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Showcase: Residence of the New Zealand High Commissioner in Queen Astrid Park, Singapore

By: Verne Maree

 

We’ve arrived early at the residence of the New Zealand High Commissioner in Queen Astrid Park, and his wife Sarah Harvey comes out to receive us – picture-perfect and cool as a cucumber. To the right of the main door is a little patch of Kiwi-land: a couple of sculptures of the eponymous birds peck at the ground in the shade of a punga palm.

An expansive, glass-walled reception area extends onto a big patio area furnished for alfresco lounging and dining, all ideal for the sort of entertaining that is expected of a diplomatic head of mission.

“For many Singaporeans who come here, this is their first taste of New Zealand, so we want to make them feel welcome,” Sarah says. “And for New Zealanders who may not have been home for some time, we want to do the same – it’s one of the joys of this job.”

Queen Astrid Park
Queen Astrid Park

 

Home from Home

In Asia, they’re known as abalone; in South Africa as perlemoen. But the paua mollusc and its iridescent shell is a Kiwi icon, prized by the Maoris both as food and as a resource for arts and crafts. There are dozens of the ornamental shells dotted around the reception rooms, some clustered around candles in glass holders.

“This is home,” says His Excellency Martin Harvey, New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Singapore, as he and Sarah lead us to their private rooms upstairs. “We don’t often relax as a family downstairs – when I first saw the space I thought, ‘This is like a church!’” Informal and cosy, the upstairs room has a breakfast bar at one end and a pretty seating area presided over by a big melange of family photos, described by Sarah as “a shrine to those we love”. Off the room is a balcony that overlooks the big pool and is, she adds, a great spot from which to watch electrical storms in the middle of the night,.

A row of wooden shutters lets you peek unseen downstairs to observe what is going on; it’s ideal for children whose parents do a lot of grownup entertaining. The Harveys have three teenagers: Charlie (16), Eleanor (14) and Tanya (12), all at the Australian International School. “A lot of silent signalling goes on,” says Sarah with a smile, “mainly meaning ‘Go to bed, now!’”

The Path Here

Sarah and Martin met while they were both working for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Born, bred and educated in Wellington, Sarah joined the Ministry straight after university, having had a holiday job there during her undergraduate studies. Her involvement in the country’s aid to the Pacific Islands took her to Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, her first experience of overseas travel.

From a country upbringing in the village of Waverly, Martin won a two-year scholarship to complete his high school education at Lester B. Pearson College, a UWC school in Victoria, Canada. “It was a life-changing opportunity,” he reflects, “and the experience opened my eyes to the world and its possibilities – and probably influenced my choice of career.” Before he made that choice 25 years ago, however, Martin was to achieve a master’s degree in economics, while supporting himself, “as we all did in those days”, through a variety of jobs including waiting tables, pruning pine trees and packing meat.

In 1987, three years into his foreign affairs career, he met Sarah – and was promptly posted to Canberra as Economic Second Secretary. This first posting gave him “a good grounding in our key international relationship, that with Australia”, he says. Soon after that, Sarah decided to change careers, so she began post-graduate studies to qualify as a teacher, living in student digs at the University of Canberra.

Then the travel bug bit. After two intense years in Canberra, it seemed a good time to see something of the world before starting a family. Career and babies were put on hold while the couple backpacked around the world for nearly a year, taking in Australia, Thailand, India, Europe and North America. “It was a fantastic experience,” he sighs. “People thought we were crazy at the time, but it was worth it. We have such great memories.”

Family Matters

Back in New Zealand and doing a master’s degree in education, Sarah gave birth to Charlie. “My mother folded the nappies while I wrote my thesis,” she recalls. Charlie was just two years old, and Eleanor two months old, when Martin’s four-year posting to Geneva as his country’s deputy permanent representative to the World Trade Organisation began.

“We loved living in the countryside near Geneva,” says Sarah. “The winters are long and grey, but we would drive up among the Jura Mountains to beyond the clouds, into brilliant sunshine and a snowy winter wonderland.” Around this time, they adopted Tanya from the Ukraine, through an English charity supported by the expat church to which they belonged.

