Home today to a slate of new public housing clusters, Bidadari used to be the site of a cemetery – in particular, Singapore’s first Muslim state cemetery and first multireligious cemetery.
The Bidadari Muslim cemetery in the 1990s before its exhumation. Courtesy of Goh Si Guim.
This article is a response to a call on the dearth of literature on Muslim cemeteries especially Bidadari. Ironically, documentation on Bidadari is lacking compared to the contemporary Bukit Brown Cemetery or even the older Fort Canning Cemetery. In the case of Fort Canning, most of the surviving headstones have been preserved, embedded in a wall that stands till today. In addition, tombstone rubbings of surviving headstones were made. For Bidadari, there was no systematic documentation, mapping or photography done of the cemetery that could at least remain a record for future reference and research.
In addition to the general lack of documentation on Bidadari Cemetery, there are limitations to reviewing a burial community such as the Muslim and/or Malay community. First, a Muslim community in the early 20th century was diverse. Second, simpler gravestones in the Muslim cemetery are not much of a textual source. This was the case for the Muslim tombstones in Bidadari Cemetery, Kampong Gelam’s royal cemetery and Keramat Radin Mas Ayu at Mount Faber. Most tombstones in the vicinity of the royal keramats hardly have names inscribed on them – and these were members of royalty!
A big Muslim tombstone in the Bidadari Muslim cemetery. Courtesy of Goh Si Guim.
Hence what is possible for the moment is a look into the history of the Bidadari estate and the history of its acquisition as the first Muslim state cemetery and the first multireligious cemetery. This article provides an introduction to the history of burials in the Muslim/Malay community in Singapore, and contextualises the claim Bidadari has as the first Muslim state cemetery.
Before Bidadari, Muslim burials were private events. There were three types of burials:
(i) keramats that were considered “holy grounds” by the community;
(ii) licensed burials made up of burials on wakaf lands and state lands; and
(iii) unlicensed Muslim burials performed mostly by the poor.
Keramats are one of the oldest, well-known burials in Singapore. It is usually a holy place that could be an old burial ground, cemetery, graveyard, object or place. The word is derived from the Arabic karamah, which means “holy”. Keramats are usually associated with dead persons of royal birth and sacred backgrounds. One of the oldest and best-known keramat is Keramat Sultan Iskandar Shah located at Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), today’s Fort Canning. Keramats are often associated with mysticism and venerated as shrines. Keramats in Singapore are mostly related to the Islamic community and popular belief, and are connected to one or more cultural groups. It is a syncretism of animism, Hinduism and Islamic beliefs
Some of the other well-known royal keramats are Keramat Bukit Kasita at Kampong Bahru, which was thought to have been in use for the last 400 years; Makam di Raja at Telok Blangah, which has been in existence for more than 100 years; the 200-year-old Kampong Gelam royal cemetery; and Keramat Radin Mas Ayu at Mount Faber. Most of these keramats are considered holy because of their association with dead persons of royal birth. The majority of the tombstones in the vicinity of the royal keramats hardly have names inscribed on them.
Licensed Burials: Wakaf and State Lands
The second category of Muslim burials is licensed burials, which can take place on either wakaf lands or state lands. A form of licensed burial takes place on wakaf lands for private or public purposes. Wakaf lands are donated to the public for charitable causes such as madrasahs (Islamic schools), mosques or Muslim burials. However, in the context of Muslim public cemeteries in Singapore, a wakaf burial plot may not be considered public cemetery land if the donor and family are buried within the same wakaf land. Many poor Muslims who were not able to reserve plots for private burials could be buried on wakaf lands. It is mentioned that “a trust of land as a wakaf for the burial of the donor or family and relatives was held not to be public charity as it was not to the benefit of the public and was therefore void”. Hence, wakaf burials may both be public and private. The existence of such wakaf lands prove that financially able Muslims could provide burial plots for their descendants and for poorer Muslims.
