Recently, stunning aerial footage of a misty Clementi Forest rekindled public interest in nature conservation. While the government has repeatedly stated that there are no immediate plans to develop the site, the much-talked about forest has remained zoned as ‘Residential (Subject to Detailed Planning)’ for the past 23 years. In response to this, a petition – which now has over 17,000 signatories – urged the authorities to protect the forest by designating it as a nature park.
Mere months after this uproar, another forest came under the spotlight. This time, Singapore’s Nature Society encouraged the government to protect Dover Forest – a small secondary forest of 30-plus hectares. These developments are indicative of a larger movement that is gaining steam in Singapore. Increasingly, young Singaporeans are becoming invested in the environmental issues that face their country. In 2019, for example, Singapore’s first Climate Change Rally, which was held in Hong Lim Park, attracted over 2,000 people. Most of the attendees and organisers were young Singaporeans who believed that the government isn’t doing enough on climate-related issues and that the moniker of Singapore being a green, garden city is performative in nature. To these people, the government’s reluctance to protect the two forests are just examples of that.
The tale of two deforestations.
While the urgency might be new, the problem is a century-old one that predates the island’s independence. Deforestation in Singapore has come in two unequal waves. The first one was precipitated by the colonial authorities in the early 19th Century. Spurred by the heightened demand for Gambier crops in the British dyeing and tanning industries, authorities encouraged locals to find new land for plantations. This led to a large chunk of the island’s forests being replaced by Gambier plantations – of which there were well over 600 in the 1830s. Soon, however, the island’s soil became depleted by the excessive farming and many of the plantations moved further north, into Malaysia instead. At the end of this experiment, only 7% of Singapore’s primary rainforests stood.
The second wave came in the form of urbanisation. Both the colonial authorities and the P.A.P. government transformed mangrove swamps, primary forests and beaches into industrial estates, housing blocks and reclaimed land. A newly independent country’s emphasis on providing full employment and adequate housing meant that environmental issues took a backseat. Today, however, things are a bit different. Standards of living have increased exponentially, giving way to post-material concerns and wants in the country’s young. This is where the debate stands today: there is a compromise to be drawn between making infrastructure more accessible and protecting Singapore’s last bits of nature. The question then becomes where should this compromise be drawn.
Singapore from the Sky
Instead of making that judgement for you, we want to show you how deforestation has altered Singapore’s landscape fundamentally. Prior of the withdraw of British troops from Singapore in 1971, the U.K.’s Royal Air Force conducted extensive aerial imagery operations across the island. These images were then used for map making and city planning. More importantly, the imagery also shows an island that is at the cusp of change. One that is simultaneously brimming with life and decaying by degradation. Contrasting these and other images from the National Archives, with the Singapore of today, we tell a tale of two deforestations.
Note that some of these comparisons are approximated.
Interestingly, the area surrounding Dover Forest has been cleared twice already. In the 1920s, vegetation in the vicinity was cleared and replaced by a rubber plantation. After being abandoned during the Second World War, the plot of land saw another forest regrow. This is the process that you can observe in the image to the left. Remnants of the plantation can be observed together with belts of regrown forests. Unfortunately, the bits of regrown forest would be cleared again sometime in the 1960s. The most striking aspect of this juxtaposition is the change in the landscape. Nothing from the 1950 image continues to exist, except the railway tracks in the top right hand corner.
Perhaps no other region in Singapore has seen the type of seismic change that can be observed in Jurong. Early accounts of Jurong show that it consisted of dense freshwater mangrove swamps hugging the coastline of Sungei Jurong (Jurong River) and dipterocarp forests further inland. An early account of Jurong comes from one of the most infamous expeditions in world history. Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry might be well known for his attempts at forcibly opening isolationist Japan to the world, but his first expedition also made a stop in Singapore, where the crew surveyed the Jurong River’s flora and fauna. The expedition’s official artists also produced a stunning illustration of the Jurong River.
