Felix Loh: kūwaha a symbol of enduring ties to New Zealand
It is more than 30 years since Felix Loh came to study in New Zealand, but the successful Singaporean executive says the experience has been a powerful influence in his personal and professional life ever since.
Now chief executive of the stunning and expansive botanical attraction that is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, Felix is delighted that it was selected as the site for a Māori kūwaha, or carved doorway, which feels personally symbolic to him.
Recently unveiled by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the kūwaha celebrates the long-standing friendship between Aotearoa New Zealand and Singapore. “New Zealand has a special place in my heart, and I am honoured to host this precious Māori artefact. I hope the kūwaha will be a symbol of our friendship for many years to come.”
New Zealand now feels like a second home to Felix, but he shocked his parents and perplexed the scholarship selection committee back in 1988 when he told them he wanted to study horticulture at Massey University.
“I knew that Massey was well-known as an agricultural centre of excellence, and that horticulture was a very popular course,” he says. “But they were puzzled and asked me why I wanted to be a farmer in an urban city state like Singapore.
“My Dad did not speak to me for a few years, because Asians all want their kids to be lawyers, engineers, and doctors, and I chose to be a plant doctor instead. But I never regretted that decision.”
Felix says he felt welcome from the moment he arrived in New Zealand and enjoyed his four years as an international student so much he would have stayed on if he could. But the terms of his scholarship meant he needed to return to Singapore.
No such thing as a stupid question
A less formal approach to education, with an emphasis on inquiry and collaborative learning, proved an initial challenge for Felix but ended up being one of the reasons he rates his New Zealand education experience so highly.
“At my first class we were told that we were expected to ask questions. This was the first time that I heard the phrase ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question’,” he says. “That shook me, because in Singapore in those days nobody answered a question in class unless they were sure they had the right answer. For the first time, someone was willing to explore an alternative point of view.”
He turned up to English classes thinking it would simply be language tuition but discovered it was all about writing for your audience, with essays to be critiqued by classmates. “I initially questioned why fellow students would judge my work, but I quickly understood the value in taking on board a diversity of views to refine an idea or get a better product.”
And group project work certainly provided a life lesson for Felix, who had been conditioned to individual success based on exam results. “Not only did we have to work in groups, but we couldn’t choose our project partners,” he says.
“I’ll never forget the lecturer telling us that when we get to the workplace, we cannot choose our boss or even our colleagues, so we need to be able to work with different people. I learned that New Zealanders place people at the centre of what they do, and that we need to learn to appreciate the input of others.”
“I learned that New Zealanders place people at the centre of what they do”
Felix says his New Zealand education set him up for life-long learning which has helped to drive his career success. “You’ve got to learn and unlearn throughout your whole lifetime. It’s not so much about the content, but about being curious and knowing where to go for the answers.”
Friendships lead to enduring ties
It is through the people he met that he has forged an enduring relationship with New Zealand. Fellow churchgoers and schoolmates became life-long friends and “a moral and emotional support base” over the years. He has returned to New Zealand many times and stays in touch with former lecturers and teaching staff, some of whom are now plant suppliers for him in his role at Gardens by the Bay.
“When I took on this job, one of my first trips was to go back to New Zealand to source new plants for our temperate Flower Dome. I visited a number of nurseries, just knocking on their doors, and I was made to feel so welcome. It just felt like I was at home.”
The world is a very different place from what it was in the 1990s, but Felix says the value of international education remains as important as ever.
“International education helps us to understand other perspectives better and demystify misconceptions we have about each other.
“In today’s uncertain world it is always good to have friends in other places. You discover that we have more things in common than set us apart.”