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Keeping Botanical Gardens Relevant - The Singapore Botanic Gardens Experience

Volume 3 Number 3 - December 1999

Tan Wee Kiat

The intrinsic value of botanical gardens is constant, but their perceived value fluctuates when buffeted by the winds of the economic climate. During such times, garden administrators must go back to the basic formula for the administration and development of botanical institutions and adjust relative weights of the components of the formula. This is necessary to keep the botanic garden relevant in catering to the current needs, aspirations and demands of the target clients of the gardens concerned. These components are: Recreation, Education, Research and Conservation.

By adjusting the weightage of the above components in response to the demands of the times, a botanic institution can remain important to a nation and its communities through its vital contributions to national development, health, education and economic growth.

Let me illustrate this with the example of the Singapore Botanic Gardens’ experience.

In the Beginning

The history of the Singapore Botanic Gardens began on Government Hill in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles laid out a botanical and experimental colonial garden near his official residence. This was for the purpose of cultivating ornamental plants as well as for the study of useful revenue-earning crops from the region. The Gardens was re-established in its current site in 1859 by an agri-horticultural society as an amenity for the enjoyment of its members. This society ran into financial difficulties, and in 1875, handed over the maintenance of the Gardens to a government appointed committee.

The failure of the Gardens under the management of the amateur society was our first lesson in relevance. The role of the Gardens as a purely recreational park could not justify its existence. Under the government, this role was expanded to include botanical research and scientific experimentation. A superintendent trained in botany and horticulture was recruited from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England. A herbarium and a library were started. A programme of exchange of herbarium and living specimens and publications was begun with similar institutions around the world. The scientific staff carried out laboratory and field experiments on crops with economic potential.

Today, the story of the Hevea Rubber Industry and the role played by the Singapore Botanic Gardens is well known. In 1877, 22 seedlings of Hevea brasiliensis arrived in Singapore. Eleven of the seedlings were nurtured in Singapore while the rest were sent to gardens in the Malay Peninsula. These 22 seedlings were to become parents to an industry that changed forever the economic history of South East Asia.

Henry N. Ridley, appointed the first Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1888, was the visionary who showed how the bark of the Hevea rubber tree could be tapped for latex without permanent damage to the tree, thereby setting in place the foundation of the modern rubber plantation. He also showed how latex could be made into coagulated sheets to facilitate transport, and was tireless in persuading plantation owners in the Malay Peninsula to grow rubber instead of other tropical crops. The economic garden he established in the Gardens grounds was to yield over 7 million seeds for the fledgling rubber industry by 1917. The success of the Gardens under Ridley firmly validates the research and educational roles of a botanic institution.

From these early years to recent times, the Singapore Botanic Gardens remains a leading centre for botanical research in this part of the world. Its programme of scientific publications in the form of a house journal, The Gardens' Bulletin, and numerous landmark books on flora and horticulture continues to the present. It was its reputation as a valuable cultural and scientific institution that saw the Gardens through the darkest phase of Singapore’s young history. During the war years, the Gardens’ holdings were protected by Professor Hidezo Tanakadate, and later, secured under the enlightened administration of Director Kwan Koriba of the University of Kyoto from 1942-45.

The Greening of Singapore

In 1963, the first ‘Tree Planting’ campaign was launched, followed by the ‘Garden City’ programme in 1967. The objective was to create a city state with a garden environment consisting of parks, gardens and open spaces linked by a matrix of tree-lined roads and park connectors for cyclists and pedestrians. The architect of our Garden City was then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Since expertise for this campaign resided in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, its focus was redefined from that of a largely research oriented organisation to one that would spearhead the national ‘greening’ effort.

To meet the need for trained personnel to maintain the greenery, the School of Ornamental Horticulture was opened in the Gardens in 1972. In the following year, the Singapore Botanic Gardens merged with the Parks and Trees Branch of the Public Works Department to form the Parks and Recreation Department. National needs for maintaining the Garden City programme took priority over the traditional roles of the botanical institution. In the following two decades, the greening programme matured, and Singapore gained an international reputation for its clean and green environment. The Singapore Botanic Gardens had achieved its mission to provide the botanical and horticultural direction and expertise needed to develop Singapore into the Garden City. It was time again for the Gardens to re-assess its vision and mission as a tropical botanic institution.

