“Very soon, this place will be no more,” said this random man who saw me snapping pictures in Bidadari park, said a woman to her friend. A man smiled, and I couldn’t help but think about how his grin seemed to actually be hiding sadness. He’s lost a lot of green space because of development projects. Having a few foods for thought, I walked by him while he was carrying a remote control aeroplane and battery charger.
I most often went to Upper Serangoon Road and I remember what it was like before the North-East Line. One could see the length of the Bidadari Cemetery while driving but not how deep it was. Behind the imposing iron, gateway were endless rows of gravestones and marble statues spread over rolling hills. Singapore once housed a massive cemetery that contained an estimated 147,000 graves.
Before it was Bidadari Cemetery, the area belonged to one of Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor’s wives. Her palace, Istana Bidadari, had once sat on the land before it was acquired by the Municipal Government in 1904 to turn it into a municipal cemetery. Proposals for the Muslim burial ground in Bidadari date as far back as 1905 and involved 35 additional acres of land. The compound was divided into sections for Christians, Muslims, Hindus and the Singhalese.
A Christian cemetery known as Bidadari occupied two chapels: a Protestant Chapel and a Catholic Chapel. A Youngberg Memorial Adventist Hospital, which was also built and set up by the Seventh Day Adventist Mission in 1948. The first burial at Bidadari Cemetery occurred on 15 December 1907. By 1972, there were approximately 147,000 graves in the cemetery.
Some of the notable people buried in Bidadari Cemetery were the medical doctor and social reformer Dr Lim Boon Keng, talented Swan & Maclaren architect Regent Alfred John Bidwell, and former Minister for Health Ahmad Bin Ibrahim.
The Bidadari cemetery was closed for burials in 1972, and all its graves were exhumed in 2001 to make way for future housing and development of the North-East MRT Line. The park has become commonplace for people to go jogging or out with their children in strollers. There are also groups of runners near the Gurkha Contingent. The wide-open area makes it ideal for kite flying and operating model remote control airplanes.
NGOs such as the Singapore Heritage Society have worked to make the cemetery’s historical value known. As a result, Bidadari paved the way for increasing recognition of cemeteries in Singapore. Conservation and nature groups slammed the government’s decision to build a road through Bukit Brown Cemetery. The lack of land space in Singapore means that the city often clears land for burial purposes to make room for construction.
In 2004, the Bidadari Memorial Garden was built at Mount Vernon after exhuming the graves. The Tomb of Iyasu and the other iconic monuments were moved to the garden. It is understood that some of the items from the Garden’s art collection will be shifted to a purpose-built park at the new Bidadari Estate.
The Bidadari Memorial Garden was developed by the National Heritage Board in 2004 to commemorate the history of Bidadari Cemetery.
The HDB has announced the plans for their new housing estate in Bidadari. It will contain six distinctive neighbourhoods and a 10-acre Bidadari Park with a lake. Approximately 11,000 housing units will be built on the site bounded by Bartley Road to the north, Upper Serangoon Road to the west, Sennett Estate to the south, and Mount Vernon road to the east. Woodleigh and Bartley MRT Stations are served by the North-East Line and Circle Line respectively.
An artist impression of the Bidadari development. Image courtesy of the Housing and Development Board
Much has changed in Bidadari since its inception. People have lived in the area of Bidadari for over 600 years. Over that time, it has been home to royalty, to prison inmates, and was even used as a public park. Currently, Bidadari’s focus is on being a residential community and new homes are being built there.