Yes, Botanic Gardens is a World Heritage Site

Singapore now has a Unesco World Heritage Site to call its own.

The 156-year-old Botanic Gardens received a resounding "yes" from the Unesco World Heritage Committee yesterday at its annual meeting, held in Bonn, Germany, this year.

Members of Singapore's delegation, including Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, received handshakes and hugs from the committee's 21 state members, in what was described as a rare outpouring of support.

Mr Wong called it an amazing moment. When the idea to nominate the Gardens was floated five years ago, sceptics wondered if the site was worthy of the accolade.

"We have seen the overwhelming support of international experts... It means we do have something of exceptional value in Singapore. I think it gives us a tremendous sense of pride that we have a site worthy of being a World Heritage Site."

Back home, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a Facebook post that the accolade is "a great Jubilee year gift to Singaporeans", highlighting the Gardens' key role in making the country a Garden City.

The Gardens joins the likes of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, Cambodia's Angkor with its magnificent temples and China's Great Wall on the world heritage list.

There are over 1,000 sites on the list, but the Gardens is its first botanic gardens in Asia and only the third in the world, besides the Orto botanico di Padova in Italy and England's Royal Botanic Gardens.

After Unesco's experts presented their evaluation of the Gardens' bid, the floor was open and all 21 members, including Japan, Turkey and Germany, announced their support. They lauded the Gardens' "vast botanical values" and "excellent landscape design".

Philippine ambassador and Unesco delegate Maria Theresa P. Lazaro praised not only the Gardens' plant collection, but also its approach to conservation, such as its digital inventories for both living and archival plants.

"This inspiring site reminds us that research is the ground of innovation, the past is the foundation of the future, and memories are the soil of imagination," she said.

At least 11 other sites made the prestigious list over the past two days, including Jamaica's Blue and John Crow Mountains, China's Tusi sites and the Cultural Landscape of Maymand in Iran.

Jamaican delegate Vilma Kathleen McNish said she was delighted by the success of Singapore's bid, announced by the session's chair, Ms Ruchira Kamboj of India, in front of an audience at Bonn's International Conference Centre.

Ms McNish described the Gardens as an "oasis" in the heart of the city. "Like Jamaica, Singapore is inscribing its first site... It speaks well of the future of this list that (sites from) two small states are being inscribed at the same session of the committee."

In total, 36 sites were nominated this year.

Dr Kevin Tan, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore, said the Gardens' listing will not only make the world aware of the country's historical treasures, but also help open the eyes of Singaporeans.

"For those who think we compare poorly with Europe, or China or even our neighbours like Malaysia, I think they will start looking at Singapore's heritage with fresh eyes."

Urban haven

For Singaporeans, the lush greenery and historic charm of the Singapore Botanic Gardens has made it a favourite spot for family picnics, wedding pictures, a walk or jog amid nature or just an escape to tranquillity. But the 156-year-old Gardens, accorded the coveted status of a Unesco World Heritage Site yesterday, is so much more.

It is a place of research and conservation, giving home to more than 10,000 species of plants.

It has more than 1,200 species of orchids and about 2,000 hybrids housed mainly in its National Orchid Garden - making it the largest collection in the world.

It is also a site with 15 heritage buildings, including the 1921 Holttum Hall, now a museum but formerly a laboratory where orchid breeding and hybridisation techniques were experimented at. It is also where 47 heritage trees remain preserved - including a Tembusu tree which is believed to be 200 years old.

Praising the Gardens, Germany's World Heritage Committee representative Birgitta Ringbeck pointed out that it has a variety of landscape features, plantings and buildings.

That helps explain why the Gardens draws more than 4.4 million visitors annually, making it the most-visited botanic garden in the world. Leading US travel website TripAdvisor ranked it as the top park in Asia last year in its Travellers' Choice Awards.

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of the 39th World Heritage Committee session in Bonn, Germany yesterday, the vice-president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), Mr Alfredo Conti, noted that the site is home to living heritage.

"It is not an archaeological site or monument that doesn't change over time. There are plants and changes there, and there are people of the city who spend some hours of their week or weekend there. So those aspects related to life and to intangible components of heritage are also very important."

Dr Kishore Rao, director of Unesco's World Heritage Centre, said yesterday: "It is perhaps one of the most important botanic gardens in the world, reflecting a variety of values..."

Icomos, a Unesco-appointed panel that assessed the Gardens, praised it as an "exceptional example" of a British tropical colonial botanic garden in South-east Asia.

In a report released in May, Icomos also highlighted the pivotal role the Gardens played in the rubber trade in the region, as it was where rubber cultivation and extraction were perfected. Those advances led to Malaya producing half the world's latex harvest by 1920.

Icomos also said that the Gardens has played an integral role in the social history of Singapore, providing a backdrop for the lives of its residents for a continued sense of place and identity.

A green oasis in the middle of a highly urbanised city, the Gardens has played an integral role in the greening of Singapore over the years. National Parks Board chief executive Kenneth Er, who was in Bonn, said that Singapore has put in a lot of commitment and effort in keeping the city green and in doing so, retained and conserved the Botanic Gardens. This he noted, was acknowledged by the World Heritage Committee.

"They also recognise how the Gardens has over the years contributed to the scientific research of botany and is recognised as a world institution for botanical research, particularly in the field of plant taxonomy," he said. Among the effusive praise drawn from World Heritage Committee members, this one from Serbia stood out.

Its ambassador and Unesco delegate Darko Tanaskovic said: "The Singapore Botanic Gardens is encouraging proof of how men can re-create lost paradise, and of harmony between men and nature."

This article was first published on July 05, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.