By Noh Sangeun (23S06Q)
Photos courtesy of Raffles Photographic Society, and credits to Brandon Ang (23S03L) for the title of this article.
Raffles House, at Fort Canning Park, overlooks the sleek skyscrapers of the Central Business District. As a place with such grand reminders of modernity, it seems even more meaningful that it should be a venue for the celebration of heritage and history.
Fort Canning was where, two centuries ago, Sir Stamford Raffles erected Singapore’s first botanical and experimental garden. On 4th June, the school honoured this ecological legacy: Raffles House hosted teachers, students, alumni, and esteemed guests at the inaugural tree-planting event for the 1823 Trees campaign.
1823 Trees: Rooting for a Greener Singapore is a commitment by Raffles Institution to plant 1823 trees leading up to our bicentennial (RI200), as part of the National Park Board’s OneMillionTrees movement. Last year, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Ms Grace Fu planted the first tree for the campaign: a Gelam tree outside RI Boarding.
This year, the school invited Minister for National Development Mr Desmond Lee, who launched the OneMillionTrees campaign in 2020, for a tree-planting event on the occasion of our 199th anniversary.
The morning was overhung with a light drizzle. Amid the steadily growing rain, the preludial speeches took place within Raffles House. First, RI’s Advisor for Special Projects and Alumni Relations Mr S. Magendiran noted the significance of RI’s commitment to the environment as a constant in its identity over the years.
“All the dots are connected, you see — sometimes it is not known, but that is the legacy of Raffles Institution,” he said, referring to Sir Stamford Raffles’s interest in botany, and Mr Lee’s part in the OneMillionTrees movement.
Subsequently, Principal Mr Frederick Yeo acknowledged the common factor underscoring the individual identities of those present: “the people gathered here are Rafflesians, alumni, friends of the school”. Making a good-natured comment about the rain, Mr Yeo remarked that it had also rained last year during Ms Fu’s visit to the school. “This is providential rain, as you might call it,” he said. “It is preparing the grounds, a blessing for the school.”
Mr Lee also spoke about the Rafflesian camaraderie. Among those present, he commented with a fond smile, were Mr Gary Ortega, his PE teacher; Mr Magendiran, his NCC teacher; Dr Theresa Lai, his form teacher; and Deputy Principal for Student Development Ms Ng Mei Sze, his OGLing.
Moving on to a discussion of the emotional value of the planting, he said, “We are forward-looking pragmatists, but we must always be sentimental. [We must] have pride, hold value in the institution, and power forward knowing we are firm in our foundation.”
Fittingly, he also spoke about the national significance of the tree-planting campaign. “The world is sustainable now, but we were green ahead of our time… the [environmental] steward role is part of the Singapore ethos, and I hope this flame will be passed from generation to generation.”
Though there was still a light rain, the planting of trees proceeded as per schedule. To cheers and applause, Mr Lee, Mr Yeo, and other invited guests placed the trees securely into their plots at Raffles Garden.
Mr Yeo, Dr Habeebul Rahman (member of the Board of Governors), and Ms Shallen Teo (Chairperson of the Raffles Parents’ Association) plant another duku tree. Mr Chan Poh Meng (Principal 2014–2017), Mr Elvin Too (member of the Board of Governors), and Mr Dennis Foo (President of the Old Rafflesians’ Association) plant a jackfruit tree, another species native to the region.
Afterwards, the alumni, teachers, and students proceeded to their respective sites to plant a total of 32 more trees at Raffles Garden and Bond Terrace.
Student Council President Marianne Wang (23A01C) expressed that she found it meaningful to “get down and dirty” for such a “milestone part of the bicentennial celebrations”. This sentiment was echoed by many of the students. As a “kind of person who usually stays indoors” and has “no experience with gardening”, Ethan Lauw, Chairperson of the Raffles Archives and Museum Club of Raffles Institution (Y1-4), nonetheless found the experience inspiring. “It was heartening that Mr Lee remembered his teachers and school days, and I hope to remember my own with the same fondness,” he added.
Many teachers and alumni present could testify to a similar sense of nostalgia. Mr Benedict Lo, an alumnus from the Class of 2000, was excited to “see all his former teachers and fellow alumni”, sharing that the WhatsApp group chat for the bicentennial celebrations had more than 190 members.
Dr Theresa Lai mentioned that Mr Lee, like many other alums, sent her teachers’ day wishes every year. She was glad to have “wholesome conversations with faces she remembered”, and furthermore, to “meaningfully contribute” to the environment.
When the event drew to a close, the sky was clear; so is the school’s conviction in the Green Movement. As meaningful as it was in rooting for a greener Singapore, the tree-planting event was also an occasion that empowered members of the school community past and present to look back on our own roots — as Singaporeans and as Rafflesians.