Let's develop Singapore while respecting nature: Nature Society president on Cross Island Line

"I'm hopeful that the decision still might go in a way that allows us not to put that forest at risk while giving us an even better MRT system than we could've ever imagined when we first started out on this journey," Dr Shawn Lum tells 938LIVE.

By Bharati Jagdish, 938LIVE Channel NewsAsia 19 Mar 16;

SINGAPORE: "We’re not saying 'Don’t build an MRT line'. We’re saying build it while incorporating and respecting nature. I really believe that we're capable of doing this. We've got talent, and committed people. I think we can get it sorted.”

Dr Shawn Lum, a tropical rainforest ecologist, was named the President of the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) - the country's oldest, largest and most vocal environmental NGO - six years ago.

The NSS has been working with the authorities in examining options for the building of the Cross Island Line. There are currently two options being studied: A direct one where a 2km tunnel runs under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and a 9km “skirting” option that would cost S$2 billion more and increase travel time by 6 minutes. It would also result in more land acquisitions which would affect home-owners in the area.

While mitigation measures will be taken if the shorter route is chosen and the authorities have said that the surface of the reserve will not be affected, green groups seem unconvinced.

Dr Shawn Lum went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about this and how much he thinks we really value nature in Singapore. Hailing from Hawaii, Dr Lum came to Southeast Asia to trace the roots of a tree. He originally planned to stay here for only two years, but ended up staying for more than 25 years.

Shawn Lum: I wasn't a child prodigy naturalist, but I grew up really enjoying the outdoors. My parents would always take me hiking, to waterfalls, every weekend at the beach near my grandmother's house. My mother also is a keen observer of nature, though she has no formal education. But, I think, being from a background where people look at the outdoors as a source of recreation or inspiration. I must have imbibed that. I was a Biology major as an undergraduate.

I wanted to study tropical ecology and, although most of my friends in the lab went to places like Costa Rica or Mexico, Panama, I went to Southeast Asia. Polynesians originally are from this area, and most of our Hawaiian flora - about 40 per cent of it - derives from this area. So it was, in a way, finding my roots, in both the literal sense –my Polynesian ancestry - as well as getting to know where this Hawaiian flora came from. I was supposed to be here for two years, and it's now 26 and counting.

I really fell in love with Singapore. The people, the cultures, and it's still very accessible to really nice habitats in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand.

Bharati Jagdish: In Singapore, it seems the value of most things needs to be quantifiable. Based on your observations, and the recent arguments over the Cross Island Line, what is your sense of how much we value nature?

Shawn Lum: It's a good question. In my 30 years of doing this kind of work, both as ecologist and as a conservationist, I don't think I've met anybody who told me that they don't like nature, they don't like greenery. Then the question becomes, to what extent do you value that - those wild spaces, so that you would be inclined to preserve them or even enhance them? The value of greenery I think is unquestioned. That's what make Singapore such a special place, for residents and visitors. But many might not have the training or the background to realise a park, from a very lush streetscape to a biodiverse wild place ...

Bharati Jagdish: And they might say that a manicured park in or near my neighbourhood is good enough for me.

Shawn Lum: It might be the manicured park is good enough, or we might not be acquainted enough with this wild patch of jungle-ly vegetation to realise that it is actually a little bit different and quite a bit more special than, say, even a park. So, here I think the distinction isn't between people who love nature or don't, but it's more a case of 'Do we know it, understand it' and develop a feel for it - not just up in the head but in your heart, that this is not only beautiful, but it's also important. And I think that's part of upbringing, a bit of awareness, exposure.

Bharati Jagdish: To what extent do you feel you’ve done enough though in terms of doing this, considering that many in Singapore feel that shaving 6 mins off travel time and S$2 billion is more important than ensuring that the Central Catchment Nature Reserve is protected from risk?

Shawn Lum: The next step is how do we go from this beautiful urban garden setting to one that integrates wilder areas, and to appreciate that the two are synergistic.

Bharati Jagdish: The authorities have explained that mitigation measures will be taken in the building of the Cross Island Line, but you say that there could be lapses and the vibration of equipment and trains could put the wildlife at risk. We should point out these are just “maybes.” But how far do you think you've succeeded in making this argument and persuading people?

