Bidadari Cemetery

Singapore Infopedia


Bidadari Cemetery was located at the base of Mount Vernon and bounded by Bartley Road and Upper Serangoon Road.1 It served the Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Sinhalese communities. Bidadari was the main Christian cemetery of Singapore from its official opening in 1908 until its closure in 1972.2 Exhumation took place between 2001 and 2006 to make way for housing developments and public works.3 Subsequently, a memorial park was created at Mount Vernon to conserve the tombstones of prominent persons who had been interred at Bidadari.4

Bidadari is the Malay word for “angel”, a derivative of the Sanskrit word widyadari, which refers to an angelic being in Hindu mythology.5 Part of the Bidadari Cemetery site used to be the Bidadari estate, where the Istana Bidadari was located. The latter was the home of Che Puan Besar Zubaidah (née Cecilia Catharina Lange), the second wife of Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor.6 Istana Bidadari is also noted for being the birthplace of Sultan Abu Bakar’s son Ibrahim Al-Marhum in 1873, who later became the sultan of Johor.7

Prior to the opening of Bidadari Cemetery, the main Christian cemetery was located in Bukit Timah. Built in 1865, the Bukit Timah Cemetery was prone to frequent flooding. In May 1902, a joint report submitted to the municipal commission highlighted the undesirable state of the cemetery, and thus the construction of a new cemetery was proposed.8 Some months later, Bidadari estate was identified as the site of a new cemetery.9

Negotiations regarding the size of land required and its cost were underway the following year.10 The municipal commission eventually acquired land at Bidadari estate for the cemetery at a cost of $112,500.11 Deliberation over the budget for its construction was set in motion in 1905, and the layout for the new cemetery was approved on 29 November 1907.12
The cemetery was consecrated on 30 December 1907 by George Frederick Hose, the Anglican bishop of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak,13 and officially opened on 1 January 1908. However, the first burial at Bidadari Cemetery had taken place on 15 December 1907 for English businessman George Mildmay Dare.14 With the opening of Bidadari Cemetery, burials at Bukit Timah Cemetery ceased after 1909.15

Subsequently, sections of land adjoining the Christian cemetery were allocated to the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist (Sinhalese) communities. The Muslim section was opened on 14 February 1910,16 although an application for a Muslim burial ground had been submitted to the municipal commission in April 1904 and 13 ha (33 ac) of land had been bought for this purpose in 1905.17 The idea of using a portion of the Bidadari grounds for Hindu burials was first broached in 1922.18 Following the approval of the Hindu section, it was suggested that a plot be reserved for Sinhalese Buddhists as well.19 The Hindu and Sinhalese sections opened in 1925.20

The layout of Bidadari Cemetery was designed by then municipal engineer R. Peirce. The Christian cemetery, spread over 26.5 ha (65.5 ac), was divided into Protestant and Catholic sections, each with its own chapel. David McLeod Craik, one of the principal architects at Swan and Maclaren, designed the Protestant chapel which featured simple brickwork. The cemetery grounds in the Christian sections were laid out such that wealthy individuals occupied the more expensive plots situated closer to the main road, whereas the graves of the poor were located further within the cemetery.21

The Bidadari Mosque stood within the Muslim portion of the cemetery. The mosque was constructed in 1932 at a cost of $40,000, most of which was borne by Syed Abdulrahman Bin Shaikh Alkaff.22 It was demolished after operations ceased in June 2007.23

Over the years, notable persons from all ethnic groups in Singapore were interred in Bidadari. A. P. Williams, an English sailor said to be the inspiration for author Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, was buried there in 1916.24 The governor of Sarawak, Duncan Stewart, was also buried at Bidadari after being killed by a Malay youth in Sibu, only 19 days after he had taken office in 1949.25 Other prominent figures buried at Bidadari include medical doctor and community leader Lim Boon Keng, Regent Alfred John Bidwell, a prominent architect from Swan and Maclaren who designed Raffles Hotel, and Baharuddin Ariff, a People’s Action Party assemblyman from 1959 to 1961.26

The Bidadari Christian Cemetery was used for military burials from 1907 to 1941, including Christian soldiers killed during the 1915 sepoy mutiny.27 In 1957, the Christian soldiers buried there were reinterred at Ulu Pandan War Cemetery and later moved to Kranji War Cemetery, the resting place for all war dead in Singapore.28

