Best of our wild blogs: 24 Mar 13

Butterfly Bubbles
from Butterflies of Singapore

Weekend gardening @ Tampines Eco Park
from The Green Volunteers

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Singapore dialogues 'have influenced policymaking'

Minister says public engagement exercise prompted initiatives unveiled in Budget
Rachel Chang Straits Times 24 Mar 13;

To those who dismiss the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise as a wayang, a talkshop or a sideshow, the minister guiding it, Mr Heng Swee Keat, points to the recently passed Budget as evidence that it is already having an impact on policymaking.

The mass public engagement exercise through citizen dialogues has been under way for five months and has already changed the way policies are being shaped and prompted a slew of initiatives unveiled in the 2013 Budget, said Mr Heng.

From a wage credit scheme to boost pay to the introduction of government-run kindergartens, these were linked by the goal of meeting common aspirations that have emerged from the exercise.

The dialogues have provided no less than a new philosophical underpinning for cross-government efforts, he said.

For example, one of the 12 common aspirations to emerge from the sessions - termed "Citizens' Perspectives" - is to have a society that takes care of its disadvantaged.

It is this goal that links recent policy directions across ministries, "whether it's in education where I spoke about levelling up, or in the specific assistance schemes that the Ministry of Social and Family Development will put up, or in the way that the Ministry of Manpower reviews this wage credit scheme", he said.

His interview with The Sunday Times ranged from the political and social changes emerging from the OSC exercise to how communication of the controversial Population White Paper stacked up - poorly, he freely admitted.

But he was clearly proud of its efforts so far.

The well-received Budget 2013 is the biggest example of how the many conversations so far - with the Government listening in - have already "permeated policymaking".

"There's absolutely no reason to be cynical," he said. "It has shaped the drift of policy and provided a backdrop to the changes we are seeing."

He believes that the format of the exercise - bringing together small groups of people of different backgrounds to thrash out national issues - should be followed for all complex government decisions, except those where speed and confidentiality are necessary.

This style of engagement, as opposed to the traditional practice of mere consultation, has two advantages, he said.

The first is its open-endedness, which allows for a free airing of diverse views. The second is that it puts groups of Singaporeans with differing, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives squarely face to face.

While this may not change their minds, it can help them appreciate other problems, other world views, and the trade-offs among them, he said.

In fact, it would have been useful if the consultation process for the recent Population White Paper, published in January to a firestorm, had dovetailed with the OSC exercise, he said.

He was responding to the view, most recently expressed by PAP MP Denise Phua after the Budget debate, that the White Paper debacle lost the Government goodwill that the national conversation was generating.

Mr Heng said that when he and his team began planning the citizen dialogues last August, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he wanted Singaporeans to "ask ourselves some fundamental questions", consultation for the White Paper was already six months along.

A decision was made not to combine the two exercises.

Asked how the White Paper's communication could have been better-handled, he said that where things went wrong was the focus on the population projection of 6.9million in 2030.

"I would say that if we had discussed it in terms of what are the fundamental issues about the Singaporean identity, the size of the Singapore core, should we plan infrastructure ahead of demand, how do we restructure the economy to cope with an ageing population, we would have been more focused on the critical issues."

In an OSC dialogue, such issues "come bottom up", he said.

Freelance photographer Shawn Byron Danker, 35, who has attended two sessions, agreed. "The White Paper gave the OSC a black eye," he said. "The OSC was supposed to be about listening, responding, but the White Paper felt like it was bulldozing. If they did it through the OSC, even test-driving the numbers in the small groups, it might not have got such a backlash."

But Mr Heng is reluctant to dwell on questions about how the OSC exercise can regain the ground lost by the Population White Paper, or if the PAP's recent defeat in the Punggol East by-election shows that it faces an uphill battle in stemming a rising anti-government tide.

Rather, he emphasised that the exercise seeks more to bring Singaporeans together, than to bring Singaporeans to the Government.

