Tuesday 24 June 2014

Tan Wee Kiat: 'Want to be natural? Live like Tarzan'

As the former head of NParks, Dr Tan Wee Kiat's green fingers have shaped the Garden City's icons such as the Botanic Gardens. Now CEO of Gardens by the Bay, which turns two this month, Dr Tan, 71, tells Andrea Ong about the tension between using land for development and keeping it green.
The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2014

The Our Singapore Conversation survey last year found that over 60 per cent of 4,000 respondents preferred the preservation of green spaces over infrastructural development. Were you surprised by this?

It's a natural and very healthy outcome. It is the outcome of a very competent Government that has provided the necessary infrastructure for businesses and housing. Those needs have been satisfied and people can now concentrate on their wants.

People also need to understand, what do you give up if you don't allow the Government to do this infrastructural development? Singapore depends upon its efficiency and competency to compete in the world.

For instance, if everybody wants to own a car, you need to give the Land Transport Authority more land. Otherwise, you have to make the hard choice, we cannot have individual cars. We need better public transport. So knowing our constraints, we must among ourselves decide what are our priorities and then relay that message to the Government to make the final hard decision.

Do you see a change in mindset from that in the past?

In the early 1980s, when we talked about conservation of nature and natural areas, everybody in Government was afraid that we were going to tie their hands for development, especially since a lot of the sentiments (concerning conservation) came from NGOs. If you even approached some of those sentiments, you were targeted as a greenie, which was a bad word.

To me, one of the most wonderful things now is when the parks people cut a tree for structural reasons, it's the public that's complaining about trees being cut. They've now taken ownership. But we still have a long way to go as we start to integrate nature with public housing, because it brings along other living things. Singaporeans have yet to become comfortable with the natural world. They do not know that (with) bees, leave them alone, they will leave. You need them if you want your mango trees to bear fruit.

Do you see greater contestation in the future over usage of space?

No. When you start integrating, the built space can also be green space.

Some will say it's not a replacement for natural green space.

No, it's not a replacement. This is why the professionals have to work very closely with the planners. We have to preserve these open bodies. The Government now appreciates that that's what the people need. Gardens by the Bay is a perfect demonstration of the sensitivity to the need for open space. I think we're finally turning the tide.

Most governments reduce their nature reserves as developments start encroaching. Here, people are very solicitous of the health of their nature areas. The young people that were exposed to nature awareness about 30 years ago are now voters.

There will be conflicts like Bukit Brown Cemetery. This is why the planners have to say, can we have our cake and eat it too if we do it smart? Instead of having lots of small chunks of open space, we can sacrifice some of these and have a big chunk somewhere where it's big enough for Singaporeans to come together as a community.

But the argument would be that some of these areas, like Bukit Brown and Bukit Timah, overlap with heritage as well.

Exactly. In the past, I couldn't convince government agencies that nature reserves were also heritage. Now we have the irony of both being considered heritage that people want to preserve. Very serious dialogue must take place, because the Government will more and more feel it cannot make unilateral decisions on what to do with the public's views of what future generations need.

Have we already lost too many such spaces?

Probably more than we should, but we've also secured more than we would have otherwise. This current acknowledgement, that we need to look at an entire island like Pulau Ubin with great care, is huge. It is a significant mindset change by a very pragmatic government that knows that pragmatism also caters to the public's current and future needs of space and nature.

You were instrumental in developing Singapore Botanic Gardens in the past. What do you think of Singapore's bid for it to become the nation's first UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Very timely. This garden is an internationally valuable institution. It's a repository of the work of botanists in the archives, both written and printed, and in the collected dry material and living specimens when they were documenting and elucidating the flora of this region. This is the main distinction between applying for the Botanic Gardens to be a World Heritage Site versus Bukit Brown. Bukit Brown is a very intensely national institution. The World Heritage Site criteria would not apply as much.

Bukit Brown is what we ourselves should evaluate for our own cultural growth and historical meaning.

Given that there are now two garden attractions in Singapore, how do you see their roles vis-a-vis each other?

