Tags and raffia string spotted across most of the 15,000 graves in Jalan Kubor, Singapore's oldest Malay cemetery, have sparked fear among heritage enthusiasts this week that the site may soon make way for redevelopment.
But the National Heritage Board (NHB) told The Straits Times yesterday the markers are part of a new research project to document the 33,900 sq m plot off Victoria Street.
Also, the Urban Redevelopment Authority's spokesman said a time frame for its development has "not been firmed up yet", although the site has been earmarked for residential development in its masterplans since 1998.
The research project, which started last month, will include a land survey of the site, which is about the size of five football fields, a research report on the cemetery's history, plus a database of photographic and research materials.
The current interest in documenting the site, however, worries heritage enthusiasts like Mr Jerome Lim.
"I'm worried the documentation effort could mean the site might possibly be exhumed very soon,'' said the 49-year-old naval architect.
Jalan Kubor is the last sizeable cemetery in the area and is excluded from the Kampung Glam conservation district that was gazetted in 1989.
Dating back to the 1800s, the descendents and followers of Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, are believed to be buried in a walled-up part of the compound, known as the Old Malay Royal Graveyard.
Sultan Hussein is best known for signing the 1819 treaty with Sir Stamford Raffles that turned Singapore into a British colony.
The cemetery is also the final resting place of traders from old port towns such as Palembang and other Javanese and Bugis ports. Some are buried in family enclosures, mausolea or clusters.
The tombstones and epigraphy carved by Javanese and Chinese stone carvers, for instance, reflect the settlement's socio-cultural diversity, according to the project's lead researcher, Assistant Professor Imran Tajudeen of the National University of Singapore's department of architecture.
The NHB had commissioned a team compromising academics from NUS and other experts to do the project.
The raffia strings and tags are part of the effort. The strings, for instance, help cluster the matching headstones and footstones of each grave.
Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's group director of policy, said the project is part of its ongoing efforts to document sites of historic interest.
Jalan Kubor is one of the earliest Malay cemeteries and the aim is to unearth "insights into the Malay community's historical identity, the significance of the cemetery to Kampung Glam and its development, as well as Singapore's connection to the Malay world".
"We also hope to document the notable personalities and community leaders buried there, such as Haji Ambok Sooloh Haji Omar and Syed Alwee Ali Aljunied," he added.
Associate Professor Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied from the NUS Department of Malay Studies attributes the dearth of research on the cemetery and its neglect to a "pervasive historical amnesia on the part of Singaporeans" and the Malay community's lack of resources.
The project is long overdue, said Ms Savita Kashyap, a director of research and consultancy at Singapore History Consultants, which specialises in heritage education and research consultancy services.
"The cemetery has always been a mystery and efforts to trace lineages have been largely incomplete," she added.
Singapore Heritage Society president Chua Ai Lin wants the burial ground protected as part of the Kampung Glam conservation district.
"The cemetery is an important component of urban settlement and morphology. It makes more sense to include it in the heritage zone of Kampung Glam for a holistic and robust interpretation of the area," said Dr Chua