Green fingers

Lea Wee Straits Times 4 Aug 13;

On June 16, 1963, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew planted a slender Mempat sapling - known for its pretty pink blossoms - at a traffic roundabout in Farrer Circus, marking the start of an islandwide tree-planting campaign.

Fifty years on, SundayLife! speaks to three veterans from the National Parks Board. All have been involved in the greening efforts since they joined what was then called the Parks and Recreation Department fresh from school, ranging from 26 to 33 years ago.

Kartini Omar, director

Any home gardener or industry expert worth his salt would have a copy of the book 1001 Garden Plants In Singapore, as would the polytechnic student pursuing a diploma in horticulture or landscaping.

After all, it is the first - and only - reference book featuring a comprehensive list of plants in Singapore. It remains one of the National Parks Board's bestsellers. Since it was published in 2003, it has had 11 print runs and more than 60,000 copies have been sold.

To think that one of its three authors, Ms Kartini Omar, 47, now director of the parks division, started out with only a meagre knowledge of plants.

She graduated with a general degree in science from the National University of Singapore in 1987.

That same year, when she joined the then Parks and Recreation Department as an assistant curator at its maintenance unit, she knew the names of only about 10 plants. Her role then was to manage the roadside greenery and parks within an area in River Valley.

When she was transferred to the department's only nursery in Pasir Panjang three years later, her knowledge grew to include about a quarter of the 700 species of plants at the nursery.

To further beef up her knowledge, she started an album containing photographs of the plants in the nursery, with their names printed on a piece of paper below the photos. This eventually culminated in 1001 Garden Plants In Singapore.

The other two authors of the book are Ms Boo Chih Min, the manager working under her then who helped to take and compile the photographs; and her director, Mr Ou Yang Chow Lin, who advised them on the packaging and marketing of the book.

A website based on the book, florafaunaweb., was also set up in 2008.

The launch of the book was in line with the evolving role of the nursery. Says Ms Kartini: "When I joined, the nursery was largely a production house."

It was producing 800,000 to a million plants a year to "feed" streets and parks here. But as Singapore's greening efforts bore fruit, the number of plants needed went down. By 2010, the production of plants at the nursery had dropped to about 100,000 to 200,000 a year.

The nursery began to focus more on raising awareness and educating the public, including industry players, about plants. This, says Ms Kartini, was to promote a gardening culture here.

One of her most challenging projects, as a senior manager at the nursery, was GardenTech, which started as an in-house event in 1997 for about 10 industry players to showcase their latest gardening products.

In 1998, it was opened to the public and the organising committee was tasked to get more exhibitors.

As the head of secretariat and plant decoration, and later co-chairman of the organising committee, Ms Kartini and the other committee members had to comb through the Yellow Pages to look for companies that dealt with gardening and landscaping.

She says: "We would then call them up one by one to promote the event to them."

By 2002, GardenTech had grown into a five-day biennial event, with more than 100 exhibitors offering a wide range of gardening-related products. These ranged from garden tools and landscaping products to ponds and water features.

In 2003, there were plans to convert 12ha of the 23ha nursery in Pasir Panjang into a gardening hub for the public to learn more about plants and to promote a gardening culture.

These were realised five years later when HortPark opened. As assistant director of the nursery, she had been tasked to come up with the concept and to oversee the development of the park.

Having seen how themed gardens were crowd- pleasers in her previous working trips to famous flower shows such as the Floriade in Amsterdam and Chelsea in London, she proposed the idea of having display gardens in the new park.

She also suggested allocating some of these plots to industry players to showcase their garden products and technologies. Her suggestions were taken up. When HortPark was officially opened in 2008, it featured about 40 display plots by industry partners, including an eco-garden, playground and water garden.

Today, the park draws 650,000 visitors every year. It also runs the quarterly Gardeners' Day Out, the successor of GardenTech, which had its last run in 2009.

In 2011, Ms Kartini was appointed one of the two directors of the parks division, to oversee most of the parks in Singapore.

Parks, she says, also support a rich biodiversity of wildlife, due to concerted efforts by the National Parks Board to grow plants that attract birds, butterflies and dragonflies.

She says: "I am happy to be part of this effort to conserve and create habitats that are conducive for wildlife in our parks."

But the mother of two grown-up children admits that she sometimes misses being with plants all day.

Over the years, her knowledge of plants has grown such that she is now familiar with most of the plants in the 1001 Garden Plants In Singapore book - which actually features more than 1,900 plants.

Friends and relatives also often seek her advice on gardening.

She says: "Being around plants gives me a lot of pleasure."

Simon Poh, streetscape manager

Whenever he has time, Mr Simon Poh would drive past the Toh Guan flyover just to admire the 10 or more species of flowering plants and trees there.

After all, the 55-year-old streetscape manager played a key role in landscaping the 500m stretch during its construction from 2004 to 2006.

Then a senior arborist (commonly called a "tree doctor") with the National Parks Board, he was in charge of the project and had proposed the suitable plants that could be grown.

Mr Poh, who is now a manager in the board's streetscape division, says: "It gives me pride to see the plants grow. It's like watching your own children grow up."

The father of two children aged 21 and 18 is married to a 49-year-old account executive and the family lives in a five-room flat in Choa Chu Kang.

The landscaping of Singapore has changed over the years, he notes. "When I first started, we planted fast-growing trees such as the angsana and rain tree to provide shade. These days, we grow more varieties of trees to give colour to the roads. We also grow more weather-resistant trees such as the jelutong and tembusu."

Mr Poh joined the then Parks and Recreation Department in 1980 as a horticulture assistant in charge of an area in Pasir Panjang after his O levels.

