Singapore Botanic Gardens the UNESCO World Heritage Site
The grass is not greener on the other side, now that Singapore lays claim to her own UNESCO World Heritage Site. In what is the timeliest Golden Jubilee present to Singapore – as we celebrate 50 years of independence this year – the Singapore Botanic Gardens has been inscribed an UNESCO World Heritage Site at the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Germany on 4 July 2015.
Established since 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is thrice the age of the Singapore nation-state. It now joins an exclusive list of more than 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in some 160 countries. This historical recognition is much welcome now that Singapore has a site to match her Southeast Asian neighbours’ UNESCO sites including Cambodia’s Angkor, Indonesia’s Borobudur, Malaysia’s Melaka and George Town Historic Cities, and Thailand’s Ayutthaya.
More impressively, this is the first tropical Botanic Gardens on the UNESCO list, and only the third Botanic Gardens after England’s Kew Gardens and Italy’s Padua Gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens, as a matter of fact, has a lot more in common with the historic Kew Gardens. In the 19th century, the two gardens maintained close links, with several former Kew staff joining the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The first batch of rubber seedlings was shipped from Kew to Singapore in 1877, in the first recorded attempt of rubber cultivation in Singapore. Under the stewardship of its first director Henry Ridley, the Botanic Gardens was where the earliest attempt at rubber cultivation and the first key to the rubber boom in the Malay Peninsula began.
The current director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Dr Nigel Taylor, was himself a former curator at the Kew Gardens. He estimates that 70 per cent of all rubber latex in the world originates from the 11 rubber trees planted in this garden in 1877. The Singapore Botanic Gardens was truly a test bed for economic plant cultivation in early Singapore.
During its establishment in 1859, Lawrence Niven (Niven Road was named after him) was placed in charge as a superintendent. He developed the Gardens’ landscape for 15 years, and was credited for laying out the many roads, paths and terraces. Much of the original layout is still intact today. He also excavated the Swan Lake and created the band parade area.
A lesser known fact of the Gardens was that it was once a zoo with animals such as emus, kangaroos, orang utans and wallabies. Some of the animals were also gifts from prominent leaders, like the King of Siam who gave a leopard and the Sultan of Trengganu who gave a tiger. These animals were placed in enclosures at the northeast side of the Bandstand Hill. The zoo was abolished in 1903. The current bandstand was built in 1930, although the original one was erected in as early as the 1860s. It was used as a stage for music performances by military bands.
The octagonal bandstand has been conserved with the Swan Lake Gazebo, a Victorian cast-iron shelter built in the 1850s. The latter was kept in an old house at Grange Road for many years before it was dismantled and transported to the Gardens in 1969.
One of the last surviving examples in the world of an Anglo-Malay plantation-style house still stands within the Gardens. The Burkill Hall was built in 1867 and used as a place of residence for the former Gardens’ directors. The last colonial director who resided here was Humphrey Burkill, who served from 1957 to 1969. The century-and-half-year-old colonial house was repainted black and white in the 1950s from the original white-washed façade. Four bungalows including the Burkill Hall, Ridley Hall, Holttum Hall, E J H Corner House and two additional buildings, the former Field Assistant’s house and the Garage, have been given conservation status by the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
In 1995, former Australian prisoner of wars chanced upon a flight of stairs that they had built during the Japanese Occupation. The POWs had made bricks at a brickworks in Changi and built this flight of stairs. They had also marked some of the bricks with arrows as an act of defiance. Then, arrows were common symbols used to identify government property.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens is also home to many heritage trees, most notably the 5-dollar Tembusu tree. The tree is estimated to be older than the Gardens, at about 170 years old, and is nicknamed as such because it is the exact tree featured on the back of the 5-dollar bill from the Portrait series.
Since 1990, the Singapore Botanic Gardens has come under the management of the National Parks Board, and is also the site of its headquarters. The 74-hectare garden is not only a recreational attraction. It is also an important centre for plant taxonomic and biodiversity research with a collection of 2,700 species and hybrids, 650,000 specimens of dried and pressed plants and a comprehensive 22,000-volume library.
If anything goes, the Singapore Botanic Gardens is already a popular tourist attraction. Travel website TripAdvisor has ranked it the top park in Asia for two years running in 2013 and 2014. It is also close to the city and conveniently located beside the Botanic Gardens MRT Station. Its recognition as an UNESCO World Heritage Site will certainly bring more attention to it.
Conservation is no walk in the park in Singapore with land scarcity and the constant pressure of urban renewal. This UNESCO recognition is a timely reward for the good work by the respective government agencies and a proud moment for all Singaporeans to rejoice in. To have an inscribed heritage site is indeed no small feat for a highly urban and developed city-state. Singapore is small in size, but she makes up for it with a big heart. Most importantly, the Singapore Botanic Garden’s UNESCO listing is an achievement for the nation and her people.