Kubor Kassim is a century old, serene Muslim cemetery in Singapore. Although many of its surviving 3,000 graves are unidentified, the graveyard contains elaborate tombs from internees of notable background, including community leaders and respected Muslim sheikhs (religious leaders and scholars). Kubor Kassim also houses a surau (prayer house) where religious classes are conducted, and offers its own miniature ecosystem of flora and fauna, including banyan trees and hornbills.
Asia’s rapid urbanisation subjects cultural heritage to tensions that threaten its preservation and poses dilemmas for decision-makers. The choice between expansion and protection is rarely straightforward, and controversies intertwine development, urban planning, sustainability, memory-shaping, and identity-building. For most of its short history as a nation, Singapore has had to make challenging decisions regarding the use of its territory. Space is a highly-sought and tightly controlled commodity in such a land-scarce, fully urbanised and densely-populated country. Kubor Kassim is one of the latest examples of these tensions. Surrounded by private residential properties, in an area affected by population pressures and earmarked for future residential development, the cemetery is at risk of disappearance. Given Kubor Kassim’s uncertain future and being mindful that a heritage site’s tangibility cannot be replaced, this paper posits digitalisation as a preservation alternative. Using tools such as digital archiving, virtual mapping capturing with 360-degree technology, interactive maps, and UAV (drone) photography and filming, this investigation explores encounters with the cemetery that can also act as its’ memory insurance policy’ in case of destruction or disappearance. The research includes comprehensive documentation, field works to record the site, and interviews with policymakers, community and religious leaders, and internees’ family members. The paper urges reflection on the importance of cultural heritage in Asian cities, often threatened by the very process of urban growth and development. It also demonstrates that the design of parallel digital worlds can provide respectful and sustainable ways of preserving the cultural heritage and the priceless memories associated with it.
David Ocón, PhD, has 20 years of experience in the arts, culture, and education sectors. He has led departments at organisations such as the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF, Singapore), the European Network on Cultural Management and Policy (ENCATC, Belgium), and Cervantes Institute (Beijing, China), where he was the head of culture. David is currently based in Singapore where he is an Assistant Professor at Singapore Management University’s School of Social Sciences. He teaches and researches Cultural Diplomacy and Relations in Asia, Urban Cultural Anthropology, Arts Marketing, and Cultural Heritage Management. As an academic, he has worked, among others, at City University of Hong Kong, James Cook University, and the School of Technology for the Arts Singapore. For more than a decade, he has been a visiting faculty member at the University of Barcelona’s International Cultural Cooperation and Management Postgraduate Programme. In addition, David is an evaluator of arts management programmes and regularly provides strategic advice and training for cultural organisations worldwide.