He would be out in a lorry from 7am to 3pm, Mondays to Fridays and till 1pm on Saturdays supervising workers as they pruned, weeded and added manure to flowering plants and shrubs along roadsides.

As this work was slowly farmed out to contractors, he started to focus, from the late 1980s, on arboriculture, or "tree care". He visually inspected trees for disease and decay.

"Then, we did not have advanced equipment such as a resistograph (a tree decay-detecting device, above), so we had to check for decay by probing holes with a chungkul or a long probe."

In 1995, he was promoted to arboriculture officer and put in charge of inspecting the trees and maintaining the greenery along the roadsides, overhead bridges and flyovers in parts of Jurong.

He worked closely with the Land Transport Authority and other agencies to assess the effects of road widening or excavation on trees.

He says: "We try to save as many trees as possible. For instance, we can transplant young trees to another area. Trees are removed only if there are no other alternatives."

Like the handful of arborists then, most of his knowledge about trees was picked up on the job.

In 2005, however, he joined the first batch of about 100 arborists at National Parks Board to undergo a month-long certification course by the International Society of Arboriculture.

In 2007, he was promoted to be a manager in the streetscape division, and was put in charge of an area of Bukit Batok.

He now takes care of an area in Sembawang and has taken on more responsibilities. These include mentoring his younger colleagues, something which he enjoys. "I also had a mentor when I first joined. It helped me to learn the ropes faster so that I did not feel so lost."

He likes trees that are strong and pleasing to the eye. One of his favourites is the Mesua Ferrea species, which has a conical shape and red-orange young leaves.

"Trees not only give shade, but they also cool the environment and make Singapore less of a concrete jungle. I am happy I can continue to contribute their growth and development here," he says.

Wong Tuan Wah, director of conservation

Once thought to be extinct in mainland Singapore, Oriental pied hornbills, with a wing span of 1m and a distinctive yellow beak and black and white body, can now be seen flying around the island.

One of the key people who brought the majestic birds back to Singapore was Mr Wong Tuan Wah, 56, director of conservation at National Parks Board, a position he has held since 1997.

In 2004, the board granted research permits and gave logistical support to French researcher Marc Cremades and Professor Ng Soon Chye, a naturalist, who were keen to study the ecology and breeding behaviour of a handful of hornbills. The birds had been spotted in Pulau Ubin after more than 150 years.

Mr Wong and his staff from the board became so enthused about this conservation project that in 2008, they partnered the two researchers and Jurong Bird Park to start a hornbill breeding programme in the Istana. As a safe and secure sanctuary, the Istana is often used as a testbed of conservation projects in Singapore.

The programme was so successful that there are now 60 hornbills in Pulau Ubin and about 40 in mainland Singapore.

Ironically, conservation was the last thing on Mr Wong's mind when he took up an honours degree in forestry at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. As an outdoor-loving boy growing up in Penang, Malaysia, he had been inspired to become a park ranger by a character in the cartoon, Yogi Bear.

In 1981, he accepted a job in Singapore as a curator, or what is now called a park manager, at the then Parks and Recreation Department.

Mr Wong, now a Singaporean, says: "My main duty then was to make sure the parks and gardens in the Geylang and Marina areas and the trees in the southern part of Singapore are in good condition and safe for visitors. There was little talk of conservation of our nature areas then."

After obtaining a master's in forestry on a Public Service Commission scholarship from the University of Wales in Britain in 1986, he was promoted to assistant commissioner to take care of the trees, parks and gardens in the western part of Singapore.

In 1996, he was seconded to the Istana Horticulture Section where, as curator, he took care of the greenery there.

A year later, the Istana merged with National Parks Board, which had been formed in 1991 to oversee the country's nature reserves, Singapore Botanic Gardens and Fort Canning Park. Mr Wong became director of Istana and Conservation Management, or what is now known as the Conservation division.

He says: "The new National Parks Board became more people-centric. Besides routine maintenance work, my staff and I also had to look into meeting people's needs and doing more education and outreach activities. Conserving our nature heritage was given more emphasis."

Besides the Istana, he was also in charge of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Central Catchment Nature Reserve, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Pulau Ubin.

One of his most challenging - and successful - conservation projects was Chek Jawa, a haven of rich marine biodiversity at Pulau Ubin's eastern-most point, which had been earmarked for reclamation.

"The U-turn in policy was unprecedented," he says.

He first visited the area in 1997 while investigating a claim by a woman who reported the sighting of a tiger nearby. He and his team failed to find the tiger but the marine biodiversity of Chek Jawa left a deep impression.

When news broke in 2001 that Chek Jawa was slated for reclamation, he and his team worked with scientists, nature lovers and volunteers to review the merits of conserving Chek Jawa and presented their findings to the Government.

The Government eventually put off reclamation, as long as the land is not needed for development.

But conservation at National Parks Board is never just about protecting greenery; it is also about promoting nature to the public. "If people are aware of and appreciate nature, they would want to protect and safeguard it," says Mr Wong.

To "bring people closer to nature", he and his team built boardwalks and lookout towers in places such as Sungei Buloh and Chek Jawa, allowing visitors to tour the habitat in comfort and from better vantage points.

The work to sustain the public's interest in nature heritage is a long-term one, says the father of a 26-year-old daughter. He is married to a retired system analyst, 55.

He and his team are always thinking of new ways to engage the public. For instance, a 24-hour "animal cam" system was installed in April this year at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve to capture footage and audio recordings of animals, such as otters and monitor lizards.

Interesting video clips are then uploaded on the board's website.

Having spent all these years doing conservation work, Mr Wong says he no longer bashes through a forest like he did when he was growing up just so he could reach his destination earlier.

"I have learnt to pause and appreciate the journey itself. You never know what you will discover along the way."