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Gardener of the Tropics
Singapore Botanic Gardens director Nigel Taylor’s love affair with the country has seen him help elevate the Gardens to become the first and only tropical botanic garden on Unesco’s World Heritage List.
BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTOS SPH LIBRARY
hile most people in their mid-50s start to contemplate retirement, Dr Nigel Taylor bucked that trend. In September 2011, after having been a curator at the world-renowned Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London for 34 years, he took up a new challenge as director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG).
“When I saw how well maintained the SBG was and how beautiful the gardens were, it was easy to contemplate the move to Singapore,” he says. Other factors that influenced this was the opportunity to discover and learn about tropical flora in a country famed for its greenery, and the chance to build new personal relationships in a different culture.
As director of the SBG, Dr Taylor, 60, promotes the Gardens as a place that conserves endangered flora. He is also focused on educating the public about the importance of caring for nature and the historic and modern significance of the SBG.
His biggest contribution to the 157-year-old SBG to date has been helping it attain the title of Unesco World Heritage Site in 2015. This is the second botanic gardens he has worked with to qualify for the Unesco list. The first was Kew Gardens in 2003.
For the SBG’s Unesco World Heritage bid, Dr Taylor and his team pored over annual reports, academic databases, botanic journals and newspaper archives to piece together its history and uncover untold stories. One of the things he sought to demonstrate was the SBG’s role in the agricultural and economic development of Singapore and South-east Asia. For instance, it was the site where plants of economic value, such as the Para rubber tree, were developed for commercial use in Singapore and the region.
“Itʼs a joy living here, from the public transport, to the pervasive greenery, to the speed at which plants can be grown...I have been a gardener for 55 years, but never imagined I would enjoy gardening here so much. ”
Dr Nigel Taylor, director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens
To raise awareness of the Gardens as Singapore’s living heritage as well as its contributions to the greening of the country and its reputation as a Garden City, he made sure to engage the community in SBG’s Unesco bid. He points out that the Gardens also played a key role in shaping Singapore’s multicultural fabric. It was the site where a series of multicultural concerts was launched by Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in 1959.
Today, the SBG continues to play its part in fostering social cohesion by providing a common space for people from all walks of life to come together for various recreational purposes. It receives more than 4.5 million visitors each year. These include exercise groups, tourists, domestic workers, as well as people attending regular concerts and other cultural events at the SBG.
These various dimensions of the Gardens’ cultural tapestry and its place in Singapore’s history are things that Dr Taylor hopes to remind visitors of. He says: “We installed more than 70 educational signs telling visitors about the Gardens’ heritage. I am delighted when I see visitors stopping to read the signs and discussing them.”
Still, he says that there is much work to be done. He wants to improve the SBG’s facilities. On the education front, his team of scientists are involved in research on the diversity of Singapore and South-east Asia’s flora and fauna, as well as biodiversity conservation in the region.
The SBG is also sharing its botanical and horticultural expertise with developing countries in the region. It is helping them to study their native plants and training them in scientific techniques and the care of their preserved specimens and living collection.
LIVING LIKE A LOCAL
On a personal level, Dr Taylor has embraced the local way of life, from travelling on public transport to eating at hawker centres (open-air food centres).
He admits to having fallen in love with the country for reasons like the convenience of its public transport, which enables him to explore the country and see a slice of local life. Another element that has delighted him is the hawker centre, which offers different cuisines representative of the country’s multicultural makeup. Revealing that he is a regular visitor, he says such visits allow him to get to know Singapore and its people better beyond his work.
Dr Taylor has also come to appreciate and understand the humid tropical forest environment. In a 2015 interview with British newspaper The Telegraph, he described Singapore as a “dream world”. He explains: “It’s a joy living here, from the public transport, to the pervasive greenery, to the speed at which plants can be grown.” He adds that the climate allows him to grow tropical plants, such as starfruit, calamansi and torch ginger, in his garden, which he was not able to do back in the UK. “I have been a gardener for 55 years, but never imagined I would enjoy gardening here so much,” he says.