"In the realm of the personal, we can also do a lot to resist colonial logics" | Decolonising our Natural Heritage panel transcript
Livestream of Decolonising our Natural Heritage
Decolonising our Natural Heritage was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 28 May 2022. SADeaf provided SgSL interpretation. You can access the livestream above and the full transcript of the programme below. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity. We would also like to thank Singapore Heritage Fest for collaborating with us!
Vanda Miss Joaquim. Indigenous knowledge. Ethnobotany. These are some of the ways we can get to know our environment, which illuminate the hidden and forgotten aspects of Singapore’s natural heritage. By revisiting the sources of our knowing, we can begin to understand how we relate to our environment and how our “Garden City” can encompass narratives that have been historically suppressed or ignored.
In collaboration with Singapore Heritage Fest 2022, Ethos Books is proud to present this online panel, featuring Khairulddin Wahab, Mok Zining, Nadirah Norruddin, and moderated by Faris Joraimi. Our speakers will share about the ways they decentre natural history away from the European lens and conventional national narratives, seeing our familiar natural icons and landscapes in a different light.
You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!
Photo of the speakers (left to right, top to bottom): Rashidah (SADeaf Interpreter), Khairulddin Wahab, Mok Zining, Nadirah Norruddin, Faris Joraimi
Faris: I guess I’d like to really start by… each of our personal contexts. How did each of you arrive at natural histories as a theme of your work or practice, because we all come from such diverse fields of interests and we work with different mediums as well. So, perhaps you could share a bit about how you came into this personally. Whoever can start first.
Nadirah: Hi everyone. Thank you for joining us today for a rather early morning talk. For me, my interest in this topic, I would say, started out as a rather faith-based one. It gave me a rather deeper appreciation of God, and that becomes stronger through nature. Because it helps me to affirm my beliefs in our surroundings, our environment, how certain things came to be, and so on. So, I have written a few papers and articles on Malay medicine, which I know predates Islam, but following introduction of Islam to this part of the world, Malay healers have incorporated aspects of the religion to their practice. And this syncretism was very appealing to me.
Apart from that, I also grew up watching tons of nature documentaries. So, looking at how people lived with the environment and grew along with nature, all this is very fascinating to me. And, yeah, I would say that sparked by interest in natural history.
Faris: Right, thank you. So, kind of returning to a view of nature that’s not so decoupled, I suppose, from its cultural context, spiritual context. Not so much an objectified view of nature as such. Khairulddin, what about you?
Khairulddin: I think for me it really started with one of my early works I think in 2018. I did a particular piece that was about silat, the Malay martial art form. But I wasn’t interested in silat as a form of self-defense, I was looking at it more as like a microcosm of the Malay culture. Because for me it encompasses customs, spirituality, mysticism, magic, even traditional healing. So, it’s not strange to see that a silat guru is often a religious leader or someone who is doing traditional medicine.
So, I think—what Nadirah touched upon—there’s this syncretism that happens. I found that there’s some roots in animist beliefs and how it has syncretised with Islamist faiths that arrived in the region. So, when I was doing this research, it subsequently led me to look at animism in Southeast Asia. And then, animism is kind of like a reverence for the natural world. So, eventually I went into a rabbit hole and got into reading into the tropics and eventually the environmental history of Singapore. So it was kind of a long way to where I am today.
Faris: Yeah, that’s so interesting. And both of you bring up this very important and major theme actually in studying Southeast Asia, which is syncretism in Malay culture but also Islam, and how it manifests in this part of the world and how it interacts with its environment in often very distinctive ways. We may come back to that. But before we dig deeper, Zining, what would’ve been your kind of approach?
Zining: First of all, thanks for having me. It’s really happy to be talking to you guys and hearing what you have to say. For me, I really came to natural history only through the orchid. So I was writing about orchids and I became interested in orchids because I learned about Singapore’s orchid hybridisation industry. The more research I did on orchids, the more I found out about its colonial history and the role it has played in Singapore and also in the UK especially. Things like orchid mania and all of that. So for me I really arrived at natural history through my research on orchids and doing research on how the empire has kind of co-opted the orchid as this exotic object and for its own power, really.
Faris: Right. And many ways how Singapore has perpetuated that practice, seeing the orchid as part of this mania with collecting and creating new hybrids, which is really an expression of mastery over nature. There’s an element of power at work that the orchid really kind of symbolises.
I guess we can start with you first Zining, just building on those points. Your work, The Orchid Folios, deals very heavily with the construction of a national landscape, right. The creation of Singapore as a national landscape and how much again that owes to imperial science. Do you see any decolonial possibilities in practices that have colonial roots, such as collecting and taxonomising nature, classifying nature? Do you think there’s any room for ambiguity? Would you say perhaps that oh, well this is a form of appreciation, we don’t have to always think of it in terms of exploitation and power. What are your thoughts?
Zining: This is definitely a question that really troubled me while I was writing about orchids. The last thing I wanted to do was write about orchids in a way that could play into that narrative of it being exotic and just unproblematically so. And so, I did think a lot about this. I'm not a natural history expert so I can't really say what decolonial methods there are in taxonomising and collecting all that.
I’m sure that Nadirah being a curator will have much more to say about that. So I can really comment on, metaphorically and narratively how I tried to get around this problem of colonialism and decolonisation. I think, for me, much of colonialism in this book played the role of crafting and arranging things, arranging narratives for the power of the empire, right, and all of that. So for me, metaphorically it was moving from that narrative of arrangements and cuttings and all of that taxonomising into a narrative of growth and nurturance.
For example, my florist, instead of composing or rearranging things over and over again, what she ends up doing is becoming a sort of gardener instead, in the sense that she takes the cutting and she repots it and nurtures it and gives it a new kind of life. Then, narratively, my florist is a very ordinary, average person. I don’t think she necessarily has the language of decolonisation in her vocabulary. So, for her, I think in her very personal terms, decolonisation really means taking back the orchid and really remembering the orchid as something that she has a relationship with.
