The Istana's Green Guardian

Located in the heart of the city, the Istana is a green lung amid Singapore's metropolitan bustle. Standing on what used to be a nutmeg plantation, the Istana domain is a treasure trove of flora and fauna. It is lovingly maintained by a dedicated team of landscape technicians and horticulturalists led by the Istana's curator, Koh Soon Kiong.

Although the title of 'curator' is more commonly associated with museums and cultural institutions, Soon Kiong explains that it can also refer to someone who oversees or manages a collection of living things. "It is a common misconception that curators only perform scientific research and not active management or maintenance," he shares. "In fact, all managers in the former Parks & Recreation Department (the predecessor of today's NParks) were once called curators too."

With the sprawling grounds as their office, Soon Kiong and his team manage the Istana's many green spaces - including a nine-hole golf course. They also ensure that the Istana's greenery appears at its best before every event or function. This is certainly no mean feat, as official functions take place on an almost-daily basis.

Tress of the Istana - Treasures of the Domain

Commissioned by former President S.R. Nathan, the book provides an insight into the history of landscaping and tree-planting in the grounds of the Istana. It also highlights more than 70 tree species found there.
Pick up a copy today at the Singapore Botanic Gardens' retail shops: The Garden Shop and the Library Shop.

Working At The Istana Has Its Privileges

Soon Kiong takes the challenges of his job in his stride, and feels privileged to work in such an important environment. "Not many people have seen the personal offices of our national leaders, or waltzed through the Istana gates without being stopped by the police," he quips.

Meeting and even exceeding the expectations of all who pass through the Istana is all in a day's work for Soon Kiong. He takes pride in his team's vital role of showcasing the City in a Garden to visiting dignitaries that include royalty such as Queen Elizabeth II and Emperor Akihito.

Soon Kiong also enjoys receiving feedback from the state leaders who work in the Istana. "I often receive calls from security officers to the the Prime Minister and Emeritus Senior Minister, sharing their comments on plants and the flowers," he shared. "Sometimes, the President or former MM would personally call me into their offices for me to explain my work, or to receive their suggestions and ideas to improve the landscape."

Intresting Facts About The Istana

While the Istana grounds are opened to all during most public holidays, Soon Kiong gamely shared with us some little-known trivia mostly known only to 'insiders'. The iconic Swan Pond, for one, is located at the site of a former cemetery. It was the final resting place of residents who lived on the grounds in the colonial era, when the Istana was known as Government House. Kramat Road, which borders the Istana, was named after this particular cemetery; kramat is the Malay word for a burial shrine.

He also pointed out that the flag flown on top of the Istana Building is not the national flag, but the Presidential Standard, which is not flown when the president is not in the country. Also, contrary to popular rumour, the Istana does not hold any secret tunnels or bomb shelters.

On top of his day-to-day duties, Soon Kiong has also contributed to several books on the Istana. The most recent book, Trees of the Istana, provides a sneak peek into the histories of the Istana's majestic trees.

Even for an experienced hand like Soon Kiong, who is also a certified arborist, the role of curator is a continual eye-opener. He has the following advice to any who aspire to his profession: "Have an open mind and be very eager to learn and adapt. There is always something new to learn, whether it is taking care of the swans, maintaining carpet grass, or even introducing new butterfly species to the grounds."

By Daryl Boey

If you are interested in following Soon Kiong's footstep and care for Singapore's greenery, join NParks today!

Front Lawn – The Istana may be located in the heart of the city, but it is surrounded by lush green

Parterre – Colourful plantings dot the grounds of the Istana

Ris – The trees and open lawns of the Istana are cared for by a dedicated team led by the Istana curator, Koh Soon Kiong.

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