Kim Keang: Bird or Butterfly Man?
The Answer is Both ... and More!
Who would have thought that a kampung boy who used to take pot shots at
birds with his home-made sling in the bamboo grooves of Changi would, decades
later, be a council member of BirdLife Asia Council, of BirdLife International
the oldest bird conservation society in the world. Or that the mastermind
behind Project Painted Wings (NSS's Butterfly Education and Conservation
project) once netted, collected and mounted butterflies? These disclosures
are just some of the 'surprises' uncovered, when Betty
L Khoo profiled the dynamic head of the NSS's Bird Group.
Kim Keang's surprising admission of childhood 'misdeeds' shows that
constant exposure to Nature is so important. For it is only with continuous
close contact with Nature that a love and caring for all of her creatures
(including plants) can eventually come about.
Today Kim Keang is a 47 year-old Senior Technical Executive with Singapore
Telecoms and, like the overwhelming number of urban Singaporeans caught
up in money and material pursuits, could so easily have been indifferent
to Nature. Or worse, even fearful of Nature. Instead, this family
man spends many a Sunday chasing Painted Jezebels and other winged
creatures with his bino.
That Kim Keang is so different from his peers can be traced back to
those carefree years when he and his nine siblings roamed the orchards,
beaches and belukar of Changi. This was the rural neighbourhood of
their zinc and attap farm house, close to where the world's number
2 airport now sprawls. Those years running wild not only built up
Kim Keang's bodythose who know him say he has incredible staminabut
opened his eyes and his heart forever to the infinite wonders of Nature.
As this was the 1950s, Changi airport was not even on the drawing
board. All of the eastern part of Singapore island was still a range
of hills, covered with coconut plantations and scrubland, and forming
the backdrop to many Malay kampung stilt-houses that picturesquely
wove through more coconut palms along the sandy shoreline. Even before
Kim Keang went to schoolfirst Bedok Boys' School and then Raffles
Institutionthe many wild areas around his home were Nature's
'school room'. "The bamboo groves within the coconut plantations were
very good areas, they were more diverse than the orchards," remembers
It was mostly in and among the bamboo thickets that the keen-eyed
boy and his younger brothers tracked down and caught insects, including
butterflies. "I got quite good at mounting the butterflies. And I
was a sharp shooter", admits the man who today is doing his utmost
to protect birds and butterflies in Singapore, by promoting the need
for habitat conservation.
Photo by Preston Murphy
NSS birdwatching trip
at Gunung Pulai, Malaysia.
Kim Keang (in brown) with daughter Debbie and
wife, Helen carrying son,
Kevin walking in front
Photo by Sunny Yeo
Birdwatching after the 1994 BirdLife Conference in
Rosenheim Germany with
Dr Cu, BirdLife representative
from Vietnam and bird photographer, Morten Strange
Lim Kim Keang with local
TV personality, Jamie Lee, at
NSS' Celebrity Bird Race 1997. Their team called "Terns"
won third position
Photo by Sunny Yeo
After the BirdLife International Partnership signing ceremony
in Coimbatore, India
But while mischievous,
young Kim Keang had the makings of a budding naturalist, he did not merely
play with the insects or make them fight (as so many thoughtless schoolboys
did). Kim Keang actually spent many absorbing hours studying the insects
he collected. . One study he particularlyand painfullyremembers,
concerned wasps. "Bees and wasps are very interesting with a complex social
structure. I used to drill holes in the pieces of wood for them". Not surprisingly,
they didn't always take kindly to his invasion of their space. Kim Keang
remembers a couple of wasps diving straight one morning during a Gunung
Tahan trip. What did he do? "I made a hasty retreat and took a flying leap
into the river!". Fortunately, it was not deep!
But nature studies were not always so dramatic. As Kim Keang matured he
not only spent time exploring hills and collecting, he burrowed into books
on nature borrowed from the National Library. A science teacher in Raffles
Institution also got him interested in mudskippers. "He used to tell us
stories about mudskippers", recalls Kim Keang. "But I was also interested
in other fishes and cactus." Cactus? "Yes, I had a cactus collection for
more than 10 years," answered this man of surprising interests.
"He is notable too for
his 'macro vision', his ability to see issues on a regional and international
plane, and to network internationallyhis liaison with regional Hornbill
conservation work is a case in point."