That kind of helped facilitate the relationship between herself and her own mother. So it becomes this very personal object… Not object, this living thing that you have a very personal relationship with. And I think that’s part of decolonisation. Instead of using plants as an instrument of power, you bring it into your own personal relationships.
Faris: Thank you. So it’s really a version of decolonisation that doesn’t have to depend so much on really loud or bombastic gestures of politics or action but really kind of taking it back to the realm of the personal. And in many ways in the realm of the personal, in our everyday lives, we can also do a lot to resist colonial logics. In your case, it really was redefining the relationship with the natural in many ways.
So, what about Khairulddin, I'm drawn particularly to your work entitled “A Variation of Things Imperfectly Known”. It’s a painting, correct me if I’m wrong, that depicts or rather reminds me of Alfred Wallace and his Malay assistant Ali as they would have appeared out in the field. And the work feels to me like a mirror image that actually subverts how Ali is officially remembered, right? He’s always remembered as Wallace’s sidekick.
And if you go to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, there’s a statue outside and that’s how they’re portrayed as well. Wallace is kind of pointing to the specimen, and Ali is there with his rifle. But instead here, we have Ali the one pointing the way and Wallace is more or less the passive collector. How else can we write the “native” back into colonial history or the history of modern science generally?
Khairulddin: Thanks for your reading of my work. I think you kind of hit the nail on the head because I didn’t talk to you about this work but you kind of just gave it to me.
Faris: Of course there are different interpretations.
Khairulddin: That was close to what I was thinking about when I did it. I was thinking about the European naturalists like Wallace, Darwin who arrived in the region and oftentimes was guided by local figures like Ali. So, in that sense, it was in the production of knowledge that they created. I suppose when it was imported to Europe, it wasn’t really… or it didn't give the kind of acknowledgement that Ali would maybe would have [wanted].
I was thinking about all these lesser known, hidden narratives that are waiting to be retold and then historical figures whose contributions I think would need to be re-examined. I suppose, to your question about how to write the “native” back, I think it’s to reassess the figures that contributed to or helped to build this body of knowledge. I think one example is Mohamed Haniff. He was working with Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG) through a few directors and he co-authored one of the books, Malay Village Medicine. It was published in 1930 with Isaac Burkill who was the Singapore Botanic Gardens director in 1912. He also contributed to another of his books called “Dictionary of economic products of Malay Peninsular”.
So, I mean obviously we’re not really aware of him as a figure, but Isaac Burkill is on a different… like, we kind of know him more. Maybe not [for] a layperson, but in terms of history and the kind of weight that is placed on both these individuals. So, I think it's about reassessing the figures that contributed. I think another fun fact is also that he got a few plants that were named in his honour. Because I think he discovered it. One of it is an orchid. The scientific name is Dendrobium haniffii. That kind of ties to Zining’s orchids.
Faris: Yeah, and really gets into the way the history of science is told, right. It’s always told through these great men, the myth of invention and genius. But really how scientific discoveries worked was that they relied on the labour of a lot of unnamed people who weren’t able to get their name on a species or write up the description or whatever.
And most often it is really through these little fragments like species named after Haniff or species named after Salim Ali who was an Indian ornithologist, but very few. But it’s really about time we reconstruct these histories, actually. There’s still a lot to be done. Nadirah, you work a lot on Malay healing practices and all that. In wanting to reorient our attention back to that, there may be people who think this potentially risks othering malay culture as peculiar or bizarre.
But also you’ve written about how colonial scholars themselves—for example, like Percy Gerrard—recognised the scientific merit of Malay medicine. So it’s not all bomohs and pawangs and all that. There were some “scientific” aspects of these. What were some of these arguments that people like Gerrard raised?
Nadirah: So just to comment on the otherwordly, bizarre aspects of Malay healing practices that people have often talked about. There’s this quote from Diana Rahim who was actually presenting last week that I thought embodies this idea, that it’s not merely a bizarre practice but it should be accepted as a body of knowledge, because it is. It is a system that involves healers, that involves nature and stuff like that.
She says, “The knowledge developed and accrued within traditional knowledge systems is not by any means entirely spiritual, or mystical, or random. Just like any body of knowledge, it is deep, systematic and has its experts.” So, I find that this has to be said, that it’s not entirely magical or spiritual. But, of course, this is something that most people are interested in whenever I’m talking about Malay healing and Malay medicine, people tend to always want to talk about the hantus and about the mystical.
For Gerard, he did give due credit in his works to Malay midwives in particular, such as the operation of a reversed uterus. I’ve quite a bit of quotation, so bear with me. Quoting from him, where he said that: “One is driven to reflect that some of their methods or devices must be at least worthy of study.” It still sounds a bit condescending, must be "at least worth of study", but he’s actually still acknowledging it, which is one. And he also mentioned that, “Midwifery is non-meddlesome and therefore fairly good.”
And, plus, he also saw merit in Malay medicinal herbs and plants which can be incorporated into British pharmacopoeia. Again, I quote that, “Their 100 drugs given in place may easily be its equal if not superior to ours.” You know that we have so many drugs that it could be our equal or even better than the British current drugs that they have found. And he also mentioned that Malays will be valuable allies to European medicine but we must in the first place gain their confidence. This is actually very interesting because he is also a believer that a lot of British medical professionals do not make an effort to understand ailments described by Malays.
So he feels that they often then do not receive proper diagnosis, that Malays do not receive proper diagnosis, because the British were ignorant. And he was ashamed of his ignorance as he says in the introduction of his book, for failing to understand and grasp the Malay’s conceptual understanding of medicine and healing. But I’m not here to conflate Gerrard or say that Gerrard was progressive or anything by any means. Of course, he still held very questionable and racist views about the community.
For one, on Malay pathology, he said that, “They know nothing. Their pathology depends on the ‘hantu theory’.” It was something he came up with, or maybe someone else came up with, but he mentioned “hantu theory” quite a bit when he’s talking about Malay pathology.
