Minister of State Tan Kiat How
Your Excellency, Ambassador Marc Abensour
Ladies and gentlemen
1. Thank you for joining us this afternoon.
2. Until two years ago, very few Singaporeans would have heard of Pierre-Médard Diard and Alfred Duvaucel, the two French naturalists who accompanied Sir Stamford Raffles on his maiden voyage to Singapore in January 1819. While Raffles’ primary objective was to extend the reach of the British empire, he was equally fascinated by the natural world. And to that end, he recruited Diard and Duvaucel to research and collect specimens of fauna and flora in the region.
3. The output of that expedition and several others between 1818 and 1820 was a collection of 117 coloured illustrations – mainly of birds but also several animals and plants – from Singapore and neighbouring countries in the region as far away as India.
4. What makes this collection especially significant is that it contains what is possibly the first illustration of an animal that is native to Singapore and Southeast Asia − the Spiny Turtle. The handwritten annotation on the drawing clearly proclaims “isle de Singapour” or “island of Singapore”, stamping our claim to the origins of this now-endangered species.
5. The set of drawings were kept at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris for nearly two centuries, and it was only in 2019 that this long-forgotten collection was brought to our attention during the Voilah! France Singapore Festival − thanks to the efforts of the French Embassy in Singapore. That same year, permission was given to the National Library Board – the only institution outside of the Paris museum − to put up the digitised version of Diard and Duvaucel’s drawings on our BookSG portal for public access. Given that these illustrations of birds and reptiles tell stories of Singapore’s rich biodiversity, we have also brought them to our newly revamped Choa Chu Kang Public Library, where they now feature at the nature walls and augmented reality learning trail.
6. And today, as part of Voilah! 2021, we are proud to bring you a hardcover book that showcases all 117 drawings from Diard and Duvaucel. This cultural collaboration between Singapore and France is but one example of the time-honoured links between our two countries. The two intrepid Frenchmen, who were part of Singapore’s early history, were followed by fellow missionaries, merchants and planters through the centuries. Today, Singapore’s French community is more than 20,000-strong, and they actively participate in French-Singaporean efforts to advance culture, education, science and business.
7. “Diard & Duvaucel: French Natural History Drawings of Singapore & Southeast Asia” celebrates the strong ties between Singapore and France as well as Southeast Asia’s biodiversity with its stunning illustrations. Raffles had noted in a letter that the Frenchmen’s work would “eventually contribute to our further knowledge of the zoology of these islands”. His words could not be more prophetic given climate change and the decimation of rare species in this region and elsewhere. As a result of the pioneering work of these two Frenchmen, conservationists today have a collection of technical-quality illustrations accompanied by essays and detailed captions written by curators and scientists to inspire their research.
8. I would like to thank the Embassy of France, which co-published this book with us in partnership with Epigram Books and the support of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. My gratitude also goes to Professor Peter Ng, Head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore, for collaborating very closely with us on this book.
9. It is my hope that the deep ties between Singapore and France will give rise to further collaborative projects between the National Library Board and the French Embassy in Singapore. There is much to be gained when nations with shared histories such as ours work together to advance areas of mutual interest.
10. I hope you will find this book both meaningful and enjoyable.