"It's really not about a better consultation process, but really it is about Singaporeans being able to come together to understand each other," he said.

He worries that as Singapore society matures and viewpoints diversify, the tendency for polarisation grows.

"In some countries, the idea of having people come together to sit at a table to discuss their opposing views is almost impossible," he said. What he hopes the OSC can kick-start is a habit in the population of being able to talk about divisive issues and find a compromise, or agree to disagree.

He is particularly proud of ground-up conversations that are not centrally organised by the OSC, but by other bodies ranging from accounting firms to voluntary welfare organisations.

The Salvation Army held a session last month with those its social services arm helps, such as teenagers from children's homes and families of prison inmates.

The issues these participants brought up - such as having more time to interact with their parents or spouses in jail, or where they would go after they grew too old to stay in a home - were certainly not run-of-the-mill concerns.

It was also the first time that many of them had been asked "What kind of Singapore do you want to see?" said Ms Linda Au Yong, its Singapore director of social and community services.

As for what might come out of the session, she said: "I don't think they left thinking, 'Oh, there will be a solution for us'. They left thinking, 'I have been heard'."

But for other Singaporeans, what has been said in the OSC exercise so far seems to have a familiar ring.

The "citizens' perspectives" - from a society with a sense of belonging, to one with a more fulfilling pace of life - strike some as stating the obvious.

Financial controller Larry Medina, 47, felt most people at his session, attended by about 50, dwelt on the same topics that have been flagged constantly online.

"But it's easy to dismiss the views on the Internet, and they often descend into negativity or criticism," he said.

"I think that the Government is more accepting of views through the OSC and responsive to it because it's their project. I'm sort of amazed at the number of new initiatives that have been rolled out."

Mr Danker said the reaction he heard from some civil society activists when invited to the OSC was: "Why must we go and talk to them?" But to him, the answer is simply "because the Government has asked".

"They've reached out. I won't turn around and slap their hand aside," he said.

Mr Heng is heartened by such views, despite the scepticism and indifference that the exercise faces from various quarters, most notably online.

"I'm encouraged by those who came being cynical and left feeling good. I'm encouraged by those who came wanting to talk about their own issue and left saying, 'I learnt something about other people's perspectives that I wouldn't otherwise have known'."

He is confident that the number of converts will only grow.

"There is a Chinese saying, 'you know the value of a horse over a long journey'. This is a long learning journey, and what we need to do is keep to the sincerity and authenticity of the process.

"If we just keep doing that, then eventually I think people will see that this is a genuine, sincere effort and this is really about the future of Singapore."

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Why waste so much if we love food?

Tom Benner Straits Times 24 Mar 13;

Singaporeans tossed out some 675 million kilos of food in 2011, according to the National Environment Agency, a vast amount that exposes the casual attitudes and habits of living in a food paradise and land of plenty.

This may seem surprising for Singapore, a small island that imports most of what is consumed. Singaporeans are second to none in their love of food, yet one routinely sees unfinished plates getting scraped into rubbish bins, from hawker centres to high-end restaurants and catered affairs.

It is not just a Singapore problem; it is a part of a global problem of growing proportions.

Food loss and food waste occur at alarming rates - about one-third of all the food produced for human consumption, some 1.3 billion tonnes of food worth around US$1 trillion (S$1.25 trillion) - is lost or wasted each year. At the same time, world food demand grows; about one billion people are undernourished globally.

Food loss typically happens in the way food is harvested, transported, processed and stored. One example: Staggering amounts of rice are lost to substandard farm storage facilities vulnerable to pest infestation and moisture.

Food waste typically happens at the retail and consumer end. Fruit and vegetables that don't meet overly strict cosmetic standards - so-called "funny fruit" or "ugly produce" - are rejected by major supermarkets and thrown away. Household refrigerators are stuffed with forgotten, perishable groceries. Many people confuse "best-before" and "use-by" date stamps on food products. Restaurant meals and banquet fare go unfinished or untouched.