Giving Wise Council
As NSS Bird Group Chairman, Kim Keang ensures that there are at least
two activities every month. He has taken under his wing, the Annual
Bird Census, Asia Waterfowl Count. He's planning for the annual Bird
Race and Last year started a Raptor (birds of prey) Count. Then there's
the World Bird Watch and the NTT (Nippon Telegraph & Telephone) World
Bird Count to keep him busy!
Since 19, Kim Keang has also been involved in BirdLife International,
one of the oldest bird conservation societies in the world. He is
a council member of BirdLife Asia Council and very involved in their
activities. This includes the Red Data Book project and liaising with
the Wild Bird Societies of Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Philippines and
As if all this isn't enough, the tireless Kim Keang is in charge of
Project Painted Wings and the NSS Web Page. He also jump-started NSS'
Butterfly Watching and Research Group.
bit of everything," is how Kim Keang describes his early days of self-motivated
nature study. But those "bits" of information he collected grew into
a formidable body of knowledge overtime, enabling him in recent years
to become not only active (but a highly respected figure) in wildlife
His long-time NSS colleague, writer Ilsa Sharp says of him, "I respect
Kim Keang enormously. He has been instrumental in bringing about the
creation of two entirely new and very important sections of the Nature
Society: the Butterfly Watching and Research Group, and the NSS Web
Page, quite apart from his dynamic leadership of the Bird Group".
All of these achievements for nature causes could not have come about had
Kim Keang been a Chinatown kid instead of a kampung kid. Even if he had
some innate interest in nature, no amount of book learning could have compensated
for the incredible wealth of hands-on learning he was exposed to, growing
up in such a largely rural environment.
Fortunately too, the Lims lived in their farm house long enough for Kim
Keang and his brothers to let Nature really get under their skin. For, like
almost every other family in the neighbourhood, the Lims in the 1960s had
to move, from their natural kampung setting into a stark confining flat.
"So different... no fresh air and the noise! " What disturbed him the most
was the lack of "natural noises" - like soothing birdsong and the hum and
buzz of insects.
Joining the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) in the late 1960s
was the start of a regional exposure to nature. Involvement in the Bird
Study Group provided the opportunity for more scientific study of birds.
Sometime between 1969 and 1970 he became involved in bird banding and other
bird research activities.
Those were fun times too. Getting up well before dawn to make it across
the causeway (before the big jam) to bird watching spots in Johor. Not all
other birdwatchers were such early birds; the intrepid Kim Keang remembers
climbing a fence to wake fellow birder Amy Lau (now Tsang) up. But he did
not have to climb a fence to court and marry Helena. That came easy! She
was the sister of his schoolmate Ng Soon Chye (now Professor Ng and the
Fast forward to 1997 and the couple are now the proud parents of three children.
The eldest, Diana, is in Sec 4, Debbie is in Sec 2 and Kevin in Primary
4. "Yes, the children share our love for nature, not necessarily at the
same intensity, especially my son who is also in the Boy's Scout," Kim Keang
says in response to my expected question. "Kevin has gone with me to Frazer's
Hill a number of times, he has his own bino and his own bird books." Dad
sounds justifiably just a tad proud.
Like many other truly committed ecologists, Kim Keang is not only glad to
share his knowledge at international meetings (in Korea, Thailand, Japan,
wherever) with other bird experts and natural scientists, but he shares
it just as happily with the nature novice. (i.e., ignorant) student, executive
or retiree on a Sunday outing in rural Singapore. This is where one sees
how soft-spoken and patient the chairman of the bird group is.
I was among the 35 or so NSS members who had gone that Sunday in February
to Mount Washington (better known as the park below Alkaff Mansion) to butterfly
watch with Kim Keang in the lead. As we went in hot pursuit of the Painted
Jezebel, Nawab and other colourful butterflies, flitting in the sunshine,
leader Kim Keang would pause ever so often so that everyone would have a
chance to hear his commentary. And, as it was rather a big group, he often
had to repeat what he had said, and answer questions that must have been
asked of him innumerable times. When I remarked on his patience to Jean
Yeo, (she had been on a number of outings with Kim Keang, including a butterfly
group trip to Frazer's Hill), she enthusiastically agreed. "He will explain
even 10 times to 'bodohs' like us. He's very patient and very knowledgeable.
He's able to describe where to find, what to look for."
