Jul 20, 2011

A Heritage Planted by Lee Kuan Yew Outside the Railway Station

Spottiswoode Park Road

While the enlightened prime ministers of Singapore and Malaysia are credited with moving bilateral relations forward with the return of railway land to Singapore, we must not forget the genesis of the land exchange started with our Former Primer Minister Lee Kuan Yew. I was acutely reminded of this today while walking along Spottiswoode Park Road back to Si Pai Por, after checking out the former railway station.

The heritage planted by Lee Kuan Yew almost 21 years ago would have escaped most last-minute visitors to Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as it is located a good 100m away from the perimeter fence. With all attention and cameras focused on the main terminal building, to have the national monument and memories captured on film means any time outside the station was a luxury. The heritage is certainly well-concealed, even when I became a regular visitor to the station in June, I did not see the heritage despite having walked past it multiple times.

This time, what looks like a plaque hiding behind some shrubs caught my eye as I walked past the multi-storey carpark at Spottiswoode Park Estate. It must be the fair weather and my relaxed mood, after all there was no pressure to shoot anything before the deadline; the deadline was already over. The two factors have also a direct relationship according to one Chinese saying (心静自然凉).

Curiosity brought me forward for a closer look.

Planted by Lee Kuan Yew
As the man responsible for the garden city vision, this chief gardener would plant trees during tree planting day in November (first Sunday in November), the start of the rainy season so as to minimize watering. The Cocos Nucifera is another name for coconut palm; I'm not sure why the plaque calls it a dwarf coconut.

Most people would just shrug it off as another tree planted by an MP of the constituency. As I saw the great name, his title and the date the tree was planted, it began to dawn on me that the date and my location next to the railway station could not have been more coincidental. Now, have you realized the "historical significance" of the plaque?

November 1990 must be a special month in the political career of Lee Kuan Yew. The tree planting day on the 4th turned out to be his last as Prime Minister and also the last for Singapore [link]. On the 28th, he would pass the mantle of leadership officially to Goh Chok Tong. A day before on the 27th, it was transpired later that he signed the Points of Agreement (POA) with the Finance Minister of Malaysia Daim Zanuddin, a landmark deal that attempted to resolve the thorny bilateral issue of railway land in Singapore.

Signing the POA was to be his final political legacy as Prime Minister. Its execution is so classic, a day before the great transition so to leave his successor with a clean slate (he would invoke the "clean slate" again when he relinquished his Minister Mentor position), that I still cannot believe he managed to pull it off (assuming Daim also signed on the same day; I have yet to find the news report on the signing ceremony).

Tree Planting Day
The chief gardener with a shovel. Archival photo from NAS shows the Cocos Nucifera planted on 4th November 1990. Today a plaque marks the VIP tree in front of the multi-storey carpark (yet to be built in this photo).

Since political deals are seldom made at the eleventh hour especially with Singapore politicians, our chief executive cum chief gardener must have known - what's more he could see three steps ahead while most people only see one - what is to come on the 27th November as he planted the coconut sapling on the 4th. The train platforms of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station would be very visible to him and if the time was right, a train would be parked there or if he was lucky, he would even see and hear a train leaving or arriving at the station. God knows what was in his mind at that moment.

The POA was his final but unfinished legacy as Prime Minister. I guess things didn't turn out well for his Malaysian counterpart Daim Zainuddin either who resigned three months later in 1991. The POA was also not recognized by Dr Mahathir and consequently not ratified by the Malaysian parliament. Negotiations reached an impasse, damaging bilateral relations. It would take his son and the son of Malaysia's second Prime Minister to finally put down the historical baggage and go for a "win-win" situation.

Green Heritage Planted by Lee Kuan Yew
The VIP coconut palm today, a far cry from its sapling days when it was planted by the chief gardener (then only a man's height). For two decades, it witnessed the development in Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, from Singapore shifting its CIQ to Woodlands (as agreed in the POA) and finally Malaysia vacating the station on the night of June 30.

Stand In for Lee Kuan Yew
Two decades, the time it took to settle the POA, was a long time indeed. By coincidence our chief gardener's political career as SM and MM spanned the same length of time. Ironically a banner beside the VIP tree today shows MP Indranee Rajah standing in for Lee Kuan Yew for meet-the-people session. You can't deny even the "man with a shovel" has retired.


peter said...

How come PM of Singapore signed agreement with minister-level from Malaysia? Should it not be 2 PMs of 2 countries signing. Leaves me to wonder the reasons for this anomaly.

Any comments anybody?

Icemoon said...

I also wonder about that. Furthermore I smell conspiracy, considering Daim was not in Mahathir's good books. And Daim was not even Foreign Minister!

peter said...

Protocol dictates "same rank" can shake hands. Can we get an answer from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Law or PM Office?