The highest number of Muslim burials were found on state lands. Bidadari was the first of such a state cemetery, followed by Pusara Aman, Pusara Abadi I and Pusara Abadi II. The Muslim section of Bidadari was open from 1910 to 1973. By the time Bidadari was closed for exhumation in 1990s, there was an estimated 78,800 burials for the 24-hectare Muslim section of Bidadari Cemetery. This was more than the estimated 54,000 in the Christian section of Bidadari.
The 48-hectare Muslim section of Choa Chu Kang Cemetery was made up of Pusara Aman I, Pusara Aman II, Pusara Abadi I and Pusara Abadi II. Pusara Aman I, comprising 40 ha, was a major part of the Muslim section. It was opened in 1970 and closed for burials in 1995, with 45,000 burial plots. Pusara Abadi I formed part of Pusara Aman I. Exhumed bodies from other cemetery plots that were unclaimed by relatives were interred in Pusara Abadi I.
Pusara Aman II made up the other 8 ha of the Choa Chu Kang Muslim cemetery. It was opened in 1995, after Pusara Aman I closed. Pusara Abadi II was also located in Pusara Aman II. Exhumed bodies from Bidadari that were claimed by families were interred in Pusara Aman II.
Before the opening of state lands for Muslim burials, there was a lack of organisation and coordination for burials in early colonial Singapore. The fate of the dead poor was captured vividly by the colonial surveyor, John Turnbull Thomson, during his stay in the Far East:
a few days will suffice to convince strangers in Singapore that native burial-grounds are to be met with in all directions. These are generally much neglected, and are overgrown with weeds and scrub, and often are they desecrated by the unsympathising Christian, Mohamedan, or Pagan, as may be. Roads are recklessly carried through the bones of original native settlers, and crowded streets now traverse the sacred places where many Singapore primeval worthies are laid in their last homes. Such sights were often to be seen of fresh human bones and coffins and hums sticking out of the sand by the roadsides, warning the fair young maiden of Western birth what might be her fate, were she laid in this land of apathy and regardlessness.[^14]
Bidadari Estate: Istana of Cecilia Catherina Lange, Wife of Sultan Abu Bakar
Before Bidadari was a cemetery, it had been an estate owned by prominent families. Its original owner was Henry Minchin Simons (known as H.M. Simons and popularly nicknamed H.M.S.), co-founder of Paterson Simons & Co and a civil engineer. In the early colonial period, the civil engineer was also the architect. Simons exchanged the Bidadari estate for Tyersall estate with William Napier. It was not known when exactly Simons had the building constructed or when he had the building exchanged for Tyersall. Few archival materials remain to elucidate the relationship of the two previous owners of the Bidadari estate.
Sultan Abu Bakar was the Sultan of Johor. The Bidadari estate was home to his second consort, Cecilia Catherina Lange. Courtesy of Antiques of the Orient.
Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor acquired the two estates of Bidadari and Tyersall from Napier and Simons respectively. Several newspaper reports from this period reveal that the sultan was a personal friend of both Simons and Napier; hence purchasing the estates was not out of the question. Tyersall became the palace of Sultana Fatimah, and was Sultan Abu Bakar’s official residence in Singapore when he became Sultan of Johor in 1885.
Bidadari was the home of the Sultan’s second consort Cecilia Catherina Lange (1848–1939), a half-Danish, half-Chinese woman who was the daughter of Mads Johansen Lange, a well-known Danish merchant in Bali. Her mother, Teh Sang Nio, was one of two wives Lange had during his 17 years in Bali. Teh survived Lange and inherited a comfortable home in Banyuwangi, Java.
Cecilia remained abroad after her father’s death, and returned to Bali in 1859 to visit his grave. She lived with a family friend for a time in India, England, France and then back East. When she returned to Singapore, she attended school in a convent and met Abu Bakar. Upon her conversion to Islam and marriage to Abu Bakar, she was known by the title and Muslim name Enche’ Besar Zubaidah binte Abdullah. She was 20 years at the time. She bore him two children: a daughter, Mariam, who later became the first wife of the Sultan of Pahang, and a son, Ibrahim, who succeeded his father upon his death in 1895 and ruled Johor as Sultan Ibrahim. It was established that Mariam and Ibrahim were born in the Bidadari estate in 1871 and 1873 respectively.