Another colonial officer that I would like to bring up is Gimlette. Gimlette did also credit local knowledge in his work. For example, he described various species of pufferfish along with their Malay names. And he also completed it with anecdotes on the poisonings and what are some of the Malay antidotes if you are poisoned by a certain species of pufferfish. So it’s a very detailed list of instructions on how to prepare the fish to handle. I find all of this quite interesting that they gave credit, but at the same time it is important for us to note that this does not mean that they found everything about Malay medicine, I would say, worthy of praise in their perspective. They do give credit sometimes.
Faris: And the overall attitude still seems to be that this is an unsurveyed field of knowledge and we need to make it familiar to ourselves. We need to translate it into our own system of pathology, and that it has to be tested because that was the prevailing method, and at the end of the day there was still a hierarchy between the tested, scientific—what they considered scientific and what they, what was “hantu theory” et cetera.
But thank you for that. At the end of the day, I think a lot of modern medicine, a lot of modern science really owed a lot to indigenous knowledges. But it really was really about how that had to be translated for what was considered a modern knowledge system according to European standards.
And for that, I’d like to perhaps remark a little bit on what Khairulddin said earlier and what you said as well, Nadirah. This idea that in that traditional Malay setting, there was no hard distinction between what was rational and secular knowledge and what was mystical, religious, spiritual knowledge. Because the medicine man, the ritual practitioner, the bomoh, the pawang or whoever was also an environmental expert, a natural expert, so you had silat practitioners, of course, but also like people like pawang laut, pawang hutan et cetera who not only knew the spiritual aspects of a particular natural space but really also understood the space ecologically. They knew about flora and fauna et cetera and how to operate within that space.
So, that distinction between the natural and spiritual is really one of the big contributions of this European scientific world view. And Nadirah, in your work, did you come across other local or Malay individuals who contributed a lot to colonial science but have been forgotten? I mean, Khairulddin mentioned Mohamed Haniff. Who else were there?
Nadirah: Yeah, so there’s always been the productive partnership between Haniff and Burkill [which] is always known to a lot of people, especially those studying environmental history.
Besides Haniff, there were other figures such as Encik Ahmad Hassan that I would like to highlight. He was one of Botanic Gardens’ pioneer plant collectors, and he was described as a walking dictionary on Malay flora particularly. He was actually planning to complete a dictionary which was unfortunately unfinished because he died while coming up with this dictionary. It supposedly contained a taxonomy of Malay flora including their Latin and Malay names, along with medicinal values.
Ahmad Hassan had accompanied Ridley on his pioneer trips to Malaysian jungles and persuaded farmers there to cultivate rubber seeds. And I also notice that a lot of these names, I can only find when information is written about them in obituaries or when they’ve passed on and so on. So that’s quite interesting that when Ridley or Burkill or whoever were going on expeditions, these people were always classified as plant collectors, you know. He had three plant collectors with him and they were never named.
And then later on we find out that, oh, it could have been Ahmad Hassan. It could have been Haniff or whoever. And for Ahmad Hassan, he was not just a plant collector. He was also the chief recorder, the store keeper and the head librarian. And he was in charge of collecting seeds that would then be dispatched to other botanical institutions overseas. So he was a very well-connected man as well.
Another name that’s also been buried in the archives is Haji Mohamed Nur bin Mohamed Ghous. He was a Singapore herbarium assistant and he was instrumental in a lot of the taxonomic organisation between 1920s to 1950s, and he was known to be a master in his work. And I would say that we can really thank him for deconstructing a lot of local knowledge that were put under taxonomical organisation that is comprehensible to the colonial authorities back then and for us today.
There’s this very interesting quote from him that I would like to read. Very poetic man. “Everything comes to me naturally and from experience. My first job was in the garden when I left the sixth standard in an English school. And I grew up like a plant rooted in the rich soil.”
So that is how he described himself. And what is also interesting about these men is that a lot of their sons also continued their work. So we can see there’s a lot of intergenerational knowledge in this particular study of plants and flora and fauna in Singapore. And lastly, there’s another man called Ngadiman bin Haji Ismail. He was a plant collector at the Botanic Gardens as well. For example Ngadiman was sent to Potong Bahru to find monkeys. What were these monkeys known for? They were actually trained by Ngadiman to look for certain plants that were in hard to reach places. So he would train the monkeys, this is how you climb or this is what I want, and so on and so forth.
And there were many famous monkeys in the Botanic Gardens at the time. Their names were Puteh, Jambul, Merah. So they were kind of icons of the gardens during that time and Ngadiman was the one who trained them. And, like you said, there were a lot of unnamed people, a lot of unnamed local expert knowledge. And this also came from people like pawangs and also healers who were helping the colonial authorities. And even the Dayat natives when they travelled to Borneo.
So, for example, people of the Sakai tribe who provided a lot of information to Ridley, and we don’t know exactly who they were but we just know they were from this tribe. So this were some interesting things that came up in my research and interesting names that popped up that I did not know of before, and a lot of us probably don’t know of before. So it'll be good for us to learn more about these people. And maybe they still have their notebooks kept by their grandsons and so on, so, I’ll be interested. Shoutout to any of the grandsons out there. Or granddaughters!
Faris: Thank you so much. If there are any of our listeners who are in any way remotely related to these individual personalities, or if you have a relative who worked at the botanical gardens, these are all important historical material that will help us to have a fuller picture to understand our history of science, really.
Again, the work has barely begun but we’ve had public exhibitions talking about how to tell Singapore’s natural history in a different way. One of which being the National Library’s recent show Human x Nature, which presented a more self aware, reflective environmental history of Singapore, and really tackling the impact of colonialism, in my view, quite head on, especially the earlier parts.
How else do you think we can reform the way Singapore’s environmental history is taught in schools or whatever and really talked about in public?
