The Natural History of Singapore
Report by Liew Zhenhao
Date: 21 July 2014
Alfred Russel Wallace, the famous British naturalist, remarked matter-of-factly in 1854 that large-scale forest clearing in Singapore would lead to “countless tribes of interesting insects become extinct”. The warning remains pertinent 160 years later as the world continues to wrestle with the consequences of the unrestricted despoiling of nature. The recent opposition to the development of Bukit Brown Cemetery, with its adverse effects on biodiversity in the area, shows that Singapore is not immune to the challenge raised by Wallace.
The challenge of performing a balancing act between economic development and nature conservation is echoed throughout Singapore’s history and contributes to the relevance of studying its natural history. This was also one of the key takeaways from the lecture, “The Natural History of Singapore”, held at the National Museum of Singapore on 21 July 2014. The lecture, organized by the NUS History Society, was part of the events under the 2014 Singapore HeritageFest. Mainly focusing on the figure of Alfred Russel Wallace, the lecture aimed to convey the outsized influence of Singapore’s natural history on the world. The lecture could not be in better hands than those of Dr John van Wyhe, who is a specialist on Darwin and Wallace. The informative lecture was supplemented by an interesting question and answer session that provided much to ponder and reflect upon, like the unavoidable balancing act societies have to face.
The lecture started off with the traditional definition of natural history, in that it is concerned with the non-human aspects of history, and how it is often overlooked. Natural history is disregarded at the expense of informing us about our environment. For example, few are aware that the ubiquitous touch-me-not or mimosa is not a native species but was actually introduced from South America by the 1840s. Natural history used to experience a much more privileged position, as the British established the Victorian Natural History Collection and sought a complete catalogue of living things. The interest in natural science influenced Raffles himself, who was a competent naturalist and was instrumental in establishing the Zoological Society of London. Singapore, as a British colony, thus saw its natural history interact with the wider world within this context.
Alfred Russel Wallace’s time in Singapore helped to shape Singapore’s natural history to a significant extent. He would have witnessed a Singapore that had its natural landscape utterly transformed by human activities, with much of the interior cleared for plantations. The remark by Wallace was made in light of the widespread practice of collecting natural history specimens for sale, a trade Wallace himself was very much a part of as he amassed an enormous collection of 125,000 specimens here. Thus, Singapore was an important captive area for the insect trade as the insects were killed and shipped in large numbers to be sold in auction houses in London. The feeding of insects and other rare species into the gears of capitalism was a regrettable episode in our natural history and was unlikely to be avoided, as the concept of preserving wildlife was alien to people then. On a brighter note, Wallace’s theorizing began right here in Singapore as access to the Singapore library allowed him to do research on the origin of species. Wallace independently came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection and his experience in Singapore played an important role.
Singapore’s natural history was not only the recipient, but also the contributor to change in the wider world. This saw the Singapore Botanic Gardens, founded in 1859, play a crucial role by providing the world with three botanical innovations- gutta percha, rubber and oil palm. For example, the gutta percha, with its waterproof nature, was used to insulate the earliest underwater telegraph cables, including the first transatlantic telegraph cable. The centrality of natural history to Singapore was reflected in the important collection at the Raffles Library and Museum in the past. As the lecture concludes, the natural history of Singapore is one of ups and downs but it is hoped that the completion of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS will see it land on a positive note. A belated recognition of the importance of natural history to Singapore is the least we can do as beneficiaries of its rich legacy.
Liew Zhenhao is currently a Year 2 History Major.