Bukit Brown has won the hearts of many visitors, particularly amongst those who either discovered or re-discovered its peaceful charms after it was gazetted for significant redevelopment in 2011. While a small but vocal group of dedicated fans and concerned citizens rallied at that time to save Bukit Brown, the perception was that they did not enjoy the support of a significant number of Singaporeans. However, polling conducted as part of the Our Singapore Conversation project appears to show otherwise. Whether viewed as a part of our heritage, or merely as a green space, a significant majority of Singaporeans prefer preservation of such sites over infrastructure development. While the government claims to have been listening during the national conversation, not everyone is convinced. A decision to preserve Bukit Brown before exhumations and development begin would be a significant step towards showing Singaporeans that their concerns and desires were given an honest hearing.
The chart above shows the responses of Singaporeans when asked to choose a preference between preservation of green spaces and infrastructure development. Interestingly, an almost identical pattern emerged when respondents were asked to similarly choose between preservation of heritage sites and infrastructure development. While it should be noted that no explicit reference was apparently made in the survey to any particular location, it is clear that as the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China – and surrounded by over 200 acres of woodland – Bukit Brown is probably one of the more significant sites in Singapore in both categories. For this reason the government should listen – not least because a mere six percent of respondents were so strongly in favour of infrastructure development that they would presumably accept the high-handed manner in which the fate of Bukit Brown was originally sealed. Conversely, there was a significant majority both in favour of preserving either heritage sites (56%) or green spaces (58%) and it is this majority to whom the government should listen.
While only a relatively small number of Singaporeans signed a petition in support of saving Bukit Brown when it was first threatened, and fewer still stood up and openly lobbied for the government to change direction, there is clearly then a much larger majority who support if not saving Bukit Brown itself then more generally have a preference for preserving similar sites. Explaining the difference in numbers between the majority who claim to prefer preservation and the few who originally voiced out in support of Bukit Brown is not easy, but this appears to be a case of the “silent majority” making their feelings known. The national conversation which has just concluded was, after all, a process fundamentally about speaking and being heard. While many Singaporeans are probably quite cynical about the effectiveness of lobbying or petitioning the government to change when it is clear that a decision has already been made, it seems to be that in the setting of the national conversation, where an ear was offered and a non-confrontational question was asked, the silent majority made their feelings known.
In a sense, this points to the effectiveness of the process of listening and the honest answers that can be found away from the confrontational nature of political decision-making – however the government needs to show that it really was listening. In his NDR speech, PM Lee spoke at length about how Singapore would find a new way forwards. If this is really to happen, then the government needs to show Singaporeans – whether they are part of a silent majority or not – that they will be heard and listened to. There should be no slippery excuses or inexplicable silences. If the government was serious about having a dialogue with Singaporeans then they should either take steps to protect Bukit Brown from development or give a very good reason why, after indulging in one year of conversation, the clear and stated preference of a majority of Singaporeans to preserve sites such as Bukit Brown, should not be acted upon.