Best of our wild blogs: 30 Dec 12

From Dairy Farm Park to Mandai Park Connector
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

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Singapore's Pulau Ubin offers a step back in time

A primitive enclave minutes by boat from the mainland island nation, its sleepy low-rise villages called kampongs stand in stark contrast to the dense, high-tech hubbub of its neighbor.
Andrew Bender, Special to the Los Angeles Times 30 Dec 12;

PULAU UBIN, Singapore — Think back, if you can, to 1965. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis was the year's architectural marvel, the world mourned Winston Churchill, and Pampers disposable diapers made their debut. Meanwhile, at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, the republic of Singapore declared its independence from Malaysia.

Today, the Gateway Arch still inspires, Churchill's iconic status is unfettered, and what's a cloth diaper? But the Singapore of 1965? Barely recognizable.

Except in one place: the island of Pulau Ubin, in the Johore Strait, which separates the city-state from Malaysia to the north. Although it's less than 15 minutes by boat from mainland Singapore, the difference could hardly be more pronounced.

Among Singaporeans of a certain age, the mention of Pulau Ubin conjures nostalgia for the days before their nation's transformation from a jungle of simple villages, called kampongs, to a forest of high-rises. For Singaporeans born since the 1970s, Pulau Ubin is probably as foreign as it was to this American, who went in search of peace, quiet and, quite literally, another side of Singapore.

Forty-seven years after independence, Singapore is Exhibit A for modernization: With 5 million souls in 272 square miles, it is Earth's second-most densely populated country after Monaco. Yet somehow it works, a multicultural metropolis and an economic rocket ship, one of the world's most educated societies and busiest ports, renowned for its street food and a flag-carrying airline that induces jealousy among other travelers.

Its architecture mixes British colonial with space age, its luxury hotels and shopping strips always seem busy, and it's so famously tidy that litter on its streets is a shock.

Pulau Ubin, on the other hand, feels bypassed by the decades.

Its estimated population of 45 families in 4 square miles lives in what signage calls Singapore's last remaining kampongs, many under corrugated tin roofs without electricity or running water. The few paved roads give way to gravel and dirt paths, in turn giving way to wooden boardwalks through marshlands and coastal plains.

About 20% of the island's vegetation is mangrove forest, and there's also Singapore's only off-road biking course.

It's one of the few places in the city-state where nature runs unfettered. While Singaporeans across the strait walk dogs, the dogs on Pulau Ubin are (mostly friendly) strays, sharing their turf with monkeys and wild boar. Bird- and sea life include plovers and sandpipers, the crab-eating salted frog and the banded archerfish, which kills its insect prey by shooting a jet of water.

A bit of etymology: Pulau means island in Malay, and ubin derives from the word for granite floor tiles, once quarried here by Chinese laborers. (The causeway to Malaysia was built with granite from Pulau Ubin.) After the quarries closed in the 1970s, workers left and the island went into Rip van Winkle mode.

By the 1990s, the Singapore government had drafted plans to modernize Pulau Ubin like the rest of the nation, until naturalists discovered its wonders and preservationists sought to save one example of kampong culture.

Today, Pulau Ubin is protected from development.

From the moment I boarded the bumboat from the dock near Changi Airport, it felt as if I were not in Singapore anymore. Small wooden bumboats are Singapore's signature transport (what the bateau mouche is to Paris), but whereas the bumboats plying the Singapore River through the city center appear spit-shined and plush, the ones to Pulau Ubin are all business, hauling people and cargo on hard seats covered with patterned Con-Tact paper.

Something else un-Singaporean: no schedule for boats to the island. They depart when 12 passengers show up and pay about $2 each. If you pay about $25 to hire the whole boat, it will leave right away.

At Pulau Ubin's principal kampong by the boat dock, former homes have been converted to humble open-air restaurants and stalls selling packaged food and supplies for campers and day-trippers. (One set of trash bins was designated for cans of coconuts.) A ramshackle Confucian temple, overseen by a roaming rooster, looked ticky tacky compared with the gleaming, multistory Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore's Chinatown.

Several shops in the kampong rent bicycles, an easy and economical way to get around the island on well-marked roads. Island taxis (usually simple vans) wait at the dock in case you're not used to off-roading (useful if it's been raining).

Alternatively, it takes about 40 minutes on foot to get to Chek Jawa Wetlands National Park, the island's main attraction on Pulau Ubin's southeastern end. The park comprises six ecosystems from coastal hills to sand bars and a mangrove forest, nature all but unknown to Singaporean urbanites.