Shawn Lum: I think we can do a lot better. We should do a lot better. So let's just say nature in a real general way. If you talk to anybody who's grown up in a kampung, or some of our elders, they know the names of birds and trees. I’m a Biology teacher and today, we have Biology students who don't know what a rambutan or a cempedak tree looks like. We eat the stuff, but don't know where the thing comes from. To me, that's actually sad.

I think you should know these plants that were important, are still important to us, and were absolutely necessary for the survival of our ancestors. I think to not know this diminishes our life a little bit. I think it's very unfortunate not to be able to know your landscape, to know the wildlife that you share your space with and to realise that there is so much of it. There's just so much of it, and we just kind of rush through our lives, not noticing this. I think one's quality of life could be increased dramatically, just by realising that we live in this wonderful place. Look at all the birds and the butterflies. We don't have to go make any special effort. It's all around us.

Bharati Jagdish: But is enough being done to reach out to the Singaporeans who think in utilitarian terms? From school onwards, most of the emphasis is generally on academic excellence that’s expected to reap financial rewards in the future. How much of a focus really is there on nature?

Shawn Lum: If I've been doing this for 20 years and the standard has gone down. Maybe it's partly my fault. I used to train teachers at NIE. To be fair to teachers and to everybody else, we rush around in our lives. I don't think you should examine people on this, obviously, and I don't think it makes you a better citizen to know that this a tembusu tree, or this is a magpie robin but, I think to know this is your place in the world and this is the bounty that surrounds you and was actually something your ancestors could relate to, is a very important and powerful thing and I think it's worth investing time and effort into getting to know.

Bharati Jagdish: But I question if you’ve made a good enough case for it in the public sphere?

Shawn Lum: We plan to reach out more talk to people of various backgrounds and mother tongues. But it’s not really a case of one or the other. Is there a way of having both the development, good development, and environmental sustainability? By good, I mean it provides opportunities for people in terms of transport and housing and at the same time, it actually improves our environmental sustainability. A closed-loop kind of thinking that goes into development. Does it also provide opportunities for urban wildlife, for example. I think that's very good. So can we have all of that, and do it in such a way that it does not require clearing green spaces, but can actually be incorporated into or built around green spaces, and this is not just the nature reserves, but green areas in general.

Bharati Jagdish: To what extent do you feel like your arguments really need to be utility-based in Singapore, more than, "Oh, you know, humans need nature for emotional well-being" type of arguments?

Shawn Lum: I think, for different people, a different message will resonate. It’s not about being wishy-washy, but I think it's because nature means a lot of things and different things to different people. Are we doing a good enough job of reaching out? I think we can always do better

Bharati Jagdish: Better, how?

Shawn Lum: If you think about the role that natural spaces play, the number of people who rely on pristine waters for food, especially in Asia where we have large coastal populations. The need for clean water… and I think, increasingly, we're seeing that when resources are in short supply, especially irreplaceable ones such as water, conflict ensues.

Bharati Jagdish: But then not all green spaces do this.

Shawn Lum: So what I'm not arguing is that, without a central catchment area, every Singaporean will die a miserable death. But I think as a principle, if we just see land or green areas just as space that has a value per square foot, or that it has a kind of a direct economic value if we convert it to something else, then I think we've been a bit short-sighted. Once you lose it, it doesn’t come back. These things don't come back in a human lifetime. I might personally not rely on this ecosystem services argument in the case of the central catchment area. So, we will still have water. We will still have some sort of urban wildlife. We will still have green spaces.

Bharati Jagdish: Yes, so some people might say, “What’s the problem then?”

Shawn Lum: Does it regulate our water? And I think it does. But does this mean if we lose a line of vegetation, will that permanently impair our water supply, and the answer is I don't think it will. One of the issues is that it does happen to have a very special and sensitive type of biodiversity. That's true, and if we lose that, it's not coming back anytime soon. To try to reestablish it would be costly.

Bharati Jagdish: Some accuse you of being irrational, tree-huggers. How do you feel about that?

Shawn Lum: I think it's a moral duty to look after our elders and to respect them. I think it's a moral duty to look out for those who have not had the advantages that some of us have enjoyed. And to make sure that with every generation, more people have access to the kinds of things that we would want for everybody – housing, good education, opportunities for jobs. I think that's an obligation. I also think it's an obligation to look after the environment. Not just because there's birds, butterflies and plants out there, but because, if you scale it up, think about what we are going to do without coral reefs. What will we do without forests that regulate our global weather patterns? Imagine no Amazon, no Serengeti, no Congo.

