No gardeners in Garden City

Love of greenery does not come naturally to Singaporeans, but landscaper is hopeful of a change in attitudes
Tan Hui Yee, Straits Times 20 May 09;

THE view from the ground up looked promising two weeks ago when the authorities unveiled $1 billion worth of plans to promote sustainable environmental practices over the next five years.

But leading landscaper Michael Teh worries that the devil is in the details.

The newly announced programmes run the gamut from clean energy to recycling efforts and rooftop gardens.

Mr Teh, the 56-year-old chief executive of Nature Landscapes, says: 'We (tend to) get bogged down by too many initiatives by different agencies. Today it is the sustainable development issue, tomorrow it's the 'Keep our waterways clean' issue, and the next day we have to plant more trees in Singapore.'

The Government, he says, can mitigate the overkill by giving more thought to how to commit the measures to public memory. It could take the form of rituals like the annual Tree Planting Day. 'If we don't keep the impetus going, we just forget about them.'

Mr Teh is founding chairman of the Landscape Industry Association (Singapore). His company, with 250 employees, has greened landmark national projects such as Changi Airport and the Singapore Turf Club.

He knows from intimate experience how well-intentioned green legislation can fall flat on its face when confronted with commercial and individual interests.

In 1993, the landscaping industry expected a surge of business after the Government offered incentives for developers to build planter boxes in apartments. It never happened.

While developers rushed to build them, apartment owners left them empty or illegally converted them to balcony space or living room extensions. The incentives were removed last year.

'It's quite straightforward,' he says. 'Singapore is not a gardening society. Nine out of 10 Singaporeans will tell you, 'I don't have a green thumb.' So if there is no interest, they say, 'Let's convert it into something, let's expand my crammed living room space' - which is true, the average Singapore apartment is getting smaller and smaller.'

It's not so much that Singaporeans do not like greenery, but that they take it for granted.

Singapore's four-decades-old greening movement, spawned by an administration keen to set the island apart from regional cities, has been supported by keynote 1970s projects such as the lusciously landscaped Shangri-La hotel in Orange Grove Road - which sparked the rage for bougainvillea-fringed balconies - and Pandan Valley condominium, whose terraced gardens set new standards for high-rise greenery. Staid-looking faux Chinese or Japanese gardens gave way to more varied styles as tastes matured over the years.

Meanwhile, development regulations require greenery to be planted around new projects, and many trees cannot be cut down without prior approval.

'The National Parks Board does a great job of greening Singapore. The condominium managements get people like us to green up the space...Everything just falls into place. That's why people take it for granted.'

Greenery is still something that is admired from a distance rather than experienced at close range here, he says. While fewer landed homeowners these days resort to concreting over lawns, few bother to touch the gardens they own.

'If you ask the average family who lives on landed property, I would dare say that 80 or 90 per cent don't even mow their own lawns. They will contract some guy who comes down, helps them mow the lawn, does a bit of gardening and so on...It's very sad. In land-scarce Singapore, these people should be excited to own a piece of land which they can do something to.'

In the same way, not enough Singaporeans venture out into the nation's many parks. When he asks people to visit Bishan Park, where his company's Aramsa Spa is located, they say, 'Hey, where is Bishan Park?'' he bemoans. 'And these are people who live in the vicinity.'

'The average Singaporean is actually a couch potato - he'd rather stay at home and in an air-conditioned environment than come out to the park and enjoy nature .'

For now, Singapore's Garden City status is 'artificially' sustained by government legislation and commercial interests. Developers turn to plantings because they are required by law to provide a green buffer around their projects, and also because some use luscious gardens to attract investor interest.

'If you pull that away, what will happen? It will die a natural death.'

'If the next guy who comes in says 'What a bloody waste of money, forget about it, I don't want to legislate you must plant a tree for every development,' what will happen? The developers will probably think, 'OK, I will do the minimum that I need to do.' Commercial greed will definitely step in.'

Unlike in Britain and Australia, where sizeable gardening communities allow huge commercial nurseries to flourish, retail demand makes up no more than 20 per cent of the $1.18 billion landscaping industry here, he estimates.

Budding landscapers have to go abroad for tertiary studies because local universities do not offer degrees in landscape and horticulture management.

The green movement here, he stresses, will fail without government intervention.

'A lot of these schemes need to dangle carrots before people for them to work. A green roof, for example, is really an additional expense. It's not a place where people go. If it's high up in the sky, who else can see it except for those in a taller building? So it's an additional expense (to developers) without any immediate returns.'

Done in the right measure, green legislation can spawn entire industries. He cites the example of Germany, where it is mandatory in many cities for new flat- roofed buildings to have vegetation on their roofs. Germany has widely followed green roof standards and technology.

Singapore could head the same way, he suggests.

The Government last month announced that it will co-fund up to half the cost of setting up green roof projects in downtown Singapore and offered developers bonus saleable space if they set up rooftop outdoor refreshment areas that included landscaping.

As more developers plunge into green roofs, Singapore's landscapers could be motivated to research and develop new green roof technology. This is particularly important as German green roof standards - developed from temperate climates - may not be suitable for tropical Singapore.

He fantasises: 'Singapore is so built up...if only we could green our roofs and turn them into vegetable plots, we'd probably be able to feed half of Singapore.'

In the short run, he is resigned to the fact that greenery will suffer in the face of the current financial downturn. Building owners, town councils and condominium managements will eye landscaping budgets as easy ways to trim maintenance costs, he predicts. Already, companies are cutting back on items like plant rentals, which cost as little as $1 a month.

He says matter-of-factly: 'Green has always been seen as something that is not essential. It's a 'nice to have' but not a 'need to have' when the crunch comes.

'But if you don't weed, or cut the grass often enough, or don't put enough fertiliser, the landscape will deteriorate.'

But he is hopeful attitudes can change, if there is enough done to engage the next generation.

School gardening clubs, community gardens and outdoor trips all help to put the younger generation in contact with flora. It is to be hoped they will learn to take ownership of the environment.

Upcoming projects like the Gardens at Marina Bay could also help change attitudes. One of its two glass houses is expected to showcase plants and trees from temperate regions - an eye-opener for those who do not have the chance to travel to see them in their natural habitat.

In his own small way, Mr Teh tries to pique public interest in greenery's potential. The two eateries at Bishan Park's Aramsa Spa - of which he is a majority shareholder - feature a green roof and bars and dining areas set in a lush garden.

'Mine is a touch garden,' he declares. 'In fact, the aunties who do taiji here in the morning help themselves to my plants. They dig them up. I just smile. I tell my gardeners to leave them alone as they take the small ones.'

The way he sees it, respect for the environment comes about only when someone is able to see, touch and feel his natural surroundings.

In built-up Singapore, it just doesn't happen often enough.

'If you ask the average gardener why he likes gardening, it's not messing your hands that's the fun part. It's really the wonderment that you're helping to make something grow, whether it's from a seed or a cutting. Then you nurture it some more, to its full bloom...At the end of the day, it's about your ability to create something.'

Industry veteran

MR MICHAEL TEH, 56, is the chief executive of 28-year-old landscaping company Nature Landscapes, which has greened landmarks such as Changi Airport and Singapore Turf Club.

He is the founding chairman of the Landscape Industry Association (Singapore), which represents about 90 landscaping companies in Singapore. He graduated from the National University of Singapore in 1979 with a degree in building and estate management.

He is married to former TV actress Jazreel Low, 42. She runs a chain of six spas under the Asmara group, which he co-owns. The couple have a six-year-old daughter, Michelia.