Published on Monday, 18 January 2016 00:00
Written by Andrew Loh
When the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site on 4 July 2015, it was a very important occasion for the tiny island of 3 million citizens.
After all, there were until then only two such botanic gardens on UNESCO’s list – Kew Gardens in England and the Padua Gardens in Italy.
Now, Singapore’s is the third on that list of rarity – and the only English-style gardens in the tropics today.
The momentous occasion was made more significant because it came on the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence from the British who, incidentally, had first mooted the idea of the garden almost 200 years ago.
So, how did it all start?
SBG Heritage Museum
In 1822, the founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, who was also a keen naturalist, proposed that a 17-hectare garden be created on what was then known as Government Hill, which is now Fort Canning Hill, where Raffles had resided.
The idea of a garden tied in with the colonialists’ tradition of developing such gardens in the tropics. They were used for the experimental cultivation of cash crops as revenue sources for the British empire, as well as for research purposes and the preservation of native plants.
“With the Royal Gardens at Kew as the main anchor of research and innovation, thousands of exotic seeds and plants from a worldwide network of botanic gardens were dispersed throughout the Empire,” explained the Heritage Museum, located inside the Gardens.
SBG Heritage Museum
By 1823, Raffles’ effort saw success in the cultivation of nutmeg, cocoa and cloves, giving rise to the spice industry, which became a mainstay in the economy in the following years.
Raffles, however, left Singapore in June 1823 – and by 1829, the gardens was facing difficulty with the costs of upkeep and was shut down because of lack of funding and support from the government.
It was indeed a short experiment, and it would be another 30 years before the idea of a botanic garden was revived and given a second breath of life – all thanks to businessman Hoo Ah Kay, a founding member of the Agri-Horticultural Society which had renewed the call for a garden.
The government this time acquired a 23-hectare plot of land in the Tanglin area, where the Gardens now sits, from Mr Hoo. The Agri-Horticultural Society would run the revived gardens, which would no longer focus on crop or horticultural experimentation. Instead, it would be a landscaped ornamental garden and leisure park. In short, it would be a pleasure garden.
Under the stewardship of its superintendent, Lawrence Niven, who was hired by the Society, the gardens saw many developments and expansion, including the construction of the interconnecting curving pathways and promenades, which stand till this day. Niven also created Swan Lake, and introduced flower shows and horticultural fairs.
Burkill Hall, named after the father and son directors of the Gardens, was built in 1867, and remains till this day. It is believed to be the only Anglo-Malay plantation house of its kind in the region, and probably also the world.
But the improvements, including those under subsequent directors, depleted the funds of the society which managed the gardens.
James Murton - 1877 - who established the zoo
A decline in visitors prompted the Gardens to introduce a zoo as an attraction. Among its inhabitants were a sloth bear, bush-tailed wallabies, emus, orang utans, and kangaroos. Animals were also given as gifts to the zoo, such as a leopard from the King of Siam, and a tiger from the Sultan of Terengganu. (In 1905, the zoo, which had some 150 animals at the time, was discontinued due to lack of funds and rising costs of maintaining it.)
By 1874, the Gardens’ mounting debts forced the society to hand over the management of the park to the British government, which paid off the debt owed.
The next 100 years or so, however, would prove to be very important ones, and established the gardens as an important and integral part of the history of not just Singapore but of the region as well.
One of its most important contributions to the regional and indeed world economy was the successful cultivation of para rubber in Southeast Asia for the first time in the 1900s.
Henry Nicholas Ridley, who was director of the gardens from 1888 to 1912, perfected the “herringbone” technique of rubber-tapping. The method entailed making small cuts on the tree trunk to obtain latex, which meant the tree could be tapped continuously, without doing damage to it or killing it. This revolutionary method made rubber tapping economically viable, and would lead to the rise of the rubber industry itself.
As world demand for rubber escalated, following technological inventions such as the motor car in the States and thus the demand for tires, the gardens saw its output of rubber seeds jump – and soon it gained fame as the major supplier of the seeds during the rubber boom at the time.
Soon, rubber trees and plantations would spread across the region, in Malaya and beyond.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens is recognised as playing a central role in this important period of the region’s economic history.
Ridley also left a lasting legacy in Singapore through his love of adding plants to the gardens from his expeditions to far-flung parts of the region. His introduction of the orchid hybrid, the free-flowering and popular Vanda Miss Joaquim, which was subsequently given the status as Singapore’s national flower, would inspire the Gardens’ later director, Richard Eric Holttum, to start the orchid cross-breeding programme, which has lasted till this day.
This led to the birth of Singapore’s orchid nursery industry and its orchid export trade, and put Singapore on the world map for orchid cultivation.
During World War 2, the Gardens came under the control of the Japanese, who had invaded and taken over the island. However, “the Gardens and Japanese staff shared a common goal and belief in preserving the cultural and scientific heritage of Singapore”, says the Gardens’ website
After Singapore gained independence from the British in 1965, its first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, began a campaign to turn the island into a “garden city”. The Singapore Botanic Gardens once again played a critical and leading role in this – spearheading the campaign and providing the horticultural know-how for planting and cultivating the trees throughout the island.
In 1995, the National Orchid Garden was established, and currently houses thousands of orchid species, including 2,000 hybrid orchids which are also known as Singapore’s goodwill ambassadors. These hybrids are named after visiting dignitaries such as heads of states and members of royal families.
One of the most popular is Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana, named after the late Princess of Wales, shortly after her death in August 1997.
More than 200 orchid hybrids are named after celebrities such as Jackie Chan and Shah Rukh Khan, and foreign dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, the Princess of Japan, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the late British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Aranda Dr Anek Hybrid
Heliconia Psittacorum Lady Di
Today, the Gardens see some 4 million visitors every year, and is a place Singaporeans go to for a relaxing weekend, to picnic amidst its lush greenery and expansive greens, and to participate in cultural activities which are held at various parts of the park, such as musical performances at the Symphony Lake - a long-standing tradition that dates back to 1861.
Or they could visit the several other smaller gardens within the heritage site, such as the very interesting Healing Garden - a 2.5 hectare garden showcasing an extensive collection of 500 species of plants from South-east Asia with healing properties – or the Fragrant Garden, the Ginger Garden, the Trellis Garden, and the Foliage Garden.
And if you have children, do check out the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden too
. It is Asia’s first children’s garden, “designed to provide unique discovery and learning experiences in an organic garden setting.”
Botanic Gardens entrance
All of this is easily accessible via Singapore’s train service – just alight at the Singapore Botanic Gardens station, which sits right at the doorstep of the World Heritage site.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens is not just a park of plants, flowers and trees. To Singaporeans, it is also a symbol of resilience, of creativity and perhaps most of all, it is an integral part of our history and heritage.
Papilionanda Ernest Chew
Papilionanda Tan Chay Yan
The picturesque scenary makes Botanic Gardens a popular place for wedding photoshoots
A wonderful spot for picnics
Yamamoto Dendrobium Hybrid