The wetlands' visitor center offers a peek into colonial history, a 1930s Tudor-style home built partly of (what else?) granite for the British chief surveyor. Signs note that the house boasts Singapore's only operational fireplace (unnecessary in this tropical climate, so the chimney is now home to a colony of bats).

Nearby, from the top of the 66-foot Jejawi observation tower, the tops of palms seemed to reach up to my feet (a jejawi is a Malaysian banyan tree), and brisk winds during my visit made the canopy roil like a second sea.

From here, it's a fast 40-minute trip to a leisurely 1½-hour ramble along the boardwalks. Mangrove trees' extensive root systems help prevent soil erosion in strong seas, and their roots protrude from the ground to "breathe" the oxygen the silty earth doesn't provide. Unique species of crabs and lobsters can occasionally be seen skittering through the mangrove roots. The boardwalk continues on a coastal path, along a sea-grass lagoon and a shore of coral rubble punctuated by barnacles and tiny starfish.

Pulau Ubin can easily be a day trip (the bumboats run from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.), which I would recommend; the options for overnight guests (mostly campgrounds) reminded me of backpacking through rural Thailand in the 1980s. The open-sided restaurants in the dockside kampong are no gourmet experience either, although they're a decent value.

If you prefer a roof over your head, about your only option is the Celestial Pulau Ubin Resort. "Resort" is overstated, given the spare tile-floor rooms and meals at a beach club-for-backpackers-style snack bar. Still, it has a great waterside location a few minutes on foot from the jetty, with views across the Johore Strait. You'll find a simple beach, kayaks and bicycles for hire, as well as a foot spa full of "doctor fish" (garret ruga, or reddish log suckers), which tickle-nibble at dead skin and are supposed to leave your feet feeling smooth.

The best reason to visit Pulau Ubin is to escape the modern world, a rare feat anywhere these days.

Authorities estimate that the island gets about 2,000 visitors on weekends, but if you go on a weekday as I did, you'll probably find yourself blessedly alone. In Singapore, that's an accomplishment.

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Singapore's environmental issues in 2013: Minister Vivian

Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 29 Dec 12;

SINGAPORE: Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the priority and challenge will be in inculcating more socially gracious attitudes among Singaporeans.

Dr Balakrishnan said his ministry is also studying other countries to cope with a potential sea-level rise.

National water agency PUB has been making preparations for rainy days and the monsoon season, such as widening drainage and installing closed-circuit cameras (CCTVs).

The Environment and Water Resources Ministry said there are another 15 projects in the pipeline for PUB in the coming year.

It is a race to get Singapore "water independent" by ramping up land catchment areas and building more Newater plants.

Singapore's first water agreement with Malaysia expired in 2010 and the second one is due to expire in 2061.

In addition, the ministry and its statutory boards will take a tougher stand on littering.

From 2013, fines for first-time offenders will increase from S$300 to S$500.

The Home Affairs Ministry will be installing CCTVs in almost every block for for surveillance, and the National Environment Agency (NEA) will ride on this technology to catch high-rise litterbugs.

"We have to put a stop to high-rise littering -- it's unacceptable. Nearly 90 per cent of us live in high-rise apartments, and I get no end of complaints from people saying people are throwing all kinds of stuff," said Dr Balakrishnan.

As penalties increase, 2013 will also see stepped up enforcement, including giving citizens the power to take action against those who litter.

"We're going to start a course next year, which will be very similar to the same course our NEA officers go through, before they're issued with warrant cards to take action if need be, when a minority of people litter, or act irresponsibly in our environment," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"From next year onwards, we will have to step up enforcement, in order to send a message to anyone considering dropping something, that the probability of being caught is actually going to be higher, and therefore we hope there will be a greater deterrence. Our reputation of being clean and green was a hard-won reputation, and we cannot afford to lose it."

NEA also introduced the tray-return scheme at nine hawker centres in 2012. Over the next two years, it will roll out the scheme to all new and existing hawker centres.

In both cases, the ministry said it is about instilling a sense of graciousness in behaving responsibly, and using peer pressure to effect change.

Assoc Prof Paulin Tay-Straughan from the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore said: "This is the part where we have to be very careful when we talk about growing active state ownership, getting ordinary Singaporeans to step up and be part of this informal policing.

