SINGAPORE - Two hundred years ago, Singapore looked nothing like the sprawling metropolis it is today. Like the rest of South-east Asia, it was covered with large swathes of relatively unexplored jungles.
But two intrepid explorers - British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and his field assistant Ali - were willing to brave the wilderness, home to tigers, tapirs and all sorts of wildlife.
They collected specimens as they explored Singapore and the rest of the Malay archipelago - specimens which, until today, are instrumental in helping modern scientists understand more about the natural heritage in Singapore and the region.
On Friday (Aug 30), the two men's contributions were commemorated, as their statues were unveiled at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. This coincides with Singapore commemorating its bicentennial year.
Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, who was guest of honour at the event, said: "We are not just marking 200 years of modern Singapore, but going back 700 years to understand Singapore's early history and reflect on our place in the region.
"It is fitting that we also mark Alfred Russel Wallace and Ali, who made significant contributions in discovering, preserving, documenting and helping us understand the natural history and biodiversity of our region including Singapore."
Mr Muhammad Dzaki Safaruan, the museum's specialist associate in collections, said: "We hope that by cementing these key figures in our landscapes, it will further encourage the average Singaporean to find out more about their stories and the work they have done in the region."
The specimens collected by Wallace and Ali help establish a record of the biodiversity in Singapore and South-east Asia in the mid-1800s.
This is valuable information to scientists today, as it helps them track how wildlife populations have changed over time.
Dr John van Wyhe, a historian of science at NUS, said the systematic recording of wildlife in Singapore was relatively recent.
He told The Straits Times: "If it wasn't for Wallace's collections, we wouldn't be able to reconstruct the biodiversity in Singapore that was here 150 years ago."
Wallace's eight-year expedition to collect specimens in the Malay archipelago spanned 1854 to 1862.
In 1855, he met Ali, a local in Sarawak, and hired him as a local guide and cook. And as their relationship grew, so did Ali's involvement in Wallace's work.
He eventually became an assistant to Wallace in the field as well. Ali shot and skinned a large proportion of Wallace's bird specimens and accompanied him throughout his journeys, including Singapore.
Together, they collected over 125,660 specimens of insects, birds, reptiles, mammals and shells.
Said Dr van Wyhe: "These samples were sent back and sold to museums and private collectors where they were studied, published, and ended up being part of the body of scientific knowledge in that era."
From Wallace's journal entries and letters, Ali played a significant part in sustaining the expedition. He served as an invaluable local contact, often gathering intelligence about fruitful locations for rare birds and animals.
Dr van Wyhe, who studies Wallace's writings, said: "It's clear Ali wasn't just someone who was paid to work. He took a keen interest in the expedition and he used his own expertise to find and collect birds."
A lasting legacy
The museum had collaborated with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) to launch the statues of the duo.
One of the artists, Nafa graduate Lim Xingyi, 20, said that the project has helped her learn more about the contributions of Wallace and Ali.
She said: "My teammates and I spent hours researching Wallace and his work before coming up with sketches and this research allowed us to realise the significance of Ali's contributions to our biogeography."
Head of Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Peter Ng hopes there will be more public awareness of Singapore’s role in history.
He said: “A collateral benefit is that people become more aware of the challenges we have for the future. Wallace spoke about environmental damage. And as historians and scientists, we learn from the past to go forward into the future.”