This article is part of a new guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s “Chief Gardner”, founding father and first prime minister, said more than 25 years ago that he believed “a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit”.
Lee was a lover of all things green. “We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits,” he said. Lee, who died in 2015, inaugurated Singapore’s tree- planting campaign in 1963 and launched the “greening of Singapore”: a decades-long effort to make the tropical city a lush, verdant oasis.
Indeed, there is a reason that Singapore is called the Garden City. Flowers, trees and foliage dot every spare nook of the island. Crucial to this are its parks and Park Connector Network, a system of paths on which people can walk, cycle and jog that will (eventually) link all the city’s green spaces.
When people think of Singapore, they often picture Gardens by the Bay in the heart of the central business district, famous for its dazzling light displays and the setting for many dramatic movie scenes.
But it was the Botanic Gardens that was one of Lee’s favourite spots to visit. Established in 1859 by an agri-horticultural group at its present Tanglin site, it was handed over to the British colonial government in 1874. It covers 82 hectares (it has been expanded several times during its history) and became the city’s first Unesco World Heritage site in 2015.
The gardens survived Singapore’s occupation during the second world war (the Japanese viewed them as an important cultural site), and research and development into sustainably tapping their rubber trees helped the city become a crucial hub for south-east Asia’s rubber industry. Today they are managed by the Singapore government’s National Parks Board.
Nestled at the fringe of Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district, the Botanic Gardens is a tropical take on traditional English landscaping. Picture gently rolling and perfectly landscaped hills, manicured lawns and lakes set against groves — but with a twist, thanks to succulents, bonsai trees and orchids. It features a rainforest too, with a cool, shady boardwalk trail that offers a very different feel to the rest of the gardens.
The park has been busier than ever during the pandemic, despite the lack of tourists. I often visit on Sundays — which is the crucial single day off for the city’s population of foreign maids from countries including Indonesia and the Philippines. The steady hum of their chatter while doing each other's hair, making up dances and sharing food, drifts in and out throughout my walk.
The groups are, of course, smaller these days because of Covid restrictions. Before the pandemic, gatherings of maids could number 20 or 30, but Singapore at the moment limits group sizes to eight people, unless it is a registered exercise class or tour group. (Perhaps that is why I often see an extraordinary number of outdoor yoga classes.)
The paths around the gardens are winding, and even after multiple visits I still get lost and somehow end up walking in the opposite direction from where I want to go. That is not necessarily a bad thing — it’s a wonderful place to get lost in — but when you have a thirsty canine accompanying you in Singapore’s sweltering year-round humidity, it can be problematic.
Yes, the Botanic Gardens also allows dogs, if kept on a leash. The number of pet owners has exploded during the pandemic, and these days there are dogs galore here. The last time I went, I passed a group of three Singaporean women sitting on a bench gently rolling their prams back and forth. I walked past and peered inside expecting to see cherubic baby faces but was instead was greeted by three poodles with large, colourful bows blinking back at me.
On this particular Sunday in April, the park was thronging with people picnicking, jogging and walking. I witnessed more than one couple having a romantic moment and, less amorously, others arguing as they strolled. Clearly, this is a cathartic place to work through differences.
But there is also peaceful activity. Many older Singaporeans practice tai chi in the mornings, as the first rays of light cut across the park.
One spot I habitually use to find my bearings is the bandstand, an octagonal gazebo that was erected in 1930 and is surrounded by picturesque yellow rain trees (Samanea saman). The trees are usually green but due to a mutation some have yellow leaves. The gazebo is a popular selfie spot, as well as being a prime location for wedding pictures and ceremonies.
Close to the bandstand is a grand display of Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim, also known as Vanda Miss Joaquim or the Singapore orchid. The national flower is a hybrid and named after the woman who first crossed its parent species. Here it grows in impressive tall rows thanks to vertical support.
Singapore is famed for its orchid breeding and hybridisation. There is even a hybrid named after the late Lee. The Aranda Lee Kuan Yew was presented to Singapore’s current prime minister, Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong, in 2015. The city’s National Orchid Garden, which draws orchid lovers from all over the world, is located on the park’s highest hill and is home to more than 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids.
But the park is known for more than its incredible flora. Recently, I managed to see a turtle, a family of otters, black swans and a rooster while standing in one spot. It is not unusual to see a monitor lizard sunning itself on one of the paths running alongside the park’s lakes.
If you get hungry, there are a few restaurants and cafés inside the park, but I like to head to Micro outside the gardens, near the Bukit Timah entrance, for excellent coffee and scrambled eggs on fresh sourdough bread.
One of the few things I have not been able to do since moving to Singapore last year mid-Covid is attend one of the free concerts held on the large stage in the heart of the Botanic Gardens. The Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage stands on an islet in the middle of a lake, and in normal times hundreds of people gather on blankets with picnic baskets to listen to music in the lucent dusk. I hope it’s not long before we can hear symphonies playing there once more.
Photography by Siew Png Sim
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