With the closure of Mount Vernon Columbarium in end-September 2018, a different type of sanctuary may appear in five years’ time when the new Bidadari housing estate is completed.
It was back in 2013 when the government announced the development plans of the new estate that will replace the former “resting place” of 20,000 niches and urns with 10,000 Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats and 1,000 private homes.
Named after English naval officer Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), the Mount Vernon area has always been a serene and quiet part of Singapore often overlooked by many. In the early fifties, the Singapore City Council built 70 semi-detached houses at Mount Vernon for the accommodation of its junior staffs.
Mount Vernon Columbarium/Crematorium
Calls for a public columbarium started in the sixties, but it was only in the mid-seventies when the Mount Vernon Columbarium was completed at a construction cost of $220,000. The new facilities were able to store 3,000 niches, with each space available for $200, supplied with marble plaques, during the first years of its opening. However, only ashes from the cremations at Mount Vernon could be stored.
The first group of concrete slab-styled columbariums used for the storage of niches were of plain and simple design, where each of them was able to take up to 200 niches on both side of the walls. When these columbariums was filled, the government built new ones with the addition of the sloping green Chinese-style roofs that later became a familiar sight at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon was the final resting place for several notable figures, including the fifth Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002), former Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen (1916-1983), Teh Cheang Wan (1928-1986), Minister for National Development between 1979 and 1986, and Naa Govindasamy (1946-1999), People’s Action Party Member of Parliament for Telok Blangah (1968-1976) and Radin Mas (1976-1977).
Prominent local businessman and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian’s (1893-1967) funeral service was also held at Mount Vernon Crematorium, where hundreds of people from all walks of life came to pay their last respects.
The Mount Vernon Crematorium began as a small government-run crematorium, built in 1962, beside the Bidadari Cemetery. Prior to the seventies, burials were still the preferred choice for various ethnicity and religions in Singapore. It was only after the government announced the closure and exhumation of many cemeteries in the seventies that cremation was gradually accepted.
The nine-storey, green-roofed Mount Vernon pagoda was built in 1987 by the Public Works Department (PWD), which functioned as a vertical columbarium and was the vicinity’s tallest building, allowing visitors to have a bird’s eye view of the tranquil surroundings of Mount Vernon sanctuary. Upon its completion, the pagoda was handed over and managed by the Ministry of The Environment. For three decades, it was the iconic landmark of Mount Vernon.
There were other landmarks too, past and current, at Mount Vernon, such as the Mount Vernon Police Barracks, Maris Stella High School, Mount Vernon Secondary School and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Mount Vernon Police Cantonment
The Mount Vernon Police Barracks was built in the mid-fifties by the PWD for the operations and accommodation of the police’s Federal Reserve Unit. Since the sixties, the Gurkha Contingent, established in Singapore in 1949, was also housed in this police barracks.
The new police barracks did not get a good start, hitting the news headlines in 1957 when several of their automatic pistols were stolen from the armoury.
After the National Service started in 1967, the police barracks, by then known as Mount Vernon Police Cantonment, began receiving drafted young servicemen to be attached to their reserve unit. Mount Vernon became part of these servicemen’s memories, including the rigorous trainings and the long walk to the secluded camp for booking-in.
An audacious case happened in 1978 when a 18-year-old police serviceman was abducted from his sentry post at the main gates of Mount Vernon Police Cantonment and stabbed to death. His revolver was snatched by three men, all aged 21, who got away in a stolen taxi. They were later caught and sentenced to death for double murder of the police serviceman and taxi driver.
In the early eighties, Mount Vernon Police Cantonment was given a major renovation. Its blocks of quarters, recreation hall, Inspector’s mess and sports facilities were refurbished for more than $1.1 million.
Today, the police cantonment, also known as Gurkha Cantonment, is functioning like a self-sustained small town with shops and schools, providing the necessities to the Gurkha contingent and their families. Katmandu (Kathmandu) Road, where Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal, home of the Gurkhas, used to lead to the barracks. It was later absorbed as an inner road inside the barracks during Gurkha Cantonment’s expansion.
Maris Stella High School
Maris Stella High School was founded in 1958, but did not have its own premises until 1965, when $1.4 million raised from funds from the various business sectors helped in the construction of its new school compound and buildings at Mount Vernon Road. In 1967, Maris Stella High celebrated its grand opening with a new school with fifteen classrooms and a four-storey science block.
