Our cultural beliefs influence how we view the natural environment as well as our understanding and attitudes towards animals and plants. These views and perceptions impact our relationship with the natural world.
Some people see nature as wild and chaotic while others view nature as orderly, acting according to natural “laws”. There are those who perceive nature as an economic resource to be exploited for profit or for human enjoyment, yet there are also many who strongly believe that nature should be left untouched to flourish in its natural state.
This issue of BiblioAsia looks at how human activities over the past 200 years have affected and transformed our physical environment, and how we are still living with the consequences today. This special edition accompanies an exciting new exhibition launched by the National Library – “Human x Nature” – at the Gallery on Level 10 of the National Library Building on Victoria Street. Do visit the exhibition, which will run until September this year.
Georgina Wong, one of the curators of the show, opens this issue by exploring the relationship between European naturalists and the local community as plants and animals new to the West were uncovered. Not unexpectedly, indigenous input was often played down, dismissed, or exoticised. Farish Noor examines this phenomenon by taking a hard look at Walter Skeat’s book Malay Magic.
Faris Joraimi sees a similar impulse at work as he examines the beautiful paintings of Malayan fruits in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, which relied on anonymous Chinese artists and Malay informants.
One exception to the rule was Ishak Ahmad, whose knowledge helped create an understanding of the economic potential of the seas around Malaya. Anthony Medrano outlines the contributions of the man who, among other things, was the father of Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first president.
Turning our gaze landward, we look at the environmental destruction caused by humans. Timothy Pwee documents the history of plantation agriculture as Chia Jie Lin (the exhibition’s co-curator) examines the impact of deforestation caused by these plantations. Ang Seow Leng explores how attitudes towards conservation have evolved over time while Fiona Tan writes about a failed attempt to control the wildlife trade in 1930s Singapore.
For most city dwellers, the closest we have to nature is the greenery in our housing estates and the easily accessible parks and recreational areas. All this is thanks to a deliberate effort to turn Singapore into a Garden City. Lim Tin Seng tells us how that vision has evolved since the 1960s.
Also, don’t miss Michelle Heng’s essay about Singaporean poets who have tackled nature in their work and Jacqueline Lee’s piece highlighting how writers of speculative fiction envisage Singapore’s environmental future.
We hope this issue amply demonstrates that the fates of humanity and nature are ultimately intertwined.
Ms Tan Huism