"It has to be done in a gracious manner. It has to be done in a way that does not publicly humiliate others, because then each time you get humiliated, you alienate that person, or a particular segment of the population will get alienated, and when you alienate people, you will not be able to get their buy-in. So the way to do it is to really learn how to encourage others towards pro-social behaviour in a gracious manner."

Assoc Prof Tay-Straughan said one way of instilling socially gracious behaviour is to learn from the past.

She said: "A very good example would be the queuing culture. Not that long ago, we did not queue. Remember the masses -- that when the bus comes, everybody pushes, to try to get up the bus. But then we decided that's not the right way to manage public behaviour, so we started the notion of the queue culture. And we've done that very well, right? You don't get fined for not standing in line. The reason you end up standing in line is because other people would tell you, 'This is a line, and you should be behind me.'

"We need to encourage Singaporeans to do that. When somebody litters, to say, 'Excuse me, the bin is around the corner.' Or to go one step further to when somebody drops a pack, as you're walking along, just pick it up and deposit it at the next bin you see."

On a larger scale, the Environment Ministry said it will do more to deal with the effects of climate change.

In 2011, the ministry raised the minimum levels for land reclamation by at least one metre, as an adequate buffer against a potential rise in sea levels.

This year, the National Climate Change Secretariat released a strategy document, detailing the government's multi-fold initiatives -- from reducing carbon emissions, to beefing up research capabilities for clean technology solutions.

The ministry said it is also studying countries like the Netherlands, where one-third of the country is below sea-level.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "It's a whole challenge of engineering, design, planning and learning new techniques in order to cope with sea-level rise. We also have to cope with greater volatility in weather."

Dr Balakrishnan said being a small country, Singapore will have to prepare for the worst, and take nothing for granted.

He said: "We're so focused on building up our water, our freshwater generation capacity, desalination and recycling, it is also part of the long-term preparation for climate change. That's a really major challenge which is creeping up on us, but actually, can end up being literally a tsunami that we have to deal with."

- CNA/xq

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Malaysia: Hill stripped for oil palm projects

Nik Imran Abdulla New Straits Times 30 Dec 12;

INSENSITIVE: Aggressive land clearing choking up streams with silt

GUA MUSANG: A HUGE part of a hilly terrain in Sungai Relai near here has been almost entirely deforested. A few hills have had their vegetation stripped from top to bottom.

Travellers using the road linking this town with Kenyir Lake in Terengganu would not miss the spot near Km65, as the eyesore is clear even from a distance.

The deforestation is alleged to be part of a massive oil palm and rubber estate project, in which Perak DAP chairman Datuk Ngeh Koo Ham and his cousin, Nga Kor Ming, reportedly have a stake.

A check by the New Sunday Times revealed that a logging company had set up office at the foothill. There was also a cluster of workers' kongsi and plots of oil palm nursery, all within a perimeter fence, with a security guard manning the entrance.

A worker, who introduced himself as Jali, said 10 Indonesians were hired to tend to the nursery.

"The rest are mostly loggers. The pile of logs you see nearby came from this place."

He said oil palm saplings at the nursery were likely to be planted at the site once the logs had been cleared from the area.

The valley close by is bearing the brunt of the soil erosion, especially with the heavy rainfall over the past week. Mud and silt from the logging site had flowed into nearby streams, causing the water to turn brown.

A youth, who identified himself as Adi, said he was familiar with the area as his father owned durian and dokong orchards just outside the logging site.

"This stream used to have clear water but it has been muddy since the land clearing began."

He said the stream emptied into a river nearby, which had also become polluted.

The site is alleged to be part of a 4,260ha piece of land, which the state government had admitted awarding to the Kelantan Islamic Foundation, which in turn, had entered into an agreement with Upayapadu Plantation Sdn Bhd for a joint land development project.

There was controversy after an allegation that the state government had given the land to Ngeh to make way for Pas leader Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin to be Perak menteri besar in 2008. The Kelantan government has insisted that the project was a legitimate business deal.

Bernama reported yesterday that Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Dr Awang Adek Hussin denied having any part in the alleged approval of land in Gua Musang to Perak DAP leaders.

He said a letter, dated Jan 16, 2006, which he signed when he was the deputy rural and regional development minister, was to recommend research and development for an integrated farming project to be carried out in the area. He said the letter was meant to get aid to develop the site.

"The letter was issued following an application by Upayapadu Plantation general manager Bazlin Ab Hamid to be given assistance to carry out economic activities in Kelantan. That was what was stated in the letter and I have no knowledge about ownership or lease of the land to the DAP leaders concerned."

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