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Time running out for historic botanical site

A visitor taking a break in the shade. He may be one of the last few people to visit the 60-year old Mandai Orchid Garden before it closes for good.

By Joshua Chiang

“This garden was started by Mr John Laycock in 1951,” Alice Mendoza explains. She pauses, and looks at the fifteen or so visitors in front of her. Her next sentence draws exclamations of ‘oohs’ and ‘wows’ from her audience. “Mr Laycock was also the employer of the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his late wife.”

Then Alice walks towards a bed of orchids taller than her by more than a head.

“This is the Vanda Chao Praya,” she says. “Orchids don’t normally give off any fragrance, but this one does. Especially in the morning.”

We are at the Mandai Orchid Garden, Singapore’s oldest orchid garden, and once a centre for a thriving orchid export industry. Alice, the resident ‘education and heritage’ planner is showing us around the 4-acre garden. It is a job she relishes. But with just two months to go before the 60-year-old land lease for the garden expires, this could be one of Alice’s last few guided tours.

The Mandai Orchid Garden sits on land that is part of a 35ha site that the Government has gazetted to be developed into a nature-themed attraction. There are plans to build a high-end resort, and it will be up to the next leasee to decide if the garden should remain or go. Alice fears that profit-driven developers will likely sacrifice yet another slice of Singapore’s heritage to what she calls “the economic imperative”.

Speaking to The Online Citizen later, Alice explains that part of the significance of the garden is that it is possibly the only garden in Southeast Asia where orchids are grown from the ground. “In most places, even the Botanic Gardens, most of the orchids are in pots, and those places are also very landscaped.”

And then, there is the garden’s rich history.

“When you come to this garden, you take a step back in time,” Alice says. “It has many historical narratives tied in with the different people who hybridize the different plants. All these narratives tend to get lost in the fabric of Singapore history.”

Few people know, for example, that the garden’s founder gave Lee Kuan Yew his first job, and an early taste of politics when he acted as an election agent for Mr Laycock and his pro-British Singapore Progressive Party (SPP).

When the People’s Action Party came to power, Mr Laycock withdrew from politics. When he died in 1960, the garden came under the care of his daughter, Mrs Amy Ede and her husband John. The couple took over at a time when the orchid industry in Singapore was at its peak.

“This was where the orchid industry started,” Alice explains. “They used to export millions of stalks of cut orchids every week from this garden.”

It was also a popular tourist destination. Back in its heyday, the garden attracted between one to two thousand visitors a day. Now it sees only 50 to 100 visitors each day, most of them tourists on their way to Malaysia. There’s the occasional visit by schools, where students are also taught how to hybridize orchids, but the garden remains largely off the radar of the Ministry of Education’s recommended places for field trips.

Singaporeans who come regularly are either orchid enthusiasts, or nature photographers. The garden’s many flowers attract a wide and colorful variety of sunbirds and butterflies. But if the orchids go, it is likely that the fauna they sustain will disappear as well.

“We have spoken to the Singapore Tourism Board [STB] about incorporating the garden as part of the concept for the nature resort. They were sympathetic but they told us it all depends on the developers,” Alice says.

Then, there is the problem posed by administrative red-tape. When the lease expires, the land will go back to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which will then lease it to the Singapore Tourism Board. Contractual obligations require the land to be returned in its original condition - as an empty plot. In other words, the garden might not even be around for future developers to preserve.

It’s a race against time. With the STB unwilling to do more than make sympathetic noises, many believe the fate of the garden is as good as sealed.

The place now operates on a skeletal staff – two gardeners do the job once meant for eight. Portions of the site are overgrown, and the Water Garden, once the jewel in the garden’s crown is now a pale shadow of its former beauty.

“I feel that it’s been neglected,” Alice sighs. “Singapore is supposed to be a garden so why can’t we have one more garden?”

TOC Note: TOC has written to the Singapore Land Authority and the Singapore Tourism Board for their comments. We have yet to hear from them.

Oh glory days! The garden back in the year 2000, when in was still well maintained. (Source - SIngapore:City of Gardens)
The show must go on. Alice conducts a tour for a group of school children.
"What am I going to with these?" Mark Kaufmann, artist-in-residence holding a piece of glass dating back to the '60s. He has painstakingly built up a collection of vintage scraps and spare parts at the back of the garden for his installation art pieces, some of which are on display in the garden. If he cannot find a place to store them, he will have no choice but to dispose them.

Walking witness to history. Ah Tee has been working for the garden for 40 years, since he was 15.
Nature in harmony. An olive-backed sunbird sharing space with a green crested lizard. The closure of the garden directly threatens the ecosystem that has sprung up in the place.
Sunset over the hill. As other countries takes Singapore’s place as the leading orchid producer, another part of our diverse heritage may once again be relegated to just another footnote in history textbooks.

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