Since We Apparently Love Jogging Now, Here’s a History of Singapore’s Parks

It’s almost become a running joke.

Singaporeans are getting way fitter over this circuit-breaker, excessively jogging and exercising. With social distancing measures in place, parks have become the only outdoor recreational option that many have. Crowding in parks has become so bad that authorities are now trying to clamp down on park usage — closing carparks and even entire segments of green spaces. An application has even been rolled out to indicate real time crowd levels in parks.

While in today’s context we think of parks as places to unwind and relax, it’s interesting to note that this wasn’t always the case. Parks are inherently artificial entities where the flora and fauna are controlled in order to serve the interests of the gardener. In Singapore’s case, the gardeners have had different interests throughout the years — everything from economic and scientific development in the colonial era, to social and community goals in early independent Singapore.

Colonial Era: Cash crops in Singapore

When Raffles first arrived in Singapore, he initiated the establishment of a Botanical Gardens on Fort Canning hill. Almost 48 acres of land were allocated to the gardens, including the Government Gardens on the slopes of the hill, where nutmeg and cloves had been planted since 1819. Fruit trees, also abundant on the hill, were possible remnants of a royal garden under the ancient Malayan kings. 

The interest was mainly financial. Raffles wanted to capitalise on an extremely lucrative nutmeg market during the period. Unfortunately, the garden eventually closed in 1829 due to lack of funding and government support. Although there was an attempt to revive the garden on a smaller scale in 1836, it was eventually abandoned a decade later after the decline in the prices for nutmeg.

In 1859, an agri-horticultural society was interested in setting up another botanical garden in Singapore. Its intended purposes was to become a place of leisure, rather than experimental land for cash crop cultivation. Singapore Botanic Gardens was hence established in Tanglin on land previously owned by a businessman named Hoo Ah Kay. Superintendent Lawence Niven was instrumental in planning the park and giving it its distinctive features, such as the Swan Lake and the superintendent’s bungalow. Events such as flower shows and horticultural fairs were also conducted to attract visitors. Sadly, as the agri-horticultural society’s funds depleted, they were forced to hand over management to the colonial government. Growing cash crops became a priority once again.

The Economic Garden was established in 1879 by director Henry James Murton, who researched and cultivated plants such as coffee, sugar cane, and rubber. Rubber became instrumental as there was higher demand in the early 1900s. It was especially lucrative as rubber was needed in industrialisation efforts across the world, and the Gardens became one of the major suppliers for rubber seeds.

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Rubber plantations in the Economic Gardens. (Source)

Nonetheless, horticulture was still an important part of the Botanic Gardens. Orchids became a specialty as new breeds were created. Singapore’s orchid export trade and nursery industry hence grew in from the 1910s.

As Singapore became involved in World War Two, the Japanese was particularly careful about the treatment of the Botanic Gardens. Japanese Professor Hidezo Tanakadate was appointed with the task of protecting the Botanic Gardens and Raffles Museum. Eldred John Henry Corner, who was Assistant Director of the Gardens from 1929 to 1945, became secretary and interpreter to Tanakadate, while simultaneously working on his botanical studies. Although Corner’s role was controversial as he was seen as a collaborator, he nonetheless was instrumental in helping save books and scientific records.

Corner (R), seated next to two of the Japanese scientists who held control over the Gardens. (Source)

Prisoners of War also showed defiance during the Occupation in the Gardens. When assigned to make bricks and steps to the Plant House, the prisoners marked the bricks with arrows to subtly oppose the Japanese. They are now considered symbols of the prisoners’ bravery.

After World War Two, interest in the Botanic Gardens lessened significantly as the authorities became concerned with building enough housing in Singapore. This led to the next phase of greening Singapore, which was a nation-wide effort that spanned beyond the gardens.

