Best of our wild blogs: 14 Sep 13

A Quiet Morning at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (SBWR)
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

Adult Little Heron attacking juvenile
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Activists target major snack makers over 'conflict' palm oil
from news by Rhett Butler

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NEA looking to drones in war on mosquitoes

Neo Chai Chin Today Online 14 Sep 13;

SINGAPORE — A monitoring system to detect noisy vehicles on the roads and unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect high spaces like roof gutters for mosquito-breeding spots.

These are two of the solutions being explored by the National Environment Agency (NEA), as part of efforts to better detect and tackle a myriad of bugbears, ranging from illegal hawkers to mysterious ambient odours.

A Noisy Vehicle Monitoring System, for instance, is being piloted at an undisclosed location. It aims to use directional microphones installed on road lanes and video technology to capture the licence plate numbers of vehicles that make excessive noise.

The pilot will go on for at least another year, given the extensive tests needed to get a shipshape system in place, said NEA Deputy Chief Executive (Technology and Corporate Development) Joseph Hui Kim Sung.

Outlining new detection capabilities being developed by the agency yesterday at the World Engineers Summit, Mr Hui said it is now operating in a more challenging environment. The Republic is getting more compact and urbanised and feeling the impact of climate change, and the NEA has to deal with extreme events and crises like mass food poisoning, oil spills, the haze and nuclear incidents happening in Singapore and other countries.

At the same time, the authorities are facing the need for greater transparency, accountability and public consultation, said Mr Hui, who was giving a presentation on integrated environmental management systems.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Hui cautioned that these projects are in the test-bedding stage. “Hopefully 50 per cent of them work out,” he said. “We have to recognise there’ll be some that may not work out, but at least we try.”

The project in its earliest stages is an “E-Nose” system that could help detect odours, enabling the authorities to trace the source early and nip any problems in the bud. “From time to time, we get complaints from the public that there is this smell in the air, and they don’t know where it comes from and they want something to be done about it,” he said. He added that the project has yet to be piloted, adding that odours are complex and can consist of many different compounds.

Already being piloted is a system to detect illegal hawkers. The aim is for portable cameras and video analytics to accurately alert the authorities to unauthorised vendors who set up shop temporarily at various locations.

Also on trial are unmanned aerial vehicles that could help public health officers to inspect rooftops, rain gutters and other inaccessible places for mosquito-breeding spots.

And to get “a better grip of the noise situation in Singapore”, the NEA is working with researchers on wireless sensors to map ambient noise in heartland areas and along roads in real time. The technology being tried will be cheaper and more efficient than what is currently used — but details are under wraps for now as it has not been patented, said Mr Hui.

The NEA hopes to channel air, water and land monitoring data into an integrated system. The information will then be processed and used in modelling to help forecast environmental conditions the public can expect for the next few hours.

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Fewer cars, fewer roads

Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times 14 Sep 13;

A FEW weeks ago, on Aug 28, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr entitled "I have a dream". He said: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character."

The goal of his speech was to open the roads to advancement for his fellow black citizens. I too have a dream for my fellow Singaporeans. However, while the goal of his speech was to open the roads to advancement, my goal is to close the roads to advancement for my fellow citizens. The only difference between him and me is that while he was speaking metaphorically, I am speaking literally. We do not need many more physical roads or much more physical road space in Singapore.

One undeniable hard truth of Singapore is that we live in one of the smallest countries in the world. This is also why we have one of the most expensive land costs in the entire world. Apart from Monaco, no other United Nations member state has land as expensive as Singapore has per square foot. Hence, we should value every square foot. Every square foot we give up to road space is a square foot taken away from other valuable uses: pedestrian walkways, bike paths, green parks and so on.

To be fair to our road planners, they are caught in a bind because Singapore is continuing to grow its population of cars. If we expand the number of cars, we have no choice but to expand the amount of roads to carry more cars. So the real solution is to reduce the demand for more cars in Singapore. How do we do this?

The problem here is that a car remains an essential part of the Singapore dream. Yet, if every Singaporean achieves his or her dream, we will get a national nightmare. To prevent this national nightmare from happening, we have created harsh policies to raise prices and reduce the demand for cars.

Status symbols

PARADOXICALLY, the high prices of cars have made them even more desirable as status symbols. This is why luxury brands trump cheap brands in Singapore sales. If the desirability of cars keeps rising, our efforts to curtail car ownership will be as successful as a dog chasing its tail.

So what is the alternative solution? The solution is obvious: Change the Singapore dream!

Yes, almost every Singaporean reading this article will laugh out loud at this suggestion. How can any well-off Singaporean deprive himself of a car? It serves as the most reliable form of transportation as well as a powerful status symbol. The minute you own a car, especially a Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Lexus, your friends know that you have arrived.

