From Tokyo, 11 July – Singapore is sometimes referred to as the little red dot, the way the island nation is usually indicated on the world map. The red dot now has acquired a new greenish tinge after gaining a green international stamp of recognition on 4 July. As recently as early 2012, the island nation had yet to ratify the UNESCO convention, but three years on, it has joined the list of cities that are home to a world heritage site.
The Singapore Botanical Gardens does not immediately strike me as even a national heritage, much less the world’s. A vast stretch of tropical green on the outskirts of Orchard Road, the garden city’s prime shopping district, the lack of foliage over its open areas can sometimes be forbidding in the perennial equatorial heat. Add the threat of marauding mosquito squadrons and the park becomes the abode of those ready to brave the conditions in search of free public space that offers the tranquil of nature in a concrete jungle. Many come prepared, glazed with the necessary repellants and armed with tools to beat the heat.
Foggy memories of a handful of visits often bring to mind tourists and expats with children in tow quietly admiring the lush vegetation, contrasted by school excursions in sweltering heat and chatty children rushing past the weeping willow and towering trees along the path. On weekends, the open grounds are often dotted by families and gatherings of foreign workers camped out on the slopes facing the Symphony Stage, sometimes treated to an evening of live relaxing music under the stars.
A public park is the image that first comes to mind. Not especially accessible and not a very generous selection of urban comforts. A landmark that’s been there since who knows when, is another. Today, it faces a high-profile local rival in the Gardens by the Bay. The heritage Gardens are immediately recognizable but it lacked depth in the collective memory, so it was no surprise that the government agencies sought to raise public awareness in a hark back to the years when the nation was known as “campaign country”.
The campaigns would have benefited public support and national pride, but the treasures and the park’s natural gems uncovered by the people closest to the nomination dossier remain unapparent to the broader citizenry. A race through the history of the national landmark on the Internet left many gray areas. Contrast this with a recently re-aired NHK documentary on an ongoing 150-year experiment that is the manmade forest around the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Well-documented and persuasively written, as a viewer I witnessed the experiment, shared the vision and eventually found myself living the dream of creating a self-sustaining forest in urban Tokyo. Singapore’s national media would do well to consider a careful trek through the Garden’s archives and staff to uncover the paths to secrets and stories surrounding the country’s latest global landmark.
The Gardens itself faces many challenges, in presenting its past, living the present and building for the future. Will the ground’s history become plain to visiting eyes? Will people recognize the trees that are more than a century old? Hitachi’s iconic centurion raintree, a species indigenous to the region, draws thousands of Japanese tourists to the Moanalua Gardens in Honolulu every year. How will it ensure that it links with the population and creates new common memory? Will the Gardens grow as an institution for botanic research in tie-ups with local and regional bodies? Budding green thumbs like myself would be looking for some home gardening tips, or practical herb use or cooking courses from a herbarium with big ambitions. A current course covers local plants and their use in Malay food, a promising connection to regional culture and society. The economic gardens could hold hints from the past for the way forward. I, for one, will expect more when its new online registration portal is up and running.
The Gardens probably recognize the work lined up ahead to turn Singapore “from a garden city into a city in a garden”, and it would definitely help to provide more accessible outreach and practical programs, link the people closer to nature and create more space for tired city eyes and souls. This green stamp of approval must give it the impetus and receive the support it deserves.
Singapore Botanical Gardens