Zining: I thought that the Human x Nature exhibit was so interesting. I was just delighted by it. So I do feel like the NLB and URA et cetera, they are very much holding many more workshops than in the past? So that’s a very encouraging thought. But I think something else that’s very important is also in schools right, a curriculum that emphasises not just the facts but also how environmental history was crafted. Like, we might learn about people like Ridley, like Burkill. And these were the names that I first stumbled upon when I was researching orchids as well.
But it was only through very thorough research that I would start to understand that Ahmad Hassan for example was a collector for Ridley. Ridley was such a big person here. And he’s lauded as this figure, but it would not have been possible without so many people that we don’t know. So I think a basic understanding of how environmental history is crafted and who is in the narrative, and why they are in the narratives, is very important.
And history classes should very much pay more attention to the writing of history and the power dynamics that are involved in that. I think it’s the same with our national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim too. It was hybridised by this local Armenian woman Agnes Joaquim. And Ridley had acknowledged her as creator of this hybrid, but for the longest time, all of these Singapore Botanic Garden directors were like, no she couldn't have hybridised it, because she’s a woman.
And the locals wouldn’t have had the resources or knowledge to do this. Which is exactly what both Khairulddin and Nadirah were talking about right, all of these great men are in the books but so many locals and so many women are sidelined as well. And it was really only in 2016 or 17 that Agnes Joaquim finally got officially acknowledged as the creator of Vanda Miss Joaquim. That’s very very recent. And I think that presents a very good case study on understanding how history is written.
Faris: That’s right, exactly. Attending to the dynamics of power in these histories and to not adopt always this triumphalist attitude, right. It’s not always about Singapore overcoming nature. I think especially if we’re talking about schools and we’re talking about public history. This is a major, major theme in how we talk about our past. It’s Singapore overcoming nature, whatever physical limitations, that’s so central to our identity and our narrative, and I think that really lies at the heart of revising the way we think of our relationship to our environment.
Khairulddin: Before I answer I think I wanna go back to what Nadirah talked about, like knowing certain figures only from the obituaries. I think one person that I did work [on] was someone called Juraimi bin Samsuri. He’s a botanical illustrator. And I only found out because I visited the Botanical Art Gallery. And I saw the drawings and looked at the name and was like… Oh! He’s a local guy. So I went to dig about him and then the only thing I could find was his obituary and some contributions he made to a journal. So it was quite fascinating to learn about his history and how he contributed to the whole botanical illustration archive at Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Faris: Yeah, absolutely. Anthony Medrano is an environmental historian who’s been looking at some of these figures. Juraimi Samsuri was actually also quite connected with the local Malay painters, the visual arts paint scene of the ’50s and ’60s apparently. There were other people like Yusof Ishak’s father, Ishak bin Ahmad, who was the first non-European director of the fisheries department in the straits settlements and was of huge help in identifying and classifying Malayan fish. So, there were all these people performing that work of local identification for European scientists.
Khairulddin: So back to question on how to teach environmental history. One way is to look at your surroundings. The gardens, the green spaces we have, the nature reserves. And seeing how the landscape around us has been built up. I think Singapore is very unique in that the nature here is natural but at the same time unnatural. Because everything is so structured and all the trees that line the roads are so even. There’s an element of design in the way our environment has been built up. So that’s a way to take it as a launching pad to think about how this environment came about and how ideas about constructing our landscapes are created.
For example, the “garden city” plan that the late Lee Kuan Yew started in the 1960s, that was also inspired by his, I believe, travels to Europe. And he felt like, oh, the environment in one of the European cities he visited was so proper. The nature was nicely built up and all the tree-lined roads. That was the spark for him to create the “garden city” plan. And this plan eventually got updated, maybe 2017—somewhere around there or maybe earlier—to, I think it’s called “a city in a garden”. So it went from “garden city” to “city in a garden”.
I think in the wording itself it kind of makes you think about how this shift, from looking at the city as a garden city to a city that’s in a garden, and how that's reflected in the way that the environment has been built up around us. So, you just look around and it becomes a way for you to rethink how your landscape around you is.
Faris: Yeah, absolutely. I think now the updated tagline is “A City in Nature” or something right? They’re changing these things all the time. And it begs the question of which is better? To frame it as a city in nature or city in a garden? Because, ultimately as I was listening to a podcast the other day that was discussing this—T42, I highly recommend it—all nature ultimately has human intervention in it. Even what we consider the most pristine nature has a degree of human management and human contact. The issue really is about, on what scale? Because we think about indigenous societies having this completely harmonious relationship with an untouched natural world. But even that is a colonial myth, because many indigenous societies were actively managing their ecological resources, and that was really part of that symbiotic relationship. And in many ways that was one conception of a “managed nature”, right? In Singapore, what we have is a very extreme form of hypermanagement of nature, the “garden city” concept. But yeah, absolutely, thanks very much for that.
Nadirah: I agree with Zining, in the sense that, to learn more about the power dynamics that exist in our environmental history because I think that’s very important. And for me, it’s also even a work-in-progress. As I’m doing even more research on it, I find new things all the time, which makes it all very exciting because there is more to write about. And also, I think besides that, we could also learn more about the ecology in the sense that, what does this herb help with, what does that herb help with and and so on. And how the use of a certain thing impacts the other flora and fauna around them. So these are some things that we can maybe look into.
I recently read a paper that’s very interesting by Cynthia Chou. It’s basically an ethnohistorical account of agriculture and farming in Singapore. So I feel like this is a very untapped topic in terms of studying our environmental history, looking at how there were a lot of personal and family farms that were phased out in the ’70s and ’80s particularly, including vegetable and fruit farms. And how Goh Keng Swee for example in the ’80s mentioned that the agricultural policy should be reworked because it was no longer Singapore’s aim to achieve self-sufficiency in primary produce.
So he believed that it was better to focus on what the nation would do best, which is to produce goods and services in which it had a competitive edge over others. This is very interesting to me. It's not really talked about today in terms of what happened to all of these personal and family farms, where did they go after that, how did their lives turn out after that. Someone could take this up to reform our writing of history.
