Nationalism without ecological literacy

On Monday, a piece appeared on the Straits Times Forum (Online). This good man Lim Poh Seng wrote:

Is Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, becoming extinct?

We should grow the national flower in all schools. This will enable our children to know and appreciate our national flower.

Rather amused, I took 20 minutes to pen a piece off to ST Forum. Surprisingly, they took it, and not just online but also put it into the print edition. Most of it survived intact, but without the letter side-by-side, readers might miss my tongue-in-cheek and think that I’m a xenophobic tree-hugger. Here’s my original letter in full:

Dear Editor,

Mr Lim asks a very interesting question: is the national flower becoming “extinct” (“In search of Vanda Miss Joaquim”, 26 Sep 2011)?

Singapore’s national flower is a sterile hybrid of two orchid species, both of which do not naturally occur in Singapore. The hybrid was discovered by the pioneer botanist (and eligible bachelor) Henry Ridley in the garden of an Armenian widow Agnes Joaquim. I am not sure if “extinction” seems to be an ecologically relevant concept to apply to it, but as this is our official national flower, and Mr Lim’s concerns are understandable.

However, as conservation scientists we often ask: how many of Singapore’s native plant species have become extinct? How many are in danger of becoming extinct?

The latest edition of Singapore’s Red Data Book lists some 30% of more than 2000 plant species native to Singapore as nationally extinct. Many have been rediscovered in the following years, but many remain rare and exist as only a few known individuals from a limited number of locations.

One particular native species of interest is the Singapore Kopsia. It is only found in the freshwater swamps of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, and its flowers bear the Singapore colours: red and white.

Another species of interest is a climber only known to be found in Singapore and nowhere else, with the scientific name Spatholobus ridleyi. If this climber becomes extinct in Singapore, it also means that is will have disappeared permanently from the face of the earth.

Unlike hybrid orchids that require artificial propagation, our native plant species are fully capable of reproducing and surviving on their own ― if not for habitat destruction and disturbance by us humans. Perhaps we should grow more native plants in all schools. This will enable our children to know and appreciate our gradually disappearing natural heritage.

And just as my letter appears today, another letter by the same good man also appeared, once again in the Online edition:

Besides our national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, have we decided on other national icons?

I am given to understand that our national animal, bird and fish are the Merlion, Crimson Sunbird and the Peacock Bass respectively. Can the relevant authorities confirm this?

Dude. The Merlion as the national animal?

Not going to write another reply. See all three letters here at WildSingapore.

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