What we're looking at are similar issues, on a much smaller scale, but the principle is the same. I think to see a nature area as just a commodity, as just land, a place where you can just cut things down to sell timber, or to maybe plant a plantation is very simplistic and I would say that is what might be irrational, because it doesn't see this broader value of nature. It’s not just that it has a right to exist, although I think many people would say that, but because, actually, without nature on any scale, local, regional, global, we're basically doomed.

Bharati Jagdish: But some would say as you’ve seen in public comments on this issue - how much would we lose, really, if we lost the biodiversity? This, as opposed to making our commute shorter, so that we can spend time with family … for instance.

Shawn Lum: But would we be diminished somewhat in knowing that we've actually degraded something that's very rare? Perhaps. Are we saying that we're not creative a people that we could still achieve the requisite level of development, while at the same time, providing this area for the enjoyment of people as well as wildlife? We’re not saying “Don’t build an MRT line”. We’re saying build it while incorporating and respecting nature. I really believe that we're capable of doing this. We've got talent, and committed people. I think we can get it sorted.

Bharati Jagdish: Indeed the authorities have been working very closely with you over the last few years on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve issue and one your colleagues actually described this as a “model engagement”. To what extent do you think the authorities might be just paying you lip service though? We should bear in mind that we've seen a lot of statements from the LTA spelling out the disadvantages of building a longer Cross Island Line that skirts around the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

Shawn Lum: Well, I have to admit, we've not necessarily heard the advantages of avoiding the nature reserve, from any authorities. But I won't second-guess a minister who's been very supportive while he was at the Ministry for National Development. I won't second-guess my friends now at the LTA. I have also been told what if this is just one big wayang just to pacify green groups. I'm not so sure. It would be very unproductive not just for us, but for the authorities as well, if for two and a half years, people met for many hours, sometimes weekly, or even more often than that, going through every step of this scoping of the EIA. If this was just an engagement to keep people quiet, then I think what there would be a huge disappointment among stakeholders, and so I would be very surprised, to put it mildly, to think that this was just a big show.

Bharati Jagdish: You talked about creative options to incorporate conservation into development, but also don’t forget, there are costs associated with some of these options.

Shawn Lum: I also realise that these sums of money are not trivial. I have to say it's a privilege to live in a place where we can contemplate or countenance these kinds of decisions. "Well, we'll do this, it's going to cost that much, but I think we should be able to afford it." But that money is not necessarily an expenditure, it's an investment. It's an investment in our commitment to a green biodiverse future. A statement to the international community, an investment, a long term investment in that it gives people more access to better transport options, so all around, that money should pay for itself.

Bharati Jagdish: The Nature Society has taken issue in the past with things like the Government's land-use draft master plan. It questioned that only 4.4 per cent of our land area in 2030 is going to be committed to preserving the plants and animals, based on the plan. This falls well short of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity recommendation that at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas should be conserved. But we are a small country. Is that a realistic expectation?

Shawn Lum: Yes, we are a small country, and obviously we don't have the natural resources, but this idea of land scarcity, are we so short of land that we cannot allocate 5 or more per cent to green spaces? Natural wild green spaces. Then people might say, well, what about the nature reserve, it's less than 3 per cent, so what else is there and, if you actually look, there is a lot of wild area. Some of it might be under military jurisdiction. Others might be these areas that were formally kampungs and left to regenerate. But if you add this all up, it is considerably more than 5 per cent.

Not all of it I'm sure we can afford to leave as is, but we feel that by closely integrating the preservation of these green spots as well as the maintenance of these green areas alongside development, we should still be able to reach a target that's closer to the guidelines set by the Convention on Biodiversity or CBD to which Singapore is a signatory. What I'm told is that, when Singapore commits to something, it's a strong and lasting commitment, so it would not only look bad, but it would be maybe not wise to declare many areas nature reserves and national parks.

Bharati Jagdish: Just in case we need the land for something else.

Shawn Lum: Yeah. So if you look at carefully-worded various documents, such as the Green Plan, it often says we will keep green areas for as long as possible. That could mean in perpetuity. It also could mean, just 10 years or 20 years.

Bharati Jagdish: Wouldn't you like to see more clarity on such things?

Shawn Lum: Ideally, it would be wonderful if tomorrow I read the papers or heard over the radio that we're going to keep 20 per cent of our green areas as is, in perpetuity. But I try to put myself in the place of a planner or a policy maker. I think that that would be at least right now, very difficult to do. I think because there are other stakeholders, there are these other needs. There is certain information that we, both you and me, are not privy to, because of some of these long-range plans.

