A giving heart and a green thumb

25 April 2020

By Amber Qua

BMW articles

This community garden within NTU offers free herbs to the needy.

Dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and a stained shirt, a lone figure hunches under the midday sun, clipping and pulling at weeds.

This has been Mr Ng Kim Chuan’s daily routine for the past 10 years since founding the NTU Community Herb Garden, where visitors can receive a week’s worth of herbs for free by producing a medical report.

“It’s a tiring job but I don’t complain,” said the 67-year-old.

A full-time research assistant under the School of Biological Sciences, Mr Ng tends to more than 300 plant species in the garden, as large as two football fields, located beside NTU’s Jalan Bahar entrance.

His job involves more than just watering and weeding. Mr Ng keeps careful track of the herbs that are taken from the garden and their effectiveness on different ailments.

The loss of his brother to lymphoma in 2001 spurred Mr Ng to give back to his community by providing free herbs to the needy. He started investing in a garden while sourcing for herbs both locally and abroad.

“It brings me joy when people use my herbs and tell me how it has helped with their recovery,” he said.

Some herbs grown here have attracted foreign visitors, including cancer patients and researchers. The garden also counts celebrity chefs Mads Refslund of Acme and David Pynt of Burnt Ends as former visitors.

Many visitors leave with Sabah Snakegrass, or Clinacanthus nutans, and Black Face General, or Strobilanthes crispus, both of which are believed to contain anti-cancer properties, said Mr Ng. “I don’t even eat lunch at times as preparing herbs can take half a day. We give away up to two or three wheelbarrows worth of plants daily,” said Mr Ng.

Mr Lee Jin Long, 26, helps Ng with marketing. He was a student volunteer before graduating from NTU’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2016.

“I’ve seen people’s lives improve, especially those in poverty. Mr Ng is amazing, he really is a godsend to the needy people in Singapore, South East Asia and beyond,” said Mr Lee.

As the number of visitors to the community garden has soared since 2016, so have labour and operational costs. The garden is sustained only through donations.

Recruiting youth volunteers has also proven difficult, due to the remote location of the garden and a lack of interest in herbal medicine among the youth, said Mr Lee. Less than 10 volunteers work daily to maintain a property the size of two football fields.

To help improve their situation, Mr Lee updates the garden’s Facebook page and organises community centre gatherings to the garden.

Given time and money, Mr Ng dreams of upgrading the garden by adding sheltered walkways, and hopes that couples will have their wedding photographs taken there.

“I’ve thought about this idea for a long time,” said Mr Ng. “When this place is nice enough, I’ll have another source of income when people pay to take photos here. Their photos will help promote my garden.”