Impressions of the Ridge

By N. Sivasothi, 20th September 2002

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The Ridge has a significant place in our natural heritage, as it is the most accessible area in Singapore to see the hardy plants of the Adinandra belukar ecosystem. 'Belukar' is Malay for secondary forest, and this one is dominated in parts by the Tiup-Tiup tree (Adinandra dumosa). Generations of biology undergraduates from NUS have been trained here, and recereational walks on the ridge were conducted in the 1960's by one of your guides!

Plant diversity on dry and nutrient-poor Ridge, cut off from the seed bank of a primary forest is quite low. As a result, you will begin to recognise the common plant species of the Adinandra belukar by the time we reach the Gap. In Kent Ridge Park, you will see larger and older examples of plants compared to the badly disturbed campus forest.

My favourite plant is the Tembusu tree with its sweet-scented flowers. Did you know these are planted all around campus, near Arts Canteen? If you stop to smell the flowers, you will get a whiff of a wonderful perfume. It is meant for creatures of night and has weakened by day. At dusk, however, the perfume makes some nervous, as they think it wafting from the ghost 'Pontianak' - merely the Tembusu trying to attract some moths!

Snakes are regularly seen, but only in the middle of the night these days. 3am is a good time to encouter a python crossing the road at his favourite place, as one of our postgraduate students, Sasi Nayar, will attest! Another exciting sighting has been hornbills, large, majestic, fruit-eating birds. Natural or an escaped animal from captivity, who knows? But you are likely to hear and see the very noisy Laughing Thrush, a relative new comer (early 90's).

Many plants bear delicious fruits (including figs) for birds and bats. NUS is peppered with 'batcaves' as they siesta the day away, unbeknowst to us, under the shady overhangs behind NUS. Few of us ever see these but they are there. For the fruit, this is a great way to fly, and seeds in the faecal droppings emerge ready to try to germinate and colonise new land.

Some fruits even we can eat, but the juices of one leaves a purple-lipstick stain - 'Melastoma' is the scientific name and it means 'black mouth'!

Simpoh Air (Dillenia sufruticosa) provides an alternative for banana leaves, and is used to wrap tempeh (fermented soya bean), so some of us even call it the tempeh leaf. Figs (Ficus grossularioides) bear microscopic flowers on the inside of the fruit that tiny wasps crawl into to lay eggs and pollinate! Albizia towers majestically but her wood is so fast-growing, you can lift heavy-looking trunks with relative ease.

Yellow-flowered Acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) is an Australian visitor that loves the Ridge too much, crowding out the local plants and dominating the landscape in parts. Another smothering example is Smilax - crush the leaves and you will smell the richness of 'jambu batu'. Its rapid growth has caused lots of problems in our Central Catchment forest, shading out larger trees that it climbs. You will see growing tips trying to colonise the road! Rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) plants scattered along the walk are a reminder of the pre-war rubber plantations that covered campus grounds. A descendant of the family that owned the plantations is now a member of staff in NUS!

We will encounter the partially broken remains of an old look out post, purportedly built in 1936, and a grim reminder of the Battle of Pasir Panjang. Japanese troops that had landed on the north coast of Singapore on 8th February 1942 had reached Pasir Panjang, the last obstacle before the city of Singapore would be surrounded. Here, they faced a bloody battle with a much smaller group of poorly-armed but determined soldiers. The frontline of the evening of 12th of February 1942 lay near the University Cultural Centre. By noon the next day, overwhelming Japanese forces forced the battle lines to point-270, the highest point in the NUS campus, and past the Gap by midnight . The company of the Malay Regiment put up a fierce defense and were wiped out almost to the last man at Bukit Chandu.

Today the hill bears a museum in memory of this heroic defense battle, aptly called Reflections at Bukit Chandu. Here you will find a map marking the various points and timeline of the battle. By now, you would have had a grasp of the locations of point-270 (in NUS), the Gap, Normanton Hill (fuel depots), point-225 (Kent Ridge Park Marina Hill), point-226 (Bukit Chandu, now the lookout point in Kent Ridge Park), and seen in the distance, the Alexandra junction near the hospital and the scene of the massacare.

The heroic stand did not end with the battle. Captured soldiers refused to surrender their uniforms and were killed, their bodies never returned to their families. They remained loyal and true (Ta'at Setia) to the end.

After the Occupation, the British army would continue to maintain a strong presence on the Ridge, and campus grounds were barracks of other ranks and NCOs of the British army. " Island View Road" still ran through the central part of NUS to what is now Kent Ridge Road. Then quarters for officers, access by civllians were restricted.

During a visit to this military area by the then Duchess and Duke of Kent (I believe they were mother and son), the area was named Kent Ridge. The Duchess was the Princess Marina of Greece, and the son was a Prince Edward Duke of Kent.The missing husband and father was a Prince George, who had died in 1942 in a plane crash.

A commemorative plaque, of inscribed marble laid in concrete, was erected in February 1954 to commemorate their visit. It is still visible on Kent Ridge, at the junction of Prince George's Park and South Buona Vista Road. The inscriptions bears two arrows, one pointing to Marina Hill and the other, to Prince Edward Point in NUS.

Villages and streams still led to the coast at Pasir Panjang, with houses on stilts reached by the lapping waves of the sea. Bordered by sand and mudflats, mangroves stretched further west along the coast. The junction with South Buona Vista was the site of an open-air theatre "Newstar", and opposite the junction with Clementi Road was West Point Garden, a flat piece of land that saw tea dances! An empty pill box still rests along Pasir Panjang Road, but in more peaceful times, boys after school searched for dropped coins with little worries of an approaching army. The villages disappeared and so did the intertidal habitats. But then so did the slums that were packed with people and mired in filth.

On the other side of the Ridge, oddly enough, due to lack of space in the Bukit Timah campus, the zoological collection of the Raffles Museum was housed in five Romney huts along Ayer Rajah Road. This is now the site of the National University Hospital. NUS completed its shift into Kent Ridge in 1986.

By the mid-90's the multitude of condominums along Pasir Panjang lost their seaview to reclamation. Reflections at Bukit Chandu was officially opened on 15th February 2002.

--- N. Sivasothi. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, National University of Singapore. Impressions of the Ridge in the 1950's and 1960's by Abdul Latiff and Kok Oi Yee.
Botanical and historical references below.


Public Gallery of the Raffles Museum


View of the Ridge vegetation


Prewar observation post, damaged by construction works in 2002


Towering canopy of
Albizia


The pond at Kent Ridge Park


Ants feed off the nectar of a flower


View of Alexandra from KR Park


A canopy-covered road in KRPark


View of southern islands including P. Bukum


Wall mural


Ta'at Setia


Plaque at Kent Ridge, 1952


Romney huts along Ayer Rajah Road containing museum collection.

 

Pasir Panjang/Kent Ridge heritage