So clarity and transparency, I think, are very good, but I don't think, and I respect, that authorities are able or necessarily obliged to share every thought that they have among themselves for various, strategic, or other reasons.

Bharati Jagdish: So you concede that there are other factors at play. Yet you don’t back down?

Shawn Lum: In the greater scheme of things, there are some advantages actually to going around the nature reserve in this case, and I think that when, my colleague Tony O'Dempsey and others proposed a skirting type alignment, it was not just to protect the nature reserve, but also to point out there might be some advantages in the longer route – potentially greater access to more people, because it would go through communities that would then be able to take advantage of this Cross Island Line. So it's a whole bunch of different things, but now, obviously there are some people saying that well, you know this is a nature reserve. Maybe the idea of having the train line possibly going under or over the nature reserve is something that should not have been considered in the first place.

A habitat survey of that very area 25 years ago by a forestry expert, Mr Wong Yew Kwan, found a couple of green patches just in that MacRitchie area, under which maybe a MRT line would go. He found a type of vegetation that we usually find on mountain ridges. It's this thing called seraya, which is found at Bukit Timah. You find it on these hills, and in his 50 years of working in Malaya and Malaysia and Singapore, he'd never come across a seraya type forest in a lowland situation. It was so unusual to him that he actually highlighted it in his report as being one of the standout in MacRitchie, and, when the alignment was first published, and of course, it was a rough one, just kind of drawn on a map. It went right under. Right under that patch.

Bharati Jagdish: It would seem based on what you just said that those who are aware of the natural value of this area, may still go ahead and suggest that the line be built under the area. So generally, it seems many may not place much value on nature. You have a lot of convincing yet to do. The authorities talk about how they will have to talk to more people about vacating their homes and things like that, and the people in that neighbourhood are not happy either. So, clearly, their concerns need to be considered as well.

Shawn Lum: Oh, absolutely. The homes are precious to people and nature's precious to people, and, really, in the end, I suppose it's what to us as a nation is best for us and for our children.

I think, at some point we'll get to that stage where a decision is made, and hopefully, we'll find things in the interim, and people will provide their own feedback, which might suggest that, going around, turns out to be a better alternative for everyone, not just for nature lovers. But we're not there yet. In this case, I think the authorities are fully aware of the sensitivity of the nature reserve, so I don't think they intend to just kind of cut a huge swathe through the forest reserve. The fear is not that the authorities would not be aware of the sensitivity, that they would not be careful to minimise possible impacts but, what are some of the risks associated with both this soil investigation now, as well as the actual works themselves, whether they go through or around. Some of it is unknown to both the authorities and to us. And, those risks are considerable enough to give us pause.

Bharati Jagdish: How would you feel if a decision is made to cut under the Nature Reserve?

Shawn Lum: I would feel sad, and I would also be a little bit concerned. Concerned, because considerable damage may be done in the course of this work, and the other concern would be, does this send out a message that if we could do this, maybe we could do some other infrastructure work

Bharati Jagdish: To what extent do you feel we have leaned too much towards development?

Shawn Lum: One of the things that I often hear from my students, when they do presentations is that Singapore has lost a lot of natural habitat to development. The actual truth is that all that natural habitat was lost within 50 years of Raffles' landing, because there was this widespread cultivation of crop called gambier, and then after, black pepper, pineapple and, so most of the nature areas were gone. Even if we look out from the Caldecott studios, see that MacRitchie area, maybe 150 years ago, there were a few patches of trees. Some fairly large, some small, but everything in between was cleared, and so that's regenerated as secondary forest and that's our central catchment area today.

So, in some ways, most of the good habitat was really gone long before Singapore independence. Now, green areas such as abandoned kampungs, some wild habitats have made way for more recent development, but by and large, the areas that are nature reserves today have been under protection and were some of the few green areas that we had when the nature reserves were established, the forest reserves that were established in the late 1800s.

Bharati Jagdish: What is your assessment of the post-independence period?

