I was very very glad to have been able to attend Professor Leo Tan’s talk entitled “You Live Your Belief” last Wednesday, 25 April. It was hosted at the NUS Shaw Foundation Alumni House Auditorium as it was actually an alumni event (I had initially thought it was targeted at prospective students, to entice them to come into NUS…).
It was my first time hearing him speak (to a crowd), I missed an earlier opportunity to interview him during my Project Work back in JC Really wish I could have gone for it, but ah wells!
It was a very interesting and insightful session. (This post is not recounted in chronological order, as I didn’t take down any notes, and so is pure recollection.) I’m usually more concerned about the future, and I suppose most people are too, that we seldom look at the past. But there was a lot of talk about “old” issues, the history of conservation (& governance) in Singapore, and all these are definitely things I should know if I’d like to work in this field in the future. Although perhaps I was looking for answers to “What now, what can we do to make things better?” instead…
Briefly, a background
Prof Tan is 67 years old and has been working in this field for more than 30 years! He was a lecturer in the National University of Singapore (NUS), and has held positions as Chair of Singapore Science Centre (SSC), National Institute of Education (NIE), and the National Parks Board (NParks). He is now Special Projects Director in NUS.
He grew up in the post-war period, through the colonial times, merger with Malaysia, subsequent separation and the Struggle for Independence. His childhood was spent on the beaches of Labrador, when it was still a nice long stretch of natural shore. And then, came along port development, reducing the Labrador beach to all of 300m now As he slowly saw his favourite childhood areas and even his research site at Changi disappearing to make way for development, he decided he needed to do something about it!
Climate of fear in the past
There was a very real climate of fear in the past. That is something that perhaps, a lot of us youths cannot quite understand, or empathise with. Living in a totally different era from them, we are really, not quite afraid of many things, not even the “gahmen” much. But back then things were vastly different, and lobbying was (is?) a bad word. The word “greenie” was associated with Green Peace, an organisation that had a spate of bad press (accused of eco-terrorism), not exactly the most welcomed here because of their occasionally, somewhat violent means to achieve an end. Green groups, or anyone who wanted to save trees were perceived as “bad”, pro-colonialists who were trying to undermine the system.
After Prof Tan’s short talk, Mr Viswa Sadasivan, the forum moderator and Chairman of the U@live organising committee started off the Q & A session with a rather provocative question, suggesting that despite the many portfolios Prof Tan held, he failed in getting the conservation message across as the most of the people now are still largely unaware. In response, Prof Tan said he would be the first to admit he had failed.
But things have changed since then. In the past, there were a lot of issues to deal with and there was a need to be careful, to tread carefully around government.
Practising the Art of War in conservation
Although some people might favour militia style over the soft style, it really depends on the situation. Personally, he favours persuasion over confrontation. Prof Tan quoted 孙子兵法 (Sun Tzu’s Art of War): there are times when you come down harder, and times when you don’t. You need to balance and work things out, sometimes even retreating. Lose a battle, but win the war. Yes, I guess we need to choose which battles to fight; impossible to save everything, cause it’s undeniable that Singapore is small.
When he first went into NParks, he started engaging the NGOs, instead of avoiding them. His predecessor was wary of engaging them, but he decided that he will take the flak, if the government is unhappy with the NGOs. It was necessary to take such risks, to gain trust of NGOs. NParks should not work against them, as after all they have same goals, same agendas. (Yes I fully agree; I don’t understand politics :/)
Changing times, more public engagement
Chek Jawa was The Turning Point of conservation in Singapore (like a beacon of hope!), because it was already a policy, slated for reclamation, but all that was eventually retracted. Before Chek Jawa, most people were resigned to losing green (and blue) spaces, since usually, whatever the government says, goes.
However now, times have changed! The government actually wants to engage the groups, to talk to them, engage them in a dialogue, and ask them for suggestions. Examples quoted were the Singapore Blue Plan 2009, the Green Corridor, Bukit Brown and Pulau Semakau.
The Singapore Blue Plan was put together by relevant interest groups coming together to present a white paper to the government. One of the suggestions was to do survey of all our coastal areas. Previously, the government refused, saying it was too expensive. However in 2003, Singapore was sued by Malaysia who accused us of polluting waters. [Update 6 May: Thanks to Joseph Chun, here’s a more comprehensible summary of the incident.] (I cannot seem to find links on this) And that’s when we realised that we didn’t have any baseline data. So in the end, it was agreed that the cost would be shared between the government, corporate sponsors and the Garden City Fund. What culminated was the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey, a.k.a. Mega Marine Survey.