Sultan Abu Bakar and Che’ Zubaidah Besar with their first-born, Mariam. Courtesy of Dato’ Rahim Ramli.
When Sultan Abu Bakar’s title changed in 1885 from Maharaja of Johor to Sultan of Johor, Zubaidah left Singapore to stay in Johor and never left. She lived in a palace in Johor until 1930 and hardly appeared in public. Mads Lange’s Danish biographer described her as an “animated little lady, with white hair, blue eyes and aristocratic features”. Cecilia was the “bidadari” (from Persian word widadari, or beautiful nymph) who resided in the estate for a while. The estate was then left vacant for some time. When the Municipal Commission wanted to acquire the land for a Christian cemetery in 1902, no one would have imagined that it would also be the first Muslim state cemetery and the first multireligious state cemetery in Singapore.
It remains a mystery how Bidadari obtained its name. The name had already been in existence before Sultan Abu Bakar and his wife took up residence in the estate. Newspapers reported that there was a pool in Bidadari visited by beautiful nymphs. The pool was said to exist but closed down as part of measures to reduce mosquito breeding. Oral accounts mention a hill in the estate on which the palace of the Sultan of Johor stood. This was where the Upper Serangoon Technical School used to be. However, images of the Bidadari palace are rare compared to Sultan Abu Bakar’s other residences in Singapore such as the Tyersall or Woodneuk palaces.
The Story of Bidadari Muslim Cemetery, 1910–1973: The First and Oldest Muslim State Cemetery
The creation of a multireligious cemetery plot that began with Bidadari cemetery was incidental. In the beginning, due to a lack of space at the Bukit Timah cemetery for Christian burials, the Municipal Commissioners intended to acquire “the Bidadari estate” to address this problem as well as the poor drainage there.
While enquiries were made regarding the purchase of the Bidadari estate, investigations were also carried out to ascertain if the land was suitable for the construction of a new Christian cemetery.
enquiries \[were\] being made as to the state of the Christian Cemetery in Bukit Timah Road, and a thorough examination of the Cemetery was ordered. The portion of the Christian Cemetery, fit for burials, is all but used up. The remaining portion is altogether unsuitable, being made ground; in several places, the ground water is only 1 ft 8 in to 5 ft below the surface, and after rain a considerable portion of the old cemetery is under water, in some places more than 1 ft 6 in in depth. The drainage of the graves flows along the surface of the underlying mangrove swamp direct to Rochor Canal, and practically without filtration, instead of passing through porous soil, which would tend to free the drainage from deleterious matter.
It was therefore decided to abandon the present cemetery and to provide a more suitable site. The sanction of the Governor in Council was obtained for the acquisition of the land for this purpose. A provision of $80,000 was accordingly made in the 1902 loan of $400,000. Several sites were inspected, including Bukit Timah Road, Thomson Road and Serangoon Road. The Commissioners decided that the Bidadari estate on Serangoon Road was the most suitable for the purposes of burial as the soil there was porous and sandy. A survey was then made of the land.
The earliest declaration for the acquisition of land at Bidadari was published in the Government Gazette under the Land Acquisition Ordinance in September 1902. At the time, Dato’ Mentri of Johor did not reply to a request by the Municipal Commissioners to survey the property for acquiring it as a site for a cemetery.
Dato’ Mentri was the trustee for the Sultan of Johor for the Bidadari estate. Negotiations between Dato’ Mentri and the Commissioners took almost three years to complete. This was later complicated by a petition “numerously” signed by Muslims so that part of the Bidadari estate would be set aside as a burial ground for the use of their co-religionists. The lack of Malay press at the time made it difficult to trace this interest by the Muslims to have their own cemetery. The Muslim Advisory Board was set up three years later in 1905. Hence, any record of organised attempts to create a public Muslim cemetery was noted only in passing. Perhaps, more efforts to look into the annual reports of the Muslim Advisory Board/Hindu Muslim Endowment Board could shed more light on documented attempts for a Muslim burial space.