Shawn Lum: So, since independence, many green areas have regenerated. Areas that were formerly kampungs or abandoned agricultural land actually have come back as these beautifully-forested areas, and some of them are quite vast. Many of these areas are, if you look at our long-term concept plans, earmarked for eventual development, such as the Bukit Brown area. Maybe the question that someone my colleagues and myself would have is: To what extent are these plans so fixed that we have to carry them through to the letter? I don't think this is really the case, neither is it the intention to be fair. Can these be modified slightly so that maybe green areas that were abandoned agricultural land, for example, could possibly be incorporated as these functioning ecosystems, into a developed area?

I think to look at people who love nature and to say that they're anti-development, is not true, nor would it be fair, I think people who love nature also see the absolute importance of a development that provides for people, that's more sustainable, and that could be a model for implementation elsewhere, places that haven't kind of gone through this development cycle.

Bharati Jagdish: Over the years, we've seen quite a number of places in Singapore go, in favour of development. Which place, building or area do you regret is gone?

Shawn Lum: Like many Singaporeans, I love the National Library. I miss the green spaces right to the Bras Basah corridor. Of course, now we have a university there. The Punggol river was actually an incredible mangrove area right into the heart of Hougang. I thought that that was actually quite remarkable, and the Senoko Wetlands, which were comparable to Sungei Buloh. If you talk to people who were here in the 60s, the Serangoon Estuary, which then became the Lorong Halus area - that apparently was incredible. You know, tens of thousands of migratory birds on a scale that we've not seen since. They had to make way, and we understand the reasons, but that doesn't make the sense of any less acute.

Bharati Jagdish: In the Singapore context, what criteria do you think it should applied when deciding whether a particular space is worth keeping?

Shawn Lum: At least from a biodiversity point of view or ecosystem point of view, is it unique? Is it something that has potential for further development and maturation and restoration? So a lot of people say, well, this area doesn't have any rare species of trees, for example. Well, that can always be enhanced, but it might obscure the argument that actually, that doesn't make any less valuable for wildlife. So I think uniqueness of habitat, the accessibility of that area, the potential of that area to coexist with development.

I've seen every Nature Society proposal over the past 20, 30 years now, and and very seldom does it call for no development, but it's often a case of maybe realigning the development to incorporate a green area. So I think even some of our more progressive members are fully aware, and are by no means, anti-development. It’s always: "Let see how we can creatively incorporate this green space, maintain the aesthetic service area, the biodiversity value, recreation and educational value without substantively or perhaps, without at all diminishing the development.

Bharati Jagdish: Make a case for this in relation to the Cross Island Line. Convert the unconverted.

Shawn Lum: I would not try to make it a kind of a dichotomist thing where people lose, or animals lose. We can still build the train line. Let’s just make sure nature is not put at risk because of it. It's a moral question really. And again, and it's not nature for the animals. It's nature for people also. It's a heritage. Knowing more about that heritage would also certainly be good, and I think, if more people are not aware,

I look at myself and say, well, I, maybe I didn't do as good a job as I could have to highlight just how wonderful and important this is. Not just for a nature-lover or somebody who studies biodiversity, but just somebody for whom this is home. You realise that this is where your parents were, your grandparents, this is the stuff that brings you life. Sustains you. And there is this duty to take care of it.

It's a duty, and I think that, maybe, just through living busy urban lives, not just in Singapore, but all over the world, that connection sometimes is lost. And I hope we'll be able to rekindle that. We plan to reach out to more people. To broader groups of people. People from different backgrounds, with different mother tongues, show them that we can do things, not just in a biological way, but really just, in the sense that this is nature, it's wonderful. Pick this up as a hobby. You'll never regret it. Something you can do for the rest of your life.

Bharati Jagdish: Once this decision is made on the cross-island line, if it doesn't go the way of the nature society and all the other nature enthusiasts and lovers who have been speaking up over the last few months and years, what will you do next?

Shawn Lum: I'm hopeful that whatever the outcome, we come out of this with a much more holistic view of the role of wild places and nature in our lives. And that this is something positive that can be carried to other aspects of our society and our country as we develop, as we educate our kids, as we spend time with each other and with the environment that surrounds us.

I think we take the positives, and there are many. Take the energy. Look at the young people that have come forward to voice out their concerns. Let's harness their energy, let's do good things, not just in Singapore, but let's take that and make sure that Singapore does all it's capable of doing, and that's a lot, in the wider region. I'm also hopeful that the decision still might go in a way that allows us not to put that forest at risk while giving us an even better MRT system than we could've ever imagined when we first started out on this journey.

- 938LIVE/av


Related links
Love our MacRitchie Forest: walks, talks and petition. Also on facebook.

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