23 October 2015

RIP Keith Hillier - Mentor to nature volunteers

Yesterday, I heard the sad news that Keith Hillier had passed away on 19 Oct. Keith took me under his wing when I first started nature guiding at Sungei Buloh. So in many ways, he was the one who started me on the path that I am now on.
Keith (right without hat)
at the NParks volunteer gathering Dec 2011
I know I am not the only one he has touched deeply, judging from the many posts about his passing. Here's more about what Keith taught me about life and volunteering for nature.

Keith taught me that ordinary people can and MUST play a key role in building volunteer guides for nature. And that the best volunteer manager is another volunteer.

When I first volunteered as a nature guide for Sungei Buloh, the first person I spent lots of time with was not NParks but Keith. He settled me in, allowed me to tag along, and explained things to me. Introducing not just biodiversity but also the agency people and the volunteers working on the same cause. His personal touch really helped me feel at home and adjust easily to the enormous job of being a nature guide. Grappling with the chasm of knowledge that I had to fill, how to deal with visitors and lots more.

Due to his good example, I have tried my best to do the same. Stepping up to start volunteer guiding efforts on many shores. In particular, training nature guides. Because I know only another volunteer guide knows what volunteer guides needs are. I don't think I have managed to do this with the same kindness, gentleness and patience as Keith did. And it's something I will strive to improve.

Keith taught me that everyone can make a difference. He always gently encouraged each person to do what he or she could within their skill set, their time availability and their interest. Once again, I fall very far short of Keith's wonderful personal touch with each human being. But I carry his lessons with me still and I continue to try to do better.

Keith also taught me to enjoy nature first. Here's what he shared to this question: "What is your approach/personal motto in your work? Always look out for the small things in nature and in general that make life enjoyable." More here. Sometimes I forget this, and get too caught up with the terrible impacts and problems on my beloved shores have to suffer. I get sad and angry. And forget to be joyous about the good parts of nature. And forget that this joy is what gives us strength to deal with the energy-sapping aspects of our mission.
Keith very kindly contributed his story
when I was asked to do a blog for National Day 2004
(It was then not a common thing to do a blog)
I met Keith in Feb 2010 at Sungei Buloh and at the NParks volunteer gathering in Dec 2011. He was his usual warm good self, full of humour and gentle encouragement. Curious and joyful about nature and the people who work for nature.
Keith at Sungei Buloh, Feb 2010.
Keith will be sorely missed. But I'm sure many others have benefited from his good example, his kind lessons, and his wonderful friendship.

RIP Keith Hillier.

More about Keith Hillier

wild people: Keith Hillier
My post about Keith in 2004

I first met Keith when I volunteered at Sungei Buloh as a guide. As with all newbies, Keith gave a very warm welcome and lots of support.

Always generous with his vast storehouse of stories and information, Keith constantly keeps us learning new things. His quiet encouragement and patience also helps new guides gain confidence quickly.

With trademark enthusiasm, Keith also started the volunteer tours of the Singapore Botanics Gardens rainforest trail; getting us all excited with notes and stories about every plant along the trail.

Keith has amazing energy and infects all with a fascination for nature, visitors and volunteers alike. I think I speak for the volunteers when I say that a great deal of the joy of guiding at Buloh and the Botanics is due to Keith's inspiring presence.

Here's more about Keith's experiences as a Buloh guide; on the online version of the Wetlands magazine of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Here is more about Keith in his own words ...

How did you first get involved in working for nature in Singapore?
About seven years ago when I half retired, I tried to figure out how to keep myself busy for the other half of my time. I wanted something interesting that would always have something new to learn, something that would take me out into the fresh air and sun and give me some exercise. And it had to be a voluntary community service. Within the first year I found exactly the right thing in becoming a nature guide at Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve.

What do you get out of working for nature?
It proved to be a very satisfying job - there was almost always at least one person in each group that I took round, that expressed appreciation for new insights into nature that I had imparted.

What is your approach/personal motto in your work?
Always look out for the small things in nature and in general that make life enjoyable.

What are some of your current projects?
Present project is to build up the volunteer base at the Botanic Gardens for guided tours of the Rain Forest.

Keith is nearly 75 years young and still has a regular part-time job as the regional representative for the Port of Tacoma, USA. He leads the volunteer groups at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Singapore Botanic Gardens. He also runs some activities of the Nature Society (Singapore).

From Singapore Botanic Gardens anniversary celebrations, The Singapore Botanic Gardens celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. TAY SUAN CHIANG asks five people what it means to them, Straits Times 11 Apr 09;


A volunteer at the Gardens since 2001, he first came to Singapore with the British Army as an officer in 1948. He has been living here since 1970 and is now a Singapore citizen

'My wife and I have always enjoyed taking walks here. Even now, when we are finding a new house, our first criterion is that it must be within walking distance of the Gardens.

'I remember back in 1970, we used to play games on our walks. We would each take turns to guess the names of the trees that we saw. Not only did this improve our knowledge of them, but it also trained our memory. We knew almost every tree then.

'We still enjoy taking walks in the park. For the last nine years, we have been faithfully coming to the Gardens in the evenings for an hour. Sometimes, we walk to the Swan Lake, which is my favourite part of the Gardens. At other times, we walk to the other parts.

'I'm also here every Saturday to take visitors on guided tours. I enjoy being with other volunteers, all of whom have a passion for the Gardens.

'Since I'm here almost every day, I know it like the back of my hand. Yet I am not bored by it. There is always something different. It can be new variety of plants being grown, or even simple pleasures, such as a tree flowering.'

Keith is also featured in Dr Chua Ee Kiam's awesome book 'Wetland in a City' which I blogged about here.

Posts about Keith's passing

See also "Keith Hillier nature guide and volunteer manager extraordinaire, RIP" in N. Sivasothi's blog Otterman speaks

Keith's loss is also felt in the birding community.

Bhavani Prakash a leading light in the nature community, shares how Keith touched her life too.

[Update 20 Nov: There will be a Tribute to Keith on 5 Dec morning. All are welcome. RSVP NParks_sbg_visitor_services@nparks.gov.sg]
click on image for larger view

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