Our Natural Heritage

Singapore’s Natural History is the unlikely candidate for anyone to consider as far as Singapore’s heritage is concerned. However we managed to uncover quite a fair bit of information from a lecture we attended in the National Museum conducted by Dr John van Wyhe.

Alfred Russell Wallace

Photo from: Wikimedia

Alfred Russell Wallace, a well-known co-author of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution used to be a visitor of Singapore as a stuffed animals salesman. As someone from a humble background, he came to Singapore in the 1850s-1860s (before Stamford Raffles) to hunt for natural species with a strong emphasis on history.

He noted that by then at most of our virgin forests have been deforested - effectively putting 50% of our initial insect species extinct. The government was alarmed at the rate of deforestation and it was rumored that if all our forests at hilltops are cleared, rainfall will stop and Singapore will dry up. That is hence also why Bukit Timah Hill was one of the places that even till today still had virgin forests.

Photo from: ’http://singapore.travelxem.com/bukit-timah-nature-reserve/’

It’s really interesting because Wallace is still being remembered today for his similar discoveries of Darwin’s from the extensive research he started from Singapore’s National Library (now National Museum) that contained vast amount of material for him to conduct his research which kickstarted modern evolutionary science.

Singapore & “Gutta Percha”

Singapore Botanic Gardens, opened in 1859, was meant to not only impact Singapore, but also the world. Gutta Percha, discovered in 1843 produces a natural latex and can be found from the sap of trees - the same way the common rubber of today. It’s waterproof and can basically be formed to any shape or size.

It was also known to be the material used to produce the golf balls of that era that eventually went on to inspire the creation of dimples of modern golf balls since it was observed how Gutta Percha balls flew further after it got dented from wear and tear.

A certain fun fact about Gutta Percha was that it was used as the material to coat “The Atlantic Cable” - the first cable laid underwater from Europe all the way to America via the Atlantic Ocean. This was a huge deal to the people then, as it was ground-breaking to be able to instantly send a message across the Atlantic.

Singapore & Rubber

Rubber wasn’t a native type in Singapore until the Director of Singapore Botanic Gardens nicked seeds from Brazil to grow plantations here. It was the perfect time during the boom of the automotive industry and became one of the main reasons for the Japanese to attack Singapore during WWII (since we supply 80% of the rubber that time.)

The oil palm was also subsequently brought in to be planted in the Singapore Botanic Gardens - which built an industry during the early part of the 20th century.

Have you ever noticed the magnificent tree featured on our 5 dollar note? This Tembusu tree (Fagraea fragrans) now resides in the heart of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The 30 metre tall tree is actually over 150 years old. When I was a child, whenever my parents brought me to the Gardens, just like the many other kids, I would climb atop its branch, which is so low that it almost touches the ground. Sadly, the tree has now been fenced up due to conservation purposes. This tree has indeed been a source of joy to many when they were in their adolescence and these memories will live on in our hearts for the years to come.

The examples above changed the face of the world, as rare as we might normally acknowledge our own natural heritage, it’s contributions have been substantial internationally and we can be proud to say that they did spread out from Singapore herself.

— Wan Ching