History

Seeded in Singapore

How rubber became a cash crop

by Pei Ying Loh

Rubber. It’s a material so common today, we hardly give it a second thought. Elastic, resilient, and waterproof, it insulates our shoes and electronics. It's on the wheels of cars, bikes, and aeroplanes.

Rubber has revolutionised how we live. But did you know this multi-billion-dollar industry started right here in Singapore?

How is rubber made?

Rubber comes from latex—a milky liquid produced by some 2,000 plants all across the world. Indigenous communities have used latex for a long time. The Mayans, for example, shaped latex into a ball and developed a game with it. South American civilisations painted their feet with latex to prevent fungal infections.

The industrial use of latex began only in the 18th century. In 1751, a French Botanist, François Fresneau, wrote the first scientific paper on rubber. Soon after, we began using latex to waterproof fabrics and provide surface coverings for medical supplies.

rubber car
rubber bicycle

The discovery of vulcanization in the mid-1800s was latex’s key moment. Treating raw rubber with sulfur, lead oxide, and heat made it more flexible, sturdier, and longer lasting—this discovery led to a worldwide "Rubber Boom". Rubber quickly became an important component in bicycles, automobiles, and gaskets in industrial machinery.

As demand for rubber swelled, the industrialised world ran into a problem in the late 19th century (from the perspective of industrialised nations). The best plant for producing rubber, Hevea Brasiliensis, was native to the Amazon rainforest and could only be found in Brazil.

British colonialism and knowledge

The British Empire had a vested interest in rubber, since London was an epicentre for its trade. Britain looked to its tropical colonies to cultivate rubber into an economic crop.

Realising that mastery of the environment—including its plants—was important to maintain their empire and industrialisation, the British created a global network of botanic gardens. These scientific institutions gathered information, experimented, and searched for plants that could become economic crops.

British botanists shared information across Britain’s colonies, hoping that some of these valuable plants would acclimate to new places and provide profit and power. Other colonial powers—such as the Dutch, who set up the Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens in Java—were also in this race.

rubber plant

Hevea brasiliensis, also known as Pará Rubber, was unmatched in its rubber quality. With Brazil’s tight grip on the rubber supply and its seeds, cultivating rubber was a challenge. Even in South America, rubber only grew in the wild. It was not cultivated due to natural enemies such as the South American leaf blight, a fungal disease.

But all that changed in 1876, when Brazil’s grip on rubber production was broken. Henry Wickam, a British explorer, stole 77,000 seeds from South America and shipped them to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. From these 77,000, Singapore received 22 seedlings in 1877. Eleven were planted in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and soon they propagated.

Scroll to learn what happened to the seeds

Seeded in Singapore

Singapore's climate matched the Amazon’s, but the Hevea brasiliensis had no natural enemies here. The eleven seedlings planted in the gardens fruited in 1881. Over the next few years, the gardens were productive in its experiments. Hevea brasiliensis flourished and produced over 1,000 seedlings.

Henry Ridley illustration

With the arrival of Henry Ridley—an English botanist and the new director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1888—the development of Hevea brasiliensis reached a whole new level.

Ridley was a man obsessed with and zealously dedicated to his work, which earned him an unfortunate reputation as a “madman”. In 1891, Ridley planted over 2,000 Hevea brasiliensis trees in the gardens. He discovered that tapping the trees before dawn yielded more latex, and trees were more productive spaced farther apart.

Ridley experimented tirelessly with various tapping techniques. The trickiest part of rubber cultivation lay in extracting the sap. The Brazilians collected latex by gouging or denting the tree with an axe, a method that often fatally wounded the trees. This made rubber tapping labour-intensive. Tappers roamed the forests for wild trees, often venturing deeper in search of new trees as existing supplies depleted. This was dangerous and unsustainable.

