A toast to an improbable nation: The first botanic gardens in Asia to be world heritage site

The man who saved Botanic Gardens

An aerial view of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which has two outstanding universal values: a historic role in the rubber trade which transformed the region in the 1900s, and a unique tropical colonial gardens landscape.
An aerial view of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which has two outstanding universal values: a historic role in the rubber trade which transformed the region in the 1900s, and a unique tropical colonial gardens landscape.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH, MARK CHEONG
Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments at the National Heritage Board, played key roles in the World Heritage Site bid.
Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and Ms Jean Wee, director of the Preservation of Sites and Monuments at the National Heritage Board, played key roles in the World Heritage Site bid.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Dr Leong Chee Chiew (left) and Dr Kiat W. Tan were part of the team that put together the $51-million Master Plan for the Gardens.
Dr Leong Chee Chiew (left) and Dr Kiat W. Tan were part of the team that put together the $51-million Master Plan for the Gardens.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
A group touring the Evolution Garden, where the living quarters for Botanic Gardens staff used to be located.
A group touring the Evolution Garden, where the living quarters for Botanic Gardens staff used to be located.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Besides the flora and fauna, the Botanic Gardens draws visitors with the gift of music at the Symphony Stage. Yesterday, it was the Golden Jubilee weekend celebrations with performances by Shabir (pictured), Corrinne May and John Molina, among others
Besides the flora and fauna, the Botanic Gardens draws visitors with the gift of music at the Symphony Stage. Yesterday, it was the Golden Jubilee weekend celebrations with performances by Shabir (pictured), Corrinne May and John Molina, among others. In 1984, May Day merrymakers were treated to entertainment by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.ST PHOTOS: ONG WEE JIN, WONG KWAI CHOW
Besides the flora and fauna, the Botanic Gardens draws visitors with the gift of music at the Symphony Stage. Yesterday, it was the Golden Jubilee weekend celebrations with performances by Shabir, Corrinne May and John Molina, among others. In 1984,
Besides the flora and fauna, the Botanic Gardens draws visitors with the gift of music at the Symphony Stage. Yesterday, it was the Golden Jubilee weekend celebrations with performances by Shabir, Corrinne May and John Molina, among others. In 1984, May Day merrymakers (above) were treated to entertainment by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

The historic site was in a sorry state in the 1970s before Dr Kiat W. Tan's intervention

It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site last month - but parts of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, with its sweeping scale and much-admired herbarium, were nearly lost to posterity in the 1970s. Back then, the Gardens was in a sorry state. There was talk that the Gardens, which sits on prime land, could have been sold to developers.

Its herbarium was up for sale to American interests, which is how Dr Kiat W. Tan, 72, heard about the sorry state of his home country's historic gardens - and became its saviour. At the time, Dr Tan - now the chief executive of Gardens by the Bay and adviser to National Parks Board, and who himself is a former director of the Botanic Gardens - was working as an assistant director at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Florida.

He recalled: "They asked if our gardens would want to buy the herbarium. I jumped. Why is the Singapore Botanic Gardens selling its priceless herbarium? Something smelled badly."

A botanic gardens without a herbarium would have just been a "plain old green space" lacking heart, added the botanist. Galvanised into taking action, Dr Tan, who has fond memories of climbing the branches of the Gardens' Tembusu tree as a young boy, took up a senior administrative position in charge of a research team with the Gardens in 1983.

  • THE GARDENS' MILESTONES

  • 1859: The Gardens was founded at its present location by an agri-horticultural society.

    1888 to the 1900s: Henry Ridley becomes the Gardens' first director. He promotes rubber as a commercial crop. The first Malayan rubber plantation is later started by Malacca planter Tan Chay Yan. By 1917, the Gardens has distributed more than seven million seeds.

    1929: E.J.H. Corner joins the Gardens and trains monkeys to collect plant material from tree tops for research.

    1942: Singapore falls to the Japanese. A botany professor from the Imperial University of Kyoto is appointed director.

    1963: Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launches the first Tree Planting campaign. The Gardens' priority shifts away from botanical science to provide arboriculture expertise to support Singapore's garden-city concept.

    1973: The Gardens merges with the Parks and Trees branch of the Public Works Department to form the Parks and Recreation Division.

    1988: The Gardens are designated a separate division; the post of director goes to Dr Kiat W. Tan, who joined the Gardens in• 1983. He develops a three-phase Master Plan.

    2010: A feasibility study is conducted to identify a property that best stands a chance for inscription as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Botanic Gardens selected.

    July 2015: The Gardens becomes Singapore's first Unesco World Heritage Site.

On his first day of work, Dr Tan discovered a portrait of the Gardens' first director, Mr Henry Ridley - the man behind South-east Asia's successful rubber trade industry - in the trash.

"All the colonial traces were going to be wiped out. It was a shock to see how sadly fallen were the fortunes of the Gardens," said Dr Tan.

Dead dogs frequently washed up in one of the lakes at the Gardens' Bukit Timah core. Rocks that dotted the lake looked like dentures sticking out. It was a shock for Dr Tan, whose rubber-broker father was a keen gardener, and whose mother bred orchids. "I grew up with cherished memories - that's where we went to have our pictures taken in our holiday finery."

He and his team worked day and night to put together what eventually became an 85-page, $51-million Master Plan executed in three phases from 1989 to 2006.

The aim was to bring back the values of a botanic institution to fulfil its role in research, education, conservation and recreation.

"I quietly distributed the plan to every Cabinet minister without my bosses knowing," said Dr Tan."You must be able to put your career on the line if you believe in it. If you are so busy watching your rice bowl, the whole toilet bowl will land on your head."

One team member, Dr Leong Chee Chiew, now the deputy chief executive of NParks and commissioner of Parks and Recreation, said of Dr Tan: "He was so very passionate and able to see the end results in elevating the Gardens to world-class standards."

The plan was announced in 1989 by then Minister of National Development S. Dhanabalan at the Gardens' 130th anniversary.

Today's 74ha of grounds was stitched together by Dr Tan, who connected two plots of land once divided by Cluny Road. He also preserved the Tanglin heritage core which was critical to the Unesco bid. He further restored its historic structures and is credited with saving the iconic bandstand.

To qualify for the Unesco status, a site must have at least one outstanding universal value. The Gardens has two: a historic role in the rubber trade which transformed the region in the 1900s, and its unique tropical colonial gardens landscape.

With this title - Singapore's first - the Gardens sits on a list that includes India's Taj Mahal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'The man who saved Botanic Gardens'. Print Edition | Subscribe