#Opinion Of The Day

Singapore's not quite the right shade of green

We like to say that Singapore is a green place.

From Garden City to City in a Garden, it is hard not to notice the flora that lines our streets and neighbourhoods.

And just last year, global design and consulting firm Arcadis ranked Singapore Asia's most sustainable city.

All this combined might make one think that we are a green place. But I believe that we are not quite the right shade of green.

The parks that dot the island provide a pleasant getaway from the daily grind. And our zoo and wildlife attractions wow visitors with the animals displayed within them.

But at the end of the day, they present a sanitised, manicured - and in the case of the zoo, costly - view of the natural world.

Singapore is so much more than that.

Did you know that in our rainforests live the sambar deer, which can grow up to 2m in height?

Did you know that we have seahorses that gently swim beneath the waves that lap against our beaches?

Or that the purple swamphen, a large purple-feathered, red-beaked bird makes its home in northern areas like Kranji?

I have seen all these creatures, yet whenever I tell my friends about my wild encounters, most react with surprise.

"We have that in Singapore?"

It tells me an uncomfortable truth - that much of our society today is far removed from the natural world.

It is not for lack of teaching. I remember my secondary school geography lessons, where one paragraph in the textbook mentioned Singapore having more species of trees than the entire North American continent.

But I wonder how many of those sitting in class with me all those years ago actually recall that. It is one thing to read a fact, and another thing entirely to experience it.

We are a country blessed by geography - for we lie in one of the world's richest areas of biodiversity.

Yet we have replaced the rainforest that used to cover most of the island with an urban jungle, one most of us do not venture out of.

Some may think that the butterflies, flowers and otters that pepper our built environment suffice, that they fill the nature gap in our everyday lives. However, they are but a pale reflection of the full experience, and the benefits we gain are much less than those the natural world can give us.

From an economic standpoint - and of course we start with money, for this is Singapore - the natural environment keeps our world running, doing things that would literally cost billions of dollars if we were to carry them out artificially.

"Ecosystem services" is what science folk term it, and although calculating the exact cost of these services is fiendishly hard, the basic principles underlying it make sense.

Mangrove forests, for instance, prevent storms and waves from eroding our shores. In tsunami- prone countries, they save lives.

The December 2004 tsunami that devastated countries fringing the Indian Ocean killed up to 6,000 people in a coastal Sri Lankan village. In another village that was surrounded by dense mangrove and scrub forest, the death toll was two.

For Singapore, a low-lying island surrounded by sea, rising sea levels threaten our existence, and we spend huge sums of money on coastal protection.

We have also reduced mangrove coverage from 13 per cent of our total land area in the 1820s to 0.5 per cent today.

"Prevention is better than cure," so goes the adage. And until we understand what we stand to lose by clearing our natural habitats, we should protect them.

I do not begrudge us the progress we have made, for we are now among the richest in the world. But our development has come at great cost to the natural habitats we are custodians of.

Another reason to protect what we have left is exactly because of what we have lost.

And we have lost plenty.

In addition to the mangrove cover that was wiped out, Singapore's rainforests are now 5 per cent of what they once were. Development has also reduced our coral reefs by 60 per cent.

Yet, despite all this, so much remains.

I cannot stress enough how often I am amazed by the wildlife I encounter whenever I venture into nature - those creatures that can thrive only beyond our manicured parks.

From the giant clams to the flying lemurs to that one time I saw a pangolin casually crossing a gravel path in front of me in Mandai, encounters with wildlife have surprised me over and over again.

This is a surprise and wonder I am determined to bring to others. That is why I am now training to be a nature guide, and why I volunteered at the recent Festival of Biodiversity, presenting specimens of our wildlife to families and their children.

For how can we know what we lose if we do not even know we have it?

Lastly, and most intangibly, the wilderness grounds one. While training in Brunei during my national service, what I most remember was not bashing up and down hills, or navigating with my heavy backpack, or doing foot drills.

I most remember the ferry journey to and from our camp. Our boat chugged down a tea-brown river, many times bigger than any I had seen before.

It stretched endlessly in front and behind us, and at its banks rose an impenetrable army of trees, the air beneath the branches shrouded in pitch black shadow.

Aside from the motor of the boat, a vast silence surrounded us. I stood on the deck, looking at everything around me, and felt almost scared, almost insignificant, and yet, at peace to realise that there was this immense natural world out there, and I was but one small part of it.

Though it may be hard to believe, I have felt similarly in Singapore, on an exposed reef during low tide with nothing but sea stretching to the horizon around me, with small waves splashing against my feet, the sun rising and painting the skies in brilliant hues of red, purple and gold.

I suspect this is partially a generational thing. Whenever I talk about my nature romps, my father occasionally jumps in to mention his life as a boy when he lived in a kampung, where he would do things like catching guppies in the drain.

Singaporeans lived much closer to nature then - and also much closer to poverty.

I do not begrudge us the progress we have made, for we are now among the richest in the world. But our development has come at great cost to the natural habitats we are custodians of.

Do we still need to do this? I think we should pause and take stock of what we have left, and move to protect it before it is too late.

Remember that geography textbook I talked about earlier?

After mentioning the number of species we had, it also talked about the need to preserve our natural heritage for as long as possible.

My teacher then, nodding sagely, highlighted "for as long as possible", saying this showed how we recognise that we cannot protect the environment if the development needs of the people trumped it.

Perhaps it is time for us to change our approach somewhat. We have thought for too long that our needs are above nature's.

We should rather protect nature - not because its needs are above ours, but because we need it to live.

  • #opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's not quite the right shade of green'. Print Edition | Subscribe