The Municipal Commissioners were reluctant to accede to a request to purchase the land for other religious groups. They were clear that the motivation was for a Christian cemetery, as noted by the response of the Deputy President of the Municipal Commissioners, who passed the recommendation of the By-Law Committee:
That the obligation of the different sections of the Community must be recognised but that as the ground at Bidadari was acquired for the interment of decreased members of the Christian Community for a limited period only, it is inadvisable to set apart any portion of this land for the interment of members of other religions.[^22]
The commissioners had been firm about their plans to reserve the burial grounds at Bidadari for the Christian community until Dato’ Mentri made it a prerequisite for the commissioners to also acquire the land for the purpose of a public Muslim burial ground as part of the offer in 1905.
The question of providing a public Mohamedan burial ground is considered by the Board. The President addresses the Board, and moves that the Commissioners accept the offer of the Dato’ Mentri of Johore to sell to the Corporation for the purpose of a Mohamedan public burial ground, at the price of $1,056.66 per acre, a piece of land forming part of the Bidadari Estate, being a portion of Government Grant No. 9.[^24]
Eventually, the 45-acre land was acquired at the price of $2,500 per acre, on condition that the commissioners made a road from MacPherson Road to the side of the cemetery. Payment for the Bidadari estate amounted to $112,500, which was paid in two installments of $80,000 and $32,500.
Work in Progress
Work on the Christian section of Bidadari cemetery began first. Within a year, plans for the layout of the Christian cemetery were prepared and arrangements were made for filling up the low-lying portions and for forming and metalling the roads.
With the opening of the Bidadari Christian cemetery, the gazette and newspaper reports officially announced the closure of the Bukit Timah Road Christian Cemetery on 31 December 1909. In effect, the Catholic portion of Bidadari Cemetery was opened, except in cases where the interments were in reserved plots where leases were granted. The grounds had already been consecrated in January 1908. The benediction ceremony of the opening of the Roman Catholic section of Bidadari section was announced in January 1910.
At the time, Bidadari was the name of the Christian cemetery. The Municipal Commissioners would often use the terms “Mohamedan burial ground” at Upper Serangoon to refer to the Muslim section of Bidadari in government reports. It is not clear when Bidadari became synonymous with the Muslim cemetery and other religious plots.
The Municipal Commissioners agreed that work on the Muslim cemetery would not begin until the completion of the Christian cemetery. Financial reasons were cited for this. Years after, the plan for the Bidadari mosque in the Muslim cemetery was approved in 1909. Quarters for the registrar and his coolies, as well as a mortuary, were erected.
The side and back of Bidadari mosque. Courtesy of Goh Si Guim.
Opening of Bidadari Muslim Cemetery
The Muslim cemetery was opened on 14 February 1910. This brief announcement was made in a tongue-in-cheek manner: “the new Mohammedan cemetery at Bidadari, was opened on St. Valentine’s Day, but yet has no tenants”. The lack of response from the Muslim community is puzzling, considering that the Muslims had been actively petitioning for a cemetery plot.
The number of Muslim burials recorded during this time was limited in contrast to the utilisation rate of the Christian cemetery. No reasons were given in the government reports for this lack of numbers. In the later part of 1910, months after the opening of the Christian and Muslim cemeteries, there were 71 burials in the Christian cemetery and one at the Muslim cemetery. Six months after, there were 50 burials in the Christian cemetery and seven in the Muslim cemetery.
Almost 15 years later, in 1925, the Christian cemetery that was made up of four divisions – Protestant, French Roman Catholic, Portuguese Roman Catholic and Pauper – recorded 15,109 burials since its opening. The Muslim section, on the other hand, recorded 3,169 burials.
There may be many reasons for this gap in numbers. One, Muslims could have had many alternative cemetery plots unlike the Christians. Two, the plot probably served the Muslim population in the surrounding area instead of islandwide because of its inaccessibility. There were tales of tigers roaming the jungle, beyond the confined areas of the municipality. Three, perhaps news of the new cemetery plot took time to spread to the outlying areas. In addition, the Malay and Muslim folks were probably unaware that they could also apply for subsidies for the plots.