While the inland forests were denuded due to uncontrolled timber logging and Gambier plantations in the early 20thCentury, the mangrove swamps remained fairly intact till the 1950s. You can observe this in the old aerial imagery. The mangrove swamps follow the flow of the river, while vast chunks of land to the left of the image has been levelled for agriculture. Looking at today’s Jurong, we can observe even more change. The river has been dammed in 1971 to create a lake – thereby making it easier for factories to collect water, and for the authorities to build attractions like the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. In this process, much of the remaining mangrove forests were destroyed.
Much of Sentosa’s original forest cover has eroded over the last few decades as the island opened up for recreational use. Land reclamation in the 1970s and the 2000s fundamentally changed the shape of the island and might have destroyed numerous coastal forests. The most recent instance of this type of deforestation came in 2007, when the last remaining coastal forest on the island was levelled in preparation for Resorts World Sentosa. The Nature Society lamented the loss of this small plot of forest by saying that “with the exception of a very small and highly disturbed patch at Labrador Park, there is no equivalent forest that (they) know of anywhere else on Singapore”.
For much of the 19th Century, the area surrounding Lavender Street was a mangrove marsh filled with snakes and snipes. From 1841 onwards, colonial authorities started cutting down jungles at the edge of town and reclaiming land for agriculture. Jalan Besar wasn’t spared either, with the area near Lavender Street being converted into a vegetable garden. While much of the mangroves remained towards the south of the neighbourhood, those too disappeared by the 1920s due to industrialisation and the construction of drainage systems and streets. Since then, the area has been used for housing and light-industrial factories.
It is fascinating to note that the 3 Mass Rapid Transit stations (Joo Koon, Pioneer and Boon Lay) in Jurong West all stand on what used to be freshwater swamp forest. Similar to the developments at Jurong Lake, colonial authorities incentivised locals to level these forests and replace them with more ‘productive’ crops like Gambier and rubber. This is what we can observe in the picture above. The region stayed this way until the 1960s, when then Minister of Finance Goh Keng Swee spearheaded the effort to turn Jurong into Singapore’s industrial backbone. The expected speed of industrialisation was such that Dr. Goh tasked the Economic Development Board with organising a new factory opening ceremony in Jurong every day for three months straight. To put this into perspective, there weren’t even 9 factories open in the region at this time.
Kallang’s name is derived from Singapore’s earliest settlers – the Orang Kallang. Originally from Java, Indonesia, they had settled on the huge mangrove swamps of the Kallang River, even before Stanford Raffles stepped foot on the island. After Singapore was ceded to the British by the Temenggong of Johor, the Orang Kallang were resettled to Malaysia.
The mangroves, however, continued to stand until parts of the river were filled up for the construction of the Kallang Airport in the 1930s. In the middle of the picture above you can see the remaining mangroves. These too were levelled in 1968, when millions of tons of earth from Toa Payoh were dumped into the Kallang Basin to straighten the river and reclaim 388 acres of new land. The area is now a light-industrial and residential zone.
Kampong Serangoon Kechil
A substantial part of Punggol’s southern shores consisted of mangrove swamps dotted with Kampongs. Kampong Serangoon Kechil was one such village facing the Serangoon River. These Kampongs and swamps remained standing until the 1990s, when then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong announced the government’s plan to redevelop Punggol into a model township for the 21st Century. The plan, named Punggol 21, was dangled as an election carrot in a 1997 General Election contest between the P.A.P. and a J.B. Jeyaretnam-led Workers’ Party team. While Punggol 21 never truly materialised due to the Asian Financial Crisis, the township has seen increased attention and renewal in the last decade.
Wherever you stand on the issue of environmental protection, it is clear that Singapore’s natural landscape has unmistakeably and irreversibly changed over the last century. The island has lost over 90% of its original forestry to colonial profiteering, urbanisation and industrialisation. Tied with this is probably the loss of many species of plants and animals indigenous to Singapore. What we are left with now are small remnants of the country’s natural history.
Remnants that might indeed be lost to time one day.
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