They are so mutually complementary, they are like book ends. The Botanic Gardens specialises in research, education and conservation. Gardens by the Bay specialises in horticultural recreation, dependent upon the knowledge that is engendered by the Singapore Botanic Gardens. In the US, you have Longwood Gardens, a wonderful show garden founded by the Du Pont family. Then you have the Missouri Botanical Garden, a botanic institution founded by Henry Shaw. In Britain, you have Kew Gardens, botanic, and Wisley Garden, show garden. Now Singapore has BG and GB.

A recurring criticism of the garden city concept is that gardens are artificial.

All gardens are artificial. We are a city in a garden, which is even more artificial because a city is totally artificial. You want to be natural, you live like Tarzan.

How did the city in a garden concept come about?

It's a natural evolution. A garden city means you have gardens dotted throughout the city. We want the concept of the garden to be more pervasive, more a green blanket that ameliorates the conditions that are negative in a city.

Do you get inspired by movies? Some have compared Gardens by the Bay to Avatar.

I look at, for instance, The Amazing Spider-Man, and I see how they use graphics, design and colour and how imaginative they are. So yes, you are always constantly absorbing, good and bad. That's why it's very hard to know when you're working and when you're playing.

You've spoken about the social role of Gardens by the Bay. Could you elaborate?

From day one, we had planned it as a people's garden. Gardens by the Bay has a social role though we are a commercial entity because we have to make it economically sustainable to a degree.

But for the entire garden's outdoor footprint, you can come in for free.

Actually most people forget the fact that the outdoor gardens are free. Only the domes and some amenities attract a charge which we moderate so they are very affordable for our people.

Even today, most of the visitors are surprised that the premium rates are still cheaper than similar attractions anywhere else. On top of that, for locals, we moderate it so that if you're a senior, immediately you get a discount.

And from here, within this garden, you get a view of Singapore as it grows. You see the city skyline and we actually provide some of the best images for the branding of modern Singapore as a city in a garden. You see all those high-rise towers fringed by garden space and with the reservoir in front, which illustrates the fact that we are a tropical island nation.

Underlying that, we are saying: This is done for Singaporeans by Singaporeans. Some of the best places in Singapore are reserved for Singaporeans.

Gardens by the Bay turns two this month. What were some of the highlights of the past two years?

The greatest thrill was when the World Architecture Festival that was held in Singapore chose Gardens by the Bay as the best building in the world just as we were opening. To at least have the infrastructure affirmed as top quality stuff was really exciting, because it really was not easy.

On a more personal level, the most satisfying thing for me was to take former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew around, because he and (the late) Mrs Lee were some of the most important and biggest supporters of this garden.

People underestimate the role of Mrs Lee where the greening of Singapore is concerned.

Did Mrs Lee get the chance to see the Gardens?

That was my biggest sadness, that Mrs Lee passed away before we opened. Mr Lee came a couple of times, most recently just last month. He wanted to come again and he was still asking very cogent questions.

What's next for the Gardens?

We as parks people want to be forward-looking. We are starting to look into the parks and gardens that an ageing generation will need. One of the fastest-growing demographics is the grandparent taking the grandchild out. So our parks will have to cater to the snow on top and the green grass below.

* Gardens by the Bay founding CEO Kiat W. Tan: ‘I thought Singapore was very cramped’
The man who helped make Singapore a 'city in a garden' gave up US job offers to return home
By Jose Hong, The Straits Times, 19 Feb 2018

Become the head of horticulture at Walt Disney World in the United States, or fly halfway across the globe to work at a garden in a small, "cramped" city-state?

The choice was not easy for Dr Kiat W. Tan in 1983, but 35 years after his return to Singapore, Dr Tan has no regrets.

His time in the "cramped" city state helped it blossom into the "city in a garden" that it is known as today by laying the groundwork for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site, and for helping Gardens by the Bay attract more than 40 million visitors since its opening in 2012.

Wearing a loose polo T-shirt and baggy trousers, the 75-year-old cheerfully drives a buggy around Gardens by the Bay, pointing out the less well-known parts of the park during his interview with The Straits Times.

