Singapore is an anomaly of sorts; it has accomplished in one generation what leaders in many emerging economies have been attempting for ages. When the British left Malaysia in the mid-1950s, Singapore was part of the newly independent country. In a trend similar to what India witnessed at the dawn of independence, where communal tensions flared, Malaysia too witnessed racial clashes — between Malays and the Chinese.
In 1965, Malaysia decided to let go off Singapore; its administration viewed this territory as no more than a fishing village and one that was perhaps a liability. A teary-eyed Lee Kuan Yew expressed regret over the split. But at the time, he probably had no idea himself that he would lead Singapore to become one of the world’s most prosperous and advanced countries.
Former Prime Minister Lee’s administration prioritised on infrastructure development and economic growth. More importantly, racial harmony was emphasised — a trend that continues even today. Fragmented or polarised populations never make headway. And the results of collaboration are there for all the world to see.
How Gardens by the Bay came to be
Singapore’s rapid growth also saw a quick surge in its population. It attracted global talent and given its education system’s strong focus on English as its medium of instruction, multinational firms found it easier to drop anchor in this city-state. As Singapore expanded, its administration then resorted to land reclamation to try and make more room, and especially to create open areas for its people to enjoy.
Interestingly, the idea for the Gardens by the Bay went from concept to reality in a span of only five years. It was first conceived by Dr Kiat Tan — a botanist. Later, he would become the chief executive of this ambitious project.
At the outset, the idea of constructing a world-class garden in the tropics, and that too on reclaimed land, seemed far-fetched. But despite the odds, it started out with an international design competition held in 2006. The contest invited entries from across the world. There were 70 submissions spanning 170 organisations from 24 countries. Of the total, some 35 submissions were from Singaporean firms.
An 11-member jury, comprising both local and international experts, then deliberated and announced two UK-based companies as winners. In addition, the masterplans that had made it to the final round of review were also shown to the public. Over 10,000 people viewed the plans, and about 700 visitors shared their feedback. An overwhelming 97 percent said they would visit the gardens once they were built. The UK-based companies that won the contracts were Grant Associates and Gustafson Porter. Grant Associates is also credited with designing Singapore’s Sentosa Island.
To the time when we visited
My wife, daughter and I visited the Gardens by the Bay in July 2019. I must add here that I am a slow traveler. Even when a particular destination offers numerous sights and attractions, I will possibly only make it to only a few of these points of interest. And I never enlist for tours that come with labels that we commonly see closer home like ‘six-point sight-seeing’ or the like. These are the kinds that rush you from one spot to another.
However, much as I am the slow travelling kinds, my wife Beas is the polar opposite. She’d rather try and visit as many places as possible. And so it was on our visit to Singapore. We went from place to place at break-neck speed. On the afternoon that we did go to the Gardens by the Bay, I was almost planning to bail. But when I did reach the place, I was awestruck to say the least. I guess ‘six-point sightseeing’ kind of travel must be considered at times.
The first feature that catches one’s attention are the towering chimney stack like structures. They had geometric patterns on them, or so it seemed to me. Once we entered the enclosed part of the premises, I couldn’t help but marvel at the riot of colours that greeted me. Ever so slowly, we walked through this engineering cum horticultural marvel. For me, it brought to mind similarities with the Montreal Biodome in Canada. But unlike the Montreal one, there were no animals here.
Our daughter was in admiration initially but the novelty soon wore off as she grew tired of all the walking. But her fatigue was momentarily washed away when she caught sight of what is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. A brief while later, I showed her a Venus fly trap — a carnivorous plant that I’d only seen in pictures until then.
The highlights for me were the Cloud Walk and the Tree Top Walk. The fact that they’d accomplished a feat such as this was difficult to fathom — from growing and sustaining an array of flora to carefully making sure that all of it came together in harmony.
I would later learn there was an olive tree there that was estimated to be about a 1000-years-old. Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean region, where there is bright sunshine but also chilly weather. A tropical climate, such as Singapore’s, means hostile growing conditions. But at the Gardens by the Bay, this tree flowered and fruited, thanks to gardens being able to replicate the exact climatic and environmental conditions.
There are currently about 1 million plants in the garden that originate from all continents except the Antarctic.
A gift for the senses
Once we’d toured the enclosed area, we then went outside, in time for the lights and sound show. The chimney stack like structures came alive in a dazzling display of lights. In fact, these stacks actually served a dual purpose. Besides delighting visitors with the spectacular visual display, they also doubled as digesters for the plant waste that the facility produces.
Looking back, it is difficult to grasp that the entire area this wonder stood upon was once sea. It was then an expanse of sand and later, just soggy soil. But in only five years, it became a regional landmark, drawing thousands of visitors from across the world. The Gardens by the Bay are truly a gift for the senses. They undoubtedly augment Singapore’s repute as a premier city that offers an unparalleled environment to live and work. Coupled with its technological expertise, it is a smart city par excellence.