The school incorporated classes for both its primary and secondary students, and to cope with increasing number of students, its school premises underwent expansions in the mid-seventies and late eighties. In 1996, Maris Stella High became an autonomous school with additional allocated funds for extra programmes and facilities.
Mount Vernon Secondary School
Maris Stella High’s neighbour was Mount Vernon Secondary School, established in 1968 and officially opened a year later by Mohamed Ghazali Ismail, Aljunied’s Member of Parliament and Education Ministry’s Political Secretary. Mount Vernon Secondary School was the 100th secondary school built within a decade by the government since the start of Singapore’s self-rule in 1959.
Excelling in sports such as badminton and football, as well as being the host of regular athletic competitions, Mount Vernon Secondary School put much emphasis in their sports facilities. The school in 1975 added a $90,000 grandstand to its sports complex.
Mount Vernon Secondary School also paid attention to handicapped students, as it became one of the first local schools to accept pupils with hearing impairment in the mid-seventies. In 1985, Mount Vernon Secondary School was handpicked by the Education Ministry to represent Singapore in the United Nations Association’s Flags for Peace project that was launched to celebrate the United Nations’ 40th anniversary and the International Youth Year. For the project, the students put in two-and-half months of work, researching Singapore’s history, geography, culture, festivals and iconic representatives of the country.
In 1991, Mount Vernon Secondary School’s 33 years’ history came to an end due to falling enrollment in the number of students. The same year also saw the closure of Willow Avenue, Toh Tuck, Tiong Bahru and Bukit Ho Swee Secondary Schools, which faced similar student enrollment difficulties.
In the mid-nineties, the vacated Mount Vernon Secondary School was briefly used by Maris Stella High when the latter’s school premises was being renovated. The Mount Vernon Secondary School compound was later used as foreign workers’ dormitory before its eventual demolition.
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Located at the junction of Mount Vernon Road and Bartley Road, the SPCA had operated at the Mount Vernon vicinity for 32 years. Previously based at Orchard Road, SPCA moved to Mount Vernon in 1984, before relocating to Sungei Tenagh Road in 2016.
Accompanied Mount Vernon for decades was the former Bidadari Cemetery, built in the early 20th century for burials of various faiths. The predecessor of Bidadari Cemetery was Bidadari Estate, owned by Johor Sultan Abu Bakar who constructed a grand residence in the mid-19th century for one of his wives. The grand residence, also known as Istana Bidadari, was demolished in 1915.
The estate was acquired by the Singapore Municipal Commission for $112,000, and was converted into the cemetery in late 1907, consecrated by the Anglican bishop of Singapore, Labuan and Sarawak George Frederick Hose.
Bidadari Cemetery was officially opened in 1908, initially for Christian burials. Other sections for Muslim burials (1910), Hindu and Sinhalese burials (both 1925) were later opened. Notable figures of different ethnic backgrounds had found their resting places at the cemetery, including famous architect Alfred John Bidwell, doctor and community leader Lim Boon Keng, governor of Sarawak Duncan Stewart and local politician Baharuddin Ariff.
As it became fully filled – it had almost 147,000 graves by then – Bidadari Cemetery was closed from further burials in October 1972. In 1996, the Singapore government announced its plans to acquire Bidadari Cemetery for the construction of a new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line and station (Northeast Line and Woodleigh MRT Station). The vicinity was also later slated for new Housing and Development Board (HDB) housing projects.
Bidadari Memorial Garden
Full-scale exhumations of Bidadari Cemetery were subsequently carried out between 2001 and 2006. The iconic cemetery gates and their gateposts, as well as key tombstones of prominent persons, were shifted to the Bidadari Memorial Garden at Mount Vernon, built in 2004 by the National Heritage Board (NHB) as a commemoration of the significant history of Bidadari Cemetery.
During the development of the new Bidadari housing estate, the Bidadari Memorial Garden may be relocated or integrated with the estate’s new park or garden.
Mount Vernon Crematorium had ceased its services since 2004. The service halls, however, continued to operate for funeral parlours under the name of Mount Vernon Sanctuary, after the government leased the buildings to private operators. While the Mount Vernon Columbarium had stopped accepting niches for many years, it remained crowded especially during the annual Qingming festival when many came to pay respect to their loved ones.
As part of the redevelopment of the vicinity, a new funeral parlour complex, albeit a small one, will be built at the site of the current Mount Vernon Columbarium. It is expected to be ready by 2024. For now, let us have another glimpse at the old Mount Vernon Columarbium before its demolition.
Published: 20 October 2018