Rhyme And Reason - A Literary Series

The sounds of nature


Last year, I went camping in Johor. I remember, on that first day, being overwhelmed by the rich, full-bodied cicada chorus that seemed to fill the forest. I'd grown up with the sound in Singapore, but it had been so long since I'd heard it so loudly and clearly, so fully in every sense of the word.

Since that trip, I've found myself paying more attention to the elusive sounds of nature. To hear the spontaneous call of insects and birds is to know that these wild creatures are still present, free and flitting about urban Singapore, even when I can't spot them or identify the creature making the sound.

To be enamoured of the sounds of the natural world is also an easy way to appreciate nature - indeed, to deceive ourselves that this is all that is required. To hear an animal or insect call without seeing the living thing is to be able to enjoy the beauty without the inconvenience - it is akin to the thrill of romance without the drudgery of commitment and learning to live with the other party.

A few months ago, I found myself drifting awake, at some pre-dawn hour, to the haunting yet commanding call of an Asian koel. I live in a cluster of Housing Board blocks in Toa Payoh, and the bird seemed to be calling from a tree in the open-air carpark below my bedroom window. In the unbroken quiet of the night, it was loud enough to keep me up for about 10 minutes before I dropped back to sleep. The bird has roused me several other mornings in the same fashion, usually at about 5am.

It's not surprising that every now and then, we see letters in the newspapers by people who complain about the "noise" made by the koel and other noisy species. Yet these animals have their staunch defenders too, who appreciate having a "natural" alarm clock, or who grew up with the bird calls and find them comforting.


I'm sanguine about the koel, partly because it's not right outside my window, and also because it reminds me that even this barren little carpark with its scant few trees, sandwiched between immense HDB slab blocks, is somehow, miraculously, hospitable to some form of wildlife.

Although the Government has engineered Singapore into a garden city, there are limits to what human beings can "make" nature do.


    Yu-Mei Balasingamchow is the co-author of Singapore: A Biography (2009). Her short fiction had been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2014) and selected for the biennial Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories (2013 and 2015). In 2015, she was an honorary fellow in writing at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She is working on a novel.


  • Singapore: A Biography (co-authored with Mark Ravinder Frost; National Museum of Singapore/Editions Didier Millet, 2009)

    An account of the last 700 years of Singapore through the experiences of the workers, adventurers, rulers and revolutionaries who have shaped its history. A Choice Outstanding Academic Title 2010 and gold prize winner at the Asia Pacific Publishers Association Awards 2010.

    Grandmother (2014)

    A short story about conversations between a teenage girl and her grandmother in Singapore. Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2014 and anthologised in Mänoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing (University of Hawaii Press, 2014) and Let's Tell This Story Properly: Commonwealth Short Story Prize Anthology (Dundurn Press, 2015).

    Lighthouse (Balik Kampung, Math Paper Press, 2012)

    A short story about a girl's interest in the lighthouse at the top of a block of flats in Marine Parade. Selected for the Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories (Epigram Books, 2013).

    •For more information, see www.toomanythoughts.org.

    •All books are available for loan from the National Library, or for sale at bookstores in Singapore; some titles are also on Amazon.com.

Singapore's water agency PUB could turn a canalised section of the Kallang River into the charming creek that runs through Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, but it could not force otters to migrate there. NParks built an Eco-Link bridge to reconnect the severed nature reserves, but it could not compel pangolins or palm civets to use it. In both cases, the animals found the way on their own.

Living in Singapore brainwashes us into thinking that life is supposed to be urban and modern - and by "modern", I mean the belief that we can, and should, manipulate both the natural and human elements of the world to our convenience.

We think that if we are a species that has conquered the poles, descended to the deepest ocean trenches and travelled to the moon, smashed the atom, cloned sheep and mapped the human genome, we are surely also a species that can bend nature to our will. We can transform sea into land to expand our city. We can invade the oldest rainforest on the island to save six minutes on a train journey.

I've often heard people joke that one day Singapore will build an enormous dome over our islands to keep out the rain and the ferocious sun, the ebb and flow of the natural world that we cannot control.

But there is more to life on this planet than urban comfort and utilitarian convenience. If we ever build that science-fictional dome, it would simply perpetuate a not-in-my-backyard attitude towards waste disposal, forest fires and other unsavoury environmental practices that we in Singapore, like the members of any globalised capitalist society, are complicit in.

More importantly, for all the great scientific strides our species has made, there is still something ineffable about nature - larger than ourselves, perhaps beyond human comprehension. Whenever we think we have figured out insect mating cycles or bird migration patterns, what causes a solar eclipse or El Nino, there are always little exceptions that confound our initial theories.

So when the Asian koel in my carpark wakes me at some ungodly hour, I'm irritated, but also a little in awe of the fact that it has come to live among us cranky, querulous humans.

When I catch a glimpse of the Bishan otters or hear about their growing family, I'm enraptured not because they're adorable (although they are), but because they have chosen to make their home in our ersatz, man-made environments. And I'm mindful, and regretful, that they are here also because so much of their previous habitat has been adulterated or obliterated by human activity.

Recently I was walking from my home to the MRT station, past a grove of mahogany trees, and I was startled to hear a thrumming cicada chorus. I stopped to listen and look up, ignoring stares from passers-by.

I thought about the last few years, when the haze descended upon Singapore for weeks, then months at a time, and the smoggy-looking air was eerily quiet during the day because all the birds and insects had fallen silent. I remembered what a relief it was, after the haze lifted, to hear birdsong and insect chatter outside my window once more.

We live in what scientists have begun to call the Anthropocene, an era when human beings have wrought such audacious, irrevocable and often harmful change upon our planet, that with our plastics, our air-conditioners and our errant eating and social habits, we have left our mark in the layers of the Earth's crust, the chemical composition of our air and oceans, and the evolutionary history of life itself.

As Robert Macfarlane wrote recently, the idea of the Anthropocene requires us to appreciate " 'deep time' - the dizzyingly profound eras of earth history that extend both behind and ahead of the present".

In Singapore, it is difficult to think about deep time. We work some of the longest hours in the world, and the demands of the present - our jobs, our school examinations, our loved ones - always seem to be of the greatest urgency and importance.

Hand in hand, modernity and capitalism drive us towards the immediate future, never mind the long view. Even when we are besieged by the haze, all it takes is for the wind direction to change, and we cleanly forget that we, as much as our neighbouring countries, are part of the problem.

Yet the koel does call every morning, and the cicada reverberates its body every season, and the solar eclipse in March reminded us that there are patterns and variations in nature that still capture our imagination and wonder.

If we can stop, listen, think and admit that we, Homo sapiens, are not the centre of the universe, perhaps we can begin to reconsider our relationship with the natural world and what we are doing to it.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline The sounds of nature. Subscribe