Louis Ng: 'Pushing the Govt into a corner will backfire'

In Part 1 of this Supper Club interview, the founder of animal rights group Animal Concerns and Research Society Louis Ng talks about the progress of his cause, Singapore’s different brand of advocacy, and the Government’s change in attitudes to civil society.

Q: You founded Acre 12 years ago. How have you seen the fight for animal rights progress and Singaporeans’ attitudes change since 2001?

I think definitely we've progressed in terms of the animal welfare movement here in Singapore. If you look at the past decade, you realise there's a lot more awareness of this issue and the real key is that now you see a lot of people who want to take action. So empowering them with knowledge is one thing but we really see that especially with Gen Y, they want to do something to make a difference.

You take the case where we released Mia (the macaque monkey) back into the wild, that was really because of members of the public who went to Macritchie, saw an injured monkey and called us, because they want to help this monkey. Compared to say a decade ago, I doubt people would call us.

If you want to look at the bigger scheme of things, at the policy level you see a lot of changes as well. You see we have set up the animal welfare legislation review committee which is not just government now taking a step forward, but government involving civil society, the grassroots, everybody coming together to find a common solution.

Q: One of the first things Acres became known for was the campaign to release the pink dolphins at the Dolphin Lagoon back in 2003. But they are still here. Has that experience taught you anything, especially since you are now also campaigning for the release of the Resorts World Sentosa dolphins?

Well we have always one single motto, we have never failed, just that we have not won yet. With the dolphin campaign where we were trying to secure the freedom of the dolphins at Dolphin Lagoon, we realised that there's one promise we can give and that is we never give up.

But as we push for the pink dolphins, we now have to divert to the RWS dolphins. Mainly because that was a huge shipment that came in, like the Dolphin Lagoon ones they were caught from the wild as well.

I think there was an article in The Straits Times (published January 2012) about how, while it's undoubtedly cruel to keep dolphins in captivity, if they bring in tourist dollars, the author (National Neuroscience Institute director Lee Wei Ling) was not sure that we should release them.

We openly admit that this is wrong, and the minute we say there is profits involved, all of a sudden, the Singaporean's mindset then changes to, okay we should do it.

So it’s not just about helping the dolphins. I always stress this in the media that we need to place moral progress on par with economic progress.

What keeps us going is that the rest of the world is progressing, India has this year banned the set-up of dolphin aquariums, Switzerland has banned the import of dolphins. Solomon Islands, where RWS got their dolphins from, has also banned the export.

Of course in Singapore, I always say we have a different brand of advocacy. I'm still very optimistic that this brand of advocacy works here.

Q: 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.

Q: How does this approach inform Acres’ interactions with the Government? Do you think it’s also because the Government doesn't want people to confront them too much?

I think quite clearly they are (like that). 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, 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.

Q: Some might see your approach as “selling out”. How would you respond to such criticism?

In all fairness 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 feel 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.

Q: How do you think the Government’s attitude to animal rights, or to civil society in general, has changed or not changed?

I think obviously we have grown, civil society has grown, and a lot of it was from the changes brought about from the last GE that was held. We started to realise there was a groundswell, people were feeling that their voices were not being heard, people were feeling that policies were made without much consultation or feedback from the public.

So I guess to a lot of politicians, they've realised that it's not just about drafting the policy or adopting it and passing it Parliament, it's really also about public engagement now, and the engagement has to be both ways where you present the policies to the public, at the same time ensure that they open our ears to the feedback and amend the policies accordingly.

Both Mr Shanmugam and (Acting Manpower Minister) Tan Chuan-Jin showed not just genuine interest (in our issues), but I would also say a very humble approach. They don't have the airs of a minister , when you talk to them it’s like talking to a friend... And really I think that's a significant shift where a meeting with a minister a decade ago would be a very high level thing, you sit in the office and everybody has their nametag in front.

Now they have moved to a more informal setting, more casual, so people are very open to voice their concerns, and for the two of them I daresay they listen more than they speak. They are listening and you are not seeing that it's going in one ear and coming out the other, because policies are really changing.