Singapore was once covered by cemeteries.
Up to the 1970s, burial was the main method of managing the dead in Singapore, and people were free to bury their loved ones almost anywhere they wished. There were large, well-known, public cemeteries such as Bukit Brown and Bidadari, and there were smaller, private, unnamed ones - kampung graveyards, church graveyards, the like.
In 1973, the Government passed an ordinance preventing further expansion of 42 major cemeteries around the island. Thereafter, burial was consolidated in one location - Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, in the west of the island - while other cemeteries were gradually exhumed for redevelopment. Bidadari town, for example, is currently being built over the former cemetery.
Presently, smaller graveyards are a rarity in Singapore. I can think of Jalan Kubor Cemetery, a Muslim cemetery in Kampong Glam, and the Japanese Cemetery off Yio Chu Kang Road. And there is a similar permanent resting place for the dead in Bedok - one that I deem a, ahem, lucky accident of history.
Lucky Gardens Cemetery, also known as Tanah Wakaf Nyaii, is a Muslim cemetery sandwiched between a private neighbourhood called Lucky Gardens, and Blocks 70 and 71 Bedok South Road.
The cemetery officially appeared on maps in 1961, although it could have existed as a kampung burial spot years or even decades before. In 1961, the cemetery (shaded blue below) was in rural Bedok, within walking distance of Upper East Coast Road and the sea.
By the end of the 1960s, development had come to the area between Sennett Road and the cemetery. Private houses were built, served by a network of roads such as Lucky View, Lucky Heights, and Lucky Gardens, the last of which gave the cemetery its present English-language name. The private estate stopped just short of the cemetery.
Below is a 1975 street directory map of the area. The rough area covered by the cemetery is shaded blue.
Then the 1970s saw the rise of Bedok New Town. High-rise flats came up north and east of the cemetery, again stopping just short of it.
At the time, the clearance of cemeteries for New Towns was commonplace. But somehow, Lucky Gardens Cemetery had the luck to escape this fate.
Below is a 1984 street directory map of the area. The cemetery is shaded blue. By then, because of land reclamation, the cemetery was no longer near the sea.
My guess is that the unique urban geography of the area saved the cemetery from destruction. Care was taken to have Bedok New Town’s flats and roads avoid the private estate. The cemetery lay in the interstice, at the edge of both private and public developments, a sweet no man’s land. Furthermore, it was surrounded on three sides by private houses along the roads of Lucky Gardens, Lucky Heights, and Parbury Avenue - a cul-de-sac which buffered it against development. Finally, the cemetery was too small in area for much to be done if it was cleared - it would be hard for an HDB block to fit in it.
And so, it was left alone, for decades.
Some time ago, I visited the cemetery.
Upon arrival, a scene straight out of a rural kampung greeted me. (On the left is Block 70).
The path in. Residents in the private estate use this path to get to the main road, Bedok South Road.
The cemetery was replete with Malay-Muslim grave architecture, showcasing both Islamic and Malayan influences.
Each grave’s dapur kubur (the structure that sits upon the grave mound) was unique. Coloured tiles were a common design.
One dapur kubur inside another... a family, perhaps?
Some dapur kubur were made of weathered stone.
Other dapur kubur consisted of planks of wood.
Many batu nisan (grave markers, usually one at the head and one at the foot of the dapur kubur) were painted shades of blue, or green, or bluish-green. I’m not sure what these colours signify.
A few batu nisan have the deceased’s names, and even dates of birth and death, on them.
Some graves have proper signs with names and dates on them. As the signs are relatively new, my guess is that the deceased’s descendants had them made in their honour.
Nenek Salamah of Bedok South, died 1 July 1970.
Nusbiah binte Ali, died 21 June 1952.
Siti binte Morsidi, died 4 April 1972.
In the heart of the cemetery lay three ornately-decorated graves - they belong to Malay royalty.
The buried are Esah binte Haji Tahir (died 22 October 1959), Raja Putra bin Tengku Ahmad (died 21 November 1967), and Raja Shamsir bin Raja Putra (died 26 June 1967).
A common Islamic phrase when death occurs: “Daripada Allah Kita Datang, Kepada Nya Kita Kembali.” “From Allah We Came, And To Him We Return.”
I spent a couple of hours in the cemetery, taking in the architecture, the artwork, and the peace and quiet.
According to the 2019 URA Master Plan, the area is slated for residential development. I’m not aware how long this has been the case. The land on which Kampong Glam’s Jalan Kubor Cemetery sits has also been slated for residential development for more than 20 years already; Lucky Gardens Cemetery might have had the same sword of Damocles hanging over it for as long too, or even longer. I wonder when its luck will finally run out.