But for 10 years of my life, I have actually lived on another even more crowded tiny island where it is not rational to own a car. In fact, it is considered downright stupid to buy and own a car if you live in Manhattan. All this came home clearly to me one evening in Manhattan when I saw the former chairman of Citibank, Mr Walter Wriston, and his wife Kathryn standing on First Avenue with their arms raised and trying to hail a cab.

Clearly, Mr Wriston was then one of the richest men on our planet. He could have easily bought a car in Manhattan. Yet, it just did not make sense.

The eco-system of public transport that Manhattan had created with a combination of subway trains, public buses and readily accessible taxis meant that in a crunch you could get anywhere in Manhattan using public transport.

More significantly, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another clearly very rich man, used to take a subway train to work in Manhattan.

The former mayor of Colombian capital Bogota, Mr Enrique Penalosa, put it very well when he said: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation."

I have been to Bogota. When I visited it in 1992, the city was so unsafe that I was given a private bodyguard to walk down its equivalent of Orchard Road. Mr Penalosa transformed the city so much that Latino Fox News described him as "one of the world's pre- eminent minds on making modern cities more liveable."

Mr Penalosa is quoted as saying: "When we talk about car-free cities, we're not talking about some hippie dream. Not only do they exist, but they also are the most successful cities on the planet. The ones where the real estate is the most valuable, the ones that attract most tourists, the most investment, the ones that generate the most creative industries."

There was a time when Singapore's experiments in improving its urban environment would get global attention. Today, it is a man like Mr Penalosa, with bigger dreams than our dreams, who is described by Latino Fox News as a man whose "work and ideas have gained him international attention and a loyal fan base that includes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg".

Mr Paul Steely White, executive director of New York City's Transportation Alternatives, has also said about New York City that "the way the streets of the greatest city in the world are being used is changing fundamentally… People are beginning to understand that it's entirely possible and really very desirable to lead a life without being tethered to an automobile".

We therefore have to replace the Singapore dream with the Manhattan or Bogota dream.

We have to give up this insane dream of owning a car and replace it with an ecosystem of a public transport system that makes it irrational to own a car.

Singapore's failure

AND this is probably one of Singapore's biggest failures in its first 50 years: We have failed to develop a world-class ecosystem of public transport. We do have a good public transport network, but this has not kept pace with the population's expectations, which include a more reliable MRT system with fewer breakdowns, predictable bus services, taxis available in thundery showers, and pools of electric cars for ready rental.

So why did we fail? The answers must be complex. But one fundamental error could be simple. We expected every artery of this ecosystem to be financially viable. The disastrous result of looking at each artery and not looking at the ecosystem as a whole is that while each artery made sense in isolation, the combination did not result in a good ecosystem. Even more dangerously, by looking at each unit in isolation, we did not consider its impact on the island or the nation as a whole.

Let me give a specific example from the area of expanding road space. Many Singaporeans of my generation are still puzzled that the road planners of Singapore destroyed our precious National Library on Stamford Road to build a little tunnel under Fort Canning to save two minutes of driving time. The road planners who designed this tunnel had no idea that they were effectively shooting a bullet through the soul of Singapore by destroying the National Library.

This is why we have to be fair to our road planners. The only key performance indicator (KPI) given to them is to make traffic flow smoothly. With this KPI, it is logical to build more roads or expand road space. Hence, it was perfectly natural for our road planners to announce recently that Clementi Road and the Pan-Island Expressway would be expanded. I am sure many motorists who use that stretch of road daily will approve. But when do we say that enough is enough?

This is why we need a new dream. Does this mean Singaporeans will stop driving cars?

Absolutely not. My dream is to walk out of my house, use a smart card to pick up an electric car on rent and drive it anywhere I want to. We can replace car ownership with car pools. In fact, other cities have begun trying this. In Vauban, a suburb of Freiburg, Germany, 70 per cent of residents choose to live without private cars due to excellent city planning and a car sharing system. Before you scoff at electric cars, let me tell you that electric cars have faster torque than petrol-driven cars.

In short, we can have an alternative dream for Singapore. Let us dream of an island with fewer cars and fewer roads. It will be closer to being paradise on earth.

The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

We need more parks, not more carparks
Straits Times 18 Sep 13;

I AGREE with Professor Kishore Mahbubani that we "do not need many more physical roads or much more physical road space in Singapore", and should "reduce the demand for more cars" ("Fewer cars, fewer roads"; last Saturday).

Singapore should have more green parks and not more roads, expressways and carparks.