The National Parks Board

In 1990 the National Parks Board was formed. The original role and functions of the Gardens were restored. Besides the Singapore Botanic Gardens, this Board was also charged with the administration and development of the nature reserves of Singapore as well as Singapore’s historic Fort Canning Park. On 1st July 1996, the National Parks Board was merged with the Parks & Recreation Department to form the new National Parks Board. Now, the management and maintenance of the roadside greenery and of all the other parks of Singapore under the former Parks and Recreation Department also comes under the purview of this re-constituted National Parks Board.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens again redefined its roles and goals, and forged a new vision. It now strives to become a premier tropical botanic garden that would remain relevant into the new millennium. To achieve this, the Gardens embarked upon an ambitious master plan to re-develop the entire Gardens. The following key projects were completed:

  • The road bisecting the Gardens was expunged and the two halves united. This allowed a "triple-core" strategy for developing the Gardens to be realised. The cores are:
  • •the southern Heritage Core which retains the original administrative and research buildings, reference collections of the Gardens and the precious four hectare remnant of Singapore's primary forest;
  • the Central Core which will be developed as the tourist zone;
  • the northern Bukit Timah Core which is designated as the recreational and educational zone.
  • Central Core: the National Orchid Garden, Palm Valley, Symphony Lake and the Visitors Centre Complex which includes the Headquarters of the National Parks Board, restaurants, gift shop and a public car park.
  • Bukit Timah Core: the seven hectare Economic Garden including the one hectare Eco-lake and the Plant Resource Centre and nursery.

The Road Ahead


The Gardens will embark upon the second phase of infrastructural upgrading to further enhance its recreational value not only for Singaporeans, but also for visitors to the Republic. This includes providing better visitor facilities in the Heritage Core of the Gardens, new and improved horticultural displays, and a lighting programme that will extend the period of leisure time for visitors in the Gardens into the cool hours of the night.


By virtue of the Gardens' Nature Conservation Branch and its specialist scientific expertise, Nparks as the parent organisation, was designated Singapore's Scientific Authority on Nature Conservation. The Nature Conservation Branch in the Gardens formulates pragmatic and responsible policies on nature conservation for Singapore and is the vehicle for the nation’s involvement in regional and international activities on nature conservation and biological diversity.

Research & Advisory:

The Gardens will build upon its traditional strengths in Plant Taxonomy, Orchid Breeding and Micropropagation programmes. The Herbarium and Library will be housed in new purpose-built quarters and new laboratories and lecture rooms are planned. A strong publications programmme will support ongoing and new projects on flora of the region.


The School of Horticulture of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, founded in 1972, will continue to provide programmes that lead to awards of technical Certificates and Diplomas in tropical horticulture and landscape management and design. The School will expand outreach programmes designed to inform, educate and create awareness and appreciation for nature and gardening.


During its 140-year history, the Singapore Botanic Gardens has played various roles dictated by circumstances. In recent decades, this has resulted in erosion of its identity as a botanic and horticultural institution. Since 1990, under new leadership and with a redefined vision and mission, our Gardens is back on track in charting its course as a premier institution for tropical botany and horticulture. As administrators, we must keep nimble to make sure that our Gardens stay relevant. We stand ready to reconfigure the basic formula for defining the goals of our Gardens in order to keep it a vital and progressive botanic garden for the new millennium.

