Despite the failure of nutmegs at Orchard Road, there was still much interest in horticulture amongst wealthier residents in Singapore. This led to the formation of another Agri-Horticultural Society in 1859. The society’s members wanted to establish a botanical garden where they could enjoy flowers and other plants in a pleasant landscape. One founding member of the society was the prominent merchant Hoo Ah Kay, also known as Whampoa, who helped to secure a location for a botanical garden at Tanglin. This garden would later develop into the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
To transform the area into a landscaped garden, the society appointed Lawrence Niven as Manager of the Botanic Gardens in 1860. Niven was chosen for his horticultural experience as a Superintendent in Prinsep’s former nutmeg orchard. Niven was responsible for the present look of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. He introduced an informal landscape style now known as the English Landscape Movement, which highlighted the area’s natural contours. The result was a tropical version of an English garden with rolling hills, curving paths, flower beds and rich patches of natural vegetation.
This was originally a private garden open mainly to members of the Agri-Horticultural Society, who also enjoyed perks such as free seeds, plants and cut flowers. Non-members could only visit on certain days of the week and had to pay a fee. However, the costs of running the garden eventually became too high and in 1874, the debt-ridden society transferred the garden to the government. At this time the Botanic Gardens became a public park which was free for all visitors.
Over the years, the Gardens has played an important historical role in introducing many plants of economic value to Southeast Asia and has also become an important civic and community space. In 2013, Singapore announced plans to nominate the Gardens for inscription as a cultural site under the World Heritage Convention of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The Gardens was chosen for several reasons. It was the birthplace of Southeast Asia’s rubber industry and contributed tremendously to the region’s economic development in the early 1900s. Its grounds also present an outstanding example of the English Landscape Movement in the tropics and contain sites of historical value such as the Rain Forest, Swan Lake and Palm Valley.
For Singaporeans, the Gardens is also a site of rich social memories. Besides concerts and performances, the Gardens served as a popular spot for families to introduce potential spouses to each other. The Gardens was also a popular attraction during festive holidays.
After considering the social, historical and natural significance of the Gardens, UNESCO announced on 4 July 2015 that the Singapore Botanic Gardens would become the country’s first World Heritage Site. Today, visitors can learn about the Gardens’ history at the Singapore Botanic Gardens Heritage Museum in Holttum Hall near the Tanglin Gate. The Heritage Museum is open from 9am to 6pm daily, except for the last Monday of every month.