Despite Singapore’s small landmass, it is home to a wide variety of tropical habitats and, with it, a rich biodiversity of animal and plant wildlife – a total of more than 390 species of birds and at least 2,100 native vascular plants, of which more than 1,500 species are classified as extant in Singapore.
The concept of natural heritage (which includes all elements of biodiversity, including flora and fauna, natural and geological formations, and habitats of threatened species) is considered by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO as the common heritage of mankind and should be protected and conserved for future generations. Beyond environmental considerations in the midst of a global climate crisis, natural heritage also has aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural and social significance.
How nature reflects history
Singapore’s relationship to biodiversity and environmental conservation is a complex one. It is important to note that the way we engage with natural spaces is mediated by past colonial and present nation-building interests.
Singapore’s trade history as well as widespread colonial expansion in the 18th century resulted in the clearing of large swathes of land for the cultivation of commercial crops and irrevocably transformed the environment and biodiversity of the island. The influx of European botanists and scientists driven by colonialism, territorial expansion, and the pursuit of knowledge led to a study of nature that was shaped primarily by collection, classification and, ultimately, profit.
Botanic gardens have become synonymous with nature in Singapore, but they were originally cultivated for a mix of economic, horticultural and leisure purposes, primarily from a British colonial perspective. Some of the earliest attempts to cultivate gardens in the early 1800s stemmed from colonialist aims to benefit from the lucrative spice trade.
In Isabelle Desjeux’s work, Did Ali See What Wallace Saw?, she interrogates the role of botanical gardens in containing and controlling nature in order to exploit plants deemed important. Taking the form of a tour at Fort Canning through the eyes of Alfred Wallace and his assistant, Ali, Isabelle seeks to question our relationship to nature and inspire us to view nature with curiosity and an open mind.
Visual depictions of nature also reflect our perspectives towards natural heritage and what we specifically value about it. Botanical illustrations exemplify this as their chief aim was to identify, document, name, and classify plants to serve imperial interests. This enabled the commercial exploitation of natural resources in colonies to enrich colonial rule. These illustrations meant that depictions, rather than just specimens, of regional fauna and flora could be sent back to Europe and studied.
Alysha Rahmat Shah responds to the colonial tradition of illustrating plants and seeks to foreground how such plants have always been central to indigenous knowledge.
Traditional healing practices in the region are deeply connected with an understanding of the interdependence of ecosystems and provisions of nature. As such, they draw on holistic and ecological solutions to ailments, and often balance both aspects of the spiritual and empirical.
Alysha’s work, tumbuhan penyembuhan, seeks to reframe the visual representation of plants in colonial botanical illustrations through embroidery techniques passed down by her mother and grandmother. The work also centres inherited knowledge of the healing powers of plants, which arises from her family’s deep connection to nature and the land.
Rethinking our relationship with nature
Post-independence, Singapore’s rapid urbanisation has seen the levelling of hills, the filling of swamps and the extension of coastlines. Due to Singapore’s small size, our natural heritage locations such as gardens, wildlife parks and nature reserves have in recent years become a source of leisure for many. The tension between nature preservation and urban development is particularly acute, and continues to be a point of contention today.
Despite our naturally tropical landscape, the compartmentalisation of nature has inevitably changed our relationship with it. On one hand, urban planners see the natural world as separate from us, something that needs to be controlled and constantly tweaked lest it interfere with our manicured environment. Simultaneously, idealising an Edenic version of nature gives rise to tendencies towards constructed landscapes, artificial greenery, and the appearance of nature, rather than unfettered wilderness.
Shubigi Rao’s video work Waysides speaks to the deep sense of loss that results from our disconnect with the natural world. Examining tropical tropes and representations of nature, she unravels contemporary desires that reflect human-centric interpretations of the natural world. Ranging from colonial representations to contemporary depictions of nature in our everyday landscape, the film examines the cultural lens through which we perceive, interpret and interact with natural biodiversity.
The artists and works in Living Legacies: Of Roots & Leaves bring together various perspectives in an ongoing discourse on natural heritage. Rethinking our relationship to nature would require reconciling our disconnect with the natural world, and recognising that we are, and have historically been, deeply intertwined with the non-human.