Unless you are a captain of commerce, by most reasonable standards, Singapore is not an interesting city. But even if you are infatuated with commerce, Singapore is now a city fighting off inevitable decline with China and India emerging as the economic powerhouses of the new Asia. The island state is also one of the most repressive “democracies” in the world, governed by a paternalistic state that tolerates little deviance. If taxis begin to move at speeds higher than the permissible 80 km. per hour, a bell starts to ring inside. Long hair used to be reason enough to deny tourists entry. It is illegal to bring chewing gum into the country. Smoking has not been permitted almost anywhere public for decades. In the 1980s Singapore was the only country in the world promoting positive eugenics, offering well-educated women incentives to bear more offspring and less educated ones equally attractive largesse to be sterilized. As early as 1958, the famously prescient biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, had declared Singapore to be a “police state .” It isn’t much better now even though the police is not glaringly visible every day.
But Singapore’s often impossible to avoid if you travel around Southeast Asia partly because Singapore Airlines is about the only truly international carrier from the region. Singapore is also a remarkably green city with all its remaining forests (less than 0.5 per cent of the area) now under protection. If you’re stranded there, as I was last weekend, the only solace—besides good food and general friendliness—is a rather remarkable piece of native habitat about 14 km. northwest of the city center, and surrounded by highways and developments on all sides. That piece of land is the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a patch of primary Southeast Asian rain forest in the around the highest hill in the city (at 163 m.).
This was not my first visit to Bukit Timah. I had been there a decade ago when I was meandering around the region, trying to follow Wallace’s footsteps during his remarkable travels from 1854 to 1862. It was during the course of that trip that he formulated his version of the theory of evolution by natural selection and ensured his future place in the history of science. (The reminiscences that emerged from these travels, The Malay Archipelago, is also arguably the best travel book ever written.) My trip in 1996 had ended in virtual disaster. Jakarta was in flames the day I arrived in Indonesia, the beginning of the people’s revolt that finally removed Suharto from power. But the troubles made travel dangerous, if not impossible, and over a long and hard summer I managed to cover but a tiny fraction of the areas that Wallace had visited. I abandoned plans to write a book on Wallace’s travels, at least for the foreseeable future, and returned to take up a Fellowship in October at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
Wallace was on my mind when I came back to Singapore last week with no other goal than a return visit to Bukit Timah. Wallace had first arrived in Singapore on 20 April 1854. Besides studying natural history, his goal was to collect specimens to sell back at home to support himself. His last major collecting trip had been to the Amazon, starting in 1848. Financially, he had managed to survive that trip though, professionally, it had ended up as a disaster. His journals and large personal collection, which were supposed to establish his reputation as a naturalist, had all been destroyed in a shipboard fire on the way back in 1852, leaving him little to show for his years in the field. Wallace had barely managed to escape alive. Meanwhile he had contracted malaria during the trip and his brother, who had gone to join him in the field, had died of yellow fever in Brazil. After little more than a year in Britain, Wallace decided to revive his career, this time by exploring and collecting in a region even less known to Western science than Amazonia: the Malay Archipelago. The trip began in earnest in Singapore, the premier British port east of Calcutta.
Strangely, Wallace devotes less than four pages of The Malay Archipelago to the island though he returned to it often enough during his eight years in the region. But his first impressions of the island were memorable and set the tone for his visit:
“Few places are more interesting to a traveller from Europe than the town and island of Singapore, furnishing, as it does, examples of a variety of Eastern races, and of many different religions and modes of life. The government, the garrison, and the chief merchants are English; but the great mass of the population is Chinese, including some of the wealthiest merchants, the agriculturalists of the interior, and most of the mechanics and labourers. The native Malays are usually fishermen and boatmen, and they form the main body of the police. The Portuguese of Malacca supply a large number of the clerks and smaller merchants. The Klings of Western India are a numerous body of Mahometans, and, with many Arabs, are petty merchants and shopkeepers. The grooms and washermen are all Bengalees, and there is a small but highly respectable class of Parsee merchants. Besides this there are a number of Javanese sailors and domestic servants, as well as traders from Celebes, Bali, and many other islands of the Archipelago. The harbour is crowded with men-of-war and trading vessels of many European nations, and hundreds of Malay praus and Chinese junks, from vessels of several hundred tons burthen down to little fishing boats and passenger sampans; and town comprises handsome public buildings and churches, Mahometan mosques[,] Hindoo temples, Chinese joss-houses, good European houses[,] massive warehouses, queer old Kling and China bazaars, and long suburbs of Chinese and Malay cottages .”
