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.