It is an economic issue, an environmental issue and a moral issue.

Food waste and loss drive up food prices and squander resources including water, energy, labour and land. Discarded food and packaging strain our disposal processes and end up in landfills, which in turn contribute to greenhouse gases and global warming, or are incinerated. The latter is what happens in Singapore, and that is hardly compatible with its green aspirations. As the planet's human population looks to grow from seven billion to nine billion by 2050, food waste and loss threaten our sustainability.

It matters in global terms and it matters in pocketbook terms: Food waste is an unnecessary drain on household budgets.

A global United Nations campaign seeks to make changes in food production and consumption, from the way food is grown, transported, processed and stored to the way it is sold and consumed. The campaign, Think.Eat.Save, with its clever slogan, "Reduce your foodprint", is organised by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Researchers at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) issued a report last year on food waste in South-east Asia, calling for changes in the food supply chain from "farm to bowl". They warned that attitudes among retailers, the hospitality sector, and consumers in cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong are increasingly crucial to address.

Four final-year NTU students recently took up the cause, promoting catchy mantras designed to raise awareness among consumers. One of their mantras, "Don't shy shy", encourages restaurant diners not to be shy about asking for unfinished food to be wrapped up. Other mantras include: "Are you an S/M/L?", which encourages diners to order the right portion sizes, "Be original", which asks diners to customise orders by leaving out ingredients they won't eat, and "Appreciate the little things in life", which encourages diners not to overlook side dishes.

A handful of food and beverage operations agreed to implement the mantras over the months of February and March as tips to consumers to help them prevent food wastage.

Among them is Naked Fish Shoppe owner James Wong, whose restaurants use fish trimmings - "perfectly good food that would normally be thrown out" - in dishes of baked rice, garnished with cheese and seasoning. He also tries to educate consumers by offering children's and adult portion sizes, and the choice to substitute unwanted sides such as french fries.

Such efforts take imagination and initiative but restaurateurs can remember that, in addition to helping the environment, saving food is saving money.

Experts say tax incentives can help to promote donations of usable food, aided by a strengthened food redistribution network to ensure safety standards are met. In land-scarce Singapore, composting is not as environmentally viable as it is in other places, and disincentives that have been tried elsewhere, such as mandatory food waste separation and food waste disposal fees, seem unlikely to be widely accepted.

Consciousness-raising campaigns can help, and young people should be a prime target. Surveys show that Singaporeans aged 20 to 35 years - a demographic that spends a large portion of their disposable income on eating out - have a high tendency to waste food. Young consumers have a lifetime of buying and eating food ahead of them, so getting the word out is key.

Significant losses of food at the production end will require the work of government and industry leaders to increase regional infrastructures and food processing systems. But retailers and consumers, particularly in countries such as Singapore that are rich in food, can take small, conscious steps that collectively shape a more sustainable future.

The writer is a freelance writer based in Singapore.

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Ikea stops providing disposable plastic bags

Customers have to use their own or buy reusable ones from furniture chain
David Ee and Jessica Lim Straits Times 24 Mar 13;

Furniture giant Ikea has decided that it is plastic not-so-fantastic. From yesterday, the Swedish company became the first retailer in Singapore to stop providing disposable plastic bags.

This leaves customers with two choices: either bring their own bag, or buy a reusable one for 60 or 90 cents, depending on the size.

The reusable bags used to cost 90 cents and $1.20, but prices have been cut to placate customers disgruntled with the new move.

But this is nothing new for the furniture chain. Its stores in Britain have had a no-disposable plastic bag policy since 2007. There are also no plastic bags in its stores in America, Canada, Australia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Still, is the inconvenience to customers here worth it?

Given Singapore's small size, three billion plastic bags are used every year compared to one trillion around the world. That is 0.003 per cent.