It does appear that
for Naturewhether it is in keen pursuit of some bird, butterfly or
an entire conservation causeKim Keang has as much energy in his mid
forties as he had in his teens. Here again he has impressed NSS co-worker
Ilsa so much that she says, "I admire Kim Keang enormously for his extraordinary
energy and almost dogged commitment to the cause of conservation. I really
don't know where he finds the energy. Does he sleep? (No, he's too busy
posting new information on the NSS web-page) Does he have another job? They
tell me he does! To some he appears gentle (not easily roused) but in fact
he has tremendous passion and can get quite emotional about 'the cause'."
One can understand both
Kim Keang's passion and emotions about 'the cause' if one looks back (in
one's mind's eye) at the once flourishing nature areas in Singapore that
have been bulldozed, cleared, razed, filled in and dumped on. "All those
places of my childhood they have all long gone," says Kim Keang.
he is not emotional about this. He does not wax lyrical when he talks
of Nature. Kim Keang does not coo at birds or try to hug trees. He
is more down to earth, an astute observer who believes time is better
spent, not romancing the past, but acting to conserve what is left.
He makes a scathing comment when we are all walking towards a coffee
shop at Telok Blangah to have lunch, after the butterfly excursion
which ended at mid day.
We are walking on the sparse turf and pass some saplings (miserable
in the noon day heat) and he says, "I don't like grass (he means lawns)and
why can't we go for trees that are native? Why cut down a (native)
tree that is 50-60 years old and plant some exotic sapling in its
place? Why destroy and then try to create what you have destroyed?"
This clearly makes no sense Kim Keang (nor to me!).
Kim Keang gets into stride as he explains how our industrial-consumer
society "undervalues what is natural or semi-natural." As he puts
these views across one can see why his NSS colleagues say that he
may appear gentle but he is a "tough negotiator" and a "formidable
committee man" (when he holds views opposing yours).
But toughness, coupled with soundness of judgement and dogged commitment
(both of which they say Kim Keang has plenty of), is called for when
one faces formidable adversaries of nature conservation. Nature and
the NSS are very fortunate to have Lim Kim Keang on their side.
to Issue contents
Keang Stands Up
for Old Trees ...
Why destroy and then try to
re-create what has been destroyed?
Take a tree that was planted 50- 60 years ago. It's
cut down and a sapling planted in its place. Why? That old tree has
taken in so much nutrients, it's healthy, it's shady, it produces
oxygen, sometimes fruits (for humans and wild creatures). It's become
an ecosystem all by itself. This generation won't see the fruits of
We never realise the consequences of our actions. Of course I believe we (humans) are part of the web of all life. We
are living in an ecosystem, yet we are destroying it ... and we are
already feeling the terrible effects (more diseases, droughts, global
warming, poisoned foods, mad cows).
Yes, we may appear to have a lot of trees in Singapore (clean and
green) but we are not preserving the indigenous diversity of plants.
We tend to concentrate on "suitable" trees ornamental trees
that are not native? Why must we bring in exotics. Shouldn't we look
at what we have right here? "We tend to undervalue what is natural
or semi natural. If we look at the natural vegetation, only a very
few areas are close to natural, the others have been modified.
One of the arguments against preservation of Senoko is that 'it is
not natural'. If this is really the case, then nothing need be preserved
because only Bukit Timah is original rainforest.
Senoko is part of our natural heritage. Natural or semi natural systems
(like Senoko) cannot be replicated. We spend far too much in re-creating
(after needlessly destroying) and maintaining. Instead of minimum
management, it's maximum management (and cost too!).
I'm not against public parks. But trying to clear all natural areas
of long grasses (great habitats for birds and butterflies) and in
their place planting grass and trying to manage it (using chemical
fertilisers and toxic insecticides/weed-killersharmful to plants,
animals and man) does not make sense! Besides you never get the same
We (humans) in a techno-consumer society want 100 percent control!
There is no such thing as Humans being more important so Birds (and
other wildlife) have to lose out. We say that you can have development
that harmonises with nature areas. You are going to have green lungs
and parksyou can always make changes in the development plans
to accommodate nature. And nature is not just grass (i.e., lawns);
our climate is tropical with abundant rainfall so what's natural to
us is biodiversity and native plants you'd find in a tropical rainforest!
My role is to provide people with the opportunity to come into contact
with Nature, to appreciate Nature. To get young people away from shopping
and entertainment centres. If they could be guided to look at any
nature corner, they would see so much.