Rubber tapping techniques

Eventually, he pioneered a winning method with the Herringbone technique. Rubber trees could now be tapped much younger and without damage. Ridley’s innovation made the Hevea brasiliensis a cash crop, changing the course of Singapore’s history.

leap of faith

Despite his remarkable work, Ridley could not persuade planters in Malaya to give the crop a shot. His troubled relationships with the colonial elite also affected their perception of the plant’s viability. Many Britons in the region still believed rubber took too long to mature to be economically productive.

For six years, Ridley went ignored.

The only planters willing to heed Ridley’s suggestions were local Chinese businessmen. Pushed by a global slump in coffee prices—the primary crop at the time—they searched for new avenues.

Tan Chay Yan illustration

Tan Chay Yan, Ridley’s close friend, was the first to plant Ridley’s Hevea brasiliensis seeds in 1896 in 16 hectares in Bukit Lintang, just outside of Melaka. Another respected Peranakan, Lim Boon Keng, followed suit, founding the Sembawang Rubber Plantation in 1898.

As the automobile industry boomed in the early 20th century and these plantations flourished, the Europeans caught on. Demand for rubber seeds skyrocketed. In the next decade, the Singapore Botanic Gardens alone met the global demand for rubber seeds. They were sent all across the world to Nigeria, Port Darwin, and even to Honduras.

The rubber industry’s acceleration into an important part of Malaya’s economy was astounding. In a decade, rubber plantations peppered the Peninsula, with more than 200 companies vying for the valuable latex. Joint stock companies were created to invest and capitalize on rubber plantations. Between 1900 and 1910, the global production of rubber, which Brazil monopolised, was less than 100 thousand tons. By 1920, global supply almost tripled, with Malaya alone producing 50 percent of global rubber exports.

Rubber's impact on Singapore society

The rubber boom continued to speed up into the Second World War. Its impact on Singapore was immense, and rubber provided the foundations for the city’s modern entrepot trade.

First, it expanded Singapore’s global trade exponentially. Because the city's small size limited rubber production, it became a hub for processing and transhipment instead. Cultivated rubber comes in different grades and qualities, and it all needs sorting. The rubber must also be milled, washed, and smoked. Singapore became the place to go for processing, sorting, packing, and shipping.

Singapore's role as a rubber hub was further cemented by World War I. With the cessation of the rubber auction in London, Singapore became the primary place to trade rubber in. Instead of going through London, Singapore shipped rubber directly to America and elsewhere. By 1918, Singapore’s weekly rubber auction accounted for a quarter of global rubber exports.

Rubber also had a major impact on the financial infrastructures of modern Singapore. Although the Chinese dominated the processing industry, they still relied on European capital. As the rubber trade grew, Chinese entrepreneurs needed their own capital. So, they created their own banking systems to finance the industry. These banks such as the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation, still exist.

Crucially, the greatest impact of rubber may have been on Singapore's demographics. Rubber was a labour-intensive industry, and it became the main cause for migration here. During the first two decades of the 20th century, Singapore saw a constant flow of labourers from India and China. Many settled here and added to the region's culture, irreversibly changing our society.

With more than a stroke of luck, rubber became a cash crop. Its explosive demand transformed Singapore and the region—though this also had global repercussions. The shift in demand left Brazil’s rubber industry decimated—and it never recovered.

In the next chapter, we look deeper into the industry’s stakeholders, colonial exploitation, and labour structures.

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com
Pei Ying Loh / Head and Co-Founder

Pei Ying wears many hats in Kontinentalist. She leads the company in achieving its overall business and editorial goals, making strategic business development plans, and managing partnerships. Her background and passion for history is the driving force behind many of her stories, which delve into cultural and historical contexts. In her free time, she is likely tending to her veggie garden, cooking, or cuddling her two fat cats.

Credits
Code / Jasen Lo, Siti Aishah, Dylan Ng
Design / Munirah Mansoor
Illustration / Griselda Gabriele
Insights / Associate Professor Timothy P. Barnard
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