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Gardens by the Bay founding CEO Kiat W. Tan: ‘I thought Singapore was very cramped’

Dr Kiat W. Tan, who retired last Thursday as founding chief executive of Gardens by the Bay, helped to lay the groundwork for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Dr Kiat W. Tan, who retired last Thursday as founding chief executive of Gardens by the Bay, helped to lay the groundwork for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

The man who helped make S'pore a 'city in a garden' gave up US job offers to return home

Become the head of horticulture at Walt Disney World in the United States, or fly halfway across the globe to work at a garden in a small, "cramped" city-state?

The choice was not easy for Dr Kiat W. Tan in 1983, but 35 years after his return to Singapore, Dr Tan has no regrets.

His time in the "cramped" city state helped it blossom into the "city in a garden" that it is known as today by laying the groundwork for the Singapore Botanic Gardens to be named a Unesco World Heritage Site, and for helping Gardens by the Bay attract more than 40 million visitors since its opening in 2012.

Wearing a loose polo T-shirt and baggy trousers, the 75-year-old cheerfully drives a buggy around Gardens by the Bay, pointing out the less well-known parts of the park during his interview with The Straits Times.

Dr Tan, who retired last Thursday as chief executive of Gardens by the Bay, said that he has been very lucky in life since starting a journey that began when he encountered his first orchid at 11 years old.

"My father gave my mother a spray of orchids that I thought was just beautiful. And it lasted for more than a couple of weeks. What flowers would do that?" he said, smiling as he remembered the type of orchid. "Dendrobium pompadour... A French-bred Dendrobium."

The Dendrobium pompadour emanates a bright purple, its five petals forming a bloom almost as large as a child's palm, up to 20 of which spring from a single spray. Pointing to one of the many flowers adorning his office, Dr Tan said: "It was the beauty of orchids that first attracted me." His mother, a housewife, soon began growing her own orchids after that first encounter, and the adolescent Dr Tan found himself fascinated by the huge variety of shapes, sizes and colours.

The second of eight children, Dr Tan spent his youth surrounded by greenery. His mother rented a small plot of land across from their terrace house in Kim Seng Road where she would grow plants, and in the 1950s his parents would regularly visit Mandai Orchid Gardens.

"Of my mum's eight kids, I was the only one to tag along," laughed Dr Tan.

When he was 17, he became Singapore's delegate for the 1960 World Youth Forum, a post-World War II programme established by The New York Herald Tribune. It ran from 1947 to 1972, and let youth from the world over stay for three months in the US to introduce them to its culture and promote global peace.

Dr Tan recalled that many American university representatives visited New York City to interview the delegates, and he received offers from Harvard, Princeton and Williams College.

"I saw a prospectus for Williams College, a liberal arts college, and thought to myself, 'New England is so beautiful'," laughed Dr Tan. "I knew nothing of the reputations of the other universities."

He began a pre-medical degree at Williams College because he felt pressure from his parents to become a doctor.

But when his elder sister finished her medical degree, Dr Tan - who by then called himself "Kiat W. Tan" instead of "Tan Wee Kiat" so Americans would know what his surname was - said he felt a huge weight lifting off his shoulders.

Finally he could do what he really wanted: botany. "My parents told me that they trusted me and my father said that there was a plane ticket ready for me if I ever wanted to go home," he said.

It probably helped that he received full scholarships from all the universities he studied at, from his bachelor's degree at Williams College, to his master's degree at Michigan State University, to his PhD at the University of Miami.

After more than two decades in the US, he decided that it was time to return home so he could take care of his mother and his father, who was a rubber broker.

So he gave up offers to head Walt Disney World's horticultural department and to become the director of the Denver Botanic Gardens, and flew back to what he initially felt was a "very cramped" country.

He became the assistant commissioner of parks and recreation at the Botanic Gardens in 1983.

"I thought I would stay in Singapore for about five years, and then return to the States," said Dr Tan.

Dr Tan's achievements since then have been well documented.

He led an 85-page, $51 million Master Plan for the Botanic Gardens, executed from 1989 to 2006, an attraction that became Singapore's first Unesco World Heritage Site. He was the chief executive of the National Parks Board from 1996 to 2006, giving himself and Singaporeans "breathing space" by overseeing the addition of parks and nature reserves such as Sungei Buloh and Labrador. Five years later, he took the helm as Gardens by the Bay's founding chief executive and helped to choose around 1.2 million of the garden's 1.5 million plants.

At times, he would sleep in the office three times a week because of the amount of work he faced but more recently this has been down to once a month.

When asked on his thoughts of his legacy and the future, Dr Tan said he hoped to have done something for the environment.

"Gardens by the Bay can offer people in Singapore a place where, at any time they come, they can see flowers. What do people like about plants? Flowers or the fruit... And once they're attracted, hopefully a few will look more deeply into what makes a plant interesting and learn more about them. Ultimately, the goal is for them to conserve and protect the environment."

Dr Tan never married, joking that he "prefers plants to people - plants don't talk back".

He has no plans to stop now that he is retired. Dr Tan said that he will probably move back to Florida, to read the 2,000 books on plants, phytogeography and science fiction in his newly completed library.

"Reading is something I miss, as is going to the cinema," he said, adding that he also wants to learn how to paint or play music.

"I want to be very good at what I do. So that means focusing my attention and time on either one."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline ''I thought Singapore was very cramped''. Print Edition | Subscribe