He was most impressed by the industry of the Chinese which, by and large, is still prevalent and has made Singapore the economic success it is today ever since its bizarre expulsion from Malaysia in 1965. (It is characteristic of Wallace, unlike Darwin and almost all other nineteenth-century Europeans, that he did not view the “native” races as inferior.)
Bukit Timah is where Wallace had lived during much of his first visit, observing both the forest and the people, and collecting as usual:
“In the interior of the island the Chinese cut down forest trees in the jingle, and saw them into planks; they cultivate vegetables, which they bring to market; and they grow pepper and gambir, which form important articles of export. The French Jesuits have established missions among these island Chinese, which seem very successful. I lived for several weeks at a time with the missionary at Bukit-tima, about the centre of the island, where a pretty church had been built and there are about 300 converts. . . .”
(Gambir or gambier [Uncaria gambier] is a plant prodcuing a resin that was used for tanning or as a stimulant.)
Bukit Timah proved to be a prime site for collecting though not the safest environment in which to work:
“The island of Singapore consists of a multitude of small hills, three of four hundred feet high, the summits of many of which are still covered with virgin forest. The mission-house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by wood-cutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting ground for insects. Here and there, too, were tiger pits, carefully covered over with sticks and leaves, and so well concealed, that in several cases I had a narrow escape from falling into them. . . . There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore, and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day, principally those who work on the gambir plantations, which are always made in newly-cleared jungle. We heard a tiger roar once or twice in the evening, and it was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits, when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, waiting an opportunity to spring upon us .”
But he survived both the pits and the tigers. The human casualty rate of one Chinese per day is almost certainly an exaggeration. Wallace probably obtained this estimate from Keppel  who is not the most reliable of sources. However tigers must have been plentiful because, around the middle of the nineteenth century, the Singapore government was offering a bounty of 50 dollars per tiger . Tigers probably disappeared from Bukit Timah around 1920, and from all of Singapore around 1940 .
In The Malay Archipelago, Wallace goes on to provide the first biological description of Bukit Timah:
“Several hours in the middle of each day were spent in these paths of forest, which were delightfully cool and shady by contrast with the bare open country we had to walk over to reach them. The vegetation was most luxuriant, comprising enormous forest trees, as well as a variety of ferns, caladiums, and other undergrowth, and abundance of climbing rattan palms. Insects were exceedingly abundant and very interesting, and every day furnished scores of new and curious forms. In about two months I obtained no less than 700 species of beetles, a large proportion of which were quite new, and among them were 130 distinct kinds of the elegant Longicorns (Cerambycidae), so much esteemed by collectors. Almost all of these were collected in one patch of jungle, not more than a square mile in extent, and in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot. This exceeding productiveness was due in part no doubt due to some favourable conditions in the soil, climate, and vegetation, and to the season being very bright and sunny, with sufficient showers to keep everything fresh. But it was also in a great measure dependent, I feel sure, on the labours of the Chinese wood-cutters. They had been in work here for several years, and during all that time had furnished a continual supply of dry and dead and decaying leaves and bark, together with abundance of wood and sawdust, for the nourishment of insects and their larvae. This has led to the assemblage of a great variety of species in a limited space, and I was the first naturalist who had come to reap the harvest they had prepared. In the same place, and in my walks in other directions, I obtained a fair collection of butterflies and of other orders of insects, so that on the whole I was quite satisfied with these my first attempts to gain a knowledge of the Natural History of the Malay Archipelago .”
What Wallace called Bukit Timah is a much larger area than what we mean today, that is, the nature reserve, especially the peak itself and the core of the reserve which was never logged in the way he describes. I will take up that story later.
 Clark, R. W. 1968. JBS: The Life and Work of J. B. S. Haldane. New York: Coward-McCann.
 Wallace, A. R. 1869. The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan and the Bird of Paradise—A Narrative Travel of Man and Nature. London: Macmillan.
 Keppel, R, 1853. A Visit to the Indian Archipelago in HM Ship Meander. London: Richard Brantley.
 Pfeiffer, I. 1851. A Lady’s Voyage around the World. London: Longmans.
 LaFrankie, J. V., Davies, S. J., Wang, L. K., Lee, S. K., and Lum, S. K. Y. 2005. Forest Trees of Bukit Timah: Population Ecology in a Tropical Forest. Singapore: Simply Green.