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  NSS President Prof Khoo's
Heart is in the Right Place

The man who leads the Society in these challenging times does not have the luxury of simply sitting back and teaching his members to appreciate the exquisite beauty of nature's handiwork—he is much like a man at the head of a team of fire-fighters (remember the recent smog?) combating uncontrollable fires at every turn. Yap Kian Wee talks to NSS President, Associate Professor Khoo Hong Woo.

One senses that the unassuming new President of the NSS is a man who, given a choice, would prefer taking his two sons, or his undergraduate students, on a nature field trip than taking up cudgels against developers and authorities, to defend yet another threatened pocket of nature in Singapore.

But this mild-mannered Professor of Zoology with the National University of Singapore did not shrink from filling the large shoes vacated by Prof Ng Soon Chye when the latter—due to overwhelming work pressure—had to suddenly relinquish his post.

And make no mistake, the position of honorary President of the Nature Society of Singapore is an extremely important—and could also be a greatly influential—one as Singaporeans (humans and Nature), face the full reality of global warming and intolerable pollution levels.

The man who leads the Society in these challenging times does not have the luxury of simply sitting back and reaching his members to appreciate the exquisite beauty of nature's handiwork. He is much like a man at the head of a team of fire-fighters (remember the recent smog?) combating uncontrollable fires at every turn.

AP Khoo at NSS's
first Nature Day
in October of 1997
Photo by K C Tan

AP Khoo in his
Photo by Yap Kian Wee

Caught napping with a
co-research worker after
field work somewhere in Cebu, Philippines

Prof Khoo well knows this and we in the NSS can take comfort that although the 53 year-old lecturer in his modest way says, "I've been a secretary and council member in the Institute of Biology but never President of anything before" (until this leadership position was thrust on him!), nevertheless, his heart is in the right place for his "love affair with Nature" grew from the time he was a boy scout, back in the 1950s. Hiking and camping in the then still-pristine nature areas of Singapore—and on our off-shore islands—led Hong Woo to specialise in zoology, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree from the former University of Singapore. Hong Woo earned his Masters of Science in Zoology from the NUS before obtaining his Phd in Zoology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. His area of specialisation is fisheries and marine biology and he has worked as a fisheries consultant at the Buran River in Sarawak.

But now, as Professor of Zoology, Prof Khoo is back on home ground, lecturing at NUS. However, field trips well beyond Singapore's offshore islands are part and parcel of work and it is clear that the friendly lecturer loves taking his students on field trips overseas to study Nature that is still untouched and untamed. As intrepid field leader he has led them up Mount Ophir, to the islands of Langkawi and Tioman and the area around Kuantan on the scenic cast coast of peninsular Malaysia.

"Appreciating nature is not an armchair thing," the energetic NSS President is quick to point out. "It is something that has to be incorporated into our lifestyle." He laments that undergraduate students nowadays are "too busy with their studies and life to sustain any real interest in nature." As the Master of Kent Ridge Hall he has tried to get the hostelites to appreciate "the little piece of forest behind the hall", but his efforts met with little success.

Prof Khoo thinks that this is a real pity as, in his view, an ability to appreciate nature is "definitely a test of character." He cites as an example, "the number of hours birdwatchers have to spend waiting patiently in a thicket, just to catch a glimpse of a bird's beauty." And he also says that when one ventures into nature reserves—even famous ones like Taman Negara—it could take days for one to spot some rhinoceros dung, a tapir or tiger. But happily for Prof Khoo, now that he is President of the Society, he will have a far keener nature audience than the hostelites he had and still has charge of!

And while Prof Khoo relishes every opportunity to see Nature undisturbed in neighbouring countries, this family man manages to find enough pockets of nature in Singapore to enjoy during the weekends. Favourite places are Sungei Buloh, the East Coast and Kent Ridge Park and little Guilin at Bukit Batok.

"Respect other living organisms"
Prof Khoo on humans and nature

"Humans should cultivate respect for other living organisms," says our NSS President, Prof Khoo Hong Woo. "We are not ready to tinker with Mother Nature. Once we start interfering with Nature, we have to devote more time and resources to taking care of her, and conserving her."

He elaborates by citing what had happened to the Rain Tree planted on Mount Faber, reported in the Straits Times. It was planted on the summit and 26 years later, encased in concrete, which is of course not at all natural! (This was done to pander to visitors' comfort.) Whatever the reasons, Prof Khoo says that "now that this has been done, humans will now have to think of how not to let the poor tree wither and die." But, despite such mindless acts on the part of thoughtless humans, Prof Khoo is optimistic that "we could still strive for a balance in coexistence." "Whatever pockets of Nature we have got left in Singapore could serve us well as 'training grounds', to teach us nature appreciation". He names areas like Sungei Buloh, the Bukit Timah nature reserve and also Pulau Ubin, each one with its own particular nature features.

And, after we have built up some nature knowledge and foundation, we could then move onto explore larger and wilder tracts of nature in neighbouring countries—like Malaysia, is what he likes to see. However, he stresses that Singaporeans must not allow scarcity of land (resource) to be used as an "excuse" to continue to destroy whatever nature stands in the way of development.

"We must have the commitment, and put in the effort needed, to conserve whatever nature we have inherited so that we can pass these areas on, intact, to future generations," is our President's stand. He reminds us that we "already have the Singapore Green Plan (see Nature Watch, Vol 4, No 3, July-Sept 1996), and the commitment he refers to concerns "sustaining this initiative and not letting this plan die a natural death, or letting the remaining nature areas be destroyed under the banner of development."

One can see Prof Khoo's zoology background surfacing when he akins human beings living with nature to a "symbiosis which benefits both parties". Using this analogy, he says that "there are many ways we can build around the remaining blocks of nature, thereby creating high density living (which is undeniably stressful), with "de-stress" zones provided by nature. He certainly hopes that Singapore will be sensible and sensitive enough not to allow development to reach the stage of highly industrialised nations, like Japan, where a great "hoo-ha" was made when a species of crane, thought to be extinct, made its return.

"I hope we will not need to react like them when we see the Oriole in Singapore, in the future," is his fervent wish.

We can only say that with such strong feelings for Nature, our President is a most worthy leader to help protect whatever precious bits we have got left in our tiny island nation.

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