I’m a nature guide in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves, but admittedly my knowledge is limited to a few plants and animals. That has not posed any challenges so far, because I’ve guided primary school students (my club, SAVE, in collaboration with National Geographic), and they are usually so fascinated with the flora and fauna. Equipped with the DSLRs loaned from Nikon, they hardly listen to my explanations. But on the rare occasion I get their attention, I find that some of them ask tough questions. No, nothing scientific about plants or animals.
After describing to them about the sea hibiscus, one boy once asked, “Why is this called the sea hibiscus when it grows on land?” I was taken aback for a moment, because I had never heard or asked this question before.
At first glance it seems common sense, because the sea hibiscus grows along the coast, near the sea, hence its name. But to these 11-year-olds, they are so curious when it comes to nature, they ask many questions which as an adult I have never considered before. I have taken most things for granted, that I have not even asked myself the question why Sungei Buloh was named as such.
While guiding a group, a few students kept asking me whether they would have a chance to see monitor lizards or snakes. I could only explain this was not a zoo, this was their home, and they appeared as and when they like. Throughout the nature guiding, I emphasized we were entering the ‘home’ of these plants and animals (and so we should be quiet, how would you feel if your neighbour entered your house running and screaming?). I also banned them from using the flash of their DSLRs. During their breaks, I ensured they disposed their trash properly (how would you feel if your neighbour litters your house?).
I took pains to tell the primary school students we were not in a zoo or bird park, but that we were actually visitors to someone else’s home. Of course this ‘someone’ is not a human, but a diverse range of plants and animals – nature.
Within two hours I was trying to promote the value of respect to nature, just as they have been taught from young to respect their peers and seniors. I hope I somewhat succeeded, by using terms such as ‘home’, ‘neighbour’ – and I repeated “This is not a zoo” many times to those eager to see a monitor lizard (I’ve visited Sungei Buloh several times, but I’ve not seen an otter or crocodile before, so I understand their anticipation and disappointment).
The wrong idea
However, what does our society tell our young ones about ‘nature’ or the ‘environment’? In recent years, I have become sceptical of this Clean & Green Singapore campaign, and I’m worried about its implications, because generations of Singaporeans have been raised to be mistaken.
Mistaken about what? Just look at former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of the ‘environment’ for Singapore, since he is supposed to be the first environmentalist in Singapore:
Clean and green Singapore has stirred other countries to achieve good public hygiene, clean air and waters. Our ABC Waters Programme will turn concrete monsoon drains and canals into streams. The whole island has been sewered up, so only clean rainwater will flow into our drains and canals.
In 10 years, Singapore will have many waterways and park connectors, creating more recreational areas and an aesthetic environment. Future generations must keep this city beautiful, distinctive.
The ideal attributes of the ‘environment’ are “good public hygiene, clean air and waters”, and promoting the environment seems to be having “many waterways and park connectors”. While all these are beneficial for all Singaporeans, to have better quality of life (and in light of our land constraints), this is not what the ‘environment’ is about. In fact Lee is spelling out how Singapore as a city should look like i.e. the built environment.
The Clean & Green Singapore matters insofar as the built environment is concerned. But in the real natural environment, it is neither clean nor green; it is always filthy, messy and bloody.
Keep Singapore Beautiful?
Taking a look at the Keep Singapore Beautiful Movement, “it aims to mobilise our community to take action to protect and sustain our precious living environment. We envision a community where everyone cares for our environment”.
Similarly, the environment here refers to the built environment. On its website, images of manicured parks and young kids picking up litter enforce the government’s message to tell people to protect the built environment. Even as the movement claims to “jointly mobilise ground-up activities to keep Singapore clean and beautiful”, such ground-up initiatives are yet another example of the government’s plan to engineer the city and direct its people towards initiatives which are deemed proper for the city to be world-class.
The government has consistently and perhaps deliberately confused the differences between a built and natural environment. National parks, they claim, are ‘green spaces’, despite the fact that these so-called parks are world-class examples of urban planning, not natural conservation. The only places in Singapore which are conserved in their natural states are probably the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Chek Jawa (under the law it is not even considered a nature reserve) and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. In these instances of the natural environment, they are definitely NOT “clean”, “green” (in the sense that it is not the government’s ideal portrayal of the environment, like Teletubby land), or even remotely ‘beautiful’ (things grow wild, not organised in any manner).
The implications of such a deliberate confusion are wide-ranging. Generations of Singaporeans have grown up believing the environment is something which can be carved and chopped to fit the uses of humans, without recognising any inherent value within the natural environment itself i.e. preserved for its sake?
It is obvious that Singapore’s style of conservation cannot be along the lines of massive national parks in the United States; in recent years we are moving towards this “City in a Garden” or “urban biodiversity”. These are terrific efforts, because Singapore is truly a pioneer in this area (but some are not really happy; in a talk given by Louis Ng of ACRES, some Singaporeans call the ACRES hotline to remove animals like the monitor lizards from parks).
What I strongly oppose is this continued confusion i.e. littering as part of environmentalism. Keep Singapore Beautiful movement continues this message by calling for people to stop littering so that they can protect and beautify the ‘environment’. But there is something fundamentally wrong with this.
Littering in a built environment is wrong, because it breaks the law, and it affects common space. It is a social etiquette, it asks for people to be considerate. In any case, the last resort is the army of cleaners we have to sweep the litter away.
But littering in a natural environment is more severe – because it does not just break the law or affect common space, it threatens the lives of other living things. And in this case, there is no army of cleaners – the litter is going to be there until some poor bird chokes on it.
Do Singaporeans understand the difference between an ethical and an etiquette decision affecting the ‘environment’ or nature?
I doubt so, and this is in part due to the government’s campaign to link anti-littering to environmentalism.
I am afraid the primary school students I guided at Sungei Buloh were taught as such. But I believe we can do better. While the Singapore government’s ideals of the environment are something like Teletubby land – beautiful, hilly, green, sunny, with four aliens bouncing up and down happily – we need to get our young to know that nature is not entirely a resource to be mastered, but an experience which we need to treat with respect.
Just as they are taught to live in a multi-racial, multi-religious society from the moment they enter primary school, perhaps nature can offer them real lessons on how to be appreciative of diversity and understand respect and tolerance.