scintillating light. And the loud haunting calls at
dusk of the wood-owls. Writing this is to put on permanent record the existence
of this charming and rustic place. Such are places that are becoming increasingly
Bidadari Christian Cemetery are graves of some prominent people. One
of these is that of the late Dr Lim Boon Keng, who played a key role
in the early days of colonial Singapore. Boon Keng Road was named
in his honour. Some other roads in Singapore were named after the
people who were buried here. There is also a row of graves of the
victims of the 1954 airplane crash at the old Kallang Airport.
At the back of the Muslim Cemetery is a sector allocated to the Hindus.
Here lies the tomb of a venerable Hindu "Priestess". It sits magnificently
under the shade of an old, sturdy and over-arching strangling fig
tree. Tied around this sacred tree is a red sash. The inscription
beneath the statue states that the 85-year-old woman had attained
Vaikundam, Sanskrit for "enlightenment". This and other significant
features should not be lost in the development as they serve as valuable
recreation and educational resources.
The Tomb of the Priestess,
Bidadari Muslim Cemetery
permission: Interpreting Landscape of Death.. The Bidadari Cemetery in
Singapore Yuen Kah Wai, Academic Exercise submitted in partial
fulfilment of the requirements for Degree of B A (Hons) Department of Geography,
is a pity that my close association with this place has only been
a little more than a decade. I am glad that at least we know a bit
more about this cemetery than those earlier ones, on which we are
clueless. Had we had a chance to explore them, we would have probably
discovered they were rich in Nature and history too.
resting place for all
The Bidadari Cemeteries were opened in 1907. "Bidadari"
was derived from the Sanskrit word "widyadari"; meaning
a nymph or fairy. These cemeteries are multi-ethnic and religious
burial grounds where Protestants, Catholics, Singhalese, Hindus and
Muslims were buried. The cemeteries were officially closed in 1972.
In the Christian side, near the beautiful ornate gate at the central
entrance, there once stood a small chapel where services were held.
It was torn down in the 1980s.
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