On the trail of Mr Lee's trees

On the trail of Mr Lee's trees

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Media Type
My Paper (Online)

Although Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is no longer around, many of the trees he planted are still standing.

According to the National Parks Board (NParks), Mr Lee - who died aged 91 on March 23 - had planted more than 60 trees since 1963. Of these, 39 have survived.

My Paper spent about a month tracking down 33 of these trees. The exact locations of the remaining six could not be verified.

The trees are mostly in good condition and many of the older ones tower overhead with verdant crowns. Flower tributes could be found lying next to five trees, including a single rose nestled by the foot of a young bintangor bunut in Holland Drive.

National flags were placed near two other trees in Mei Chin Road and Telok Blangah Crescent.

The rest of the trees planted by Mr Lee no longer exist, largely due to redevelopment.

These include the first tree he planted, a mempat tree at the now-defunct Farrer Circus on June 16, 1963; a broad-leafed mahogany planted at the old National Stadium on Nov 5, 1976; and a golden penda tree planted at Block 6, Everton Park on Nov 8, 1994.

Known for his pragmatic ways, Mr Lee was quoted in 1985 as saying: "Trees die off. They have to be replaced. It's ceaseless... I hope to do it every year for as long as I am in office."

He planted at least one tree per year, mostly in conjunction with the annual Tree Planting Day that began in 1971.

Oh Cheow Sheng, streetscape director at NParks, told My Paper: "He recognised that the introduction of greenery would soften the harshness of urbanisation and improve the quality of life in the city."

Mr Oh said the founding prime minister kick-started the islandwide greening movement, which has spanned more than 50 years. There are some three million trees in the city today.

Most of the trees Mr Lee planted were in parks and Housing Board estates - mainly in the Tanjong Pagar area - in November or December, when monsoon rains meant that less watering was needed.

Mr Lee, who was also called Singapore's Chief Gardener, planted his last tree, a sea teak, at Block 123, Bukit Merah View on Nov 2 last year.

Nature Society president Shawn Lum said that all trees are precious, but the ones planted by Mr Lee have "extra meaning" as they were planted with a strategic plan in mind, to create a garden city in feasible steps.

His first priority was to put a cool canopy over Singapore with shade trees such as the angsana and rain tree, which he favoured. It was only after this that flowering and fruit trees were introduced for civic beautification.

Said Dr Lum, who is also a botany lecturer at the National Institute of Education: "It was not just a theoretical green city. (Mr Lee) had a lot of things to worry about but he took the time to know about his trees, even the species. You couldn't fool him."

Given the significance of the trees Mr Lee planted, some observers think his trees are worth preserving for future generations to learn from his legacy.

Rick Thomas, president of the Singapore Arboriculture Society, said planting and preserving trees are important as trees not only beautify the surroundings, but also provide socio-economic and environmental benefits.

He added that Mr Lee was a visionary leader who understood the benefits of trees, and led by example by planting trees himself.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Indranee Rajah, who started working with Mr Lee in the constituency 14 years ago, said his existing trees should be left to grow if no redevelopment is slated. Otherwise, the trees could be transplanted or their seedlings planted near the redeveloped site.

Ms Indranee, who is also Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, stressed that "what is important is that he kept on planting new ones, and we too should keep up that tradition, to keep adding to our treasury of trees".

Even so, being the pragmatist that Mr Lee was, he "would have understood if there were unavoidable needs for (his) trees to be removed", said Tan Puay Yok from the Department of Architecture at the National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment.

Still, Mr Thomas said the fact that Mr Lee had planted so many trees over the years shows how committed he was to the greening of Singapore.

"A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in," he said.

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Source: My Paper (Online), sph