The Straits Times, 4th August 2000

Losing nature worse than book-burning

Lydia Lim, interviewer

Q: Can we afford to conserve nature in a small city state like Singapore?

A: The question is not whether we can afford to conserve our nature areas but whether we can afford not to conserve them.
We need to retain our eco-system because it has scientific, economic and educational value.

Let me give you an example. The Government is putting a lot of money into the life sciences.
Now, it is my strong belief that you can't have flourishing life-sciences research if you don't expose people to nature and in fact, the younger you expose them, the better it is.

If you read the biographies of eminent scientists, almost all of them invariably mention that their desire to find out more was aroused by their exposure to nature and the intimate wonder of nature.

The people who work in the life sciences have to develop this passion for living things and they can't just study humans.
Humans are just a small part of the whole web of living things.


Q: But I think some people see the life-sciences revolution as more of a revolution in genetics.

A: It is, but what makes a person want to go into the life sciences?
You don't want them to go in because the Government tells them to or because there's money there.
You want them to go in because they are interested in finding out more about life.
You can just develop the life sciences in the laboratory but if you ask me, it would be pretty lifeless.
And you hear biology teachers talk about students who can recognise various cells, organisms and structures under the microscope, but they can't identify one tree from another. That, they think, is deplorable.

So do I.

Linked up with this is the point that although we have little bio-diversity, what we have is unique.
It's not something you can destroy and then import later.
You know, you hear about great disasters in civilisation like the burning of the books by the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang and the burning of the library in Alexandria.
But to me, if we destroy our bio-diversity, and I'm not talking about Singapore alone, this will be a disaster that is far greater because we are destroying our sources of knowledge.

These sources of knowledge are not man-made and therefore already known to mankind.
They are an incredible resource of undiscovered knowledge that we are destroying before we even get it recorded down.


Q: But are there really things in Singapore that can't be found in Indonesia, for example? Why can't we just buy what we need to experiment on?

A: I think that shows an amazing inferiority complex about our own natural areas.
Okay, we don't have a river like the Amazon, we don't have wetlands like Australia's Kakadu, but that doesn't mean that we don't have a very rich and unique bio-diversity.

We do. The quality of our nature areas is not to be sniffed at.

I mean, Sungei Buloh, for its size, is considered world-class.
It has about 180 species of birds and it's a major stopover for migratory birds.
If the life sciences take off and eco-systems become a rich source of knowledge, do you think other countries are going to let you exploit theirs?

Already, a lot of the developing countries ... have realised it and they have stopped developed countries from going in and taking whatever plants they want.
Every country will eventually, I believe, protect its own bio-diversity for itself.

There is also this idea that ""oh, we don't have much, so we can always go to other countries and enjoy nature there''.
Well, first of all, if every country took that stand -- and as you can see, large countries don't protect their nature very well either -- there won't be any left.

And secondly, enjoying nature and learning from nature are not things that you just do when you are on holiday.
It's something that you need to have access to all the time.


Q: The Nature Society has been called one of the most successful non-government organisations here. How do you see it leading Singapore's emerging civil society?

A: We are just a group of volunteers who are interested in nature, and I don't see us leading civil society except by example.

Having said that, I am very proud of the track record that the Nature Society has as a volunteer organisation.
Our members are not paid to do what they do, although what they do is of a very high standard.
So, obviously, they feel that they are entitled to their views and I agree.

It's not that they have to stick to an institutional line.

It's a very democratic society in that no one cares what your qualifications are, or how much you make, or whether you have a university degree, or any of those things that a lot of Singapore society seems rather conscious of.

You are only assessed by how much you know about nature and how seriously committed you are.


Q: What do you think of the relationship between the Government and civil society?

A: A lot of people from volunteer organisations feel that they are called upon to contribute when and if it suits the government body.
But for the rest of the time, you are seen and not heard as a cause.

And so you don't feel that you are being treated as an equal partner because if the opportunities for feedback are only limited to formal occasions like certain meetings with regard to a specific issue, the amount of feedback you can give is usually not enough and it is often too late.

I am well aware that government bodies have their deadlines to meet and efficiency is important to them.
But if they keep channels of communication open constantly, I don't think in the long term, it would add to the overall inefficiency.

They just have to be more flexible.


Q: What do you mean by open channels of communication?

A: I think it's the ability for someone in the Nature Society, for example, to call up someone in NParks and say ""hey, can we discuss this issue?''.
This is what I mean by closer and more informal ties.

To give you a medical example, some of my patients who are afraid of eye complications ask me how often they can come and see me.
Is once a year enough or is once in six months enough?

And I say, well, that's a rough guideline but the most important thing is if they notice anything wrong before that six months or three months, whatever it is, they must come straightaway.

Nature conservation's new champion

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