Animal lover not out to make the fur fly: interview with Louis Ng

Collaboration with the Government rather than confrontation is the key to successful activism, says Mr Louis Ng, 35. The founder of animal rights group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres)- which recently earned an honourable mention in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech to the public service - tells Tessa Wong his cause is much thornier than people think.
Straits Times 19 Oct 13;

What do you think of advocacy in Singapore?
Whenever I go for overseas conferences and (tell people) I'm an activist from Singapore, they always joke: "There is no activism in Singapore."

In the Western world they are taught to speak up, voice their concerns, and to question. But Asians are taught not to question. We accept what the teacher tells us, we are always taught to respect our elders.

That mindset has led us to a very silent activism here, where very few people dare to speak up. But I think it's growing now in Singapore, with Gen Y starting to speak up. I also think that if you take the Western brand of advocacy to say, Asia or Singapore, that would backfire. Asians generally don't like aggression. We try to collaborate a bit more than confront.

If you start doing protests outside some of these groups that exploit animals, it would backfire at this point. If you look at what Acres is trying to achieve and how we are doing it, we always back up what we say with good science. So we don't just say dolphins suffer in captivity, we publish a whole report citing scientific evidence on why we came up with this view.

How does this approach inform Acres' interactions with the Government?
The Government doesn't like confrontation, they are more into collaboration and partnerships. Obviously that is a very fair approach, but what Acres tries to do differently is that we do criticise the Government, but we always offer an alternative.

One example is the wildlife rescues we do. It was reported in the media (that) someone called (the police) about a python on the road. And the police responded by killing the python.

Yes, we could have gone on record and say: "It's really bad, the police don't know what they're doing. Why would you kill a non-venomous animal that would probably go away?"

Or we could approach them and say: "Acres is here, we have the expertise on how to handle pythons, we understand you have limited resources, so let us help you handle the pythons." Which is what is happening now. When you call the police for wildlife rescue, they now forward the call to Acres.

So there is now a win-win. The police can focus on proper crime issues, Acres can help the animal, and the animal benefits because we run on a no-kill policy.

The other approach, which is to just keep slamming the police... I think that always backfires, where you push the Government to one corner and you idealistically expect them to change. I don't think it's realistic at this point.

Some might see your approach as "selling out". How would you respond to such criticism?
I have had that feedback. I do help out with (Law and Foreign Affairs) Minister K. Shanmugam, he's seen at a lot of our events, a lot of people have said: "You are selling out, you are now with the Government."

I now sit on a lot of government-formed committees on animal welfare, and sometimes I do defend the Government's policies. Is that a sell-out? I don't think so. Because I do openly criticise when I personally don't agree with it.

The key is how we approach the issue and how we can try to collaborate to form a win-win solution. If we always form a very combative, very negative approach, then it's human instinct to be defensive. But if we can achieve a state where we can criticise and yet sit down at the same table and talk it out and find a solution, then that obviously is ideal.

But do you think Acres has also benefited from the fact that, of all the issues this Government can move on, animal rights is one of the easiest? Other issues such as manpower, or the preservation of Bukit Brown, can be thornier.
I don't think so. It's a thornier issue actually because for a lot of the animal issues, we are really talking about humans changing their behaviour. For example, when dealing with monkeys, we need people to change. If you buy a residence next to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, we now want you to take steps to change your lifestyle, and that is always the hardest part.

A lot of MPs tell us that their residents say: "Why should I change, I paid millions of dollars for this house, now you want me to mesh up, lock up my bins?" Singapore is a very intolerant society now.

In terms of ministers or politicians taking a lead on animal welfare, that's a bigger step than a lot of other issues, say manpower, where you are not really calling for a lifestyle change.

With Singapore's rapid urbanisation, how do you think we can strike a balance between the needs of humans and needs of animals?
If you look at the recent Population White Paper, a lot more land is going to be developed in Singapore, and obviously there is going to be a lot more human-wildlife conflict here in the coming years as the population grows.

We need to have a look at how we can co-exist with these animals, not just wild animals that Acres is focused on but also dogs and cats. Look at how other countries are doing it.

I go to Laos once a month, there are dogs walking on the street in packs... Most of us who have been to Bangkok, you see dogs everywhere. You go to Egypt and you go to the mall and there are cats walking around, you go to the market you see cats on the carpets they are selling. I ask them: "You don't mind?" No, because they are part of the community.

So as we progress this fast, we cannot forget about being a gracious society, which is not just being gracious to our neighbours and family and friends, but also to animals.

But living with packs of animals roaming around might be a difficult concept for Singaporeans to accept. How could you convince them?
It's a false perception that Singaporeans are not convinced. Because in all the surveys that have been done , Singaporeans are convinced, the overwhelming majority has said: "Look, we don't want to kill (them), we want more measures in place to prevent the culling of the animals."

But we fall into this misconception because there is a very vocal minority. They are calling AVA (Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority), MPs and community centres repeatedly.

At the same time, we are saying we are here to do something to help animals and residents, and with that approach, residents know we are not trying to alienate their concerns. We are trying to address both and find a win-win solution.