Any tweak to the certificate of entitlement system cannot appease everyone. In fact, Singaporeans should stop dreaming about owning cars.

Driving in Singapore has become a nightmare and taking public transport is frustrating.

What the Government should do is reward those who take public transport.

It can further increase road taxes, parking fees and Electronic Road Pricing charges, and use the revenue collected to subsidise public transport fares.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) could create bus lanes on all roads and expressways, so that buses are not caught in frequent traffic jams, which is often the case now.

When public transport is convenient, affordable and reliable, more car owners may be willing to ditch their vehicles and make the switch.

The LTA should also look into improving car-sharing schemes and put more taxis on the road.

Cemeteries, parks and other green spaces should not have to make way for more roads.

Lim Hock Chye

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More help for community preservation groups

Janice Tai Straits Times 14 Sep 13;

COMMUNITY groups that champion the preservation of history and heritage will soon be able to get more help from the Government.

Beyond funding support, they will be given access to national archives and assistance in curating items or organising exhibitions. More details will be announced at the end of the year.

"Sometimes the community groups would need some support in terms of research or in determining the heritage value of a building and we will be happy to support them," said Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong on the sidelines of the launch of My Queenstown Festival last night.

The two-week festival is organised by civic society My Community and Queenstown's Citizens Consultative Committee to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the naming of Singapore's first satellite housing estate.

While promising other avenues of support by the Government for community groups, Mr Wong was quick to add that these groups should still take the lead for ground-up initiatives.

"I think a lot of the curation of the memories, collecting of artefacts and what is personally meaningful to the individual and community must come from the ground up," said Mr Wong. "The Singapore story should not just be a story that is at the national level and detached from Singaporeans."

That is why Singapore's 50th anniversary celebrations will see more localised events within the community, said Mr Wong, who visited an exhibition that showcased sketches done of historic buildings in Queenstown. He also joined popular 1960s local band The Quests onstage for a singalong.

My Queenstown Festival will feature 18 plays, gigs, performances and exhibitions at various locations in Queenstown to showcase its history.

Government to provide more support to preserve Singapore heritage
Dylan Loh Channel NewsAsia 13 Sep 13;

SINGAPORE: The government will announce more measures to support Singapore's heritage towards the year-end, said Acting Culture, Community and Youth Minister Lawrence Wong.

He said the support may come in the form of assistance for community groups, for example, to conduct research on the heritage of a particular area.

Mr Wong was speaking on the sidelines of "My Queenstown Festival", an event marking Queenstown's 60th birthday.

Queenstown is Singapore's first satellite estate.

Mr Wong said it is important for the nation's story to be personally meaningful to everyone through the recollection of past memories.

He added that the government wants to encourage every place to have its own heritage and identity through ground-up initiatives.

Mr Wong said: "What we will do as a ministry and in NHB -- in the National Heritage Board, is to support these ground-up initiatives. We've provided more funds for community initiatives like this and we hope that all the different community groups in all the different parts of Singapore will organise… and do more of these (events)."

- CNA/gn

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Singapore, Malaysia to discuss study on high-speed rail link

Rachel Chang Straits Times 14 Sep 13;

SINGAPOREAN and Malaysian officials are due to go over a feasibility study on the proposed high-speed rail link with Kuala Lumpur when they meet next month.

A Ministry of Transport spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday that "Singapore looks forward to Malaysia sharing its feasibility study" on the rail link that is targeted for completion in 2020.

The study has been undertaken by Malaysia's Land Public Transport Commission, the authority in charge of the mega infrastructure project.

In July, Malaysian Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Nancy Shukri said in a Parliament sitting there that the report would include a detailed technical and engineering assessment as well as costs, financing, operations and economic benefits.

The link, first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in February, should cut down travel time between the two cities to 90 minutes, compared to over four hours by road.

Official negotiations between Singapore and Malaysia are expected to commence soon, although there have been conflicting reports in the Malaysian press about the Government's timeline for the project.

Bernama reported on Tuesday that the Malaysian Land Public Transport Commission aims to wrap up negotiations with Singapore on the project by the third or fourth quarter of next year.

But The Star reported on Wednesday that its chief executive Mohd Nur Kamal said that "we are targeting to (complete the negotiations) somewhere between the third and fourth quarters of this year".

He has also been quoted as saying that tenders for the project will open next year.

Next month's meeting will be under the ambit of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Iskandar Malaysia, which has been tasked to look into the details of the project.

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Penang sea project raises worries over environment

Straits Times 14 Sep 13;

GEORGE TOWN - Eight years ago, soon after a massive reclamation was completed along the Tanjung Tokong seafront, people in Penang began to notice tidal changes and ugly mudflats at the Gurney Drive shoreline.