Faris: Absolutely. And we are seeing more public interest I suppose in things like urban farming, so there is a revived interest in that, because for the past couple decades it was always about this, right? The rural space in Singapore had to be eliminated and it was always seen as something that disturbed Singapore’s own image as an urban economy that was, as you said, producing goods and services for the rest of the world and not producing anything for itself.
In that respect, I think there is a more of a public shift in how this sort of self-sufficiency worked. And indeed a lot of these memories, these specialised skills that people used to have, if they grew up on the farms in Singapore that are now lost, I mean these are fields of knowledge that can be tapped as well.
Zining: I just wanted to add on to that. I got very excited because I actually live in Bedok South and I live near the Limau Estate, so it’s where all the old fruit farms were. It’s very interesting, it’s definitely a question that I’ve been thinking about, just walking around this area and imagining where the hills used to be before they were excavated and cut down and the histories around.
What I’ve been noticing is that, starting last year there started to be these “Bedok Heritage Trails”, with the signs all pinned around. I feel like there are little clues everywhere. You know, you have the trails, but then you have the road names, like, why is this road called Limau Kasturi for example.
I think also just getting to know our area, our own neighbourhoods in a way that's not just HDB blocks and kopitiams, all of that. But wondering, like how Khairulddin has said, the landscape has been written upon and how it has changed. I think that’s very interesting and very experiential as well.
Faris: And the resources are out there, right. You can go to the NUS historical maps database online and see and zoom in to specific areas of Singapore that go all the way back to the 1800s. I did it with my street; I live somewhere in Loyang. And you find these hills that used to have names, okay, those hills had names, and they were probably pretty ancient.
And sometime in ‘80s and ‘90s, they just disappeared, right. So like what Khairulddin was saying as well, learning more about your landscape, it doesn’t have to just be about Singapore on a grand scale. It could start with your own little neighbourhood or your own street, which had its own environmental past as well, right. And often very rich environmental history.
How did your own local landscape change, were there old rivers that were rechanneled? Were there old hills? And we’re remembering these physical landscapes. Because, again, at the end of the day the story of Singapore’s development is a very physical one and a very violent one. It’s really how, you know, the reclamation, the levelling of the hills, the filling in of swamps.
That’s also one way to rethink our natural history. Which brings me to the next question: a lot of folk ways, whether it’s thinking about medicine, food, gardening, a lot of these endured in the past because communities still had access to the physical environments that sustained them right? Even during the British period actually; there were plantations all over the island, but there were still pockets of communities that had access to their ecological terrain, they weren’t all wiped out the way they are today.
Most people in Singapore in the present are dislocated from many of these contexts. How do you think we can reconnect to these older modes of engaging with nature, with the environment? And also of course the cultural knowledge that comes with that.
Zining: I would just say that I am not indigenous to this land and I do not know a lot of things and I do also feel myself to be dislocated from these contexts, and so I would really love to hear what Khairulddin and Nadirah have to say. I feel like for me… actually, researching the orchid has strangely helped me to start understanding different ways of living on this land that's not the contemporary Singaporean way, and learning how that was formed. So that’s my thought on that as well. And also thinking about how to engage indigenous knowledges in an appropriate way that's ethical as well. It’s definitely something that I wish we could have more conversations on as well.
Nadirah: I feel that the simple acts of connecting with our elders when they cook, the practices they kept from their ancestors, from their forefathers, even their grandparents. These are some of the easiest ways in our everyday. It doesn’t have to be big actions, it doesn’t have to be grand gestures of growing up in the streets or anything like that, you can do it in your home. And also, there are more and more farm-to-table cuisines, a lot of restaurants popping up with these ideas.
And I think, because of Covid also, there’s an increasing trend towards nature trails and hikes, rediscovering our environment and, like you said, urban and community gardens by residents. People are more actively engaging with nature because they can’t enter malls, so maybe nature is another substitute or alternative to that. What was interesting and what came out of this was also that, I think in 2020, there were new animal species that were found in Pulau Ubin, for example. I think there is a greater push by the people themselves to explore our nature and engage more rather than just seeing our very manicured gardens and spaces.
Khairulddin: I think Zining brought up an interesting thing about the heritage trails. Yeah, there are these pockets of little trails that they are starting to build up. I think even in Bedok where I stay, there’s this area where they put up a sampan-looking notice board, and on it are some pretty interesting facts and history on the history of Bedok. They even have archival images.
There’s all these small, small pockets of heritage trails popping up. I guess they’re trying to make people more aware of the history of the place, so one way to engage is to explore your neighbourhood and go to all these trails, and experience rather than being confined to just looking at environmental history and nature through books. It’s about going out there and experiencing it and learning from the trails. That’s a good way of doing it.
Faris: And also pay attention to what the trails are emphasising, what stories are the trails interested to bring out and see what may be missing. And this goes to any history you read. Historians are just naturally skeptical. Anything a historian reads, it’s always like, “hmm, that's interesting, what's being emphasised, what’s being paid attention to.” So we get a more meaningful picture of our past as well. Last point of discussion before we move on to the Q&A.
And again really coming back to Singapore in the present. But I mean this could apply anywhere. So I’m really interested to ask you whether the survival of Singapore as we understand it today: growth-oriented, fully urban (except for some pockets) and really hyper modern, do you think this is compatible with meaningful commitment to climate justice or climate action? Nadirah do you want to go first?
Nadirah: I feel this is a rather big question for me, personally I think that climate justice is not just an environmental problem, it interacts with social systems, privileges, injustices, it also affects people across different classes, race, gender, even generations unequally.
So for a society like us and a government like us, sustainability has to be at the heart of policy. I would not know how that could be done but I feel these things have to be taken into account, the things that I mentioned before, and not just simply talking about using paper and metal straws over plastic straws.
We have to go beyond that if you want to talk about climate justice in a place like Singapore. And to work and collaborate with other—to make other joint efforts with other developed nations is very important. To make that commitment and also to follow through is really important.
