Singapore: Tradition in the Modern City
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Thursday, April 30, 2015
By Ira Peppercorn
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Think of Singapore and the image that comes to mind is a modern city-state with tall buildings and a vibrant economy.  That image would not be wrong.  It is the world’s fourth largest financial center and the only Asian country with a AAA credit rating.   It is also a place where 80 percent of the population lives in publicly built housing.
That would only paint part of the picture.   There is also a history of deep cultural traditions, some of which are in danger of being eradicated as Singapore continues to build new housing and wide roads in its onward march to modernity. 

Claire Leow, corporate executive, educator, former journalist and good friend, is trying to preserve one of Singapore’s traditions, Bukit Brown.  It is one of the last traditional cemeteries in Singapore and a sanctuary of green in this very modern city-state.  In 2013, the Government announced plans to bisect the area with a road that could cause the mass relocation of 5000 graves.  It prompted Claire, Bianca Polak and their colleagues to spend almost every weekend giving tours of the area and showing a side of Singapore that most people do not even know still exists.
I arrived in Singapore after a 32-hour trip from Washington.  Claire invited me to go on a 10km walk from the Botanic Gardens to Bukit Brown the next day.   Claire is one of the only people I know that could invite me to go somewhere whom I would accompany with blind faith.  She’s never been wrong, is always interesting and has shared her love of some amazing places.  So, jet lagged and all, I agreed to go.  Right decision.  But, then again, with Claire, I knew it would be.
The entrance to Bukit Brown is along a small road, lush with green plants and trees.  A small memorial with flowers and incense sits alongside a road.  Then another.  Then a house appears, which is actually built on top of a tomb.  Dogs run in and out protecting the spirits of those that lived here and those that live here now. 

Circular memorials built according to Feng Shui principles line the side of the road as we walk.  The grave of Lee Hoon Leong, grandfather of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is in Bukit Brown, near those of cooks and masons and farmers.   And that of the family that introduced Anna to the King of Thailand. 

It is hard not to be filled with a sense of history, culture and mysticism in this place. Claire has a quote from the Dalai Lama on her Facebook page that says, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already knew.  But if you listen, you may learn something new.”   I would only add that the same is true if you look and observe with an open mind.   I learned about a part of a country that I did not know existed—and that is in danger of being lost.  And then there was a great dinner in a Hawker Center afterwards.  This is Singapore, after all.

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Bukit Brown - We have now regular guided walks every first weekend of the month!
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