Family seeks to save graves of ancestors

Ms Yeo beside the mass grave of four of her ancestors, which is flanked by statues of Sikh guards and Chinese military warriors, at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. The wealthy Yeo family moved here from China and Semarang in Indonesia in the late 1800s.
Ms Yeo beside the mass grave of four of her ancestors, which is flanked by statues of Sikh guards and Chinese military warriors, at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. The wealthy Yeo family moved here from China and Semarang in Indonesia in the late 1800s.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Tomb expert says the Yeo mass grave's statues reflect Singapore's melting pot of cultures

A family is battling to save the graves of 10 of their ancestors in Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

Ms Jean Yeo and her uncle, Mr Donald Yeo, have written to the authorities asking them not to exhume the graves, which are slated for exhumation in August.

They include a mass grave housing the remains of four of their relatives, including Tan Ja Dee Neo who once owned a park here.

Ms Yeo, 61, who used to work in sales, and Mr Yeo, 84, a retired legal professional, have appealed for the graves to be preserved in their existing state. The mass grave, flanked by statues of four Sikh guards and Chinese warriors, is one of 35,000 under Phase 5 of the National Environment Agency's (NEA) exhumation programme at the Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

Due to land scarcity, the NEA introduced the burial policy in 1998 to limit the lease of graves to 15 years. Those 15 years or older are exhumed in phases. The latest phase was announced in July 2014.

In an effort to make the best use of the limited land available for burial, the Crypt Burial System was introduced in 2007 to allow burials to be spaced closer together.

Ms Yeo, who has Stage 3 colorectal cancer and brain cancer, said it is her "dying wish" that her ancestors' graves remain intact.

The NEA is in discussion with the National Heritage Board (NHB) and Ministry of National Development (MND) "on the future of selected structures" at the cemetery affected by the exhumation programme.

The wealthy Yeo family moved here from China and Semarang in Indonesia in the late 1800s and owned a batik business in Arab Street called Chop Yeo Hong Seng.

Ms Yeo's great-grandmother, the late Tan Ja Dee Neo, owned 17 houses here. She also bought 27ha of land near Bukit Timah for a park which was named after her daughter, Yeo Ai Lin. The park is now part of the Dairy Farm Estate.

Tomb expert Raymond Goh said the Yeo graves "are aesthetically beautiful", adding that the statues of Sikh guards and Chinese military warriors reflect Singapore's "melting pot of cultures".

Mr Goh has also appealed to the MND and NHB to save a 46 sq m World War II tomb memorial at the cemetery. Built in 1962, it is believed to house the remains of several Chinese residents who died during the Japanese Occupation.

He believes it could have been missed out during a national effort in the 1960s to rehouse the remains of the Chinese community's war dead at the Civilian War Memorial in Beach Road. He said: "The WWII memorial is testimony to a war story of death and sacrifice - a story that Singapore should never forget."

The area also houses the remains of 11,500 pioneers from the defunct 1840s Loke Yah Teng Cemetery in Tiong Bahru. Today, they take the form of plain markers arranged in rows at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery.

Many of the 35,000 graves slated for exhumation were moved there as a result of redevelopment. They were re-interred after being moved from defunct graveyards between the 1940s and 1970s with the aid of old clans, including those of the Huang, Chua and Lim lineages.

Mr Goh hopes the significant tombstones there will be studied by the NHB and later incorporated into a heritage trail.

The NEA said it "considers the demand projection and trends" in its planning to ensure adequate after- death facilities in Singapore to cater to the needs of various groups.

Choa Chu Kang Cemetery is the only active burial ground here. Religions such as Islam require their dead to be buried.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2016, with the headline 'Family seeks to save graves of ancestors'. Print Edition | Subscribe