[top photo - IMAGING: Mr Taufik and Mr Hamid "X-ray" a tree by lightly tapping on one of the sensors of a Picus sonic tomograph.]
By Ng Tze Yong
HE'S a 'doctor' who wears hiking boots instead of white coats, and uses drills instead of stethoscopes.
His patients? Singapore's other 'greying' population - the rain trees and yellow flames along Singapore's roads.
Mr Abdul Hamid, 49, an arborist or 'tree doctor' with the National Parks Board (NParks) has a largely overlooked role, one which is growing in importance.
Nine per cent of Singapore's 800,000 roadside trees - that's about 70,000 trees - are now fully mature.
'Many of them were planted in the 1970s during the drive towards a Garden City, and now many are maturing at the same time,' said Mr Simon Longman, 52, director of streetscape at NParks.
There's no fixed criteria for what counts as a 'fully mature' tree.
Such trees, however, are usually those that have reached their optimal girth and height, have started to flower and bear fruit, or have started serving the purpose for which they were planted, such as providing shade along highways.
They are also the ones which need more care.
With their bigger branches, any instance of 'tree failure' (defined as anything from a falling branch to a toppled tree) can cause inconvenience, damage property, injure or kill.
In 2000, 3,300 cases of 'tree failure' occurred.
Since 2004, that rate has fallen to, and remained at, a constant of 1,000 to 1,200 cases a year - testimony to the work of arborists like Mr Hamid.
NParks inspects every tree under its charge at least once every three years.
It counts over one million trees under its charge, on roadsides and in its parks. (Others come under the charge of various agencies, such as HDB and URA.)
Bigger trees, 'high-maintenance' species, and those located in high traffic areas are inspected more often.
On a typical day, Mr Hamid lugs heavy equipment from tree to tree, running through a 'patient list' of about 50 trees.
Every tree has an ID number - comprising a species code, year it was planted and a six-digit serial number - and Mr Hamid follows a schedule listing their locations alongside lamp post numbers.
Some of his oldest - and most beautiful - 'patients' can be found along Connaught Drive and Bukit Timah Road near Balmoral Plaza.
Reading its body language
'A human being can talk to you. Even animals can make sounds. But a tree cannot do any of this, so you have to read its body language,' said Mr Hamid.
The findings of each inspection are recorded in a database, which helps NParks in its dealings with other Government and private agencies.
'In an urban environment, many things compete for space with our trees,' said NParks arborist Taufik Ibrahim, 31.
'So it is important for us to work closely with the different organisations, because when there is development, sometimes, our trees have to be sacrificed.'
As more of Singapore's trees mature, inspection and pruning costs are expected to grow at NParks, said Mr Longman.
At the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology, a one-stop training centre for the landscape workforce set up two years ago, NParks officers are kept up to date with the latest in tree care.
To support the arborists, NParks also has rapid responses teams - motorcycle-riding officers armed with chainsaws - which are despatched to the scene of a 'tree failure' within an hour of activation.
Said Mr Hamid: 'What this means is that our trees are getting bigger and Singapore is becoming greener. It means we are nearing our goal of giving our children the chance to grow up in a garden.'
This article was first published in The New Paper.