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Singapore Botanic Gardens: The history of our beautiful park

On the eve of the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ application to become the island’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, Heidi Sarna spoke with the Gardens’ British director.


When our sons were younger, like so many other families we’d walk to the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) every weekend to feed the swans at Swan Lake and climb on the famous errant branch of the $5 tree. More recently, I trained for my first 10km race jogging in the SBG and we did a family photo shoot on the steps of the bandstand.

But it is much more than a pretty green space. Since its founding in 1859, the SBG has been a vital part of Singapore’s history.

“This is a garden that changed the world through the development of rubber and orchids,” says Singapore Botanic Gardens Director Dr Nigel Taylor, who joined the SGB in 2011 from England, where he was curator at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, commonly called Kew Gardens. Since his arrival, Nigel has been digging deep into the history of the SBG and spearheading its bid to be Singapore’s first Unesco World Heritage Site. If things go well, it could be designated by mid-2015.

Rubber tree seeds were first brought to the SBG from Kew Gardens in the 1870s. They were cultivated here, and eventually propagated in plantations all over the region. In tandem with the first mass production of cars in the early 20th century, Malaya became one of the world’s top rubber producers. The SBG has also been a pioneer in developing innovative orchid breeding techniques that have fostered Singapore’s thriving orchid industry.

Nigel points out that the SBG also played a significant role in the social history of Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the gardens were considered neutral territory, they were a popular meeting place for families facilitating arranged marriages. More importantly, they were hallowed grounds for nation building.

“In 1959, Lee Kwan Yew addressed 22,000 people on the great lawn facing Swan Lake,” says Nigel, adding that Lee talked about the importance of developing a national culture and unity among Singapore’s three main races. Then and now, the SBG continues to be a major part of the country’s identity.

“The World Heritage Site bid has been a tremendous vehicle for change,” says Nigel. Indeed, the bid has raised awareness of the SBG’s heritage, but it has facilitated concrete changes as well. Fences were recently put up around the iconic “$5” Tembusu heritage tree and another in Palm Valley to protect them for future generations. Enhanced preservation measures also include the new boardwalk in the SBG’s six-hectare patch of ancient rainforest (one of only two pieces of original jungle left in Singapore), replacing a tarmac road.

New educational features include the Heritage Museum in the historic 1921-built Holttum Hall, near the Botany Centre, chronicling the SBG’s role in rubber and orchid cultivation. There are now more than 50 informational placards around the Gardens, and nearly 10 hectares of parkland are being reclaimed and developed into a “Learning Forest” near Tyersall Avenue, to showcase the marshland that covered much of Singapore a century ago.

Just as it has been for more than one and a half centuries, the SBG continues to be a national treasure and a place of both beauty and substance.

Did You Know?
– There are red bricks made by Australian WWII prisoners of war in a flight of garden stairs near the Plant House; note the little red arrows the POWs etched into the bricks. The arrows signified that they had been detained by the authorities and was a type of silent protest that the Japanese would not have twigged onto.

– The SBG is the only major garden in Southeast Asia to have been landscaped in the natural English style as opposed to the formal, symmetrical style of gardens in most of Asia. (There’s one small area of symmetry in the SBG: the 1929-built Sundial Garden near the bandstand.)

– When Japan occupied Singapore during WWII, SBG senior scientists were allowed to continue working under the direction of a Japanese botanist, Professor Kwan Koriba, because the Japanese also recognised the scientific and cultural value of the Gardens.

– The 1930s-built bandstand that still stands was once used for regular military band performances, sometimes by the light of the full moon.

– The first Singapore botanic garden dates back to 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles started one on Government Hill at Fort Canning, planting it with nutmeg. It closed in 1829 due to lack of support.

– There are several colonial-era bungalows in the SBG, including the 1868-built Burkill Hall that once housed the Garden’s chief administrators or their offices.