The real cause of that damage is still not known.

But fresh fears of environmental damage have arisen following the recent announcement of new development plans by property developer Eastern and Oriental (E&O).

According to these plans, Penang - now a turtle-shaped island - will have its shape altered when E&O starts on the second phase of the Seri Tanjung Pinang development. The project includes a new kidney-shaped, 307ha island in front of the Straits Quay retail marina, built in the first phase.

Reclamation works at Gurney Drive will push the island's coast out by 80m to 100m, the New Straits Times said in a recent report.

There are fears that the marine environment will be made worse by this new reclamation, which at an estimated cost of RM25 billion (S$9.6 billion) will quite possibly be the biggest single development project to massively affect the lives of Penang residents, some commentators say.

At a recent public dialogue, the project's proponents maintained that the waterway between the first and second phase of the project, called the "flushing channel", would have a high enough velocity of water to help keep the channel open, while reducing sedimentation and erosion.

But some residents remain jittery, according to news website

Ecologist Leong Yueh Kwong, a former director of the Penang Institute and chairman of its Centre for Habitat and Environment, summed up the public's concerns when he said that the environmental impact assessment for the first phase had stated that there would be no adverse environmental impact that could not be mitigated against.

"And we all know the consequences of the first phase of the development, which is sedimentation and siltation of the whole of Gurney Drive and other areas," he said.

He pointed out that the second phase of the project was not only twice the size of the first, but also located out at sea.

There are also concerns about the destruction of biodiversity.

An estimated 2.2 million cubic metres of materials would be dredged from the sea, affecting marine habitats.

It is estimated that the seabed life would take three years to recover, the New Straits Times report said.

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Hong Kong bans shark fin at official banquets

(AFP) Google News 13 Sep 13;

HONG KONG — Hong Kong's government said Friday it would stop serving shark fin at official functions as "a good example", following years of lobbying by conservation groups.

The southern Chinese city is one of the world's biggest markets for shark fin, which is viewed by many Asians as a delicacy and is often served as a soup at expensive Chinese banquets.

Along with shark fin, bluefin tuna will also fall under the ban, which was prompted by what authorities called "conservation concerns".

"The exclusion of these... items from official menus is a start and also serves as an example of raising public education and awareness on sustainability," a government spokesman said in a press release.

"The government is determined to take the lead and set a good example on this front," he said.

Trade in shark fin is not regulated in Hong Kong except for three species -- basking shark, great white shark and whale shark -- where the trade is restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Hong Kong is a signatory.

More than 70 million sharks are killed every year, with Hong Kong importing about 10,000 tonnes annually for the past decade, according to environmental group WWF. Most of those fins are then exported to mainland China.

Shark conservationists applauded the government's move saying it was a step towards ending the trade globally.

"Today's decision is another important milestone towards ending shark mortality globally," Program Manager at Hong Kong Shark Foundation Emma Kong said in a statement, adding shark conservation momentum in the city had been building for years.

"After almost a decade of advocacy in the form of petitions, protest marches, letter writing and media campaigns, the Hong Kong government has finally seen fit to do the right thing -- for which we applaud them," Alex Hofford, the executive director of Hong Kong-based marine conservation group MyOcean, told AFP.

"We hope the citizens of Hong Kong can follow suit and finally lay this abhorrent tradition to rest," Hofford said.

"The announcement is particularly significant as Hong Kong is the world's largest shark fin market, representing approximately 50 percent of the global trade" said Joshua Reichert, the executive vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts said.

Reichert also said populations of Pacific bluefin had declined around 96 percent, according to a recent study.

Campaigners say the trade has left up to a third of open-water species on the brink of extinction.

Marine conservationists expressed outrage in January after images emerged of a factory rooftop in Hong Kong covered in thousands of freshly sliced shark fins.

They estimated there were 15,000 to 20,000 fins being laid to dry on the rooftop on Hong Kong island ahead of an anticipated surge in demand over Lunar New Year in the following month of February.

In January last year, luxury hotel group Shangri-La said it would stop serving shark fin at its properties worldwide to protect the marine predators, following the example of Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotels group, which said it would stop serving shark fins in 2011.

Shangri-La said it would also phase out Bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass, which are under threat of extinction.

The city's flag-carrier Cathay Pacific Airlines in September last year followed suit, saying it was "the right thing to do" in no longer carrying unsustainably sourced shark products on its cargo flights.

In 2011, almost 80 percent of Hong Kongers said considered it socially acceptable to leave shark fin soup off the menu for a wedding banquet, a survey by a shark conservation group said.

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