Bukit Timah Hill is Singapore's highest natural point, with an altitude of 163.63 m (537 ft). On 18 October 2011, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was officially designated as an ASEAN Heritage Park. Besides the hill, the nature reserve covers a total area of 163 hectares, which is rich in biodiversity with about 40% of Singapore's flora and fauna found there.
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is home to more than 840 flowering plants, towering trees, climbing palms and ferns. One can also find over 500 species of animals, of which the most commonly encountered are the Long-tailed Macaques or monkeys, the flying lemur (colugo), squirrels, as well as birds like the Striped tit-babbler, the Fairy bluebird, drongos and bulbuls.
While much of the country's original vegetation has long been cleared, the forest at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has remained relatively undisturbed.
Located only 12 km from the city centre, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was one of the first forest reserves established in Singapore. After the British colonial government had commissioned a report on the state of the forests in Singapore, the report recommended the creation of several nature reserves, which led to the establishment of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in 1883. Since then, the nature reserve has successfully preserved many species of tropical plants and animals.
As for Bukit Timah Hill which is composed mainly of granite, it was once an active granite quarry in the mid-1900s, and was surrounded by vast stretches of plantation and primary rainforest. It was also a place where tigers once roamed freely.
1. The origin of the hill's name remains a controversy.
The origin of the name Bukit Timah is highly contested. The name was first recorded in a 1828 map as Bukit Tima, which some believe that the Tima was short for Fatimah, which was a popular name among Malay girls.
On the other hand, the literal meaning of Bukit Timah in Malay means "tin-bearing hill". Although this is a clear reference to the elevated land there (as well as being Singapore's highest point), no tin has ever been found there. Hence, some believe that the hill's name was derived from the Temak trees found in abundance in the primary forests on the hill. They speculated that the Malay word Temak probably sounded like Timah to the early British surveyors and was subsequently misspelt to this day.
2. The first recorded ascent to the summit of Bukit Timah was in June 1827.
The first men to reach the summit was Singapore's Resident Councillor John Prince and his contractors in June 1827. It took them five hours to cover a distance of 22.5 kilometres of plantations, hills and swamps from the south. After they have reached the summit, they hoisted a white flag up the tallest tree, which could be seen from as far as Fort Canning Hill in southern Singapore. It was only in 1843 when the colonial government built an access road to the summit.
3. There were tigers on Bukit Timah Hill.
Compared to the mountains found in other parts of Asia, Bukit Timah Hill's elevation might not be something to crow about. Nonetheless, due to the huge expanse of the undeveloped land and thick primary forests in the area, it was a challenging task to traverse the hill and its surrounding forests. The difficulty was further exacerbated by the presence of tigers in the area. The first records of such an attempt was by J T Thomson and Dr Robert Little in 1855, who took four days to do so on horseback.
Subsequently, there were attempts to clear the forests for the cultivation of gambier and pepper plantations. However, it was reported that by 1860, almost 200 plantation workers were killed by tigers in the area. It was only after a concerted effort by the colonial government to eradicate the tigers was the scourge finally removed.
4. One of the fiercest military battles of World War Two took place here.
As the Bukit Timah area (due to its high elevation) was considered strategic by both the British and Japanese military commands, both sides made much efforts to secure it. The foot of Bukit Timah Hill was also where British Lieutenant-General A.E. Percival made his final defence of Singapore against the Japanese in February 1942. According to military records, there was much hand-to-hand combat and bayonet charges. The Japanese also used tanks for the first time at Bukit Timah.
After the Japanese had successfully occupied Singapore, they also recognised the botanical significance of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and other nature reserves. From 1942 to 1945, Hidezo Tanakadate, a geology professor from Tohoku Imperial University was put in charge of the nature reserves in Singapore. Besides ensuring that there was no desecration of the nature reserves, Tanakadate also allowed them to continue to function as scientific institutions. In 1942, a retired botany professor from Kyoto University named Kwan Koriba was also brought in to oversee the nature reserves on the island.
During the Japanese Occupation, Japanese troops built a Shinto shrine at Bukit Timah. Two war memorials dedicated to the Japanese war dead and even the British and other Allied troops who had died defending Singapore, were also built there. However, shortly before the end of the war, the Japanese forces destroyed the Shinto shrine, out of fear that the returning British forces would demolish it in a dishonourable manner.
Today, two plaques in front of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve Visitors' Centre commemorate this battle site as a historic site. One of the plaques' inscription reads as follows.
"Bukit Timah, which dominates the arterial Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads leading to the city, was a strategically important point for both the Allied troops and the Japanese.
On the night of 10th February 1942, the Japanese troops from the 5th and 18th Divisions, supported by armour, attacked troops of the 12th and 15th Indian Brigades, the 22nd Australian Brigade, The Special Reserve Battalion, Tomforce, Merrett's Force, the Argylls, Jind State Infantry and 'X' Battalion. The Allied forces had re-grouped to defend the critical junctions at Choa Chu Kang, Jurong and Clementi Roads leading to Bukit Timah Road.
By dawn of 11th February 1942, the Japanese troops reported to their commander Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita that they had seized Bukit Timah. The road to the city was open."