1950s – 1960s: Clean and green Singapore

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After World War Two, the Colonial authorities became much more concerned about the state of housing in Singapore. Central areas were getting too crowded. Homes resembled slums and urban infrastructure was lacking in most areas. In order to combat this problem, the 1958 Master Plan was formed to ensure that crowds would be dispersed across new neighbourhoods.

As local authorities slowly gained power, housing was still an issue to grapple with. The priority was to efficiently build housing. Two organisations were hence established to help with urban planning – The Housing Development Board and the Planning Department.

Although housing remained a priority, it was quickly realised that greenery played an important part in creating public spaces. In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew started a tree planting campaign to encourage increased greenery. The aim was to plant 10,000 trees a year. 5000 of those would be planted by the state along roads and other infrastructure. He hoped that householders will plant the other 5000 trees in their respective vicinities. This is the beginning of Singapore’s journey of becoming a ‘Garden City’.

The journey to achieving such a goal was certainly long and arduous. As housing and redevelopment was the biggest concern of the 1960s, not much thought was given to allocating space for parks. Only spare parcels of land could be used to hold some playground equipment and benches. Residents did not even want to go to these parks – they were described as sterile, bleak and boring. Hence, proper planning was needed to increase and beautify these spaces to satisfy residents.

1970s: Beautifying Singapore

In order to fix the problems of the past, the government decided to establish a Garden Action Committee to create and coordinate greening efforts. Becoming clean and green became a national policy and land was now used specially for planting trees and parks.

By the end of 1970, over 55000 trees were planted across Singapore, ensuring that it was not just a land of concrete slabs. To sustain such efforts, Tree Planting Day was then introduced in 1971. Building the “Garden City” was a collective effort – members of the public worked alongside officials, with each person contributing their part.

To protect our parks, the Parks and Recreation Department was created in 1975 as of the Ministry of National Development. In the same year, the Parks and Trees Act was introduced to ensure that parks became regulated. Planning public infrastructure required proper space allocation to ensure that trees could be planted.

Plant species were also purposefully chosen to provide shades and add colour to these structures. Angsana and rain trees were able to provide shade to cool the tropical environment of Singapore, while acacia tress grew quickly and plentifully to cover up structures.

Instead of merely occupying small pieces of leftover land, parks were planned to be an inviting space.  Plans of new housing estates now included parks and recreational spaces, such as walking paths and exercise corners. Residents were also surveyed to ensure their satisfaction with their living spaces. As the population became more educated and affluent, spaces to relax and do activities became an important requirement which the authorities planned to fulfil.

Singapore also became a hub for foreign direct investments. Though there were many policies implemented to attract businesses – such as remaining neutral to its colonial past – the greenery provided visual evidence of the state’s care of a nation that would be safe and stable for any investors.

A note on Lee Kuan Yew and gardens

Lee Kuan Yew visiting Gardens by the Bay in 2010

No one has influenced Singapore’s green policies quite as much as former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. During much of Singapore’s early years, Lee Kuan Yew seemed to have a very personal and direct role in dictating how and what was planted around the country. To him a ‘clean and green’ Singapore helped achieve two things.

Firstly, Lee Kuan Yew had observed that during the colonial era, greenery was only available in richer estates. Making the entirety of Singapore greener would be a way to promote equality among its residents as everyone got to enjoy the same beautiful spaces. “An elected government cannot have certain sections of the city clean and green… and leave the rest to fester,” said Lee in a parliament address in 1968. Greenery was now framed as an issue of equality.

Beautification was also used to create a brand image and a competitive advantage over other countries in the region. In his memoirs, From Third World to First , Lee says: “After independence, I searched for some dramatic way to distinguish ourselves from the other Third World countries. I settled for a clean and green Singapore.” In an earlier speech in 1967, titled The Future of Singapore Depends Heavily Upon its Cleanliness he echoes similar sentiments:

Fountains, greenery, trees at circuses and other places, and we could make this a garden city within a matter of three years. I think we should do it. I will tell you the advantages to our economy if we do that. First of all, apart from making life more pleasant, you give Singapore a very good reputation, then people come, they stay. Wherever you want to go in the region, you can use this place as a base. Your hotel trade will boom and hotels create employment and you help solve your unemployment problem.

