A guide to Singapore's guides

Meet five passionate guides at museums, heritage institutions and nature trails here

Dazed and confused by sprawling collections of artefacts? Unsure why a national monument matters? Lost while wandering in the wild?

Nothing enlivens a museum visit or walking tour like the stories of a good guide. You can often enjoy this experience at little or no cost, thanks to guides who volunteer out of passion for heritage, culture or nature.

As of March, the National Heritage Board has close to 3,000 heritage volunteers, about 40 per cent of whom guide in museums and heritage institutions, and at various national monuments during walking tours.

Non-profit docent group Friends of the Museums (FOM), which trains weekday guides for museums such as the National Museum of Singapore, has about 1,500 members, of which a third guide actively.

There are also numerous burgeoning guide groups for community heritage trails, art outreach, nature walks and more.

Who are these dedicated people? The Straits Times provides a guide to the guides.

• FOM is holding a recruitment drive at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre on Aug 31. To arrange for guided tours, contact individual museums, galleries or monuments, or check out tour schedules by FOM at www.fom.sg and Preservation of Sites and Monuments at monumental-walking-tours.peatix.com

Bug lover finds calling as nature guide

Mr Ivan Kwan, who started guiding in his early 20s, set up his ownnature guiding company in December last year and covers places such as Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (above). PHOTOS: FELINE LIM, PATRICE LAMOUREUX

Ivan Kwan, 35, full-time nature guide

Guide at: Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Pulau Ubin, Chek Jawa Wetlands, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Central Catchment Nature Reserve, Pasir Ris Park and anywhere else on request (go to www.natureadventures.sg or e-mail hello@natureadventures.sg)

"I was the weird kid who always played with all sorts of bugs and insects," says Mr Kwan as he transfers a small, furry spider from a railing along Sungei Buloh's Mangrove Boardwalk into his hands.

"This is a heavy jumper, one of the largest jumping spiders in Singapore," he adds, as he takes the photographer and me on a tour around the wetland reserve.

He grew up in Tampines and loved observing the frogs and tadpoles found in the grassy field next to his block, as well as the insects that flew into his house.

He has grown up to be a passionate nature guide, giving tours to places such as the wetland reserve and Chek Jawa for 10 years with different organisations.

In December last year, the bachelor set up his nature guiding company, Nature Adventures SG.

He started guiding in his early 20s. During his last year studying geography at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he started volunteering as a nature guide for NUS Toddycats - a volunteer group with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

After he graduated, he worked as a research assistant at NUS, then as a conservation projects manager at National Parks Board.

He also volunteered with a group called the Naked Hermit Crabs and took visitors to the boardwalk at Chek Jawa.

His favourite place to guide at is Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve because of the crocodiles there. During the interview, he demonstrates his skills, recognising faraway birds such as a white-bellied sea eagle from its call.

Setting up his nature guiding company, he says, is a way of "doing what I'm passionate about as work".

Bringing objects to life with her stories

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Shia Ai Lee, 64, retired secretary

Guide at: National Museum of Singapore, National Gallery Singapore, Peranakan Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, Indian Heritage Centre, Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, STPI, National University of Singapore (NUS) Baba House, Gillman Barracks, Former Ford Factory

This mother of two is trained to guide at 10 museums, galleries and heritage landmarks in Singapore and regularly leads tours at eight of them. The latest addition to this list is the Indian Heritage Centre, where she is about to graduate from her course.

Asked why she is so passionate about museum guiding, Madam Shia says: "I don't know how much longer my memory will stay with me, so why not do it all while I still can?"

An interest in Peranakan culture led her to start guiding at the NUS Baba House in 2011. By 2013, she began training to guide at multiple museums in earnest.

She estimates she has spent about $1,600 on training fees. The guiding courses for each museum can cost up to $400, although as a senior citizen, she pays half-price.

She guides twice a week, usually without a script. For tours based on artefacts, she can rattle off an object's history simply by laying eyes on it.

"She's not just talking about an object," says French marketing executive Stephanie Khaou, 43, a docent who has trained with Madam Shia and enjoys going on her tours. "She's telling a story."

The hardest museums to guide, says Madam Shia, are ones like STPI, where the art exhibitions typically change every six weeks and guides have to learn a new script from scratch. Usually, the docents have tea sessions with the artists to better understand their work.

There are quiet days too. Sometimes, she goes to a museum beautifully turned out, such as in a sarong kebaya, ready to take walk-in visitors for a tour - but nobody shows up.

Disappointing as this can be, she usually waits around for someone to come in.

Once, when she had waited for an hour alone at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, a Filipino couple wandered in and she was able to give them a half-hour tour.

"It made such a difference to their trip," she says. "If you join a guided tour, there's so much more you can learn."

