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How Asia’s Dead are Causing Instability

How Asia’s Dead are Causing Instability

Asia’s aging populations, lack of burial space, religious preferences, and environmental concerns are causing problems in Singapore, Hong Kong, and beyond.

As urbanization increases, many countries in Asia are facing a shortage of housing – housing for the dead that is.

The growth of mega cities coupled with aging demographics has resulted in fierce competition for space. Combined with the widespread tradition of maintaining family grave plots, religious insistence on burial, price inflation, and environmental concerns, it is getting harder and harder to rest in peace.

Singapore faces instability over lack of burial land

Space saving measures are nothing new for Singapore, as the micro-nation has to ration every square meter to maximize efficiency. Singapore’s Chinese population has long adhered to the ancient practice of ancestor worship, centered around family grave plots. Singapore’s second largest demographic, Malay and Indian Muslims have a doctrinal obligation to bury the dead. Consequently, in 1978 3.7% of the island had already been set aside for graveyards. Singapore’s population has more than doubled since, making burials unfeasible.

In 1998, the government instituted the New Burial Policy, which limited grave use to a maximum of 15 years; after which graves are exhumed and occupants replaced.

This policy has not been sufficient to quell Singapore’s burial problem, and the micro-nation has already exhumed hundreds of thousands of graves to make way for development projects: the famous Orchard Road shopping belt was built on a graveyard.

In 2015, the government exhumed 3,700 graves in the Bukit Brown cemetery to make way for an eight lane highway. Bukit Brown houses more than 100,000 bodies, and the government aims to convert the entire 200 hectare site into housing by 2030.

Currently, just one graveyard – the Chua Chu Kang cemetery in less developed west Singapore – is accepting bodies, with burial costs ranging from $208-620. The government has decided to eventually close Chua Chu Kang. Additionally, “over the next few years, all private cemeteries […] which have been closed for burials will be acquired as and when required for development.”

This reality has led to cultural changes among Chinese Singaporeans, with many abandoning traditional grave site tending habits. By 2011, some 80% of Chinese had switched to cremation, with many preferring to save money and forgo a burial that will only become void in 15 years. While this may be a solution for Singapore’s Chinese population, it remains a taboo for its Muslim citizens.

Muslims comprise 15% of Singapore’s population, with burial a non-negotiable tenet. As burial space disappears, this could lead to instability in Singapore, as Muslims feel their beliefs are not respected. Combined with the fact that most of Singapore’s Muslims are Malay, this trend could cause fallout with Muslim-majority Malaysia (itself running out of space for its Christian minority), which has a rocky history with the microstate. Singapore is also located next to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, adding further potential for instability.

Another element to consider is that such unrest could engender ethnic tensions, as Indian and Malay Muslims rile against their Chinese neighbours. Throughout Southeast Asia, Chinese diasporas hold disproportionate influence and have been victims of repression in the past. While Singapore is majority Chinese and immune to any anti-Chinese pogroms, its policies regarding burial could none the less lead to ethnic conflict, as non-Chinese Muslim citizens chafe under Singapore’s Chinese dominated government.

Factor in Singapore’s ultra low birth rate (the lowest in Asia), the subsequent need for labour, and the many Muslim non-citizen residents and workers filling said gap, and tensions cannot be ruled out.

Lack of space in Hong Kong fuels corruption, classism

More than 40,000 people die in Hong Kong every year. Hong Kong’s urban density forced it to abandon burials all together in the 1980s, yet space is still at a premium as 50,000 families are on a waiting list for a 30cm² niche to house cremated remains. In 2009 the government opened up 18,500 new niches, the largest increase in a decade, partly after 18 cemetery supervisors were arrested for taking bribes. Despite this increase, 2016 is a pivotal year as, according to estimates, up to half of Hong Kong’s annual dead will be unable to find spaces in either public or private columbaria.

This lack of space is causing public discontent with anger building as families are unable to be put the dead to rest. Moreover, Hong Kong (and East Asia in general) is aging, with individuals over 65 rising from 12% of Hong Kong’s population in 2008 to 26% by 2036.

                                                A hillside necropolis in Hong Kong highlights the land shortage

                                                A hillside necropolis in Hong Kong highlights the land shortage

Efforts to increase space are hindered by NIMBYism by Hong Kongers, many of whom do not want to be near cemeteries, fearing bad feng shui. Kenneth Leung, a funeral coordinator explains that “we Chinese call a place for the dead yum chaak and a place for the living yeung chaak. They cannot be mixed.”

Alongside the aforementioned corruption – itself a major driver of unrest in China – tensions are rising as the disparity between rich and poor continues into death. Permanent grave plots in Hong Kong go for $30,000, out of reach for all but the wealthiest. Similarly, Beijing’s residents often joke they cannot afford to die, with many seeking out of province alternatives. Grave plots in Beijing range from $6,500 up to $46,000 for prime locations, according to online Beijing cemetery service Mudi114.com.

These heady prices act as potent symbols highlighting existing and growing rich-poor tensions in China.

Not just a problem for Asia’s micro-states

Land being in short supply is a given in city states like Singapore and Hong Kong, but even larger nations in Asia are facing similar problems.

Japan’s mega-cities are also facing a shortage of burial spaces, as plots in Tokyo routinely fetch between $20,000 – $40,000. Japan’s aging population has seen new service providers enter the market, offering more cost and space effective alternatives. These include establishments like Koukokuji Temple, where starting from $6,600, families can purchase one of the thousands of LED lit Buddhas guarding a niche for cremated remains.

                                                                                High tech burial at Koukokuji Temple

                                                                                High tech burial at Koukokuji Temple

Other outfits, such as Shinjuku Rurikoin Byakurengedo offer similarly high-tech options including an automated urn retrieval system. After swiping a key card, an automated system (akin to those used to retrieve documents from library archives), retrieves an urn from a central storage chamber and brings it to an alcove and displays pictures of the deceased. Competition among Japan’s funeral homes is intense, with no cameras allowed, and even cases of corporate espionage.

Similarly, India is facing major environmental problems due to the practice of cremation. Seven million Hindus die every year in India, and the country consumes 50-60 million trees annually to cremate them. This not only results in massive deforestation and water pollution from ashes thrown into sacred rivers, but a staggering eight million tonnes of CO₂ a year. India’s Muslims abstain from cremation, yet still suffer from the negative environmental externalities of Hindu practices, leading to potential tensions.

Efforts to introduce more eco-friendly cremation methods, such as electric burners have failed due to the need to perform rites to the deceased during cremation. India’s National Green Tribunal has stated that “it is also the responsibility of the government to […] provide environment-friendly alternatives for cremation to its citizenry.”

While NGOs like Mokshda have successfully met religious needs and installed cremation systems which use 60% less wood, they are targeted by the ‘wood mafia’ – illegal loggers that service India’s funerary fuel needs.

While the populations of many Asian countries are decreasing, their problems are not.

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