March 28, 2009
Going back to my Toa Payoh roots
My family and I can now live forever with the trees we will be planting in our former housing estate
By neil humphreys
I grew up in a London council estate in a town called Dagenham. That means, according to the social stereotype, I boast the following characteristics or achievements:
I fathered a child before my 18th birthday (in fairness, there isn't much for the average Dagenham teenager to do and England is a bitterly cold country).
I left school before my 16th birthday, paid for a tattoo on my arm that read 'I'd die for West Ham United' and wore more gold rings than Mr T.
I also had no time for Mother Nature. Any school trips to experience the English countryside and examine the eco-systems of our existence were spent trying to kiss pretty girls behind an oak tree.
Fortunately, whether it was by luck or by design, most of these incidents never came to pass.
Child-rearing was rather difficult when one had the teenage sexual magnetism of Ichabod Crane. Leaving school at 16 was not an option because I had less market value than AIG. I couldn't afford a tattoo and my gold rings were taken by a knife-wielding mugger.
But I did have zero interest in the environment and the natural world, largely because there was no natural world in Dagenham.
Nature-spotting at my local park involved examining fauna whose mating rituals involved the rhythmic rocking of a Ford Focus.
Those nature-spotters were usually arrested. The only wild encounter I can recall in Dagenham was the night a feral fox followed me all the way home from a pub.
I was a little the worse for wear and, to this day, I'm not entirely sure if it was a feral fox or a red-headed girl from the pub.
The wintry, foggy streets made it difficult to see my pursuer clearly, so I couldn't decide if it was going to sink its teeth into my calf or berate me for not walking her home to meet her mother.
A year later, I visited a friend in the Yorkshire Dales and we took a trip to the Peak District.
Walking along a country lane, a sheep crossed my path, baaed at me and I ran halfway to Lancashire screaming: 'It's gonna eat me, it's gonna eat me. This is Silence Of The Lambs all over again.'
When my friend caught up with me, he poked my woolly jumper and asked: 'Where do you think that came from?'
'I know where it came from,' I replied. 'It came from a market stall in East London.' How I wasn't given my own TV show on National Geographic I will never know.
But Singapore changed everything.
You may mock and laugh theatrically, but Singapore turned me from an indifferent meanie to an idealistic greenie.
I defy anyone who grew up in a London housing estate where two stray cats caterwauling can stop the traffic and who moved to a tiny island with primary rainforest, long-tailed macaques, smoothcoated otters, monitor lizards, wild boars and the occasional crocodile not to be like a kid in a candy store while walking around Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.
To reiterate, Singapore is one of only two cities in the world (the other being Rio de Janeiro) to contain primary rainforest within their boundaries. I read about it in one of my books.
My ardent admiration for the National Parks Board goes back more than a decade and its conservation and environmental awareness efforts continue to inspire (particularly at a time when a casino's plan to stick an endangered whale shark in a Sentosa aquarium is generating international headlines for all the wrong reasons).
Rather fortuitously, being a converted greenie, a first-time father and a fan of NParks has allowed me to address the thorny issue of my mortality.
Being new parents, my wife and I drew up our first will recently and tackled that unavoidable question: When the time comes, where would our daughter come to remember her nomadic parents?
I was born in England, spent most of my adult life in Singapore and I'm currently travelling around Australia.
My plan to erect a statue at Tampines Stadium where I once famously scored from 30m against the Tampines Rovers' Ladies team was sadly rejected by the Tampines Town Council.
Similarly, my suggestion of installing a plaque at the Dagenham park where all those cars rocked the night away was dismissed by my wife.
Surprisingly, NParks offered an answer via its Plant A Tree programme.
The idea is as simple as it is profound. I donate a sapling - a young tree - to a Singaporean park and contribute positively to the environment, my daughter occasionally visits the tree and maybe thinks about her old dad and I fulfil my secret ambition of living forever.
So if you are passing Toa Payoh Town Park on Thursday at 9am, you may spot a sweaty ang moh couple - and a baby strapped to her father's chest - planting three saplings.
My family's trees will literally grow roots in Toa Payoh, a thought that delights me more than I can possibly say.
But just to clarify to the relevant authorities, we picked this particular spot because we once lived in the housing estate. Our baby was not conceived in the Toa Payoh Town Park.