A veteran gardener and a grassroots group are tussling over how Singapore's community gardens should be run. More specifically: Should a gardener dispense medical advice along with the herbs he doles out?
For 14 years, Jurong West resident Tan Thean Teng, 73, was the volunteer caretaker of a community garden near the HDB block where he lives.
But last Wednesday, he officially stopped his work there, he announced in a Facebook post that later went viral. He and the garden's operator, the residents' committee (RC), disagreed over residents ingesting herbs from the garden on Mr Tan's advice.
The RC had asked Mr Tan to stop dispensing medical advice while giving out herbs to residents. It was worried it would be held liable should any mishaps occur, as the RC had rented the garden plot from the town council.
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MP Yee Chia Hsing, who oversees the ward which the garden is in, told The Straits Times: "The RC was uncomfortable with him giving medical advice on the use of herbs, as he is only self-taught and not a licensed traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner."
The RC also took issue with the fact that most of Mr Tan's volunteers appeared to be non-residents, he said. This, it felt, ran counter to the purpose of having a community garden: to help residents bond over growing their own plants.
Mr Tan told The Straits Times in Mandarin yesterday: "I felt the RC was imposing a lot of conditions for something that was meant to be for the good of the community."
Estimated number of community gardens in Singapore.
He said he consults TCM experts and limits his advice to those who go to him looking for herbs.
The garden grew herbs such as Phyla nodiflora, also known as frog fruit, which some believe helps with dandruff, piles and burns. Another is Sabah snake grass, which some feel can aid those with cancer or kidney failure.
Those who went to him for help suffered from ailments ranging from fatigue to a cough to cancer, said Mr Tan. He also gives general tips such as on exercise and diet.
He accepts no payment except for the occasional red packet - the amount ranging from a few dollars to $50, which he ploughs back into buying more seedlings or meals for volunteers. Some residents would put donations into a locked box at the garden, which was given to the RC when full.
"If it helps people, that's all I need. I'm not in this for the money," he said.
While Mr Tan said he wants to put the incident behind him and focus on a new plot in Kranji which he is now leasing, the incident has thrown up questions about how community gardens are regulated.
There are close to 1,000 community gardens here, started by the National Parks Board (NParks) through the Community in Bloom movement. However, NParks provides only horticultural and technical advice. Ultimately, town councils or RCs are free to develop their own guidelines about how the gardens should be run, within reason.
There are no hard and fast rules, said Mr Amrin Amin, an MP for Sembawang GRC. He said managing community gardens is not a simple affair, as "some people may get too attached to them and think it's theirs".
Nee Soon GRC MP Louis Ng said he believes RCs can be flexible about running such gardens.
"If Mr Tan can get people from all walks of life and different areas, we should support it," he said.
But he agreed with Mr Yee that dishing out medical advice and herbs is "a grey area over which we should err on the side of caution".
The community garden at Block 938, Jurong West Street 91, for now, has no caretaker. But Mr Yee said he hopes it would soon flourish again.
"I have three other community gardens in my ward and it's a happy occasion whenever the plants bloom and residents gather to pick their share of the greens," he said.