To achieve these results, Lee went to extreme lengths. Many who knew him have remarked that he knew much about individual species of plants and often recommended the types that should be used around the city. The Cabinet used to call the creeper that adorns Singapore’s flyovers and overhead bridges the ‘Lee Kuan Yew Creeper’ because he picked it. Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has also recently said that the bougainvilleas that bloom on road dividers and on overhead pedestrian bridges were also Lee’s idea.

He was, as NParks always said, our chief gardener. He would send a large number of proposals to them, some unworkable but most workable. Whenever I see the red bougainvillea on the overhead bridge, my heart moves up a tick… That was Lee Kuan Yew

Tharman Shanmugaratnam

Large scale infrastructure projects were also influenced by Lee Kuan Yew’s greening policies. In the early 1980s, Lee lamented the fact that the space under flyovers were empty, dark and dingy. In a memo to the Public Works Department, he directed that they ‘should split low, broad flyovers into two, allowing a gap in between for sunshine to reach the cavernous depths below’. He then went on emphasise that aesthetics should also be a priority for engineering designs, and that plants were necessary to cover up and soften the ugly concrete pillars below flyovers. From that point onwards, all major flyovers in Singapore had a 1.5m wide gap in the middle, allowing for plants to grow underneath.

1980s – 1990s: From Basics to Quality

As Singapore emerged as one of the Asian Economic Tigers, better housing and environments became even more pertinent to its population. In 1985, there were already 32 parks to meet the demand for recreational spaces. Nonetheless, islandwide improvements still had to be made.

One concern was the lack of interaction among residents. This led to the creation of an island-wide network of parks. Park connectors linked different public spaces together, encouraging people to either walk or cycle on different paths. This had led to greater interconnectedness between neighbourhoods and zones that were previously far apart.

National Parks Board was then established in June 1990 to continue the efforts of the Parks and Recreation Department. More campaigns were launched, such as Clean and Green Week and Community in Bloom. Singaporeans were encouraged to contribute their own individual efforts in greening the island so as to sustain it in time to come.

2000s: Garden City to City in a Garden

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Newer efforts were needed to ensure Singapore’s green image. The “City in a Garden” vision was born to make greenery plans more sophisticated, ensuring that Singapore’s natural heritage would be sustained while increasing the community’s involvement.

One of the projects would be expanding the park connector systems and providing more recreational spaces for water activities. The Active, Beautiful and Clean (ABC) waters programme was integrated with surrounding parks to ensure more fun activities for residents.

Gardens By The Bay is the biggest project for this vision. An international search for the best architectural plans was held in 2006. Wilkinson Eyre and landscape architects from Grant Associates won the competition and built the Garden, providing the iconic Supertrees we see today. Plant conservatories and green houses were built for various plants to thrive, while visitors could go to the gardens and walkways. The design, which fused technology and nature together, was chosen for its innovation and ability to enrich the lifestyles of Singaporeans and tourists through edutainment. These recognisable features only strengthens Singapore’s association with greenery.

Built on prime land and connected to places such as Marina Bay Sands, the Gardens By The Bay is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Singapore. It is an excellent example of Singapore’s commitment to building a green city for both its citizens and visitors.

Conclusion: Parks we love today

A brief history of parks in Singapore hence reflects the dual purposes of these spaces. Economic reasons were most important during the colonial times, when green spaces for leisure were a luxury. As time passes, parks contributed to the creation of a holistic environment that benefited not only tourists, but everyday residents of Singapore as well.

With Singapore continuing its path of rapid urbanisation, it’s important to have these green spaces integrated into our city. As we take long walks in the park, we can remember the efforts put into building the “City in a Garden” we call home.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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