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Most, if not all of the plants on SGH Campus, are familiar to her as she was probably the person who had orchestrated their planting. Today, the results of her greening efforts are evident as one drives or walks around the Campus.


For someone to know the names of all the plants on SGH Campus is no mean feat. For Ms Lee Ewe Choon, though, such questions are part and parcel of her job. Sometimes, they come from unexpected quarters. Once, the late Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew was being driven to the National Dental Centre Singapore in the evening when he noticed there was something different about the lamppost at the side of the roundabout. ‘I got a call the next day, because he wanted to know what it was. He’s very observant, he spotted a difference from his last visit to o ur Campus,’ Ms Lee says.

The plant was an overgrown bougainvillea, ‘a wood climber and not a shrub,’ Ms Lee explains. ‘It was late at night when he saw the growth and he’d thought that it was some new species of climber on the lamppost!’

Most, if not all of the plants on SGH Campus, are familiar to her as she was probably the person who had orchestrated their planting. Since 1994 when she joined SGH, she has been responsible for the greening of the Campus.

With restrictions on travel and other social activities leading to new home-based hobbies like gardening, Ms Lee admits with a broad smile that the queries she gets these days tend to come from colleagues seeking gardening advice.


A flowering ginger plant on SGH Campus.

As Deputy Director of Environmental Services, she oversees not only the gardeners, but also the cleaners, Environmental Service specialists, pest technicians, linen supplies operations and hospital waste management, amongst other estate management staff. The smile on her face disappears momentarily when she speaks about issues faced by another group of staff during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Even though SGH employs its cleaners through a service partner, Ms Lee feels responsible for their well-being and is sympathetic to their circumstances: ‘I feel that the cleaners are the unsung heroes in a hospital. To keep the Hospital clean and tidy at all times is very challenging. They have to work 24/7 and many of them are foreigners. It’s a t hankless job in many ways. Not many people appreciate what they do.

The pandemic has been a difficult period for the ones who come from Malaysia, Myanmar and other countries. They have worries about working in a hospital, so we talk to them and explain that they are safe here. Other problems have come up in this time. What we do is we try our very best to help them.’

Ms Lee has a quiet, unassuming demeanour. But whenever she speaks about her work, whether it’s about the cleaning services, or the planning of small gardens to improve the hospital environment, or the training of new staff, she exudes pride and commitment. 27 years ago, she had joined SGH without much knowledge or experience of either hospitals or horticulture. From day one, she knew that she had her work cut out for her. SGH in the old days was ‘quite bare’, she says in her characteristically understated manner: ‘The ground floor of SGH was like a void deck. There wasn’t an admissions office or a Kopitiam food court.’

She spent two to three years studying landscape design at NParks. She memorised the names of plants and went around SGH Campus measuring the roads and planning which trees and shrubs to plant. In her free time, she often went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens to take pictures of plants.

Today, the results of her greening efforts are evident as one drives or walks around the Campus. Indoors, there are pockets of greenery that provide breathing spaces, offering relief from the hospital environment. In the lift lobbies, corridors and wards, it can be hard to escape the odour of disinfectant. Sitting or standing in one of these small gardens, there is a sense of reprieve.

An end-of-life patient’s wish to hear the sound of water could be granted because of the water feature in this small garden at Block 5.

Ms Lee says that the greening of SGH had to be managed very carefully even though the benefits for patients and visitors may be obvious: ‘Actually, our plan was to turn every piece of available land into greenery, as long as the cost was reasonable. We don’t want to spend money unnecessarily. That’s why we made little gardens spread across the buildings.’

In one of these gardens, a surprise awaits: a sculpture by the revered visual arts educator, Brother Joseph McNally. His sculpture for SGH was a project that Ms Lee was involved in from the time of its conception.

Ms Lee shares that when she sees patients and their loved ones at these small gardens, she likes to approach them and find out what they think: ‘I’m quite happy when they say that they like to come down to the gardens from their wards. Sometimes we get special requests like this patient who was dying and wished to hear the sound of water. We have a garden at Block 5 with a water feature. Because she was bedridden, the nurses contacted me and, together with a few colleagues from FME (Facility Management and Engineering), we managed to bring her to the garden through an emergency door. The patient spent a peaceful afternoon there with her daughter.’

