Nature-Singapore: 7. Books and pamphlets.

R.E. Holttum’s Plant Life in Malaya was my favourite reading material around the time when I was completing my high school in Raffles Institution. This was the only book available on the local plant life, published by Longmans, London in 1954. In 1973, Animal Life and Nature in Singapore was published by the Singapore University Press. Chapters were contributed by members of the Zoology Department, National University of Singapore and edited by S.H. Chuang. This was the first non-technical book on animals available then.

By then I had completed my university studies. I admired the volume and the staff of the department that made it possible. I was hoping the Botany Department would produce a volume on plant life in due course. But it was not to be. In 1977 I joined the staff of the Botany Department and only nine years later was I to realise my dream. The City and the Forest, Plant Life in Urban Singapore was authored by myself and colleague Richard Corlett, also published by the Singapore University Press.

These two books, together with the earlier Plant Life in Malaya by R.E. Holttum, published by Longmans, London in 1954, were initially the only publications available for the local nature enthusiasts.

A Colour Guide to Dangerous Plants.

On the initiative of P. Gopalakrishnakone of the Department of Anatomy, Faculty of Medicine, A Colour Guide to Dangerous Plants was published. This was followed by a modest Science Council Publication, Trees by Wee Yeow Chin, followed by a more comprehensive book, Singapore Trees by AN Rao & Wee Yeow Chin, published by the Singapore Institute of Biology. This 357-pages book covered most of our species of wayside trees, each accompanied by black and white illustrations.

The Straits Times of 6th March, 1990.

The Straits Times of 6th March, 1990 went out of its way to publicise this book with a large spread of colour pictures, proclaiming: “From today, Life! will start a new column to acquaint readers with common trees in Singapore. It will be published every last Monday of the month.”

Flower power, The Straits Times of 9th April, 1990 (part of the spread).

From around the 2000s, the National Parks Board began publishing books on plants, etc. These books were a great help to the public, after all the agency had been importing numerous new species from all over the tropics, and many people were eager to find out their names.

NParks’ 1001 Garden Plants in Singapore.

Since 2007 the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum published five books on the “Private Lives” of seashore, freshwater, mangrove, rainforest and coral reefs. Each book gives an account of how the habitat managed to survive as Singapore became more and more developed through the years and how the inhabitants of each habitat live, grow, feed, mate and die within the ecosystem.

Private Lives series.

Individuals, especially photographers have also contributed nature books. These include Chew Yen Fook and Dr.  Chua Ee Kian.

The Straits Times 20th November, 1994 on Dr. Chua Ee Kian.

Chew Yen Fook, once a well-known photojournalist and always a nature enthusiast, is well known for his book, Birds in Our Midst, published in 1991. Ee Kian, a dentist by profession, has always a dual love for photography and nature. He would move around with his heavy photographic equipment, usually on Saturday nights, to seek out his subjects in the forest. His interest in nature was piqued after viewing the underwater exploits of French marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. However, his knowledge came from reading nature literature and imbibing from members of the Nature Society during field trips. His Rainforest in a City, published by National Parks Board in 1915 deals with the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

With all these books as well as many more not dealt with here, Singaporeans are now well provided with enough information on our local nature.


YC Wee, 26th March 2023

Follow YC Wee:

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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