Green workers

A team of people work quietly to keep the show running at the Singapore Botanic Gardens

Madam Rasidah Zali and her husband Ali Jasman (both left) met at the Gardens, got married there and also started a family there. Dr Wilson Wong (right) spends weekends shopping for plants at nurseries, which he will try to propagate at home. Ms Chris
Madam Rasidah Zali and her husband Ali Jasman met at the Gardens, got married there and also started a family there.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
Madam Rasidah Zali and her husband Ali Jasman (both left) met at the Gardens, got married there and also started a family there. Dr Wilson Wong (right) spends weekends shopping for plants at nurseries, which he will try to propagate at home. Ms Chris
Ms Christina Soh, the Botanic Gardens’ library manager, had no knowledge of botany when she joined, but has since picked up information on plants.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
Madam Rasidah Zali and her husband Ali Jasman (both left) met at the Gardens, got married there and also started a family there. Dr Wilson Wong (right) spends weekends shopping for plants at nurseries, which he will try to propagate at home. Ms Chris
Dr Wilson Wong spends weekends shopping for plants at nurseries, which he will try to propagate at home.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN
Madam Rasidah Zali and her husband Ali Jasman (both left) met at the Gardens, got married there and also started a family there. Dr Wilson Wong (right) spends weekends shopping for plants at nurseries, which he will try to propagate at home. Ms Chris
Madam Rasidah Zali’s son (right) celebrating his two-year-old birthday outside the family’s living quarters with Madam Rasidah’s younger brother, whose birthday falls on the same day.PHOTO: COURTESY OF RASIDAH ZALI

The Singapore Botanic Gardens was named a Unesco World Heritage Site earlier this month, becoming just one of three gardens in the world, and the only one in Asia, to earn the coveted accolade.

Maintaining the popular attraction - which spans 74ha (about the size of 100 football fields) and sees more than four million visitors annually - requires nothing less than a gargantuan effort.

But thanks to about 100 employees - most work quietly behind the scenes - the 156-year-old Gardens is kept going all year round.

Open from 5am to midnight daily, the Gardens houses more than 10,000 species of plants.

Any questions on plants? She’s your go-to

Singaporeans have always known the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be a botanical and horticultural attraction. But what they may not know is that a zoo used to be housed there, from 1875 till the early 1900s.

The British colonial government had wanted an additional attraction at the Gardens, on top of its economics garden which grew rubber trees.

Gifts of animals poured in. The King of Siam gave a leopard while the Sultan of Terengganu donated a tiger. There was also a monkey house.

Despite its popularity, the zoo's uncontrolled growth became a problem and in 1903, an order was given to abolish it.

This little-known fact about the Botanic Gardens is just one of the many that Ms Christina Soh, 60, the manager at the Gardens' library, has unearthed from the archives over the years.

A former library technician with the National Library Board, she was seconded to the Gardens' library in 1983. She had no prior knowledge of botany and was "initially apprehensive", she says.

The library was then housed in a three-storey building and open only to staff and researchers. Together with the herbarium, it was set up by the British in 1875.

When Ms Soh joined, the library had already amassed a collection of 20,000 books on world flora, horticulture and agriculture, including 3,000 rare botany books, the oldest of which dated as far back as 1531.

There were also 2,000 botanical artworks dating as far back as the 1890s.

While the rare books and botanical works were kept in an air-conditioned room, the rest of the library was not air-conditioned then.

She recalls: "Occasionally, we coated the books with mercury chloride to protect them from insects."

The practice was dropped when air-conditioning was introduced in the early 1990s.

Over the years, as she helped researchers source for information on plants, her botanical knowledge also grew. She worked with a library assistant.

Visitors to the herbarium, which had a vast collection of about 750,000 dried plant specimens and 15,000 plant samples preserved in alcohol, often swung by the library too for information on the plants.

Examples of famous researchers who have visited the library included American orchid expert Joseph Arditti and the late British tropical botanist T.C. Whitmore.

In 2006, the three-storey building was demolished and replaced by the new botany centre. The library occupies the ground floor and two more library executives were hired.

It now has about 30,000 books. There is also a reference section with 2,000 books set up for the public. The library also handles the distribution of all NParks publications.

Over the years, Ms Soh has also dug out other nuggets of information about the Gardens .

For instance, just last year, she found a diagram of the bandstand, which was different from what was eventually built by the then Public Works Department.

She says: "It was bigger and grander, suggesting that the construction of this landmark might not be as straightforward as people think."

Despite having spent more than 30 years at the Gardens library, Ms Soh, who is single, says her work is "unfinished".

"For instance, about 3,000 sheets of archival records have been sent for digitisation and restoration but there are another 4,000 sheets to work on."

Doctor of plants

Like many of the horticulturists working at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Dr Wilson Wong has an eagle eye for detail.

The 36-year-old knows if a leaf, flower or fruit has been pilfered from a plant. He can even tell when a dustbin or signage has been moved from its original place.

He says: "The Botanic Gardens is a place of horticultural excellence, so it's important that the people who work here have an eye for detail."

Formerly the section head of outreach at HortPark, a one-stop gardening resource under the National Parks Board, he asked to transfer to the Botanic Gardens two years ago because he wanted to focus on horticulture, where "his heart is".

