The Kew of the east

Heading eastwards, I have just come face to face with an orchid called Margaret Thatcher. I rather wish I had not. To be exact it is a Dendrobium and was named in 1985. You may or may not feel reassured to learn that it has a dark pink lip, horn-like petals and a clear beetroot colouring. “To be honest,” Nigel Taylor, director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens since autumn 2011, told me, “She liked something more pink”. In political life, she did not. Botanically, Taylor knows the truth, because he was the curator of Kew Gardens when Thatcher came to visit in the 1980s, before she attacked the garden’s public future by withdrawing its grant and obliging it to charge a significant sum to any family wanting to enter without a season ticket.

Dendrobium ‘Margaret Thatcher’

The Singapore garden is certainly one to visit, not just because it has a Maggie memento. Unlike her Kew, it is still free to visitors. It attracts an amazing 4.2m visits a year from the urban, high-rise population of Singapore. It is the world’s most visited garden. It has a rolling landscape-plan, the work of a Scotsman from Dumfriesshire, Lawrence Niven, in the 1860s, a brilliant man of whom I can discover almost nothing. Its green landscape is punctuated with heritage houses in black and white materials that commemorate great British heroes of east Asian botany. It is the Kew of the east, a garden for all 12 months of the year, which nobody visiting Singapore should miss. It is open daily and it does not matter when you visit. The frangipani carries wonderfully scented flowers all year, but the garden’s dominant tones are green. I counted at least 50 shades of green, as I have described them late last summer while on the recoil from that frightful pornographic novel on the theme of Grey.

The exceptions are the vividly flowering orchids. Singapore is a centre of orchid expertise. Where else in the world can you see orchids bedded outdoors like antirrhinums and deployed to cover great flowering arches in a display garden as if they were wisteria? In Britain I wish I could use Oncidium goldiana Golden Showers as a bedding plant like lobelia. There is even a Dendrobium Princess Diana, which has masses of white flowers and is commended as “a reliable hybrid”. The garden likes to stage celebrity namings of orchids, which range from Jane Goodall upwards. I have always wanted to be a lady’s slipper but I am not sure what more I need to do to be invited for a naming occasion.

Over a green lunch in the garden, the chief executive of Singapore’s National Parks, Hong Yuen Poon, helped me to understand the city’s relationship with its green world of trees and plants. The inhabitants live in high-rise flats and have not much hope of a garden of their own. There are a few neighbourhood community gardens, as in New York, but for most people the natural world is present only in the masses of street trees and urban greenery and the city’s all-important public gardens. I asked Nigel Taylor to enlighten me. We last met while we sat on a park bench at Kew and watched some female gardeners repositioning rocks in the long-dormant rock garden behind us. “What is the main difference between Kew and Singapore?” I asked him, the man best-placed to answer after 34 years in Kew’s service. “Here, it is very much a top-down society.” When Taylor proposes something, he finds that an obedient workforce will have done it within three days. At Kew there might have been a unionised agreement about who was to take the wheelbarrow out of the shed.


The top-down approach can cite that old Thatcher ally, the autocratic prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. In 1963 he declared a tree-planting campaign and personally planted trees to make the point. In 1980 he even planted by hand an African mahogany tree on the garden’s Main Gate Road. Everybody knew that he was serious about his vision of Singapore as the greenest city in south Asia. In Britain we still wonder if David Cameron has any green vision at all. With Lee Kuan Yew’s lead, Singapore has become remarkably well-planted, making places like Jakarta or Hong Kong look like a concrete misery. When Boris Johnson first ran as London’s mayor, he talked of cancelling the costs of Ken Livingstone’s absurd in-house newspaper and spending them on planting trees all over London’s streets. I promptly wrote to him, offering to replant London so that you would no longer know whether you were in a rich or modest district by the type of street-trees on offer. I should have written to Lee Kuan Yew. All I had was a formal acknowledgement that my letter had been put in a filing cabinet.

Singaporeans like to exercise in their Botanic Gardens before beginning a day in their offices. As the hordes of visitors start too early for an Oxford don with jet lag, I avoided the press-ups and began my visit at a more academic hour. Even in mid-morning, the garden has fascinating layers of history. Its founding year was 1859, but before then there were some superb specimen trees on the site. In 1842 a grave was dug for the burial, recently identified, of an important Chinese gentleman and his Malay wife – an early instance, it seems, of interracial marriage. The garden, of course, owes its modern shape and form to the years of British development. It is extraordinary to realise that so much of it has been planted on shallow stony soil, the Cotswolds of southeast Asia. The tree roots often have to run far and wide to find water. The subsoil is a dreadful reddish heavy sludge. All over the garden I noticed the use of piled-up fallen leaves as a top dressing round the trees and shrubs. They are essential to save moisture and promote fertility. In Singapore’s frost-free climate there are then some striking possibilities. One variety of periwinkle will grow into a tree 40m high. The lovely flowering gingers, or hedychiums, which British connoisseurs try to please in pots, are used freely as bedding plants. The old specimen trees, all British planted, are now spectacular in height and girth. One hundred and eighty of them have lightning conductors fixed to their trunks to protect them in electric storms.

In 2014, Singapore will hold a garden festival – the Chelsea, they say, of the east. In 2015 it will celebrate its 50th independent birthday. The Botanic garden will be at the forefront and meanwhile it aims to be ranked as a World Heritage Site, surely a formality in the light of its scope and history. Like me, its directors now follow a contracting-out policy for all the routine work of garden maintenance. Unlike Kew, they can count on about £7m of support from the Garden City Fund. Concerts in a privately donated concert hall are a major weekend draw for paying visitors, but otherwise the philosophy is to keep the garden free and allow it to profit from its high public profile. Since 1990, Singapore’s National Parks Board has been in existence and is now responsible for more than 1,000 hectares of land. Back in Oxford, I am credited with running our college garden as a benign dictator. In Singapore, I now have living proof that the approach is a replicable skill. Next month I will report on the city’s spectacular new initiative, the newly planted Gardens by the Bay. In them, a former head of the Botanic Gardens has realised a dream beyond my wildest imagination.

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