LONG INTERVIEW/CHANGE-MAKERS

From The Straits Times Archives: Meet Mr Nature

Dr Shawn Lum, president of Nature Society (Singapore), looking at fallen trees at Mandai after a storm cut through the area. Some 10,000 trees from 150 species were damaged in the 40 ha zone, which is as big as 80 football fields on the afternoon of
Dr Shawn Lum, president of Nature Society (Singapore), looking at fallen trees at Mandai after a storm cut through the area. Some 10,000 trees from 150 species were damaged in the 40 ha zone, which is as big as 80 football fields on the afternoon of 11 Feb 2011.ST FILE PHOTO
Nature Society president Shawn Lum at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
Nature Society president Shawn Lum at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.ST PHOTO: NURIA LING

This article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2013. 

SINGAPORE - DR SHAWN Lum came to South-east Asia to trace the roots of a tree. He ended up staying in Singapore for 25 years, spreading his own roots and saving forests here.

Five years ago, he became president of the island’s oldest, largest and most vocal environmental non-profit, the Nature Society (Singapore).

Since then, the American botanist and National Institute of Education (NIE) lecturer, a long-time Singapore permanent resident, has shunned vociferous protests. Instead, he has been quietly nudging more people outdoors to appreciate nature.

The Nature Society used to make waves for its watchdog advocacy work. These included successfully staving off plans to develop part of Peirce Reservoir forest into a golf course in 1992, persuading the Government to set aside Sungei Buloh as a mangrove and bird sanctuary in 1993, and agitating for the preservation of Chek Jawa, a unique marine habitat on Pulau Ubin in 2001. 

But Dr Lum has since returned the organisation to its original role as a hobby – rather than lobby – group, propagating the pleasures of looking at birds, plants and butterflies.

He has increased the frequency of guided nature walks, conducted more conservation surveys than ever before and linked up with schools, statutory boards and companies to promote nature appreciation.

The 50-year-old is like a placid lake in the tempestuous world of global environmental activism, often led by strident lobbyists.

But still waters run deep. His goals, it emerges, are no less lofty. And he is steadily advancing towards them with gentlemanly charm in his signature Hawaiian shirts. 

It’s just his approach that is different. He works single-mindedly, churning out exhaustive studies and cultivating international links. He works collaboratively with others, be they shrill-voiced members, other non-profit organisations with competing agendas, or policymakers in a hurry.

For example, he recently accepted the Land Transport Authority’s invitation to help craft the terms of an environmental impact assessment tender for the proposed Cross-Island MRT Line, which is likely to cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. In July, the Nature Society released a position paper arguing the new line would compromise the sustainability of the reserve. 

Doesn’t he fear being co-opted, rubber-stamping official policies?

He admits frankly that his organisation grappled with the possibility that working with the public agency would compromise its “ability to take an independent stand”.

Ultimately, he says they concluded: “We still disagree. But rather than a face-off, it’s a positive development that we can sit down together in a convivial atmosphere at the inception, where there’s a chance that the outcome might be better.”

Rescue and research

UNDER his charge, the society, which now has some 1,500 members, up from its nadir of 1,200 when he took over in 2008 and down from its peak of 2,000 in the late 1980s, is also looking outwards. 

One of his early projects was the Horseshoe Crab Rescue And Research Programme which started six years ago when society members found the crabs trapped in abandoned fishing nets at the Mandai mangrove area.

Rescue efforts soon grew into full-scale research when they found out that the supply of horseshoe crabs in North America was fast being depleted by pharmaceutical companies for use in laboratory work.

The Asian horseshoe crab was the next target. In 2009, the members embarked on a population census of the horseshoe crabs at the Mandai mudflats, training hundreds of students and volunteers to measure, identify, mark and release them back into the mangroves.

They even monitored the crabs’ movements in the Strait of Johor using radio transmitters. Their conclusion: The horseshoe crab population was dwindling due to coastal development, pollution and over-harvesting. 

Under his leadership, the Nature Society went on to publish four scientific papers and submit its first recommendation to the influential International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which assesses the conservation status of species. The resolution came into effect last year, serving notice that the Asian horseshoe crab was under pressure, helping to prevent its extinction.

Going forward, he wants to carry out more of such “citizen science” by getting the public to participate in similar research. He is working with Queensway Secondary School to design a data sheet which students can fill up on plants and wildlife spied along the ABC Waters at Sungei Ulu Pandan. 

He is also looking into a phone app that will allow people to fill in observations on their daily bus or MRT commutes through verdant nature areas. “When you’re riding on a double-decker bus, you can see flowers, birds and butterflies up in the trees every time the bus comes to a stop.

First of all, we will have this wonderful database on what’s out there, with many more pairs of eyes out there looking. It will also give people a greater stake in their own environment and hopefully hasten the growth of nature-watching as a general, not just specialist, hobby,” he says. 

“When people say springtime is coming three weeks earlier now than in the past, where’s the data coming from? In Japan and England, people have a habit of noting in their diaries which day the cherry blossoms open or which bird was the first spring visitor to their garden. These casual, unscientific records, say a list of butterflies you saw at Pasir Ris Park, can be analysed over time. One way to assess the impact of climate change in Singapore is just by monitoring when trees start to flower here.”

His hope is to influence public policy and legislation from the drawing board stage, rather than react to issues when the tractors roll in.

For his next campaign, he’s taking a leaf from the book of a Canadian non-profit organisation called Flap (Fatal Light Awareness Program), which found that between one million and nine million birds die each year in Toronto from hitting skyscrapers, due to mistaking reflective windows for open sky or being drawn to lights at night.

