SINGAPORE - At a previous Istana open house, Mr Shariffuddin Ahmad only made it to its main gate in Orchard Road, giving up on visiting it due to the long queue.
The 65-year-old finally made it in on Wednesday (Feb 10), as part of a group of 18 beneficiaries and caregivers from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore and St Luke’s ElderCare who were invited to a small-scale Chinese New Year open house.
This is the sole physical open house in a year, after the past four open houses hosted by President Halimah Yacob took place virtually in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I feel privileged, I have never spoken with the President before and today I had a chance to do that," said Mr Shariffuddin, who previously suffered a stroke and uses a wheelchair.
During the visit, he took in a performance by the Nanyang Primary School Chinese Orchestra and witnessed the launch of a new garden designed for visitors like him - seniors, wheelchair users and persons with disabilities.
The new Inclusive Garden was mooted by Madam Halimah to make the Istana, the President's official residence, more accessible.
A collaboration between the President's Office and the National Parks Board, the garden has a wheelchair-friendly footpath that is at least 1.5m-wide.
It incorporates about 30 plants from the Istana’s Spice Garden, launched in 2015, and now houses more than 100 plant species.
Mr Shariffuddin, who used to go for walks in the Singapore Botanic Gardens before his stroke, took a tour of the garden in his wheelchair and said the experience was pleasant and comfortable.
NParks group director for Fort Canning and Istana division Ryan Lee said that a deliberate effort was made to select plants that will educate the public on local herbs and spices, as well as plants that will stimulate the senses.
For instance, the butterfly ginger is a plant with many uses - its tuber is edible, its flower's aromatic essential oil goes into cosmetic products and its stem can be mashed to treat cuts and swellings.
Other plants like roselle and lemongrass are ingredients of Istana Harvest, a signature drink concocted in 2016 and served exclusively to foreign dignitaries and guests.
Other plants were also chosen because they help evoke memories of the past among elderly visitors, said Dr Wilson Wong, a deputy director with NParks.
He cited the Ramie plant, a "nondescript little shrub" which may not attract attention, but is known among seniors to be a key ingredient of orh ku kueh, a steamed glutinous rice cake typically filled with mung beans.
Mr Chia Song Lee, another member of the group that visited on Wednesday, said he does not notice plants much, but could appreciate them better after the introductory tour of the garden led by an NParks staff member.
"I thought the chilli plant was beautiful, and will tell my wife about this visit when I'm home," the 72-year-old said in Chinese.
Madam Halimah, who interacted with the visitors for about half an hour, said she hoped that more guests would be able to visit soon.
"We would like to slowly open up the Istana when we have open houses, in very gradual stages, and in a much more controlled way," she said.
For instance, she said future visitors may have to register in advance.
On the new garden, she said that while it is not possible for those with mobility issues to cover the entire Istana compound, they would at least be able to enjoy the garden during visits.
"(This is) part of our effort to make sure that this Istana ground becomes accessible to all segments of the community," she said.