Pulau Semakau, a.k.a. Singapore’s landfill, also reflected feedback from the community. The government decided to invest S$5 million to replant mangroves, and they didn’t want to be accused of destroying the natural environment, so during reclamation, rich coral sections were avoided. Semakau is now a success story and a case study for many countries around the world, but there is still a need to brainstorm for solutions to our waste problems, as the landfill will reach its expiry date soon.
Prof Tan also mentioned Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR), and how he had to fight to save it. As well as the many decades spent trying get Labrador gazetted as a Nature Reserve. Listening to his stories, I could not help but be awed at what he had done to make Singapore what it is now, since (like many other things), we take a lot of our Nature Parks and Nature Reserves for granted. It’s not that we don’t appreciate it, but more that we fail to realise or understand the significance, impact, and struggle of the countless people who fight for what we see now.
Pushing the City in a Garden concept
Even Gardens by the Bay (GB), which is now so widely advertised and highly anticipated, took a long time to be accepted. It was first proposed quite a while ago, but the question thrown back was, Why should they use expensive reclaimed land just for plants?
But if the environment is not nice, no one will want to stay. He recounted cases of foreign expatriates deciding to stay in Singapore to set up businesses because there is SBWR to do bird0watching, because there are gardens and trees providing fresh air, a nice environment. (Yes, I wouldn’t want to come back to an impoverished Singapore, depleted of all natural history.)
Future of conservation in Singapore?
The future of conservation now lies mainly in urban ecology and social issues in science. About how biodiversity benefits society and the people. There is a need to show practical, pragmatic, and economic reasons to conservation. (See a related article about this here.) It’s not just about the plants & animals, but also about public health, such as the Ebola virus spreading to humans due to deforestation, increasing exposure to monkeys).
Social media is also a great boon, providing a greater voice, and more platforms to air your views. (I fully agree!) Prof Tan encouraged the audience to speak out more, and let your voice be heard.
Snippets on Education
While he was in NIE, he used to tell the trainee teachers that they needed to learn the methodology, philosophy and concepts. Not just the content, since things change so quickly.
And about the dinosaurs! There was a Triceratops foot and a Edmontosaurus femur on stage, a prelude to the 3 Diplodocid sauropods that will be showcased in the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. The museum team had a hard time bringing them in, but it was not just for the wow factor, but also held immense educational value.
Apart from the fact that many people, especially children, are drawn to dinos, there are also lots to learn from them! They were one of the most successful creatures, having existed for 300 million years, what caused their sudden mass extinction? If we can learn what happened to them, we could prevent the same from happening to ourselves.
Doctors from the National University Hospital also want to know why their nostrils were positioned above head instead of in front, like most of us. How their circulatory system works, to ensure sufficient blood to all parts of their bodies, when they are so huge. How did they grow so big, when they only eat vegetables. Psychologists, physiologists want to know how fast they can react if a mouse bites their tail. Mechanics want to know more about their psychomotor. All sorts of things that can be learnt from studying the dinosaurs.
A gut feeling that Nature was important for life
Prof Tan had always felt that Nature is important, needed for life. It was not something that was taught or studied, just a gut feeling that he had. (Now, it is something that we know, because it’s been told to us, because of studies, reports, surveys that show us how it is important. So many things that we take for granted as a “duh, you mean you didn’t know that?”, were actually pretty new concepts not too long ago… Even things like how carnivores are important in ensuring a healthy ecosystem was actually the subject of much debate very recently in the 1960s, according to Where The Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg)
Change starts with me!
Perhaps, the greatest takeaway from this talk, was that we cannot keep depending on the government to solve all our problems. We need to start taking action, and do something by yourself. (A recurring theme) If you always wait for the government, it will never happen. (But I’m just wondering, what about things like biodiversity and environmental education? How do you get your voice heard by people who matter and can change things?)
There were questions that I was mulling over, wondering if I should ask (did not seem quite so relevant). Prof Leo Tan had grown up amidst biodiversity, Nature. But what about the kids of today? We don’t really learn much in textbooks, are rarely brought out to play/explore, and there is little to no mention of biodiversity or conservation in the secondary school/junior college syllabi, how are we then, to nurture the next generation of conservationists? Perhaps only when they come to university.
Will there be re-introduction of biodiversity in the mainstream syllabus? I sure hope so. There are other comments that I would like to add about what Prof Tan brought up, but I fear this post is already lengthy enough.
But anyway, this post is slight rehash of the talk; if you missed it and would like to catch it, you can watch the video (strongly advised!) once the u@live committee has posted it up somewhere, or read Ivan Kwan’s Storified Tweets! Ria Tan has also blogged about the event. I have definitely missed out on a lot of very interesting things he brought up during the 2 hour + long session.