As one of the four assistant directors of the horticulture, operations and development branch, he is in charge of the Central and Bukit Timah cores of the garden.

The branch has about 40 employees including lawn managers, horticulture officers and landscape technicians. Aside from ensuring the Gardens is clean and safe for visitors, the branch also makes sure the plants are in tip-top shape.

Dr Wong, who has loved plants since he was a child and holds a doctorate in herbal drug discovery, spends most of his mornings in the garden wth his staff.

He says: "We have to constantly check on the plants. The garden is a dynamic living system. You don't expect something you plant to stay the same. A tree can grow too big and shade out the plants below so they don't grow well.

"We have to decide then if we should continually prune the tree above to let the light come through or relocate the plants below."

He is constantly on the lookout for new plant species worthy of being added to the Gardens' collection, which now runs into several thousand species.

He often spends his weekends shopping - not at the mall, but plant nurseries. He says: "Shopping for plants is not like shopping for bags. You do not know when a new plant species will be released. You need to go to the nurseries to find out."

He buys plants home and tries to propagate them in his five-room HDB flat, where he lives alone. If he is successful, he introduces the plants to the garden.

He also looks at plant websites and talks to his hobbyist friends to find out if they have new plant species to introduce.

The horticulture branch works closely with the research and conservation branch. He says: "The researchers look for new plants of botanical value, or which are worth conserving and pass them to us to grow in the nursery. Once they reach sufficient numbers, we put them out for the public to view."

His team also plans the layout of plants. He says: "We combine plants based on their colour, form, shape and leaf texture. Maintaining a contrast is essential in creating a nice-looking garden."

This is done keeping in mind the needs of visitors and workers.

He says: "Visitors like to take photographs next to plants. If you plant something such that there's no space for people to stand and take photos, they may end up stepping on your plants."

Maintenance paths also need to be built for workers to get to the plants.

One of the challenges, he says, is to educate the public to have proper etiquette at the Gardens. Pilferage and vandalism of plants are not uncommon and it "really pains" him.

The eco-garden, for instance, is an especially popular recreational space during weekends. He says: "But people pluck leaves and snap new saplings into two. They feed ducks and swans at the lake with human or junk food, despite signs warning them not to.

"They also litter the place. I wish people would love the garden more."

Dr Wong, who helms the gardening Q and A column in Life, adds: "The Singapore Botanic Gardens is a people's garden. Who will take care of the garden, if it's not the locals?"

Family story started at Gardens

The Singapore Botanic Gardens holds a special place in Madam Rasidah Zali's heart.

Not just because the 57-year-old assistant officer in horticulture has been working there since she was 18.

She and her eight siblings also grew up in the Gardens - home was the living quarters for staff located where the Evolution Garden is now.

Her late father and grandfather were gardeners there.

The family lived in a unit about the size of an HDB room. There were about 50 units, in rows of five to 10 units each.

Recalls Madam Rasidah: "Families there were mostly Malay, but there were also a few Chinese and Indian families."

There was a mosque within the compounds of the quarters, which was not fenced up.

She says: "It was like any kampung. We grew our own food such as tapioca and bananas, and kept ducks and chickens. There were also a number of long-tailed macaques. We lived harmoniously together."

After dark, the families would not leave their quarters for fear of ghosts. The surrounding area was more "forest-like" then, she says.

After school at Tanglin Malay School, she spent most of her time with her neighbours at a badminton court near the workers' quarters.

"We did everything there - study, makan and play games."

The gotong royong, or community, spirit among the families was very strong. They celebrated one another's weddings, birthdays and festivals.

Every Friday, the Muslim workers under her father's supervision would drop by her unit to shower before going to the mosque. That was how she met her husband, Mr Ali Jasman.

They married in 1976 and had their wedding ceremony at the quarters. They moved into their own unit there and in 1977, a year after their first child was born, Madam Rasidah also became a gardener.

The garden, covering largely what is now known as the Tanglin core, was then divided into A to Z zones.

Says Mr Ali, now 63: "We usually started the day by sweeping the lawn. Then we weeded and pruned the plants and cleared the rubbish. There were more grass patches and fewer plants then. We did everything ourselves. There were no contract workers then."

The gardeners were daily wage workers, earning about $3 to $4 a day, which typically started at 7am and ended at 2.30pm.

In 1979, however, they had to vacate their quarters to make way for expansion plans.

She says: "I was very sad to go, my clique was gone."

Many workers living in the quarters resigned, but Madam Rasidah and her husband stayed on.

She says: "The work was stable. Besides, we had only Primary 6 education. Most of all, we sayang (love) the garden and its plants very much."

Today, both are assistant officers in horticulture. She takes care of plants in the nursery and the Ginger Garden, while her husband maintains areas which include the Healing Garden and the Evolution Garden.

They live in a three-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio with their third and youngest child, aged 30.

She says: "There are more plants and work to do now compared to the 1970s."

A typical work day now starts at 7am and ends at 4.30pm. But the couple have no plans to call it quits.

She says: "When I see my plants grow well, I feel very happy. Also, I like to talk to members of the public and share with them what I know about plants."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'Green workers Family story started at Gardens Doctor of plants Any questions on plants? She's your go-to'. Print Edition | Subscribe