The role of plants in urban Singapore and Malaysia
By Upaneetha Abeygunawardana
Between the July and August 1966, I visited Singapore and Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Penang Island) for 24 days. My aim was to look at how and where plants have been used to improve the quality of life of people who are living in modern cities.
My first destination was the city of Kuala Lumpur. The city reflects many of the dreams, aspirations and achievements of the government to provide its people with better quality of life through the provision of green spaces. The creation of `Green Lungs’ in various parts of the city is designed to meet the government’s aspiration to make Kuala Lumpur a garden city. Well planned parks, gardens and other green spaces have been built to meet the recreational needs of the people.
The 1998 Commonwealth Games is going to be held in Kuala Lumpur and it was at the most suitable time when I arrived as the City had begun many new development projects to host these games.
The Parks and Recreation Department in Kuala Lumpur is responsible for creating and maintaining almost all the green facilities within the city. I met the Deputy Director of the Department, Mr. Sariffuddin Ibrahim, who gave me an introduction to many developments and projects undertaken by this department. Furthermore, he kindly provided me with a vehicle and driver with which to visit many parks, gardens and other recreational facilities. Mr. Ibrahim Ahamad, one of the Parks and Gardens managers for the City Hall, explained the background of these places. I was lucky to have a person like him for the whole time that I was in Kuala Lumpur.
The Kuala Lumpur Orchid Garden was one of my favourite places. It was set up primarily as a showcase for the nation’s rich variety of orchids, as well as to provide a centre for the growing, conservation, research and study of this wonderful, flowering family of plants. Next to the Orchid Garden, the Hibiscus Garden provided another beautiful site to the visitor. Among many cultivars and variety of Hibiscus, the national flower of Malaysia, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis can be commonly seen at this garden. The Lake Garden Kuala Lumpur is also managed by the Parks and Recreation Department and it has a very attractive Arboretum with many native and non-native trees and shrubs.
I also wanted to see green spaces provided by other organisations and bodies. I visited Malaysia Agriculture Park, which is the world’s first agro-forestry park and was initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture. Among many man-made and natural landscape areas within this site, the `Four Seasons Garden’ particularly impressed me. In this garden all four climatic seasons are created artificially, using modern high technology. Visitors get a chance to experience winter in the tropics, once they enter this man-made area, where snow, ice and frost can be touched and felt without having to even leave the warm climate of Malaysia.
From there I travelled to the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in Kepong, to look at one particular project that it has recently been involved in. The Prime Minister of Malaysia has decided that they should use more native plants in urban projects than they ever did before. As a result the surrounding of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport is re-landscaped using more native plants.
My last visit in Kuala Lumpur was to the University of Malaya Botanical Garden. It was established in 1974 out of a need to study and conserve some of the immense diversity of plant life found in the Malaysian tropical rainforest. Today the garden is used by many students as well as numerous members of the public.
From Kuala Lumpur I went to Penang Island to visit the Penang Botanic Gardens. The 29 hectare garden is situated in a valley surrounded by the evergreen tropical forest of the Penang hills. Trees and shrubs are planted in the gardens with the aim of blending in with the natural landscape. Today the garden is a popular recreation spot. Mr. Lim Boon Tiong, the Curator of the garden was very helpful and gave me a detailed introduction to this magnificent botanic garden. He was also keen to establish new links with Kew.
After having spent 10 days in Malaysia, my next destination was Singapore. The Parks and Recreation Department there is responsible for all the greening programmes in Singapore City. Mr. Ng Cheow Kheng, Head of Design and Development for the Department, gave me an introduction to it and later took me to many developments in the City that they have been involved in.
During my time in Singapore I was attached to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. They specialise in orchid breeding and hybridisation programmes in the region and play a key role in Singapore’s Garden City programme through the continuous introduction of plants of horticultural and botanical value. I was given an introduction to the living collections by Ms Wong Wei Har, the Manager of the Botanic Gardens. Mrs. Jennifer Ng, the Principal of the School of Horticulture, was to give me insights into the School and its education programmes.
Mr. Ali Ibrahim, from the Botanic Gardens Herbarium, helped me in many ways. He accompanied me to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserves where we met Miss Sunia Teo, Nature Conservation Officer for the Singapore Parks Board (a former Kew student). Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is the only genuine patch of primary rainforest left on Singapore Island. It is linked by secondary forest `channels’ to the Central Catchment Area, which encompasses Singapore’s major reserves in the centre of the island. The forest at Bukit Timah is typical of lowland evergreen forest.
After my request to see mangroves in Singapore, Mr. Ali Ibrahim suggested that we visit the island of Palau Ubin. The island is situated to the east of Singapore and I spent a whole day there to see mangroves, including Rhizophora mucronata and Brugutera gymnorrhiza and many other species of the rich tropical flora.
My final visits were to Singapore Zoological Gardens and the Jurong Bird Park. These gardens provide a wonderful feeling of balance between plants and animals. Within them the beauty of plants has been used to bring out the splendour and wonder of animals. Altogether, the study tour was a very useful experience for me.