Dr Tan, who retired last Thursday as chief executive of Gardens by the Bay, said that he has been very lucky in life since starting a journey that began when he encountered his first orchid at 11 years old.

"My father gave my mother a spray of orchids that I thought was just beautiful. And it lasted for more than a couple of weeks. What flowers would do that?" he said, smiling as he remembered the type of orchid. "Dendrobium pompadour... A French-bred Dendrobium."

The Dendrobium pompadour emanates a bright purple, its five petals forming a bloom almost as large as a child's palm, up to 20 of which spring from a single spray. Pointing to one of the many flowers adorning his office, Dr Tan said: "It was the beauty of orchids that first attracted me." His mother, a housewife, soon began growing her own orchids after that first encounter, and the adolescent Dr Tan found himself fascinated by the huge variety of shapes, sizes and colours.

The second of eight children, Dr Tan spent his youth surrounded by greenery. His mother rented a small plot of land across from their terrace house in Kim Seng Road where she would grow plants, and in the 1950s his parents would regularly visit Mandai Orchid Gardens.

"Of my mum's eight kids, I was the only one to tag along," laughed Dr Tan.

When he was 17, he became Singapore's delegate for the 1960 World Youth Forum, a post-World War II programme established by The New York Herald Tribune. It ran from 1947 to 1972, and let youth from the world over stay for three months in the US to introduce them to its culture and promote global peace.

Dr Tan recalled that many American university representatives visited New York City to interview the delegates, and he received offers from Harvard, Princeton and Williams College.

"I saw a prospectus for Williams College, a liberal arts college, and thought to myself, 'New England is so beautiful'," laughed Dr Tan. "I knew nothing of the reputations of the other universities."

He began a pre-medical degree at Williams College because he felt pressure from his parents to become a doctor.

But when his elder sister finished her medical degree, Dr Tan - who by then called himself "Kiat W. Tan" instead of "Tan Wee Kiat" so Americans would know what his surname was - said he felt a huge weight lifting off his shoulders.

Finally he could do what he really wanted: botany. "My parents told me that they trusted me and my father said that there was a plane ticket ready for me if I ever wanted to go home," he said.

It probably helped that he received full scholarships from all the universities he studied at, from his bachelor's degree at Williams College, to his master's degree at Michigan State University, to his PhD at the University of Miami.

After more than two decades in the US, he decided that it was time to return home so he could take care of his mother and his father, who was a rubber broker.

So he gave up offers to head Walt Disney World's horticultural department and to become the director of the Denver Botanic Gardens, and flew back to what he initially felt was a "very cramped" country.

He became the assistant commissioner of parks and recreation at the Botanic Gardens in 1983.

"I thought I would stay in Singapore for about five years, and then return to the States," said Dr Tan.

Dr Tan's achievements since then have been well documented.

He led an 85-page, $51 million Master Plan for the Botanic Gardens, executed from 1989 to 2006, an attraction that became Singapore's first Unesco World Heritage Site. He was the chief executive of the National Parks Board from 1996 to 2006, giving himself and Singaporeans "breathing space" by overseeing the addition of parks and nature reserves such as Sungei Buloh and Labrador. Five years later, he took the helm as Gardens by the Bay's founding chief executive and helped to choose around 1.2 million of the garden's 1.5 million plants.

At times, he would sleep in the office three times a week because of the amount of work he faced but more recently this has been down to once a month.

When asked on his thoughts of his legacy and the future, Dr Tan said he hoped to have done something for the environment.

"Gardens by the Bay can offer people in Singapore a place where, at any time they come, they can see flowers. What do people like about plants? Flowers or the fruit... And once they're attracted, hopefully a few will look more deeply into what makes a plant interesting and learn more about them. Ultimately, the goal is for them to conserve and protect the environment."

Dr Tan never married, joking that he "prefers plants to people - plants don't talk back".

He has no plans to stop now that he is retired. Dr Tan said that he will probably move back to Florida, to read the 2,000 books on plants, phytogeography and science fiction in his newly completed library.

"Reading is something I miss, as is going to the cinema," he said, adding that he also wants to learn how to paint or play music.

"I want to be very good at what I do. So that means focusing my attention and time on either one."

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