Tree Cheers for the Botanics

Published on 7 July 2015

The Singapore Botanic Gardens has been many things to many people over the past 156 years. Now, it is also officially Singapore’s first-ever UNESCO World Heritage Site.

TEXT BY JO TAN

A park is a park, you might think: green, pretty, sometimes big, but essentially, well, non-essential. But glance through the history of Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) and the lives that have been changed by it, and you quickly realise how much of a hidden national treasure it is.

The idea of a local Botanic Gardens was conceived by Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles himself. He did not want it to be a shiny attraction, but more a place to evaluate cultivation crops that could thrive here and be traded abroad. While his original Botanical and Experimental Garden closed in 1829, the site we know today continued the original mission after SBG was moved there in 1859. It was here that English botanist Henry Ridley experimented with planting rubber trees, promoting his findings so enthusiastically, people called him “Mad Ridley”. He did eventually convince planters in Malaya to adopt his methods, making the country the world’s No. 1 producer and exporter of natural rubber.

Orchid hybridisation was also pioneered in SBG in the early 1900s, with breeds being mixed and matched to get new, beauteous blossoms. The methods were shared internationally, but Singapore itself became, and remains, one of the world’s top centres of commercial orchid-growing. Much of the roadside greenery we see around our garden city was experimentally planted at SBG, making it a hero in the greening of our island, which in turn influenced town-planning across Southeast Asia.

Today, SBG (known affectionately as ‘Botanics’ to Singaporeans) continues to be a leading centre for plant research and reference internationally. With such a massive footprint (or perhaps rootprint) way beyond Singapore, it’s perhaps no great surprise that SBG was nominated to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), akin to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Versailles Palace, France. This means SBG would be officially recognised as important to world heritage, and the heritage of mankind as a whole, not just a lovely Singaporean landmark.

“Previous awards have mainly honoured the Singapore Botanic Gardens as a key travel attraction,” says Dr Leong Chee Chiew, Singapore Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, referring to accolades such as the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice award, which named Botanics the top-ranked park in Asia twice in a row.

“The UNESCO WHS bid has meant something different. SBG has fulfilled multiple roles in history,” adds Dr Leong. In fact, the park is practically a document of history itself. The main 1800s design of the garden by Lawrence Niven has not really changed, though features or enhancements have been added during different time periods. “The historic landscape features and buildings, as well as primary rainforest, illustrate the development of the Gardens during the British colonial period. It continues to be the best-preserved example of a tropical colonial botanic garden, laid out in the style of the English Landscape movement. Accordingly, it was considered as the site that would stand the best chance for successful inscription, and Singapore’s first nomination for a World Heritage Site.”

The road to World Heritage recognition began five years ago, with an extensive 2010 governmental feasibility study of which Singapore landmarks had a chance of becoming a WHS. When all signs pointed to SBG, Singapore ratified the World Heritage Convention in 2012 to become a UNESCO member country, then submitted our World Heritage Tentative List to UNESCO to indicate which landmarks we were interested in getting inscribed as a WHS — SBG was our sole shining entry on the list.

Following that tentative list, there were four months’ worth of public consultations in 2013 before the submission of the official nomination dossier. In September 2014, an independent evaluation body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), visited SBG to give it the once-over, and finally, in May, gave its recommendation to UNESCO that it should be inscribed, with the final decision resting with UNESCO. On Sat 4 July, at the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany, the Singapore Botanic Gardens was conferred the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“SBG has a key role in Singapore’s history and culture, and provided a backdrop for Singaporeans’ lives. In 1959, the Gardens was chosen as a venue to launch a series of cultural concerts with a multi-ethnic theme known as Aneka Ragam Ra’ayat or the ‘People’s Variety Show’. It is also where shared memories are created by the young and old, courting couples and families,” says Dr Leong with a smile.

During the public consultations of 2013, SBG called for pledges or support, or for people to contribute their memories of SBG. More than 200 pieces of feedback were received.

“Many Singaporeans shared how they grew up playing in the shade of the Gardens’ Heritage Trees, exercised in the Gardens, watched the concerts in the Gardens with their loved ones, or have had their wedding photos taken in the Gardens. Today, the moonlit concerts at the Bandstand have been replaced by a wide repertoire of performances at the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage, while romance in the Gardens comes in the form of couples solemnising their marriages amidst the lush greenery. These memories are part of the Gardens’ traditions, which have continued since it was first established.”

And they are set to continue still.  The National Parks Board is making sure this landmark will last for at least another century. Adds Dr Leong, “A site-management plan was submitted to UNESCO as part of the nomination dossier. Some of the measures we have already implemented include the fencing of Heritage Trees to minimise trampling around the roots, which would impact the trees’ health. Such measures will enable us to conserve the heritage of the gardens for generations to come.”

GIRL ON A SWING (at Lawn O) While celebrated British sculptor Sydney Harpley loved sculpting women on swings, a local model in a sarong kebaya posed for this particular life-sized one, which was donated by the late politician David Marshall in 1984.
LITTLE GIRL WITH SHELL (Farfugium Fountain at Yuen-Peng McNeice Bromeliad House) Also donated by David Marshall, this 2001 piece by British sculptor Vanessa Marston shows off a very convincing, very rapt little bronze girl admiring a tiny piece of nature, though whether one would actually find sea-shells in a man-made fountain is up for discussion.
MYSTREE (Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden) While SBG has its share of trees, this one’s a little different, with its branches being made up of over 500 human figurines. Placed in 2007 at the entrance of the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, this piece by Yemeni sculptor Zadok Ben-David is a great way to teach tots about man’s relationship with nature.
ELEPHANT (Yuen-Peng McNeice Bromeliad House)  If you didn’t think SBG’s fauna included pachyderms, this happy elephant peeking out from the foliage will cheerfully prove you wrong. A favourite feature to pose with, this 2003 installation was crafted from stone by Zimbabwean artist Ephraim Chaurika.
CHANG KUDA (at Lawn E)  This piece is by sculptor Chong Fah Cheong, last year’s Cultural Medallion recipient best known for his sculpture of five little boys jumping into the Singapore River. ‘Chang Kuda’ shows six boys playing a game of piggyback after school, as inspired by Chong’s own childhood.
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