Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ministry of Tourism to upgrade Malaysia's Parks and Gardens

The Minister of Tourism, Ng Yen Yen, who is a very keen gardener, has decided to use tourism to drive the upgrading of parks and gardens in Malaysia. In August 2010 the Ministry appointed me as Consultant for Parks and Gardens. Since then I have been involved in many site visits and meetings.

My first task was a 'hot potato': to steer the redevelopment of the Water Mall at the Penang Botanic Gardens into a water garden. The grant money had been spend on poorly conceived structures, as a result of which public opinion had turned negative. The Ministry was stung and I had only six months to redevelop the area using the small amount of money left. I hope by June this year to have Victoria lilies and other water plants fully established, and to have a respectable water garden on show.

Next are public gardens in Malacca, Fraser's Hill, Cameron Highlands and Raub to be upgraded. I hear there still others in the pipeline.

I hope, during my tenure, to get botanists appointed to take charge of the botanic gardens. We now have public 'botanic gardens' in Penang, Malacca, and Kuala Lumpur that are only botanic in name. With no botanists in charge there are no programmes for research, conservation, interpretation or education.

I also want to establish apprentice training schemes for gardeners so as to upgrade gardening as a creative profession.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A touch of Guilin at The Haven in Ipoh

I grew up in Ipoh where the landscape is dominated by limestone hills known as karst. As a boy scout, I spent over 100 nights camping out in Tambun at the edge of Ipoh, close to an elongated karst formation that we named the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ because of its curvaceous reclining silhouette. According to geologist Barnard Pearson, the karst of Ipoh and the Kinta Valley are parts of a super limestone formation stretching from South China (Guilin) through Indochina and Thailand (Phuket) into Malaysia. The limestone was deposited at the bottom of the sea over 200 million years ago, as shells of marine animals. When the Indian landmass collided with and merged with Eurasia 45 million years ago,the Himalayas were pushed up by the frontal impact, while the sea floor to the south-east, with its limestone beds, was pushed up as collateral effects. The uplifted limestone then began to erode because of the mildly corrosive action of carbon dioxide dissolved in rainwater. As rainwater percolated through cracks in the limestone it formed caves that got bigger and bigger as their sides slowly dissolved away. Eventually the caves got so big that their roofs fell in, leaving the side walls as vertical cliffs. However, perhaps because of tropical weathering, the karst formations in Malaysia are more rounded than those at Guilin.

The karst formations have a unique flora. When I became a professional botanist,I returned to Ipoh to explore this flora. One of my treasured finds was Isonandra perakensis, a small tree with copper-coloured leaves, on the top of a hill that I had climbed as boy. This species was first discovered in the 19th Century and had not been seen again until I rediscovered it.

There is now at Tambun a classy new condominium development called The Haven, the central feature of which is a karst formation rising 140 ft high from a lake of crystal clear water. The water in the lake wells up from a natural spring. Three blocks of condominiums are being built on one side of the lake, on what was formerly a fruit and vegetable farm. On the other side of the lake is a massive karst formation rising up to 1400 ft. With binoculars, I could make out Cycas, orchids and other unique plants on the sheer cliffs. I stayed one night in the show house and enjoyed the cool night breeze on a balcony overlooking the lake. Early next morning I led a small group to the base of the limestone massif and we were soon in the middle of a large patch of flowering wild gingers. The developer, Superboom, has spared no effort to conserve the karst vegetation and the lake. The Haven is a first class development befitting a first class location.

I would like to see the karst formations in the Kinta Valley protected and cherished as in Guilin, but whereas Guilin is the centre of a booming tourist industry that ensures the protection of its superb scenery, Ipoh has failed to attract sustained investment interest. Indeed, the Kinta Valley has been suffering a severe and continuous drain of young and energetic people for the past 50 years. Of my own classmates only two went back to make careers in Ipoh. I think it is inevitable that youth and energy will move to where new opportunities are actively created. Developments such as the Haven will bring new people, new money and new ideas to Ipoh and the Kinta Valley. Already the development of The Haven has stirred intense debate in Ipoh about Ipoh. In Kuala Lumpur, where a new property development is launched every month, one hardly notices the continuous building and rebuilding. Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur are two hours apart by car but 50 years apart in other matters.