A fee of $2 was charged for adult interment and half of that for a child under 10 years of age. For those in the service of the British such as civil servants of the colonial government or the municipality, the interment fee was $1. In cases where the relatives were certified by the chief police officer or by the president of Municipal Commissioners as “too poor to pay the fees, the fee may be reduced or remitted”.
Eventually, when the exhumation exercise commenced in 1995, the Muslim section of Bidadari consisted of 78,800 burials, more than the estimated 54,000 in the Christian section.
Simple tombstones lining the sidewalk of Bidadari Muslim cemetery. Courtesy of Goh Si Guim.
The Chinese Question
Apparently, the Muslims were not the only group who applied for cemetery sites in the municipal areas in 1904; there were applications from the Chinese as well. However, applications from the Chinese at the time were rejected on the grounds that Chinese burial customs were incompatible with the ambience of the consecrated Christian site, even though land could be secured at Bidadari for a Chinese cemetery plot. The Chinese community had been facing obstacles in acquiring land within and beyond the municipal limits for private interment for the first two decades of the 20th century.
Some years later, the acquisition of the 213-acre site at Bukit Brown, already part of an existing burial ground that belonged to the Seh Ong kongsi (clan association), was possible. This was because the kongsi resented to the acquisition of their land under the Land Acquisition Ordinance, and hence was able to acquire the Bukit Brown site. The Bukit Brown site came under municipal control at the end of 1919, and Bukit Brown Cemetery opened for internment on 1 January 1922.
Bidadari Exhumation Exercise
As one of the oldest cemeteries in Singapore, Bidadari had 147,000 graves within its Muslim, Christian and Hindu burial grounds, about half of which belonged to the Muslims. Kevin Y.L. Tan wrote that no detailed study of the Muslim section has been done and it is no wonder since the individual tombs were badly weathered. The grounds were closed in 1972. It was in 1996 that the government announced that the area was earmarked for redevelopment.
This sparked great public debate over the loss of Bidadari’s rich history, which resulted in the Bidadari Memorial Garden. It was set up by the National Heritage Board to remind present and future generations of Singapore of its history. No remains were reinterred in the memorial garden, with objects and structures moved to the new site. Some of the more prominent members of the Muslim community interred there were Ahmad Ibrahim (former Minister for Health), Captain Noor Mohamed Hashim Mohamed Dali (Singapore’s first Malay/ Muslim commissioned military officer and unofficial member of the Straits Settlements Legislative Council), Che Zahara Noor Mohamed (founder of the Malay Women’s Welfare Association) and Abdul Rahim Kajai (a pioneer of Malay journalism).
Perhaps the exhumation exercise was timely, considering the inefficient use for Muslim burials. Ahmad Ibrahim acknowledged this when he, together with representatives from other communities, thought of the burial question in their report to the governor. The report was prescient in its recommendation for cremation for cultures that allowed it. However, for the Malay community, this was not the case. Hence, the Modular Burial System (MBS) was introduced to the Muslim community decades later. Through the MBS, land optimisation of the cemetery land in Choa Chu Kang could last until 2130.
This article is about preserving dying legacies in cemeteries. From the lessons of Bidadari, we should attempt to actively campaign for the documentation of other cemetery plots on wakaf lands slated for exhumation exercises. Perhaps through such an exercise, many of us would find ourselves in the past, learn to appreciate the present and salvage whatever is left of it.
The writer would like to thank the following individuals and institutions (in no particular order): Azizah Sidek, Dr Kevin Tan, Julie from Antiques of the Orient, Goh Si Guim, Dato’ Rahim Ramli, Dr Frances Hutchinson, Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Dr Saroja Dorairajoo, the National Archives of Singapore and the National Archives of Malaysia (Johor Branch).
Kartini Saparudin has been working for the National Library for six years. She has written on the history of Bukit Brown Cemetery, the study of women’s magazines in the 1950s and 1960s and Hadhrami historiography. She compiled and edited two bibliographies, Sources on Family History: A Select Bibliography and The Hadhrami Arabs in Southeast Asia with Special Reference to Singapore: An Annotated Bibliography. Her upcoming project, a major exhibition on family history, will be launched in July 2013.
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