The gardeners’ city

Grassroots efforts are blossoming in many places, but will the state let them thrive?

Phua, 61, in his garden that is next to the housing block he has lived in for over 23 years. Photos by SAM KANG LI

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WHEN he first moved into his third-storey apartment at Hougang 23 years ago, Phua’s orchids withered from the lack of sunlight at his balcony. To save them, he took the pots out to the empty grass plot next to his block so that they could bask in the sun.

The orchids survived, but Phua’s happiness was short-lived. He returned from work one day to find them missing as cleaners hired by his town council had been instructed to throw them away.

Going strictly by the rules of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), which overlooks the management of public housing estates via town councils, what Phua did was illegal, says the town council’s chairman Low Thia Khiang. His offence: taking over common property.

Such is the predicament of gardening enthusiasts like 61-year-old Phua, who live in a city where 84 per cent of its population reside in high-rise concrete public housing.

They find refuge for their plants in well-maintained settings: amidst landscaped gardens, beside neatly-lined trees, along narrow corridors. All with varying success.

“Last time, the town council was very strict,” Phua recalls. “We couldn’t even have plants at the balcony because they would stick out and look unsightly.”


At the other end of the island, a stretch which lies outside the ground-floor units of Jurong’s Ivory Heights estate contains an assortment of four-by-two metre grass plots owned by the estate’s management. In one, a resident has grown heliconia tall enough to form a hedge. In another, a swing has been placed beside a cobbled footpath that leads to the front gate.

A mango tree stands in one of these plots. When it bore fruits recently, Richard Ashworth, the head of landscaping in the estate’s management committee, approached the resident to share the mangoes with the neighbourhood. But the tree owner declined, saying it was his effort alone and that it had nothing to do with the other residents.

Weeks later, the owner called Ashworth up. He demanded that the estate office clear a red ant infestation of his mango tree as it sat on common property, which falls under their jurisdiction.

“On one hand, the resident thinks ‘this is mine, I can grow what I want’. On the other hand, he thinks ‘this is common property, it’s your problem, you have to take care of it’,” Ashworth says.

This dilemma is why Ashworth and many other estate managers would rather not allow residents to use the common property. But urban planning expert Ooi Giok Ling feels that taking the land away from residents is not a solution. Instead, she says that more participation and negotiation between the town council and its people are needed.

“But these are sorely lacking,” says the professor from the Nanyang Technological University. “We need to work out how we are going to manage all this shared property as a group,” Prof Ooi adds. She believes this causes the lack of civic consciousness in people, which concurs with Hougang Town Council chairman Low’s experience when neighbours often quarrel over the right to use common property.


Before the 1990s, explicit permission had to be sought from landowners if one wanted to do gardening on common spaces, says Mohamad Azmi of the National Parks Board (NParks). But in recent years, the authorities have opened up.

“We know that people want to keep a garden, so we might as well make it easy for them and give them the skills to do it well, rather than imposing tight rules and regulations,” he says.

NParks launched the Community-In-Bloom (CIB) programme in 2005 to encourage people to pick up gardening and nurture community spirit. Working with the town council and HDB through their Residents’ Committee (RC), residents designate a suitable plot of land in their estate for gardening. But some like Terry Chua find the administrative work too troublesome.

“Gardening should be something you enjoy,” Chua says. The Hougang resident does not want to go through the hassle of filling up forms, getting a leader and dividing up land even before he can sow the first seeds.

This once barren patch of land in Hougang is now a garden filled with all kinds of plants, stone furniture and a swing.

This once barren patch of land in Hougang is now a garden filled with all kinds of plants, stone furniture and a swing.

Two years ago, the 44-year-old bought his ground-floor unit so that he could do gardening right outside his front gate. “It was an empty patch with only grass and two trees, not very well-maintained,” he says, “so I decided to take ownership and build a garden.”

Today, his plot features a swing and safari lamps set around stone furniture. Beside them, a rattan chair hangs from its tallest tree. While the freelance videographer pays for water and fertilisers required to maintain the garden, he welcomes other residents to use its facilities “because it’s on common property after all.”

The town council paid him a visit once to find out what he was doing. They warned him that it had every right to remove the plants if anyone complained, but since then, Chua has been left him alone.

But gardens like his are rare in Singapore. “There is no belief that people would actually voluntarily organise themselves to take care of their own environment,” says Professor Chua Beng Huat, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore. Instead, town councils hire workers to clean and landscape the housing estate, leaving residents with little responsibility or participation, he adds.


Azmi admits that regulation was strict previously because the state doubted if things might run amok. But Azmi is impressed with what residents involved in CIB have done. For him, the issue with such gardening is less about legality, but whether the gardens are well maintained.

Back at Ashworth’s estate, the management is still deliberating on clearing the collection of gardens along its groundfloor stretch. Some of these gardens, Ashworth says, are an eye sore as many residents don’t have the correct concept of a beautiful garden, nor do they upkeep it.

This obsession with maintenance and beauty is what worries Prof Ooi. “Singaporeans are all socialised into very well-organised environments, and these include gardens,” she says. “They have to look neat so we’re not very used to a little bit of chaos. But chaos is quite nice sometimes.”


As residents arrive home after a day’s work, Phua stands in his garden beside the parking lots, watering his plants with a 45-metre-long green hose that stretches down from the kitchen window of his third-floor apartment.

Months after cleaners threw away his orchids, the retiree’s green fingers itched and he negotiated with his town council for a space to garden, promising to maintain it. He got his wish.

Today, the empty grass plot he received, the size of three car park lots, has blossomed with pots of hibiscus, heliconia, frangipani, chilli and pandan. As his garden grew, so did the number of gardeners who came to share the plot.

Phua raves about his garden’s most recent addition, a brown wooden hedge around it – courtesy of the town council. Seeing how well the gardeners have maintained the land, the town council built them a hedge to protect the garden from looters. This gives him a sense of security that Phua says will spur him to grow more beautiful plants.

For him, gardening offers a sense of personal satisfaction that cannot be achieved from just passively appreciating the landscapes of Singapore, a country often lauded as The Garden City. “They (the authorities) can do what they like, but it’s nothing like your own. When everything’s already there for us, there’s no satisfaction in that,” he says.

Phua is happy that his town council has finally acknowledged the hard work and sincerity of the gardeners since the incident when his pots were cleared 23 years ago. But he knows things could change quickly in this city.

“I just have to get myself psychologically prepared,” he says. “After all, it’s not my land. This is borrowed happiness.”