Exhumation and redevelopment
The last burial at Bidadari Cemetery took place on 31 October 1972.29 From then on, Choa Chu Kang Cemetery became the only cemetery in Singapore still open for burials, while Bidadari slid towards a state of dilapidation, in contrast to the new urban developments in the area. The cemetery came to be used as a park.30 Nature lovers and nearby residents often visited Bidadari to exercise or observe wildlife — more than 50 species of birds have reportedly been sighted, including migratory birds and two endangered species.31

Exhumation at the site began in 1996, with a portion of the Muslim section converted into a traffic intersection.32 The Bidadari cemetery was subsequently earmarked for development in the 1998 land-use masterplan.33

On 30 March 2001, the government announced the exhumation of Bidadari Cemetery to make way for housing developments projected to create 12,000 homes.34 Full-scale exhumation took place from 2001 to 2006, undertaken by the Housing and Development Board. It was carried out in phases: The 58,000 Christian graves – 5,000 of which were those of foreigners – were exhumed first, followed by the 68,000 Muslim graves.35

In March 2001, kin of the deceased interred at Bidadari were asked to claim their relatives’ remains located at the Christian plot.36 However, by the end of that year, 49,000 graves out of 58,000 were still unclaimed. The large number of unclaimed graves was attributed to the age of the cemetery – majority of the graves had been there before the 1950s. Exhumed remains of claimed graves were cremated and then placed in niches at the Choa Chu Kang columbarium, while unclaimed graves were exhumed and the remains cremated individually and then scattered at sea.37 In keeping with religious customs, remains of Muslims were reburied at the Pusara Abidi Cemetery in Choa Chu Kang.38

In 2012, the Nature Society submitted a proposal to conserve a portion of the grassland at Bidadari, so that bird populations could continue to reside or nest there.39 The upcoming Bidadari estate, due to be completed in 2018, will feature a “heritage walk” and much greenery, including a park. A lake is also planned to be built within the estate.40

Construction of housing projects at Bidadari started at the end of 2012,41 and the maiden launch of flats at Bidadari is slated to take place in August 2015.42

The redevelopment of Bidadari Cemetery was met with concern from Singaporeans who felt that the country’s heritage was being eroded and little was being done to memorialise key historical figures who were interred there.43 In response, the National Heritage Board undertook the task of relocating the cemetery gates and some 20 tombstones to a memorial park called Bidadari Memorial Garden at Mount Vernon.44 People whose tombstones have been relocated there include prominent personalities such as former minister for health and labour Ahmad bin Ibrahim, Lim Boon Keng and Song Ong Siang.45 Two former British seamen campaigned for a memorial to commemorate deceased sailors who were buried there. Eventually donations from other seamen led to the creation of a plaque that has been placed at the memorial garden.46

