Singapore – The Garden I Call Home
Like most people during these COVID times, I spend far too much of my time cooped up indoors in virtual business meetings. I was on a call recently with my overseas legal team colleagues but, happily, instead of the usual dry business call to hash out legal issues for the umpteenth time, this was a “no work” meeting that our team organises on a regular basis so that the globally dispersed legal team members can get to know each other and develop those important personal connections that, in pre-COVID times, we would all have been able to make in person during regularly scheduled team gatherings at our offices around the world. It was my turn to present a segment that we call “A day in the life of …”. This is a segment that is intended, over time, to give every member of our diverse legal team the opportunity to share about the country or city where they are based and provide colleagues with a good grasp of how we spend a typical day, both from a professional and personal point of view.
While describing my daily life in Singapore juggling multiple roles in a work-from-home setting, I remarked that a short daily walk around the neighbourhood was essential to maintain sanity and provide much needed respite from the day’s accumulated, and anticipated, stresses. I shared images of some of our beautiful green spaces and exotic plants and commented, quite seriously, that NParks was my absolute favourite government agency. This comment so tickled my colleagues that it led to a prolonged discussion about “Singapore, the Garden City”; how green and gorgeous Singapore appeared in “Crazy Rich Asians”, the origin of the term and vision of a “Garden City”, and the important role that NParks has played over the years in implementing and expanding on that original idea.
That discussion was a catalyst that led me to become much more aware and appreciative of my surroundings and the garden city that I am privileged to call home.
When first introduced in 1967 by Singapore’s Prime Minister at the time, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the idea of a garden city was to create a clean environment with lush greenery to render what would inevitably become a progressively more urbanised environment attractive and livable for its residents, as well as be an appealing tourist destination. Initially, the programme was implemented via a simple and very intensive strategy of tree planting. I’m not sure if annual tree planting is still a thing in schools these days, but I certainly recall participating in our yearly “Tree Planting Day” exercise at school in the good old days. Over time, we progressed from the simple strategy of planting a tree wherever we could find an empty plot, to a more sophisticated strategy involving the introduction of colour through the planting of flowering trees and shrubs, the creation of small parks within dense, high-rise residential areas designed to be spaces where residents could relax, exercise, play and commune, and then to the linking of many of our parks through an impressive Park Connector Network so that the more energetic and adventurous amongst us would be able to walk, run or hop to our hearts’ content while enjoying the picturesque and restful green spaces. In fact, it wasn’t enough simply to green our spaces horizontally – that would have been plain lazy. Just as our residential areas have sprawled horizontally and risen vertically over time, our gardens have done the same. Creating gardens on the ground and outdoors is for novices! We have built impressive vertical gardens in our new skyrise buildings and magnificent gardens indoor, where sunlight doesn’t even penetrate! One would have thought that we had finally reached the pinnacle of greening our country and no further improvement or innovation could be made but, no, NParks (that favourite government agency that I mentioned earlier) has visualized a “City in Nature” concept which will be a key pillar of the Singapore Green Plan 2030.
As far as I’m concerned there are two categories of gardens, or green spaces, in our city: the formal parks and gardens that we have very purposefully created and curated, and the more informal “gardens” that dot our island and which, I am willing to bet, most people don’t even really notice as they go about their busy lives.
As a Singaporean, I certainly take pride in and enjoy our famous and iconic “formal” gardens. Much beloved is, of course, the Singapore Botanic Gardens; founded in 1859 and accorded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2015. I cannot imagine any Singaporean not having beautiful memories of childhood visits to this garden, playing hide and seek around the gazebo (interestingly named “The Bandstand”), having an ice cream soda at the old coffeehouse and climbing on the massive branch of the Five Dollar tree (which, by the way, was immortalized in our green five dollar bills when the portrait series of banknotes was introduced in 1999). Gardens By the Bay with its distinctive and recognisable silhouette of the Supertree Grove is a modern treasure, and Jewel Changi’s Forest Valley, Canopy Park, and Hedge Maze present a lovely way to greet visitors to our shores and give them a foretaste of what is to come on the rest of the island. Then, of course, we have other traditional favourites like Hort Park, Butterfly Garden, Orchid Garden, the list goes on. We are indeed fortunate that the beautiful gardens to be experienced and enjoyed on our Little Red Dot are numerous and diverse.
However, as impressive as our iconic and world famous skyrise gardens, Jewel Changi or Gardens by the Bay are, these are not the “green” parts of Singapore that bring me pleasure and respite every day.
As I take my daily walks around the neighbourhood, drive along our roads, or visit friends in other parts of Singapore, I feel uplifted by the unexpected patches of “garden” that beautify much of our surroundings. How can one not feel delighted by the sight of the gorgeous sunburst yellow and orange of the Bauhinias that decorate many paths along our roads, or be moved to stop and examine more closely the Dutchman’s Pipe with its unusually shaped burgundy and gold flowers drooping exotically over a covered walkway (a magnificent example was spotted near the Kallang Squash Centre), or look up in awe at our majestic Angsanas, or breathe in the sweet scent of the Tembusu in full bloom? How can one not be intrigued to come across an Ylang-Ylang tree, with its unmistakable golden yellow blooms which form the source of the essential oil we buy in shops, and learn that it grows in our country? I know that I was very surprised. If only one pays attention, every part of Singapore has a garden to be appreciated. Even many of our central reservations (the strip of land between divided roadways) are carefully landscaped to render them pleasing. Years ago, when the rarely flowering Tiger Orchids that grow on many of the trees along Napier Road were in full bloom, I would take every opportunity (and make up some) just so that I could go past the area and soak in the beauty of these rare orchids.
Then of course, we have our neighbourhood estate gardens. I recently took a walk with my friend around her estate and was blown away by the colourful mini gardens that homeowners had created on those small patches of land that run along the walkways outside their homes. You could tell these were carefully tended and much loved. There were even banana trees with their gorgeous blossoms and little bananas in production and mango trees that littered the ground with ripe fruit. How unexpected!
So … although Singapore is a tiny island which sometimes feels overwhelmingly urbanised and congested, I am infinitely grateful that many decades ago someone had the brilliant idea to make this tiny Red Dot very, very green.