Street View: HDB estate with grave links to the past

Muslim burial site in Bukit Purmei holds historical, spiritual significance

ST 20140314 Streetviewm

HIDDEN beside a block of HDB flats and a childcare centre in Bukit Purmei Ville is a littleknown graveyard with possible links to the descendants and successors of early Singapore’s legendary founder, Sang Nila Utama.

Shrouded in heavy foliage, the Muslim burial ground Tanah Kubur Diraja and the compound, Keramat Bukit Kasita, are easy to miss.

Not much is known about the 200 or so tombs there – except that they belong to the Johor sultanate, which Singapore was part of between the 16th and 19th centuries. Some accounts describe how the graveyard could have been opened as early as 1530 by Sultan Alaudin Riayat Shah II – the seventh descendant of Sang Nila Utama, a prince who founded the kingdom of Singapura in 1299.

But historian and archaeologist John Miksic, an associate professor at the department of South-east Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, said the graves, like those in the Radin Mas area, are not ancient and date back to the early and mid-19th century – when Singapore and Johor were part of the same sultanate under Sultan Hussein.

During the 19th century, the temenggong of Riau and his people lived near the Masjid Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim in Telok Blangah Road. They had some graves around the mosque, but others were erected at Tanah Kubor Diraja.

There are numerous legends about the graves in Radin Mas, added Professor Miksic – including one of a 16th-century princess who sacrificed her life for her father’s at the foot of Mount Faber. While these are not “acceptable as historical facts”, they have a role to play in the community.

The site, for instance, is regarded as a place with spiritual significance for the 50 or so devotees who visit every month to pay their respects to the dead and seek the spiritual counsel of its 62-year-old volunteer caretaker, who wanted to be known only as Mami Umi.

“They come from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia to pay their respects,” she said. “I’m also here to pray for their needs – if they are sick for example, or if they have something weighing on their minds.”

Prof Miksic said it is considered “helpful” in Islam to pray at keramats – sites associated with devout Muslims of the past. “Meditating in the grave area is believed to help people attain a state of calm and devotion in which they can communicate most directly with God,” he said.

The spot, which is on state land, is marked as a reserve site under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Draft Master Plan 2013 and is managed by the Housing Board on behalf of the Singapore Land Authority. Prof Miksic said it is worth protecting and that more historical research should be done on it.

“The primary criterion for protection and preservation should be the importance of the site for the local society who utilises it,” he added. “The fact that a considerable number of people feel that Tanjong Kubor is relevant to their heritage and identity is sufficient to give it heritage status.”

According to the caretaker, the site used to house a small mosque. Today, 15 or so of her cats, a rooster and some rabbits take refuge under the zinc-topped shacks there. Mami Umi said she “lives in a flat nearby” and is at the holy site only during the day.

She enjoys the peaceful respite the kampung setting offers and enjoys the rich flora and fauna, from hibiscus shrubs to mango trees, that encircle the compound.

Ms Dorrin Lazarus, 31, an assistant manager at a nearby shipping company, said erecting information signs – on the greenery and history of the place – will help to educate people about the spot. Many like her have paid little attention to the site, despite having lived or worked in the area for years.

For heritage enthusiasts like Jerome Lim, 48, a naval architect who has documented the place on his blog, the possible links to Singapore’s early history and connections to the Johor sultanate and parts of the Riau and Lingga archipelago, are fascinating. Like Prof Miksic, he believes more research is needed to “elevate awareness of Singapore’s links to other territories of the Johor sultanate”.

Ms Ivy Low, 61, who lives in Block 102 next door, said friends and family who visit her flat are often surprised to find a graveyard in her backyard. “They ask if I get frightened but there’s nothing spooky about it,” she said. “In fact, the kampung setting brings me back to my own kampung days.”

Ms Lee Heng Siew, 46, the supervisor at Sasco Child Care Centre at Block 102, agreed.

“It’s a great chance to show our young students how kampung life used to be and to let them know about the important people buried here,” she said.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 28, 2014