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Jakarta Post

Singapore as a garden, not a forest

  • Christian Razukas

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, February 2, 2015   /  10:46 am
Singapore as a garden, not a forest

When tigers attack: An engraving by Heinrich Leutemann depicting a tiger attacking a group in the 18th century.

A new book from NUS Press offers a compelling '€” and entertaining '€” view of Singapore'€™s environment, offering stories of tiger attacks and trade wars '€” as well the botany and ecology a reader needs to understand more than 200 years of continual, and sometimes disastrous, change on the island.

Today, Singapore is called the '€œGarden City'€, and about 56 percent of the city-state is covered in greenery, according to Timothy F. Barnard, the National University of Singapore historian who edited the book, titled Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore.

Speaking at the Singapore Writer'€™s Festival '€” which drew more than 19,600 people to more than 250 events '€” Barnard described how the Garden City idea can be seen in the Yellow Flame Trees and American Rain Trees that surround Changi International Airport.

'€œJust look at the return trip from the airport '€” and the trees. It'€™s '€˜home'€™,'€ Barnard says. '€œBut all those trees are not native. All were chosen because they would grow fast,'€ which, he adds, was a perfect solution for bureaucrats, willing to sacrifice biodiversity to make the island a pleasant place for its 5 million residents.

'€œSingapore has been made into a garden city,'€ Barnard says, '€œbut not a forest.'€

The book'€™s premise is that the people of Singapore have wrought huge change, for good and ill, on the island'€™s ecology.

As the chapter on Singapore'€™s natural history explains, when Sir Stanford Raffles arrived in 1818, migrant Chinese farmers were clearing the island'€™s primary forest to develop gambier and pepper plantations, which they abandoned after about 20 to 30 years, when the soil was depleted of nutrients.

The farmers went on to clear new areas for cultivation and within 50 years, about 90 percent of Singapore'€™s forest was gone '€” leaving only scrub, elephant grass and hard-to-eradicate lalang grass.

Speaking at a seminar at the festival, Barnard described the grim situation. '€œIn 1880, there were a lot of articles in the newspaper [...] that were talking about how bleak everything was. The rest of Singapore was so horrific that you wanted to go to a park and see greenery and pretty flowers and managed things.'€

Appalled colonial administrators encouraged Nathaniel Cantley, who ran the emerging Singapore Botanic Gardens, to create parks, to expand into research and create the island'€™s first forest reserves.

Cantley'€™s successor Henry N. Ridley expanded the garden'€™s economic duties. He promoted the cultivation of rubber trees (sometimes carrying seeds in his pocket to give to planters). Rubber enriched planters and, along with other measures, beat back the scrub and regreened the island, to the benefit of residents.

Meanwhile, the book'€™s authors note that under the ruling People'€™s Action Party (PAP), Singapore has grown even more green '€” by fiat.

'€œNature has flourished,'€ Barnard writes. '€œBut it has also been contained, disciplined and manipulated to a point that conservation and state control have become one and the same. Nature has become a human construct.'€

As an example, take Cynthia Chou'€™s chapter on agriculture. She writes that as late as the 1980s, Singaporean farmers, working in the kampung, provided most of the island'€™s food, including almost 100 percent of its chicken, ducks and eggs and 50 percent of its leafy vegetables.
Bring '€˜Em Back Alive:  Animal importers such as Frank Buck fueled the wildlife trade in Southeast Asia that was centered on Singapore.Bring '€˜Em Back Alive: Animal importers such as Frank Buck fueled the wildlife trade in Southeast Asia that was centered on Singapore.

Soon thereafter, however, the development-minded government sacrificed food self-sufficiency for economic productivity, choosing to import food and to convert farmland into housing and high-end agricultural parks.

Barnard also critically examines the PAP'€™s policies, especially the Garden City program, launched in 1967, that saw the state back massive tree-planting and park-expansion programs, physically restructuring the city to accommodate the greenery.

Written without academic or scientific jargon, the writers '€” comprising three professors, two local history teachers, a geographer, an independent scholar, an archivist and the director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens '€” draw on unique primary resources to tease out an unexpectedly enjoyable work.

The authors'€™ arguments on state control of the environment are clear, as are arguments that the environmental destruction of the 18th century stemmed from Singapore'€™s entrance into the global economy.

Gambier and pepper were cultivated for international sale (much like palm oil is today), while the island'€™s internationally vilified wildlife trade was fueled by Western desires such as Frank Buck, the big game importer from Bring '€˜Em Back Alive, and women, who wanted exotic bird feathers for their hats.

Equally clear is how racism drove the destruction: The colonial government took as given that frequent tiger attacks in the mid-18th century were due to '€œfilthy'€ Chinese living at the edge of civilization, rather than due to colonial permit policies that made it profitable for farmers to cut down even more primary forest, which in turn brought more people into contact with tigers.

Academics will appreciate how the book'€™s authors connect politics and the environment; general readers can gain a deeper understanding of how monocrop agriculture, colonialism, racism and public policy influence our management of nature.

The book owes much to Barnard, who wrote or co-wrote three chapters. He is no stranger to Indonesia: Barnard studied at the University of Riau in 1986 and returned to teach there in 1991.

A pleasant surprise is Barnard'€™s choice to open each of the book'€™s nine chapters with a well-selected primary source, ranging from reports dug out of archives, 18th century newspaper articles and the story of the hapless beached whale whose skeleton was once the centerpiece of the Raffles Museum.

Barnard writes cogently and with flair. Take, for example, his chapter on Singapore'€™s '€œman-eating tigers'€, which presents bizarre characters, such as a freelance French Canadian tiger hunter and sharpshooter who threaded his beard through a gold ring and used dead Chinese as bait; and Neil Carnie, a Singaporean who left the civil service, teaming up with a former Malay police sergeant major to hunt the great cats.

When asked in an interview if the Singaporean approach to greening the environment might work in Jakarta, Barnard had a caveat.

'€œIt'€™s a combination of all those things '€” development of green spaces, parks, development of roadside trees and planting dedicated areas of trees [and] working with the Bogor Botanical Gardens,'€ Barnard said. '€œBut you would also need it to be of importance to government officials in Indonesia. They'€™ve got '€˜other things'€™ to worry about.'€

Official buy-in is key, he says

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The writer attended the Singapore Writer'€™s Festival as a guest

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