After Geneva, there followed nine years in Wellington – Martin working in the area of European trade, then in climate change policy, and then as chief negotiator for several free trade agreements with the ASEAN countries. Sarah taught English at Chilton St James School in Wellington, and also philosophy and ethics to the older girls, and was Dean of Year 7.

Head of Mission

The Harveys’ posting to Singapore a year ago meant a huge change in their way of life, Sarah effectively giving up her career and a job she loved to support Martin in his first position as head of mission.

“Family has always come first,” she says, “so any posting had to be to a place where our children’s wellbeing was safeguarded.” With its secure environment, convenient location – just one flight away from home – and its high standard of education, Singapore fitted the bill.

Martin’s first head-of-mission job “has been interesting for all of us”, he says. “The children can now see more of what I do, and what Sarah does to make it a success. They can also attend some of our public events, such as the Anzac Day dawn service at the Kranji Memorial.” (The annual event starts at 6.30am on 25 April. You can find out more at www.anza.org.sg.)

Sarah adds: “It is a real privilege for us to have more time to spend on family matters, and for Charlie, Eleanor and Tanya to have this experience. They are learning social skills and respect for those who are different from us or in a different position from us. Living in the official residence, we have a staff of two, who are absolutely fantastic. But this semi-public way of life takes some adjusting to.

“We know that this house is a major part of other people’s lives, as well as being our home.”

Out and About

In fact, I first met Sarah when we were both hot and sweaty at the end of the SAFRA half-marathon and took a photograph of her and other runners for Expat Living’s Open House pages. “At first, I didn’t know whether it would be possible to run in this climate,” she says. “Coming to terms with being active here is an important hurdle to overcome. But then I discovered MacRitchie Reservoir Park. It’s such a beautiful place, and running there is a wonderful counterbalance to the world of wining, dining and diplomacy.” She goes out early in the morning with a group of women she met “through the Kiwi network” of about three-and-a-half thousand New Zealanders who live here.

Martin runs occasionally and plays tennis with an “informal but competitive” group of players. Charlie has just started playing hockey at the Singapore Cricket Club and is training to climb mountains on an upcoming school trip to Nepal. Eleanor is a swimmer, and Tanya is keen on horse-riding and athletics.

Sunday mornings see the family at the beautiful St George’s Church in Dempsey, after which they like to have lunch at the nearby Mr Prata in Evans Road.

NZ Season

April is an extraordinarily busy month for the couple. A varied calendar of cultural events has been planned for the NZ Season in Singapore, which is in full swing from 26 March to 9 May. The New Zealand Business Forum is part of a concerted drive to promote collaboration between NZ and Singapore in such fields as biotechnology research, information technology, creative industries and clean technology. “It’s designed to show New Zealand’s potential in a new light,” says Martin. “Our food and the country’s natural beauty are well known, but we want to also show our creative talent. We are an innovative and flexible people who have a lot to offer, and we need partners to help us realise our potential.”

Tourism NZ is in busy mode, too. The high-season Christmas and summer period over, it is engaged in a major promotion to fill aeroplane seats for the winter season – which, as any winter sport aficionado will know, is a wonderful time to visit the country. And with the NZ dollar having dropped about 25 percent, as Martin points out, it’s also more affordable than ever.

What Next?

Asked about their goals for the remainder of their time in Singapore, Sarah does not hesitate. “From a family point of view, raising our three children well is our priority. We have the sense that time is running. Charlie will finish school here, and perhaps moving on alone, so we want to make sure we give him the best possible grounding.”

After that? “People ask us what we did to deserve three such wonderful postings: Canberra, Geneva, and now Singapore. Whatever comes next will be another exciting chapter in our lives.”

Sipping my cappuccino and demolishing a mini-Pavlova – for the uninitiated, this is a confection of meringue, cream and strawberries – I feel I’ve just experienced a truly gracious Kiwi welcome from two of the friendliest Kiwis you could hope to meet. And that’s saying something.

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