Khairulddin: I think Singapore has made a lot of commitments; I believe they have recently created a plan for a low-carbon future. I saw the policy and there's all these transformations that they envision in all these different industries like economy and society. I think Singapore is committed to green growth and sustainability. At least that is what is being talked about. In the context that you mentioned that Singapore is a growth-oriented, fully urban and hypermodern city, I think Singapore is trying to do its best to balance between being ultramodern, growth-oriented, and mitigating the effects by enacting these low carbon goals. I guess in the grand scheme of things global warming is a global issue. As a country we can do our part but we can’t really [do much] if the bigger countries out there don’t do it. Eventually, we can only do so much. If it happens, it happens.
Faris: Right. It’s really about a global kind of paradigm shift, almost. What is considered a meaningful social pursuit. Is growth at all cost really something that we should be aiming for, and things like that. To be fair, yes, there are all these international summits putting together targets et cetera.
Zining: Yeah, one hundred percent. Singapore’s economy completely succeeds only because it’s part of the global economy that is very reliant on fossil fuels, that is just not green at all. So yeah, for sure, it’s a global paradigm shift. I think it was Rajaratnam who had said that if the global economy collapses then we will collapse, but that is unlikely to happen, or something like that, because that will be the end of human civilisation.
But I do feel like there is a point there of Singapore being tied to that. And the question for me is what role can we as a small nation play in this very global story as well? With regards to the green initiatives, there are a lot of things like green building initiatives for example that might look green but are not super green? In the way that they are tearing down old buildings that are still functional to build new green buildings. I think it’s important as citizens to look beyond the words as well and see what's actually happening on the level of infrastructure.
Faris: Exactly. I think I was kind of asking this question because it seems to me on the surface that there is a lot of green washing happening, exactly like what you said: green building, eco-friendly. These are the KPIs, but at heart I think I am a little bit more pessimistic, I think if climate justice is going to happen we can’t continue to prioritise growth and urbanisation at all costs and then do these minor gestures like build more sustainable buildings, or build sea walls and climate-resilient structures and things like that.
It's really about prioritising different things. Maybe we don’t really need to build another fossil fuel plant or something like that. That’s the paradigm shift that needs to happen, I feel. Anyway, we are good to go into Q&A. I will go with some of the earlier questions. The first is by Alfian Sa’at. This is directed at Zining:
“I liked the Human x Nature exhibition too, but I was wondering what you thought of the final segment? I was excited by the more critical elements in the earlier parts—about colonial extraction and environmental destruction, neglect of indigenous knowledge, but the ending was a bit falsely triumphalist (mentioned "victories" in Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh but not other "losses" like Bukit Brown, Cross Island Line and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve) and smacked a little of state greenwashing.” What’s your response? And anyone else can jump in if you have thoughts as well.
Zining: Yeah! A hundred percent. In the later segment there was like one panel on land reclamation and I was like… you cannot have just one panel on land reclamation when a quarter of our country is reclaimed land. I totally agree and I also think it's exciting in a way because I am doing research on land reclamation and I do feel like this is a place and this is a space where I want to be writing about and I want to be thinking more critically about. A place where I feel like there is still so much to do for so many people. And not just curators and not just librarians, but also for people like me, I’m a writer, I don’t feel like I do much in terms of writing of history like curators, you know.
I think I left it thinking there's still so much to write about and this is my motivation to write, I think. The other thing is the "victories" in Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh. I think some things that, for example, my friend who also went to that exhibition talked about was how he never really knew all this stuff. He was very amazed by the kind of change that has been brought about by participatory politics, in that sense. And I think that is kind of interesting as well. If the takeaway is that, maybe it’s also an emphasis on citizen participation and activism.
So that is one positive spin, but of course I agree with you that so much more of the meaty stuff is just beginning in the later segment.
Faris: And that’s frustrating, right. Like reclamation is always explained away as an evil necessity but a necessity no less. So everything else has to bend at the knee because we have to expand, you know?
And do we really? Is this really the binary? Surely we can find more creative solutions for our land needs that don’t have to be so destructive. I mean, that’s just me. I agree. And yes, with the activism stuff, it also felt to me as a comment on the “right way” to do activism that was “collaborative” and “consultative” and don’t get too hasty with your demands and things like that, go about it slowly and surely enough, the state will grant your petition. There’s a lot going on there, I agree.
Zining: I think there are some very interesting tactics by Singaporean nature conservationists. For example in the Limau estate, there is one small hill here and they wanted to cut and parcel out the parts of the hill that have just forest fragments. What activists did was they tried to find heritage trees—trees that would qualify as heritage trees—on the hill and then tried to submit it to I think NParks, I’m not really sure, because if it was a heritage tree then they wouldn’t be able to cut the hill and take all the trees down with it. It was objected, it didn’t go through but I think there are so many of these stories for sure that are not being highlighted and tactics that are not being highlighted in the exhibition.
Faris: Let’s see, I’m trying to go chronologically… Nat has a question: “How do we encourage the dislocated/alienated majority to care more about indigenous ways of life?” There’s a lot going on there.
My take is, historically there wasn’t so much of such a stark divide between what we consider an alienated majority and a more connected indigenous community. Because if you look at it, there were also many so-called “emigre communities” who had adopted indigenous patterns of life. Again if you read Cynthia Chou, you learn about Teochew fishermen who adopted Malay fishing methods, they consulted Malay pawangs, they worshipped Malay deities at sea to make sure they were safe, to ensure a good catch. It’s also about recognising that the “emigre communities” of Singapore had at one point in time adopted many of these different, more indigenous modes of knowledge that engage with the environment in a very contextual way. They understood these ecologies inherited from indigenous communities. So I wouldn't be so hasty to draw that divide so cleanly. And so in the present, surely, it’s about really recognising that the non-indigenous or “emigre communities” in Singapore also in many ways historically had participated in many of these embedded ways of understanding the environment. That’s my take.
Okay. Should we move on to the next question?