Ms Lee mentions that in a few days’ time from this interview, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat will be the Guest of Honour at the opening of the SGH Bicentennial Garden where he will be planting a longan tree. The land was formerly an open-air car park which was converted into a garden with three sections: edible plants; plants with striking colours; and the biodiversity plot.

As its name suggests, the garden commemorates SGH’s Bicentenary. The plants in it are very young. In the process of recent years’ extensive redevelopment, the Campus has undergone a dramatic facelift. Many mature trees have had to be cut down. The Bicentennial Garden seems to embody the necessary balance between environmental and healthcare priorities in Ms Lee’s c omment about the felling of the old trees for new buildings: ‘Our priority is always to provide a better environment for patient care. But it’s also our policy to plant two trees for every tree we remove. In 2013, we had around 200 or more trees and now we have over 560. Many of them are still small, but they will grow over time.’

Ms Lee’s view of the Hospital’s expansion is true to h er calling as an arborist: ‘An organisation is like a tree. It is a living thing filled with humans. And it is like trees where certain parts are rigid, certain parts are flexible. Structure is rigid, but there are times that call for things to be done a little differently, to bend the  structure a little bit for something that is good. My thinking then is: why not?


Another similarity between organisations and trees is that both need to be properly cared for and nourished. When staff are given opportunities to grow, they will become more committed to their work. It’s the same thing in nature—every part of a plant will try to get more sunlight and nutrients so that the plant as a whole can grow bigger, have flowers and fruit.’

This example, taken from Ms Lee’s folder of ‘ before’ and ‘after’ images of landscape improvement, shows what the linkway between Blocks 1, 2 and 3 looked like before and after her team’s greening efforts.

The tree analogy can also be applied to her hope for the future of SGH. Renewal is key, she explains, highlighting the importance of succession planning. Being ready for new challenges also means being flexible and adaptable: ‘I hope that the younger generations are prepared. We are not going to be around forever, so they must be able to step up, review and evolve. Also, in the future, things are going to be very different. Even now, with the COVID-19 situation, the new norm already involves many changes from the past. 

This is especially true for the cleaning industry. Cleaning is labourintensive, so how can this be achieved? The way forward is to use technology to improve the cleanliness of the Hospital and to become less reliant on labour.’

Ms Lee stresses that she has been mindful from the start of her time at SGH that the administrative staff in a hospital play a supporting role to the healthcare workers at the frontline of patient care. From her conversations with clinicians through the years, she has gained a better understanding of how they care for their patients. Like all the other SGH staff this writer has spoken to, Ms Lee has a story to share about the core value of teamwork: ‘Recently, we needed to get 100 foldable beds ready for people who were waiting for their swab test results. They were coming from the migrant workers’ dormitories and we didn’t want them to sleep on the floor. The supplier could send us the parts but he did not have the resources to assemble the beds; he was being swamped by orders.

I mobilised my whole department—my executives and managers, all women—and roped in colleagues from FME plus our service partner. All of us changed into tee-shirts and trousers, sat down on the floor to assemble the beds. By the second day, ahead of the deadline, all 100 beds and everything else that was needed were ready for the patients.’

In her induction and training sessions for new staff, she projects images of areas on the Campus before and after they were ‘greened’. This is something she has done from the start of her career. She happily accedes to this writer’s request to see them.

Some of the photos have a sepia tint. They were developed from film, taken at a time when photography required effort, decades before smartphones turned most of us into trigger-happy everyday photographers.

In her quiet and thoughtful voice, Ms Lee provides a clue as to why she has never considered working anywhere else after SGH: ‘I always take a picture that shows the “before” and “after”.

When you see the transformation of the landscape, you feel a sense of achievement.’


Lee Ewe Choon, Deputy Director of Environmental Services, Estate Management Division, was trained in Landscape Design and has 26 years of working experience in Environmental Services. She is passionate about environmental issues, and she works closely with National Parks (NParks) and various stakeholders on the greening of SGH Campus.

A walking dictionary on all things green, she is a ‘plantdoctor’ who is ecologically mindful and committed to the conservation and expansion of green spaces to enrich and improve the lives of patients, visitors and staff.