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Without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, ‘there would be no Garden City’

SINGAPORE — By all accounts, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a nature lover, but his vision of Singapore as a Garden City boiled down to very practical considerations and his care for his fellow countrymen.

SINGAPORE — By all accounts, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a nature lover, but his vision of Singapore as a Garden City boiled down to very practical considerations and his care for his fellow countrymen.

He wanted trees to line the island’s streets and roads, and instructed the relevant agencies to plant them wherever possible — not just any trees but Angsana and rain trees.

“Why? Because these are two trees that have very huge crowns ... The rain tree, especially, is like an umbrella and very big and spreading,” said Mr Wong Yew Kwan, 82, Singapore’s first Commissioner of Parks and Recreation from 1974 to 1982. “He was frank. ‘Never mind about colours, just green up the city first’.”

“Because we are in the tropics and, of course, the tropics being so hot, he wanted shade to cool the environment. It was his first priority,” said Mr Wong yesterday (March 25), after visiting the Singapore Botanic Gardens community tribute site for the Republic’s founding Prime Minister.

Dr Leong Chee Chiew, the current Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, attributed Mr Lee’s vision of a Garden City to his firm belief in distinguishing Singapore from the other cities.

“He believed that a tropical Garden City would distinguish us, would make us First World,” said Dr Leong. “This made him push for high standards to show that we were First World. We not only can provide the greenery, but also maintain it well.”

He added that Mr Lee had also observed that during the colonial days, greenery would be more prevalent in the areas where rich people stayed.

“He felt this cannot be the case for his Singapore. In his Singapore, if greenery was to only be found in places where the rich stayed, he felt that there would be dissatisfaction,” he said,

Over the years, Parks & Recreation Commissioners often received memos from Mr Lee about the state of the greenery in Singapore.

Mr Wong recalled that during a meeting in 1978, Mr Lee gave him specific instructions regarding the development of Changi Airport.

“One of the things (Mr Lee) told me, ‘When the first plane lands, I want people to look at planted vegetation, not rank vegetation’,” he said.

Rank vegetation are plants and shrubs that have grown irregularly.

It was around that time when Mr Wong’s team at the Parks and Recreation Department – the predecessor to the National Parks Board (NParks) – discovered the Acacia trees, whose seeds were easily available and fast-growing. “He gave the order in 1978, by the time the airport opened in (1981), sure enough, we had nice, small trees covering this beautiful area,” said Mr Wong.

Dr Leong Chee Chiew, who is the Commissioner of Parks & Recreation, noted that Mr Lee paid very close attention to the stretch of road leading up to the airport, “If you get a note from his principal private secretary about the rain trees along East Coast Parkway, then we know Mr Lee has probably just travelled,” Dr Leong quipped.

Mr Lee’s famed eye for details when it comes to policy making also extended to his surroundings. During one of Mr Lee’s daily commute from his home in Oxley Road to the Istana, he had noticed a bare, low-lying stretch of wall at the Salvation Army headquarters - which was located in the area then - and instructed Mr Wong to plant some trees. “Wong Chooi Sen (former Cabinet Secretary) gave me a ring, he said, PM told me to tell you, ‘Don’t create a jungle there!’, because he know I came from the Forest Department,” said Mr Wong, noting Mr Lee’s sense of humour.

Mr Lee paid close attention to ensure that certain structures on the island are surrounded by greenery. Mr Wong revealed that it was because of Mr Lee’s request that his team worked with the old Public Works Department to ensure that there were gaps in the middle of flyovers found all over the island - to allow sunlight to shine through so that greenery could flourish.

Given Mr Lee’s love for greenery, it is little wonder that the Istana - where Mr Lee spent many of his working hours, mulling over the issues confronting the nation - boasts such lush lawns.

Istana’s curator Koh Soon Kiong, 54, who has been managing the Istana grounds for 16 years, recalled how Mr Lee had asked to see him in his office in 2009 to discuss about the greenery.

Besides asking for more trees to be planted, Mr Koh recalled that in order to attract more birds into the Istana, Mr Lee specified that he did not want chemical fogging because it would kill insects that the birds feed on. Mr Lee also wanted the population of mynah birds on the Istana grounds to be reduced, so that singing birds such as the magpie robin can thrive there, said Mr Koh.

Mr Lee and his wife, who died in 2010, were also fond of fragrant plants, he said. Mr Lee’s favourite was the pandan-smelling species known as the Bread Flower. Mr Lee also had specific requests to plant fragrant climbers at the function lawns so that guests can enjoy their fragrance.

In his advanced years, Mr Lee continued to show a keen interest in the developments of the greenery around the island.

Ms Sharon Chan, the Deputy Director of the Central Nature Reserve in NParks, said Mr Lee was always curious about the migratory birds and nature reserves. Having brought him around on three private tours of the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve between 2010 and 2013, she said Mr Lee had asked about the expansion plans for the reserve in 2010, as well as the protection works for the environment and the animals, among other things.

Even though Mr Lee became frail in 2013, he kept up with his questions and had asked about the progress of the expansion works, Ms Chan said.

“In fact, I was (thinking) whether this year, he will be able to come back to Sungei Buloh to look at the new developments,” she said. “I felt very sad, I wished the Sungei Buloh project was completed much earlier so he has the chance to see the new extension. He was looking forward to it.”

On Tuesday, a special orchid hybrid named after Mr Lee was presented to his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Describing Mr Lee as “the Chief Gardener of Singapore’s Garden City”, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said the making of a Garden City was a key element in Mr Lee’s development strategy, which differentiated Singapore from other cities and set a benchmark for other cities to emulate.

Yesterday, choking back tears, Mr Khaw said without Mr Lee, “there would be no Garden City”. Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee reiterated that Mr Lee believed that greenery and lush verdant landscapes were essential in a city to “calm the spirit and to make people feel relaxed”. “You look around us... This is something that requires foresight and a deep abiding passion, not only for our natural heritage but also for the spirit of our people,” he said.

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