Ashawari asks: “Any conceptual frameworks/ words in environmental history here that hold all the complex meanings of the environment or that are used to interrogate it?”
Conceptual frameworks… so in local environment history, I’m assuming, is being asked here, the whole conceptual movements. Nadirah, I feel like you would probably be well-suited to tackle this. Frameworks, words… I mean, yeah, if you’re looking at local environmental knowledge, I’m sure there’s quite a rich corpus there. Any that might be potentially useful or insightful?
Nadirah: Unfortunately I cannot offer my expertise on this because I’m not sure… sorry.
Khairulddin: I wish I could offer something of substance. I think it's quite difficult to hold everything into a word or framework when we’re talking about something like this. Environmental history is connected to so many different things, or it encompasses quite different things. So yeah it’s a bit hard to boil it down to a word or words.
Zining: Yeah, I’m not completely sure as well, but I think some words that have held a lot of mythological power over contemporary Singapore might be like, for sure, “garden city” and our nature as well. And then in the past it was a lot about swamps and how swamps were “mosquito-infested” and “backward”, you know. I think that all of these words have their specific cultural meanings. For sure, now that it’s “city in nature”, that’s a conceptual framework that we can interrogate. What is “nature” in here? Also the word “biophilic”, I think is another interesting word to interrogate and ask what do we mean by that, and what are we doing to achieve that, and do we agree with it? So maybe not hold all the complex meanings, but maybe words that we can use as a starting point into research.
Khairulddin: Yeah you mentioned “garden”. I think that’s a very strong word that’s always been recurrent in our imagination as city-dwelling Singaporeans in a garden city. The word “garden” itself is so loaded with colonial implications, like the “English garden” and all that. The desire to construct a desired landscape around you is all rooted in that colonial framework.
Faris: And it’s a specific gardening philosophy, right? Because there are different gardening cultures in different parts of the world, but the one that we understand in Singapore is really the kind of European botanical garden that actually had very commercial impetuses or rather objectives, it was really about experimenting with cash crops and things like that.
Zining: And also the global garden city movement as well. I think it's very interesting to see how every country has all of these completely different garden cities. That might be a way to understand the very specific ideas of nature we have through our iteration of the garden city.
Faris: I think the garden really captures that tension in many ways, because what it’s promising is this idyllic vision of nature and being able to exist in harmony with it, but what it’s built on really is this imperial logic of classifying and arranging things very neatly. Even the so-called “English garden” which borrows landscape–very different from a French formal garden, but still what its objectives are aligned with are really still imperial signs and the plantation economy is quite tied to that.
Okay, Madhumita has a question about personal family farm histories: “With the current 30 by 30 plan, the state's logic for food self-sufficiency is through high-tech and intensive farming methods. What is the place of the histories of family farms in our changing food system, where we are bringing back notions of self-sufficiency without the relationship with nature?” Very good question.
Nadirah: I think that there are a lot of efforts, like for example if you go to NTUC now you can find kale and so on and so forth, and it says that it’s manufactured by a certain lab in Singapore, or something like that. So there are all of these methods that we have incorporated that allows for more self-sufficiency. But yeah that’s a good point, that there is no relationship with nature because they are all done in labs and you’re not experiencing it under the hot sun with that kind of living environment, which I actually mentioned was what was actually fascinating to me: being in touch with nature in a sense that it was such an experiential… experience, for lack of a better word.
So the place of histories of family farms, is it now just a footnote in our history? And I really hope that there can be more conversations about this that we can bring up.
Faris: Yeah. It’s really interesting, because with this 30-by-30 thing and the high tech farming, it is another level, a kind of a dislocation too, because you don’t have to deal so much with the weather and the natural conditions and things like that. Because again in many ways, everything is so controlled. It’s a controlled environment as well. Less labour intensive and all that, sure, but in some ways it’s still a removal and there’s a lot to be dealt with there.
Let’s see…there’s another question here about supporting justice for indigenous people in Singapore.
Yeah, like I said, the indigenous is a very complicated category in Singapore, and in many ways other communities not conventionally thought of as indigenous have also adopted many of these indigenous patterns of life. When I was reading nineteenth-century Malay travelogues, I realised that there were many Malay elites who had become urbanites and who were really seduced by the comforts of European gaslighting and things like that, and couldn’t stand walking through forests and drinking from streams. So you know, they were one category of indigenous community, definitely different from Malays out in the Southern islands whose ways of life were very much in touch with the environment well until the 1980s. So “indigenous” here is really quite a broad and varied category, and their relationship to the environment is also quite varied. But thank you for the question.
Let’s see, there are other questions here: “Are there Malay words that explain tensions or meanings in environmental history?"
I’m thinking, well, civilisationally, in that sense, if you’re looking at Malay texts from before the colonial period, there was a kind of distinction, I suppose, between the world of a forest where there’s a lot of mambang and spirits and sprites and mythical creatures, and the world of the negeri, so that’s a settled kind of port city community that was “civilised”, and that’s where humans dwelt, and it was a space of culture. A space of culture as distinct from a place of the natural and the supernatural, also. But of course, in the context of that pre-industrial time, that distinction was hard to materialise in reality the way we saw it much later in the modern period. I suppose that’s one Malay conception of the natural as opposed to the human, that we saw. But again that was an ideal in literature. If you read a lot of oral literature, you'll notice that Malays were drawing upon natural imagery in very routine ways, because they understood it so much, I mean keen metaphors for human emotions, and things like that. There’s a lot of material out there to read about pantuns, et cetera, especially.
Khairulddin: I feel like this is a question best suited for–Shout-out to Alfian–who is doing a lot of research on Malay poets.
Faris: And kind of the botanic in Malay aesthetics and in Malay literature. Okay, I don’t think there are any new questions. Did you all have anything that you wanted to bring up that we didn’t have time for earlier?
Nadirah: I think Khairulddin mentioned Juraimi Samsuri, the plant collector? I just remembered that during World War Two, during the Japanese Occupation, his drawings were actually used by the Japanese to create woodblock prints to study the nature in Singapore. So, it’s just something that popped up in my head when I thought of his name. Just a little trivia.