It spent 20 years studying the issue of bird collisions, advocating bird-friendly building features such as window film, decals and external shutters, and working with municipal authorities to enact legislation to prosecute owners of buildings found to be killing birds.

He is now studying the extent of the problem here, especially during the bird migratory season.

“The majority of birds that hit windows, even if they fly away, are basically goners. If they don’t die instantly, chances are they have severe internal bleeding, which later kills them,” he says. Members of the public often give the Nature Society a wide variety of dead birds they have picked up, including rare migrant breeds.

Next, he plans to push for the implementation of nature-friendly building codes. “We have green certifications here. To be environmentally friendly is defined as not wasting water or energy, but one criterion should also be being wildlife friendly,” he says. 

  • Dr Shawn Lum on...

  • On the ultimate waste

    “People from all over the world flock to South-east Asia to see the uniqueness of our wildlife, which cannot be studied anywhere else in the world. Yet, here we are, surrounded by it. To live an entire life in the midst of all this wondrous nature without knowing it seems a waste. Imagine your next-door neighbour was the world's greatest living poet, and you never had a chance to have a chat with him. In fact, you don't even have to seek out nature in the same way as seeking out a person. It's just flying in front of you or you run right past it every day.”

  • His challenge

    “So many of us have lost the strong connection our ancestors had to the land. We've turned land into this commodity, something we buy and sell, or extract some direct economic value out of, like crops or eco-tourism. We have to show that nature in its wild state is just as valuable, if not more so, than nature that is cleared and converted. If we find difficulty in justifying the existence of wild places, we're in trouble. If the Louvre museum in Paris starts running a deficit during hard times, does that mean we sell off its treasures or close the museum? I think we will never let that happen. It's too valuable a legacy, not just for the people of Paris but for the whole world. It's not about how much those paintings are worth but what it represents about us. Similarly, the environment is part of us, where we come from, who we are. It is what sustains us.”

  • His target audience?

    “Anybody who buys stocks and shares. How many people ask, how nature-friendly is this company, and what's their track record on the environment? Will they think twice about investing if they find out the company is linked to illegal logging or animal smuggling? There are way more people who invest in stocks and shares, than who go out with a pair of binoculars to look at birds each weekend. That's a potentially huge and powerful group of people.” 

Zero work-life balance

THE seeds were sown early for his outdoorsy orientation and botany career.

He was born in Tokyo to a father of Chinese-Polynesian-Irish descent who worked in the United States Air Force, and a Japanese mother who was a school cafeteria cook. When he was two, his father took the family back to his native Hawaii. 

The middle of three children, Dr Lum spent his days beachcombing, bodysurfing, working in a plant nursery and rearing a menagerie of pets – dogs, fish, parakeets, lizards and rabbits. It came as no surprise when he chose to study biology at Harvard University, washing dishes to pay his way. He went on to the University of California, Berkeley, where he obtained a PhD in botany. 

In 1989, he arrived here as a visiting student at the National University of Singapore’s botany department. He came ostensibly in search of the origins of the gelam tree, but really “seeking out my own origins too”, as Hawaii’s flora and fauna hark from this region. 

He signed up with the Nature Society, where he found kindred souls and eventually met his wife too. What was meant to be a two-year stint stretched to over two decades. 

After NIE started a school of science in 1993 and hired him as its first resident botanist, he devoted himself to teaching plant diversity and ecology to future science teachers and passing on his boundless love of nature, which he hopes will rub off on their students. 

Ms Tan Beng Chiak, 51, a biology teacher and long-time Nature Society member, says: “He is always top of the list whenever a school wants to invite a biologist to speak. He is eloquent, charismatic and insightful, and brings all sorts of resources, like fresh fish and fruits, to a classroom to excite the students.”

He spent all his spare time at the Nature Society, where he started a division looking at plants. He also served as vice-president under former president and eye surgeon Geh Min for eight years until she stepped down in 2008. Then he found himself voted in as president, with no contest.

It was “scary”, taking over from somebody so formidable, he recounts. “She’s got a huge network. I’m just a biology lecturer,” he says in his usual self-effacing way. 

But society members like Mr Vinayagan Dharmarajah, 41, who works as a legal counsel, credit Mr Lum’s courteous, self-deprecating manner and ability to bring disparate groups together for the society’s “collegial atmosphere” today.

“He leads by example and by inspiring trust rather than by seeking to dominate the stage,” says Mr Vinayagan.

Dr Lum’s paid work, volunteer work and hobbies all converge into one. He has zero work-life balance.

“I don’t know where the one ends and the other begins really. I’m lucky or it’s a curse, but the volunteer work feeds back into my professional work. They help me both as a biologist and a teacher as well as a nature enthusiast and conservationist.”

Weekends find him either at society outings, or hiking at MacRitchie Trails or Upper Seletar Reservoir Park.

He is often at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, where he began a long-term forest dynamics study 20 years ago and has since identified and tagged 30,000 trees. He also likes to grow fruit trees at the Woodleigh Park Estate semi-detached house he shares with his Singaporean wife of five years, Ngee Ann Polytechnic lecturer Evelyn Ng. 

Once again, it’s for “work-related” reasons. “I can identify the grown tree in the forest. But when I see the little plants on the forest floor, I may not know what they are,” he says in earnest. 

Even his belief system is based on Hawaiian and Japanese animist traditions, where everything is deemed to have a spiritual quality and be interconnected. “In modern life, we have made a lot of progress but we have lost so much too, in terms of our spiritual connection with the environment.

“I’m not saying we should become animists,” he hastens to add. “But if we can regain our reverence for animals and plants, it will make for a more meaningful and enjoyable life. Any culture that holds dear other living things and nature also respects culture, heritage and a diversity of views.”

suelong@sph.com.sg