And bags here are incinerated at temperatures of 1,000 deg C, which stops the release of harmful dioxins, said National University of Singapore Associate Professor Ting Yen Peng, a chemical and biomolecular engineer .

But it still adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, leading to global warming, and the bags, which take 1,000 years to disintegrate naturally, pose dangers to marine life when they get into the sea.

Ikea Singapore's sustainability manager, Mr Marcus Tay, told The Sunday Times that the latest decision was made easier after customers reacted positively when the company started charging for bags - five cents for a small one; 10 cents for the large size - in 2007.

"There was minimal resistance... This showed us that Singaporeans are positive about moving towards more sustainable living," he said.

Since charging for disposable plastic bags, Ikea's two stores in Alexandra and Tampines managed to save on 18 million bags, he added.

But Ikea stands alone in its quest to stop Singapore from relying on the ubiquitous disposable plastic bag.

Last year, clothing chain Bossini began charging 10 cents for each bag, one of a handful of retailers here that do not hand them out free.

But supermarket chains The Sunday Times spoke to plan to stick with the status quo. Dairy Farm Singapore, which runs the Giant and Cold Storage chains, said that shoppers still expect to be provided free plastic bags.

An NTUC FairPrice spokesman added that customer habits will take time to change.

But there may be more to banning plastic bags than just helping Singapore to go green.

Said Mr Simon Bell, director of strategy at global brand consulting firm Landor Associates: "A brand with a green cause is often held in higher esteem than a brand without one in today's world. Consumers are... often choosing brands with a strong cause over others, to feel like they are 'doing good' in a way while they shop."

Shoppers here remain divided though.

Said compliance executive Mark Chew, 33: "It's a duty for the shop to provide a bag (free). I don't care if it's plastic or not."

But Mr Desmond Pereira, a 61-year-old warehouse manager who carries a cloth bag with him, feels there is little excuse in not chipping in to help the environment.

"Everybody has bags at home (they can bring). Why is it inconvenient?"

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Singapore's skyline plunges into darkness for "Earth Hour"

Sara Grosse Channel NewsAsia 23 Mar 13;

SINGAPORE: In a massive display to show concern for the environment, it was lights out for Singapore's skyline.

Just after 8pm Saturday, several hotels, businesses and companies switched off their lights for Earth Hour. In all, more than 100 buildings around the city centre took part.

The event aims to unite the world in campaigning against climate change by the simple deed of just turning off the lights for one hour.

Some businesses have also pledged to go "beyond the hour".

For example, Marina Bay Sands has rallied team members to adopt environmental-friendly lifestyle changes.

And away from the city centre, it was also lights out in other parts of Singapore.

In Clementi, common lights at three blocks of flats were switched off for an hour from 8.30pm.

As part of the event, residents in the neighbourhood were also encouraged to turn off their lights at home.

Singapore goes dark for Earth Hour
Dozens of office buildings, hotels and shopping malls turned off non-essential lighting from 8.30pm to 9.30pm for global initiative
Straits Times 24 Mar 13;

Landmarks like the Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay and the Esplanade went dark for an hour last night.

Dozens of office buildings, hotels and shopping malls also turned off non-essential lighting from 8.30pm to 9.30pm to mark Earth Hour - a global initiative by the World Wildlife Fund to support more sustainable living - in Singapore.

Sydney's skyline was among the first in the world to go dark as the event kicked off. Many of the world's iconic attractions, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Bird's Nest in Beijing, and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai took part.

In Japan's north-east, residents lit candles to both show support for the campaign and mourn victims of the 2011 quake-tsunami disaster, organisers said.

At Singapore's Marina Bay floating platform, about 5,000 people gathered from late afternoon and many danced on special energy absorbing pads to generate enough electricity to power an outdoor movie screening.

Acting Minister for Manpower and Senior Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan- Jin, who spoke at the event, called on all Singaporeans to do their part to save the environment with small, simple acts.

"All these little efforts do count," he said.

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