Faris: Everyone should go check out that permanent exhibition at the Botanical Art Gallery because a lot of Juraimi’s drawings are on display and he is credited.
Khairulddin: I was just seeing that there is one question about the word “forest”, and what are the connotations?
(Question was: Is the 'forest' fearful, dirty and dangerous, 'a jungle out there'? Or can it be a rich and complex storehouse of potential?)
I’m not sure, would you say a jungle is like a forest?
Faris: I think in Singapore it’s more of the mangrove? The mangrove has that connotation as the wild thing that needs to be tamed and cleared. Because we talk about Jurong a lot when we talk about a lot of reclamation projects in industrial Singapore. It’s always the mangrove, right, or the swamp that needs to be—it becomes a symbol for the natural obstacle that needs to be cleared.
Khairulddin: When I think of forest I think about the different kind of cultural connections to forests. I think for me, one of the more prominent ones is the German connection to the forest: the schwarzwald. For them there’s a sense of adventure or longing or even sadness. So there’s all this palimpsest of meanings and histories. I think different cultures connect with their forests or rainforests or jungles in very different ways.
I guess for Southeast Asia, I think the Malay world is hutan, hutan rimba, it’s like jungle. I think the connotation with that is it’s always a realm where there’s also the supernatural. Your parents will say, don’t go and venture out into the hutan, you don’t know [what’s out there.]
Faris: Absolutely. And to the Malays, it seems, if you read the older literature at least, it seems that the forest was a much more threatening environment compared to the sea. The sea was an open kind of environment that they were more or less comfortable with, even though yes, there were potent spiritual entities that you had to look out for. But more or less, the sea represented mobility, it represented connection. The forest was a kind of impenetrable domain, almost.
Nadirah: I would also like to add, in Malay itself, ‘hutan’, there are different categories to hutan. There’s hutan belantara, there’s hutan rimba. So belantara is basically similar to rimba, just very lush. And then you have hutan belukar, which is a forested area where there’s a lot of small branches, and stuff like that. And even hutan perawan, or hutan asli. Hutan perawan and hutan asli are basically forests that have never been touched, there’s no deforestation that ever occurred there. So I think the fact that there are so many names for hutan itself in Malay, says a lot of how much we used to interact and live amongst the forest, and the kind of reverence that we have for the forest. Not just for sustenance or for food, but also the fact that we hold a lot of respect towards it as a natural living environment that we coexist with. So I think that in itself, that idea of naming the hutan, is interesting and fascinating.
Faris: Absolutely. Again, the very systematic knowledge that was possessed about the space like the forest showed that there was a lot of interaction with it and understanding of it. And that fear, or what should we say, that regard for the dangers of the forest was also quite instrumental in… it’s very different from this attitude of exploiting and wanting to clear and overcome the wilderness, so that’s another aspect of that cultural relationship with the environment as well.
Well, we’ve come to the end of today’s panel, thank you very much, Zining, Khairulddin and Nadirah for sharing your really insightful thoughts coming from your work and research. I certainly learned quite a lot today. Thank you to our audience.
About the Speakers
Khairulddin Wahab’s paintings weave narratives drawn from environmental history, material culture and post-colonialism in Singapore and Southeast Asia. Working from found images and iconography derived from his geographic and cultural contexts, Khairulddin creates visual tableaus that allude to our historico-political encounters with the natural world. He graduated with a BA in Fine Arts from LASALLE College of the Arts (2014) and has exhibited in various local and international exhibitions, including The Word for World is Forest at Cuturi Gallery (2021) Jogja Biennale (2019), and State of Motion (2018). He was the winner of the 2018 UOB Painting of The Year and 2014 Winston Oh Travel Award.
Mok Zining is obsessed with random things: orchids, arabesques, trees. Her work appears in The Rumpus, The Straits Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Zining recently graduated with an MFA from the University of Minnesota, and is working on a book about sand. The Orchid Folios is her first book.
Nadirah Norruddin is a Research Associate at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Prior to that, she was an Associate Curator at the Malay Heritage Centre and later an Associate Librarian at the National Library. Her main interest lies in the literary and cultural productions of the Malay world.
About the Moderator
Faris Joraimi is a Lee Kong Chian Research Fellow with the National Library. As a writer and researcher specialising in the history of the Malay World, he has authored various essays for print and electronic media. He is also co-editor of Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History (2021), a volume of essays on Singapore’s decolonial history. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in History from Yale-NUS College.
List of references and further reading:
Anthony Medrano, “Ishak Bin Ahmad and the Story of Malayan Waters”, Biblioasia Apr-Jun 2021
Christina Soh, "Juraimi Bin Samsuri, the Gardens’ Resident Artist”, Gardenwise Vol. 43 Aug 2014 (last page)
Cynthia Chou. "Agriculture and the End of Farming in Singapore." Nature Contained: Environmental Histories of Singapore, edited by Timothy Barnard, NUS Press, 2014, pp. 216-240.
I.H. Burkill and Mohamed Haniff, "Malay Village Medicine", Singapore Botanic Gardens, 1930
I.H. Burkill and William Birtwistle, "A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula", Ministry of Agriculture Malaysia, 1935
John D. Gimlette, "A dictionary of Malayan medicine", Oxford University Press, 1939.
John D. Gimlette, "Malay Poisons and charm cures", J. & A. Churchill, 1923
Khir Johari, “The Food of Singapore Malays”, chapters 3-8
Mohd Affendi Mohd. Shafri and Intan Azura Shahdan (Eds.), “Malay Medical Manuscripts: Heritage from the Garden of Healing”, Akademi Jawi Malaysia, 2017
Nadirah Norruddin, "Magic or Medicine? Malay Healing Practices", Biblioasia Oct-Dec 2018
P.N. Gerrard, "A Vocabulary of Malay Medical Terms", Kelly & Walsh, 1933
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