"Don't forget the Singapore countryside"

Ho Hua Chew, Straits Times, 31 Dec 2004

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THE day the canopy walk in the MacRitchie nature reserve area was open, I was caught among the teeming crowds of people walking to the new attraction.

Never before had I seen so many people gathered there: Babies in prams, toddlers and children, the young and old.

Red and sweaty and unfamiliar with the forest, most of them had trudged all the way from the MacRitchie Reservoir's main entrance to Bukit Kalang, the location of the canopy walk, a distance of about 5km: a long walk to an attraction indeed, for a people with a predilection for comfort and convenience.

The fact that these Singaporeans were prepared to sweat and trek many kilometers under the hot sun and through air buzzing with mosquitoes, without turning back from the not very accessible objective, is simply amazing.

I believe it's indicative yet again of an attraction and sympathy for nature among a significant proportion of Singaporeans.

That feeling for nature has not been accorded its proper and fair share of attention among our national policy makers and commentators.

For example, the inaugural speech of our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, despite its refreshing open-mindedness, is dead silent on the need to face the challenge of preserving the health of our natural environment and its biodiversity.

Perhaps the absence of an official focus on this aspect of the people's aspiration is due to the paucity of its public expression or manifestation in the local literature, debates, government feedbacks, forums, the mass media.

Unfortunately, this Singaporean sensitivity to nature is silent most of the time, like a subterranean river - but nevertheless capable of bursting out into the open upon appropriate stimulation.

Intermittent eruptions of this undercurrent had occurred in the past.

As far back as the early 1990s, when the issue of the Kranji Heronry was hot, 43 letters were sent to The Straits Times protesting against the project of converting the site into a transmission station.It was astounding compared to the dearth of letters on the issue of the elected presidency that was also current then.

Then in the mid-1990s, the people of Singapore again rallied to save the Senoko bird sanctuary by giving support to the pro-conservation petition, with 25,000 signatures; an impressive record if not a historic one for local petitions.

Recently, throngs of people visited Chek Jawa, an intertidal nature site, on hearing that it was going to be wiped out by a land reclamation project, to have an experience of it before it was too late.The streams of people were so relentless that after the reclamation project was shelved, the National Parks agency had to implement visitor control, lest the site be irreversibly damaged.

It is important that we should not forget the normal ongoing pulsation of this sensitivity to nature among Singaporeans in general.

This is evident in the public activities conducted by the Nature Society which had attracted large crowds of people over the years.

Also, look at the popularity of the jogging trail round the MacRitchie Reservoir and the crowds of people jamming the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Pulau Ubin on weekends and public holidays.

It's true that many are not specifically watching out for the wildlife but are merely hiking or strolling.

If you ask them why they have chosen these places, they will usually tell you that they love nature.

They may not be able to say much more than that it feels good simply to be in touch with nature.

They are sensitive to nature, but need not have a scientific or ecological or specialised interest in nature.

They may be shallow in knowledge and lack familiarity with the wildlife or ecology. But they nevertheless still savour and value nature, if only for the feel-good factor, for the therapeutic impact of nature on their psyche, if you like.

This appreciation of nature is not a negligible factor in what for them would constitute a satisfying life.

So it's great to hear the rallying call of our PM for all people to be involved in building an alluring nation. In planning how we want to lead a fulfilling life, we mustn't forget that not all the things we want should be confined to the city.

There is a large and fascinating hinterland out there, which I like to call the Singapore countryside. This lies mostly north of the Pan Island Expressway, in as-yet undeveloped areas of Bukit Batok, Kranji, Yio Chu Kang, Khatib Bongsu, Simpang, and other areas.

There are hills that are still wooded, rivers that are still unconcretised, ponds and marshes that are still unreclaimed and where the wildlife is just as interesting as in the nature reserves.

Its full potential and value as an outdoor playground for Singaporeans and expatriates to loosen up their minds and bodies have yet to be realised.

More and more people, locals as well expatriates, are venturing out from the tame and manicured greenery of our garden city to this long-forgotten countryside during the weekends or public holidays just to be doing something outdoors in a natural setting.

Apart from the thickly forested and shadowy nature reserves, they are discovering that there are large tracts of Singapore where they can roam through lovely panoramic landscapes of open greenery and be instilled with a wonderful sense of freedom and openness, without hitting upon a road too soon or catching sight of any Housing Board blocks over the horizon.

Most of these areas are outside the Singapore Green Plan. And those few that are within the Green Plan, like Khatib Bongsu, are in a state of limbo as to their protection status.

Government policy deems that they can remain as they are so long as their development is not needed.

The call by our Government for architects and planners to push for bold and creative designs to make Singapore an alluring nation would be less than fulfilling, if it does not extend also to the design of our land use in such ways that these countryside assets can be preserved and not be inadvertently overwhelmed by the economic or profit motive that was the juggernaut of our past development.

The writer is the chairman of the Conservation Committee of the Nature Society. The views expressed here are his own. 

Thanks to Victor Yue for the alert via the nature-singapore mailing list.