The Role of the Gardens in the History of Nature Conservation in Singapore

In 1883, the Government, alarmed by the depletion of forests in the Straits Settlements, which comprised Malacca, Penang and Singapore, commissioned Nathaniel Cantley, the Superintendent of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, to survey the extent of the forests of the three Settlements. This was an initial effort at arresting the wasteful trend of deforestation. In the report, the recommendations stressed that "the first important step... is to secure the preservation of such forests as are worth retaining ..." There were nine specific measures listed, including a) the prevention of the felling and clearing of forests, b) a call for the preparation of good and reliable maps produced as a result of field surveys by the Survey Department, c) the formation of local forest reserves for the supply of wood and riverine reserves for protection, d) the establishment of a Forest Department, and e) the collection of seeds of the best indigenous timber trees and the setting-up of nurseries for the propagation of these seeds.

The principles of nature conservation with an integrated strategic approach were, indeed, well expounded in this report. On the basis of Cantley's report, the first forest reserves were identified in the Straits Settlements. These were administered by the newly established Forest Department of which the first Director was Cantley. The Forest Department was established under the administration of the Gardens.

The term of H. N. Ridley as the Director of Botanic Gardens and Forests witnessed the designation of forest reserves in Malacca, Penang and the Dindings. Ridley's interests were not confined to plants as he was a naturalist in the true sense of the "great pre-specialised age of scientific natural history". Keen ornithologists still refer to Ridley's paper on birds in the Botanic Gardens.

The Forest Department remained under the Gardens' administration until 1895 when forest matters were officially transferred to the Land Office. By this time, 88,336 acres (35,776 hectares) had been designated as forest reserves in the Straits Settlements. In 1935, the Forest Reserves in Singapore were deleted but R.E. Holttum and E.J.H. Corner kept the nature conservation flag flying by recommending that those at Bukit Timah, Kranji and Pandan be placed under the Gardens for the purpose of the conservation of indigenous biodiversity. These three areas were reinstated as forest reserves again under the Forest Reserves Ordinance and reverted back to the control of the Director of the Gardens, who held concurrently the position of Conservator of Forests, in 1939. The objectives of the forest reserves explicitly spelt out this time that the forest reserves were not for commercial exploitation but for "absolute protection to provide areas for research, education, recreation and as samples of the country's biographic history and heritage" and this remained the guiding policy of nature conservation to present times.

H. Tanakadate and K. Koriba, the Japanese Directors of the Gardens during the Second World War, were instrumental in ensuring that the reserves survived the war.

When granite-quarrying interests came into conflict with the conservation of Bukit Timah, the Government set up a commission to resolve this issue. The report recommended that legislation be enacted to protect the reserves. The three above-mentioned reserves together with Labrador Cliff and the Municipal Water Catchment area became legally protected under the Nature Reserves Ordinance 1951. This legislation is the predecessor of the existing National Parks Act.

In the early 1990s, the National Parks Board (NParks) was designated Singapore's Scientific Authority on Nature Conservation with the responsibilities of policy formulation on nature conservation and the management of Nature Reserves.

The Ministry of the Environment spearheaded the drafting of the Singapore Green Plan in 1993. The Nature Conservation Branch of the Gardens serves as the Secretariat for the Working Committee on Nature Conservation. This Working Committee is entrusted with the identification of representative ecosystems followed by the monitoring of the health of these designated nature areas. It is also responsible for establishing faunal and floral corridors, linking up the nature areas so that the biodiversity of the designated sites would be enhanced. Activities promoting nature appreciation are also under the purview of this Committee.

On a regional level, the Nature Conservation Branch represents Singapore in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Working Group on Nature Conservation and Biodiversity. Two biodiversity networking and biological database projects involving ASEAN countries are the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC) and the Southeast Asian Loop of Bionet International (ASEANET). Both of these projects require country coordinators. The Nature Conservation Branch serves as Singapore's National Biodiversity Reference Unit for ARCBC and Singapore's National Coordinating Institute for ASEANET.

Singapore signed and ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity on 10th March 1993 and 21st December 1995, respectively. NParks was designated the national coordinating agency, with the Nature Conservation Branch handling the administration and keeping a watching brief on the issues raised by this forum.

With the increasing national, regional and international commitments to nature conservation, the Gardens is primed to lead nature conservation efforts through to the next millennium.