Heritage not just for adults

Mr Arthur Tan's (shown here at Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall) favourite place to guide at is The Arts House, which he says is a hit with students.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Arthur Tan, 21, enrolling in university in October

Guide at: The Arts House, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, Sultan Mosque, Masjid Hajjah Fatimah and Malay Heritage Centre

He is a qualified guide, but museum staff still sometimes mistake Mr Tan as one of the teenagers from secondary-school groups.

At 21, he is one of the youngest volunteer guides from National Heritage Board's Preservation of Sites and Monuments division, leading tours to historic sites such as the 172-year-old Masjid Hajjah Fatimah in Beach Road.

He is relatively new at this, having started in April. Before that, he spent two months after national service training as a guide.

He will continue to lead tours until October, when he enrols in the University of Cambridge to read history and politics.

Mr Tan feels that young people find it hard to relate to heritage sites because they feel these places and stories belong to previous generations. "It's good to let schoolchildren see that there are young people involved with heritage as well and break the assumption that such tours are done only by middle-aged adults or retirees."

His favourite place to guide at is The Arts House - an almost 200-year-old building that used to be Singapore's first Parliament House. The tours are a hit with students. They get the most excited at the former parliamentary chamber, where important politicians such as late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew gathered.

Mr Tan also likes telling the story of how Mr David Marshall, Singapore's first chief minister, threatened to set up a table and chair under the old apple tree in Empress Place, where he used to give his campaign speeches in 1955, unless the Assembly House gave him an office space in the building. He was then offered a makeshift "cubbyhole" office under a staircase.

"It reminds them of Harry Potter," Mr Tan says with a laugh, referring to the boy wizard of the bestselling book series who lived in a cupboard under the stairs.

Reaffirming knowledge of their heritage

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Yasmin Abdol Hamid, 43, sports television presenter, and Safia Abdol Hamid, 41, home baker

Guides at: Malay Heritage Centre. Ms Yasmin also guides at the National Museum of Singapore

At a 2015 exhibition of late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's personal artefacts at the National Museum of Singapore, Ms Yasmin followed an excellent guided tour led by a South Korean docent.

The Fox Sports Asia presenter was impressed by the guide and "a bit embarrassed, even vulnerable, that there was so much I did not know about my country".

So she signed up to be a docent at the museum. She enjoyed it so much, she roped in her younger sister Safia to guide as well, at the Malay Heritage Centre, a former sultan's residence in Kampong Glam.

Ms Safia took some convincing. "Yasmin is used to being in front of people," says the mother of two, who will be returning to nursing work later this year. "But I thought, there's no way I can do that."

Ms Yasmin, who is married with no children, persuaded her to look at it as a new challenge in life.

Ms Safia bit the bullet and, for her first tour, was so nervous she had six family members come along for moral support. "My heart was pumping," she recalls. "But as I kept going, I realised that, hey, I do have everything I need to say in my head."

Guiding at least once a month at the centre, the sisters say the kerongsang (three-tier brooch) exhibit has special meaning for them. Their grandmother had a similar brooch and seeing it reminds Ms Yasmin of "hugging her and being poked in the face".

They also discovered that they share their Minangkabau, or West Sumatran, ethnicity with important figures such as Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, war hero Adnan Saidi and composer Zubir Said.

Ms Yasmin says: "It has reaffirmed our knowledge of our heritage."

Gratifying that people hang on to every word

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Nicholas Soh, 66, former airline pilot

Guide at: National Museum of Singapore, Malay Heritage Centre, Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and Former Ford Factory

Most people visit a historical landmark once or twice. Mr Nicholas Soh visited Former Ford Factory 10 times - and that was before it even reopened to the public in February.

The Upper Bukit Timah site - where the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese during World War II and which reopened after a year-long revamp - is now part of his guiding repertoire.

"I have to make sure I walk through it over and over again, so I know all the details I need to construct a coherent narrative," says Mr Soh, who is married with a daughter and two grandchildren.

A history buff, he became a volunteer with Friends of the Museums five years ago, after he had to give up his career as a pilot because of an eye condition.

"In my last job, nobody wanted to hear me talk, besides announcing the time of arrival and the temperature at the destination," he says. "But after becoming a docent, I find it gratifying that people hang on to every word."

On a tour of Former Ford Factory last Saturday, a group of 15 visitors snowballed into 30, drawn in by his historical tidbits and family anecdotes, such as how his father survived the Sook Ching purge by the Japanese because he was an uneducated noodle seller.

"It was outstanding," says refinery technician Justin Tin, 29. "It was very detailed on the history and legacy of this place."

Mr Soh hopes more Singaporeans can join the ranks of the docent community, many of whom are expatriates. "They do an excellent job, but we as locals need to take ownership when it comes to telling our history."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2017, with the headline A guide to Singapore's guides. Subscribe