Alex Chow

1. “Page 32 Advertisements Column 1,” Straits Times, 1 February 2002, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Old graveyard, New HDB Estate,” New Paper, 31 March 2001, 7; Dominique Mosbergen, “Cemetery Is Now a Park. Next It Will Be HDB estate,” New Paper, 18 December 2006, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Tan Hsueh Yun, “Exhumation at Bidadari for Interchange,” Straits Times, 14 March 1996, 22 (From NewspaperSG); Kevin Y.L. Tan, ed., “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” in Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011), 11. (Call no. RSING 363.75095957 SPA)
4. “Final Resting Place,” Straits Times, 20 May 2008, 107. (From NewspaperSG)
5. David Kraal, “Angel of the Mourning,” Straits Times, 20 November 2001, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Did You Know?” Straits Times, 14 August 2009, 107 (From NewspaperSG); Tan, “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” 10–11.
7. Patricia Morgan, “Sir Ibrahim Has Reigned Longer Than Any Other Living Monarch,” Straits Times, 7 September 1955, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Tan, “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” 10; “Municipal Commission,” Straits Times, 10 May 1902, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Market Rates,” Straits Times, 31 December 1902, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Municipal Commission,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 20 June 1903, 5; “Municipal Meeting,” Straits Times, 26 September 1903, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Tan, “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” 11.
12. “The Municipal Commission,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 9 September 1905, 3; “The Municipal Commission,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 30 November 1907, 3; “Municipal Meeting,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 23 March 1907, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Tan, “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” 11.
14. “The Late Mr. George Mildmay Dare,” Straits Times, 16 December 1907, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
15. “Municipal Board,” Straits Times, 26 June 1909, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 25 February 1910, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Municipal Commission,” Straits Times, 23 April 1904, 5; “Municipal Commission,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 26 August 1905, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 14 December 1922, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Municipal Commission,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 January 1923, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Municipal Commission,” Straits Times, 14 April 1925, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Tong Ming Chien and Tuminah Sapawi, “It Was the Cemetery for All Classes, Rich and Poor,” Straits Times, 15 March 1996, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “New Mosque,” Straits Times, 27 June 1932, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Abdul Rahim Ngarsi, “Shame to Demolish Old Bidadari Mosque,” Straits Times, 8 May 2007, 36; Zaini Osman, “Several Alternatives Available after Bidadari Mosque Closes,” Straits Times, 18 May 2007, 56. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Goh Chin Lian, “Bulk of Bidadari Graves Still Not Claimed,” Straits Times, 26 September 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Death of Sarawak Governor,” Straits Times, 11 December 1949, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Goh Chin Lian, “Memorial Site for Bidadari Tombstones,” Straits Times, 26 January 2002, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Blood the Afternoon,” Straits Times, 9 August 1989, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Alan Harfield, Early Cemeteries in Singapore (London: British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 1988), 333–34. (Call no. RSING 929.5095957 HAR)
28. “Angel of the Mourning”; Harfield, Early Cemeteries in Singapore, 333–34.
29. Tan, “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” 11.
30. S. Williams, “The Bidadari Christian cemetery,” in Spaces of the Dead: A Case from the Living, ed. Kevin Y.L. Tan (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2011), 177. (Call no. RSING 363.75095957 SPA)
31. “A Quiet Place to Watch the Birds,’ Straits Times, 14 May 1996, 19 (From NewspaperSG); Goh Si Guim, “Twilight for Bidadari,” Nature Watch, 10, no. 1 (January–March 2002); Audrey Tan, “Save Bidadari’s Bird Haven: Nature Society,” Straits Times, 3 November 2013, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Tan, “Exhumation at Bidadari for Interchange.”
33. Deborah De Souza, “Bidadari Will Have a Park and Open Spaces Too,” Straits Times, 7 April 2001, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
34. P. Leong, “Bidadari Site for New Estate,” Straits Times, 31 March 2001. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
35. “Second Exhumation at Bidadari,” Straits Times, 1 February 2002, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Leong, “Bidadari Site for New Estate.”
36. Goh, “Bulk of Bidadari Graves Still Not Claimed.” 
37. “Deadline to Claim Bidadari Graves Extended,” Straits Times, 28 December 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Second Exhumation at Bidadari”; Charmine Tan, “The Dead Condensed,” Straits Times, 23 July 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
39. David Ee, “Bid to Protect ‘Bird Haven’ at Bidadari,” Straits Times, 4 December 2012, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Nature Society (Singapore), “Nature Society’s Conservation Proposal for Bidadari as a Nature Park,” Nature News (January–February 2013), 6–7.
40. “Bidadari Estate,” Housing and Development Board, 11 September 2014; Ee, “Bid to Protect ‘Bird Haven’ at Bidadari.”
41. Esther Teo, “Bidadari Works Begin By Year End,” Straits Times, 29 May 2012, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “Record Number of HDB Flats on Offer in May BTO, Balance Flat Launch” Channel NewsAsia, 27 May 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
43. Audrey Tan, “Save Bidadari’s Bird Haven: Nature Society,” Straits Times, 3 November 2013, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Tan, “The Death of Cemeteries in Singapore,” 19; “Bidadari Memorial Garden,” National Heritage Board, accessed 8 May 2015.
45. “Final Resting Place”; National Heritage Board, “Bidadari Memorial Garden.”
46. Goh Chin Lian, “Bidadari Memorial for Seamen,” Straits Times, 14 June 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
Abby Tan, “Tombstones Make Way for Big Progress,” New Nation, 3 June 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Goh Chin Lian, “4 Strive to Keep Grave Memories Alive,” Straits Times, 16 February 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

Plots Then Cost $1 for Kids and $2 for Adults,” Straits Times, 15 March 1996, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Servicemen’s Remains Taken to Kranji War Cemetery,” Straits Times, 24 May 1957, 5. (From NewspaperSG)

Space for the Living, Space for the Dead,” Straits Times, 1 May 1966, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Toh Yong Chuan, “Bidadari to Have First Bus Interchange,” Straits Times, 1 September 2014, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 15 July 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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