SINGAPORE – Amid Singaporeans’ renewed interest in nature comes an exhibition that documents the change in the environment on the island over the past 400 years.
Through over 150 books, maps, illustrations and specimens, “Humans x Nature: Environmental Histories of Singapore” at the National Library describes the devastation of the environment as a result of colonialism and capitalism, and its later partial rehabilitation.
It challenges visitors to reclaim their natural heritage.
Co-curator Georgina Wong said she was intrigued by the Wild West mentality of the distant past.
“The way that nature was studied back then was almost like it was a new frontier, where there were no laws, no rules, quite clear from reading early European accounts of hunting or trapping expeditions,” she said. “Anything could happen then because nature and humans were so closely intertwined.”
“Today, most of us grew up in the city, so most of the nature we experience is in reserves or parks and gardens… But all the locations of our nature reserves are based on things that happened in the past. It’s good to have that historical context.”
The carefully curated items at the exhibition offer rich stories.
One of the first panels is on a young tapir, kept by the First British Resident of Singapore, William Farquhar, as a pet for six months.
He used it as part of his studies on a new species of tapir in Melaka, acknowledging feeding it “indiscriminately on all kinds of vegetables”.
“As tame and familiar as any of the dogs about the house,” he wrote”, the tapir was “very fond of attending at the table to receive bread, cakes, or the like”.
Those visiting the exhibition also get to learn more about Mr Henry Corner, former assistant director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and his two monkeys.
Called Puteh (White) and Merah (Red), the animals were trained to collect specimens in return for lemonade. Merah died after being sent up a poisonous tree, while Puteh bit Mr Corner on his arm, leaving him with a recurring infection that lasted years.
Ms Wong said that much of the source material for colonial times at the exhibition are from Western sources, but curators made an effort to show that local systems of knowledge existed.
For instance, the centrepiece of a panel on indigenous knowledge is a list of Malay village medicine co-authored by a European botanist and a Malay naturalist.
By juxtaposing Malay names of plants and Latin scientific classifications, the volume of The Garden’s Bulletin Straits Settlements shows that the names we use for what we see around us matter.
Despite the European perspective of village medicine as superstitious, the book shows that colonialism was a clash of cultures that extended to the nomenclature of plants and marine life.
A short video on Orang Laut culture, produced by the community, is also included in the exhibition.
Mr Firdaus Sani, whose family are some of the last Orang Laut residents of Pulau Semakau, said the knowledge of his people was unique.
He said: “Our knowledge of the sea, like how to de-poison puffer fish or capture mud crabs, is quite special. We feel the spirit of the sea lives on with us. It is an appreciation for food and nature that cannot be got elsewhere.
“By having our voices exhibited, we feel we have a claim on Singapore.”
“Humans x Nature: Environmental Histories of Singapore” tells a story spanning four centuries, from the intensive cultivation of land precipitated by the Europeans – which in turn destroyed much of Singapore’s primary forests – to the ongoing efforts by people to conserve the natural habitat today.
In between, the exhibition meanders through eyewitness accounts of coolies whose co-workers were attacked by tigers and special commemorative stamps issued as part of Tree Planting Day which began in 1971 as part of the Garden City Campaign.
Professor Farish Noor, associate professor of history at the Nanyang Technological University, who was consulted on the exhibition, said: “While not necessarily malevolent, the Europeans in expanding their frontiers of knowledge colonised everything they touched.
“They briefly created the South-east Asia that we know and now we have come to this point of existential crisis. We need a more humane modernity, one that sees ourselves not just as protectors of nature but as part of the natural world.”
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