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Official Magazine of the Nature Society (Singapore)
  Lim 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.

Lim 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 body—those who know him say he has incredible stamina—but 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 school—first Bedok Boys' School and then Raffles Institution—the 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 Kim Keang.

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
November 1996

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 particularly—and painfully—remembers, 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.

Leading and
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 Malaysia.

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.
"A 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 conservation.

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".
"He is notable too for his 'macro vision', his ability to see issues on a regional and international plane, and to network internationally—his liaison with regional Hornbill conservation work is a case in point."

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 NSS' President!).

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 Nature—whether it is in keen pursuit of some bird, butterfly or an entire conservation cause—Kim 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.

But 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.

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Kim 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 the sapling.

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-killers—harmful to plants, animals and man) does not make sense! Besides you never get the same biodiversity.

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 parks—you 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.
© Nature Society Singapore