Singapore 2 – remarkably green

Considering its reputation as a hard-working business-oriented place, Singapore is quite remarkably green – in fact it’s possibly the world’s most biodiverse city. It’s not just the huge central catchment area around the island’s reservoirs of drinking water, but the fact that millions of trees have been planted since the first Tree Planting Day in 1971 – the streets of Singapore are lined with fine examples of carefully chosen tree species, many of which have been colonised by epiphytic ferns and the like, which all seem to be in remarkably good health too.

Luxuriant epiphytes

I was walking, not nature-spotting, but I did see long-tailed macaques, turtles, lizards, squirrels, herons and egrets, and a water monitor; in the 19th century there were tigers and elephants on the island, but now probably the most charismatic wildlife to be seen is the white-bellied fish eagle, probably most easily seen at Sentosa Island (see below). Other migrant raptors can be seen in wetlands, mostly well away from the city centre, such as Changi, Kranji, Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh.

Perhaps the best-known and most easily reached jungle on the edge of the city lies in the world-famous Singapore Botanic Gardens (on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 2015). This was founded in 1859 to research possible crops, a successor to the one set up by Stamford Raffles in 1822 on Government Hill (now Fort Canning Hill), and from 1877 laid the basis for the rubber industry. It also houses the National Orchid Garden, which created the science and business of orchid hybridisation and is home to a collection of 1,200 species and 2,000 hybrids. Amazingly, the gardens are open from 5am to midnight every day of the year and are free, except for the orchid garden. They cover 82ha (stretched out over a distance of 2.5km), of which about 6ha is still primary rainforest. There’s also the new Gardens by the Bay, which I mentioned in this post.

Just a couple of kilometres beyond the Botanic Gardens is a much greater area of jungle around the MacRitchie Reservoir, on the southern side of the central catchment area – buses along Thomson Road will leave you at the eastern entrance, and Marymount MRT station isn’t far away. It’s remarkably busy at weekends, but you can still enjoy primary jungle, and some planted rubber trees, and see long-tailed macaques going about their business oblivious to their human neighbours (although there are plenty of warning signs about potential interactions). There are kayaking and canoeing facilities and hiking trails of between 3km and 11km in length, as well as the TreeTop Walk, a 250m-long suspension bridge between the reserve’s two highest hilltops.

The central reservoirs have not been sufficient since 1930, when water began to be piped in from Malaysia; but, mindful of the fact that Hong Kong’s water shortage meant that there was no choice but to hand it over to China, Singapore’s government has striven to boost its supplies. NEWater plants treat wastewater with microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet technologies, and now produce 5% of Singapore’s water supply – the technology is now being sold to the Gulf States as an alternative to desalination. In addition, following the clean-up of the Singapore River (1977-87) and the creation of the Marina Bay area, a barrage has been built and all the areas of water that you see in the city centre now actually form the new Marina Reservoir (there’s a celebrity family of smooth otters that has taken up residence here).

It’s worth mentioning the Bukit Brown cemetery, just off Lornie Rd between the Botanic Gardens and the MacRitchie Reservoir, which served the dead of the Chinese community from 1922 to 1973 and is now a place of sentimental, ecological and heritage importance. Despite a passionate campaign to save it, 3,700 of its 100,000 graves have now been exhumed to allow the construction of an eight-lane expressway, cutting it in half. This is not new – the Kallang cemeteries were cleared to allow the construction of Singapore’s first international airport in 1937, and Orchard Road, the city’s main shopping street, is also on a former Chinese graveyard. In 2001-6, 58,000 Christian and 68,000 Muslim graves were exhumed from Bidadari cemetery, to be replaced by a new town. Even in 1978, 213 burial grounds covered 2,146ha, or about 3.7% of the island’s area, but now cremation is near-compulsory – only one cemetery is still in use and burial plots there can only be leased for a maximum of 15 years. Religious habits have changed and indeed faded, and the cemeteries no longer see families gathering at festival times to pay their respects to their ancestors. Nevertheless, Bukit Brown is an important part of the island’s green lungs and there are fears that the last natural bastions against flooding in the area may be being removed.

Birdwatching in the canopy.

I was particularly impressed by the recent creation of the Southern Ridges Trail, a 9km route linking together various green spaces just west of the centre which was made possible by the building of two striking and expensive bridges over a couple of main roads. Opposite the gate of Reflections at Bukit Chimu, an excellent museum about the resistance to the Japanese invaders that I mentioned in my previous post, there’s the start of a canopy walk through secondary forest, at the end of which you can turn left following signs to the Hortpark and duck down to pass beneath the canopy walk and go through the Hortpark, the city’s gardening resource centre. Then you’ll cross the Alexandra Arch, across Alexandra Road, skirt the former Gillman Barracks, now being recreated as art galleries and sympathetic restaurants and bars, and take a largely elevated walkway through Telok Blangah Hill Park, luxuriant secondary forest with plenty of birdlife. From here the Henderson Waves footbridge rises 36m above Henderson Road and into Mount Faber Park, where you’ll follow a road briefly to the terminal of the cable-car to Harbourfront and Sentosa Island; Mount Faber Road leads down east towards the centre, but I followed the Marang Trail down the hill south to Harbourside MRT station. This only took a couple of hours of mildly sweaty hiking, with signs giving information on flora and warning about monkeys along the way. You could also walk in the other direction from the canopy walk to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, where rainforest surrounds the island’s highest hill (164m).

Incidentally, from Harbourfront the Boardwalk to Sentosa Island (where’s a kitschy resort and casino, but also plenty of secondary rainforest and a World War II gun battery) is now open without charge at all times.

The next major project now under construction is the Green Corridor, converting the former railway from Cantonment Rd via Bukit Timah to the Causeway at Woodlands to a linear park and cycle route. At the moment those wanting to cycle some distance away from traffic are best off in the East Coast Park which runs east for about 15km from the city centre to Changi, entirely on reclaimed land; bikes can be rented at PCN Pit-Stop stations throughout the park and returned to any other one if you want to jump on the MTR. It’s not much further to Pulau Ubin, an island off Singapore’s northeastern coast (a short boat trip from Changi Point), busy at weekends with people renting MTBs to ride through Singapore’s few remaining kampongs or traditional Malay villages.

The Singaporean government is known for its successful social engineering, persuading its citizens to cut out unhygienic habits, to switch from speaking Hokkien and Malay to Mandarin and English, or to follow certain desired career paths; one of its most visible successes at the moment is the number of people out exercising – most obviously the old folk using the exercise machines on every housing estate, and jogging very slowly around the reservoirs. Schoolchildren are also learning about sustainability and green values, so there’s a good chance Singapore’s surviving wild lands will be even better cared for in the future.