Parasites and Paradise

By Jheri St. James

     “According to Malay legend, a Sumatran prince encountered a lion—considered a good omen—on Temasek, prompting him to found Singapura, or Lion City. It mattered little that lions had never inhabited Singapore (more likely the prince had seen a tiger); what did matter was the establishment of the region as a minor trading post for the powerful Sumatran Srivijaya Empire, and as a subsequent vassal state of the Javanese Majapahit empire in the mid-13th century.

     “Singapore might have remained a quiet backwater if not for Sir Stamford Raffles’ intervention in 1819. The British had first established a presence in the 18th century when the East India Company set out to secure and protect its line of trade from China to the colonies in India. Fearing the Dutch—which had been the dominant European trading power in the region for nearly 200 years—Raffles argued for an increased British presence, which he was promptly given. Singapore’s forlorn reputation as a fetid, disease-ridden colony was soon forgotten. Migrants attracted by a tariff-free port poured in by the thousands, and a flourishing colony with a military and naval base was established, and continued into the 20th century. Then Japan briefly invaded the colony in 1941, defeating the British; later surrendering in 1945 having seriously marred the British presence. Following approximately 20 years of the formulation of self-government, in 1965 Singapore became independent and once again the economic success story of the region.” (

     The Republic of Singapore is a democratic city/state, formerly part of Malaysia. It is located at the very tip of the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. Singapore is notable for its immaculate, wealthy surroundings—no slums, unemployment, crime or poverty. Crime control is so complete there that one can be fined for chewing gum and hung for drugs. Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. Between 1965 and 1998 Singapore’s GNP grew 15 times. The people of Singapore are highly educated; the literacy rate of the total population is 92.5 percent. There is no farming. Life expectancy in Singapore is among the world’s highest—81.62 years. Like Amsterdam, Singapore is building polders—reclaiming land from the sea to expand its shore.

     One of the four East Asian Tiger Nations (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea; sometimes also referred to as Asia’s Four Little Dragons), Singapore was noted for maintaining high growth rates and rapid industrialization in the early 1960’s and 1990’s. East Asian Tigers pursued an export-driven model of economic development, developing goods for export to highly industrialized nations. Domestic consumption was discouraged through government policies such as high tariffs. The East Asian Tigers singled out education as a means of improving productivity by upgrading the education system at all levels. Since they were relatively poor during the 1960’s, these nations had an abundance of cheap labor which, when added to educational reform, resulted in an inexpensive, yet productive workforce. Also, the relatively authoritarian political system, trade surplus, high level of U.S. bond holdings, and high savings rate resulted in the rapid expansion of this tiny land, only 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.

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     Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (6 July 1781 – 5 July 1826) was the founder of Singapore and is the best known of the many Britons who at one time created the largest empire in the world. Starting as a clerk in London for the British East India Company, the quasi-government trading company that shaped much of England’s overseas conquests, in 1805 he was sent to what is now Penang in Malaysia, then called Prince of Wales Island, starting a long association with Southeast Asia. On 29 January 1819, he established a free-trade post at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula—the site that became Singapore. Raffles declared the foundation of what was to become modern Singapore on 6 February of that year, securing transfer of control of the island to the East India Company. He was also responsible for the Raffles Plan of Singapore. By the time he left for good in 1823, the city was on its way to becoming the largest port in the world. Raffles was also a founder and first president of the Zoological Society of London. He was knighted in 1817. In Singapore, his name lives on in Raffles Junior College, Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls’ School (Secondary), Raffles Girls’ Primary, Raffles Hotel, Stamford Road, Stamford House, Raffles City, Raffles Place MRT Station and the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

     Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles is also remembered in the name of the largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia. Several species of Rafflesia grow in the jungles of Southeast Asia, all of them threatened or endangered. Rafflesia arnoldii is the largest, its blossom attaining a diameter of nearly a meter and weighing up to 11 kg. Not only is it the world’s largest flower, it is one of the most bizarre and improbable organisms on the planet.

     It produces no leaves, stems or roots but lives as a parasite on the Tetrastigma vine, which grows only in primary (undisturbed) rainforest. Only the flower or bud can be seen; the rest of the plant exists only as filaments within its unfortunate host. The blossom is pollinated by flies, which are attracted to its scent, resembling that of carrion.

     The Rafflesia is rare and fairly hard to locate. It is especially difficult to see in bloom; the buds take many months to develop and the blossom lasts for just a few days. How many of these strange plants still survive is unknown, but the last of them can be expected to vanish as the remaining primary forests of Borneo and Sumatra are burned.

     Could this “Queen of Parasites”, named after the British founder of Singapore, be on a parallel path to extinction similar to that of the shrinking British Empire?

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     Today’s Singapore residents are successful at the form of symbiosis called multicultural living, celebrating Chinese, Hindu and Muslim festivals throughout the calendar year: Chinese New Year in January, Vesak Day in May (Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death), the Dragon Boat Festival in May or June (Chinese patriotism), Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts in September, Muslim Ramadan in November, and the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The residents of the world could take a lesson from Singpore, which also manages to have at least six religions living harmoniously together in successful social symbiosis.

     Our soil collector in Singapore was a gentleman named Humphrey Chang, who picked up his sample from the back yard of his home on Old Holland Road in Singapore, where family and friends have shared many memories. This was in May of 2005. Thank you, Humphrey, for your efforts on behalf of Common Ground 191.
With all its laws and prosperity, Singapore prospers and survives as a remarkable multicultural success, having overcome the domination of the man-eating plant called foreign domination, the former parasite of paradise.





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