Wild dogs = wildlife?

A 13-year American expat, Jim Tietjen, claimed to have been chased and attacked by wild dogs while cycling in the Bukit Brown cemetery area (“Cyclist chased by pack of dogs at Bukit Brown” by Hoe Pei Shan, 4 Jun 2013). After calling for an ambulance and bringing himself to nearby Mount Alvernia hospital for treating his scrapes and light injuries, he lodges a police report citing “public safety” as his “personal concern”. The AVA have apparently taken up the investigation after police referral. Tietjen told the press that he hopes the authorities would “round up the dogs” instead of having them “terrorise people”.

The next day, a couple of pro-animal welfare letters got published in the same paper. Frequent letter writer Liew Khai Khiun had some pretty common-sense points in his Forum letter (“Spare Bukit Brown dogs”):

  • Such incidents, or “attacks”, are at most very rare;
  • With an increase in human traffic, there are bound to be an increase in absolute number of incidents of human-wildlife conflict;
  • Uncontrolled breeding is certainly problem;
  • But you damn well take care of your own safety by not venturing there alone, and keep to roads and better-maintained paths!

The other letter by M. Lukshumayeh  was published in the Forum Online (“Learn to coexist with animals in remaining ‘natural’ spaces”):

We lament that modern Singapore is a sanitised place devoid of the animals and livestock that existed during the kampung days.

The cemetery is one of the few “natural” places left, and it is important to let these animals remain there.

Let us learn to coexist with other living things instead of resorting to culling them.

While I agree with the last point, from an ecological viewpoint, sometimes things are not so straightforward.

Humans have brought domesticated animals with them all over the world. Some of these leave or escape captivity and breed in the wild. Some don’t. What are the ecological impacts of these animals?

Cats and dogs are known to hunt and kill other small wildlife. The Oatmeal had an interesting post on murderous cats that have been circulating around for some time now. But it’s true. That’s why we’re not allowed to bring pets such as dogs with us when we visit the nature reserves. And recently, I saw a pack of wild dogs within the Upper Peirce Reservoir area.

The ecologist in me says that the feral cat and dog populations need to be controlled. The Buddhist in me says culling shouldn’t be the answer.

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The Cross-Island Line debacle (to be updated)

It took some time, but I’m beginning the follow what may become a fiasco in nature conservation for Singapore: the proposal to build a train line, albeit underground, through a nature reserve.

The alignment for this Cross-Island Line first quietly appeared in the Land Transport Master Plan released to the media on 17 January 2013. When I saw it I was alarmed, but I was also busy with finishing up my thesis-writing at that time.

It appeared again later in the Land Use White Paper, which had tightly followed the other debacle, the Population White Paper. There were many other issues with the Concept Plan in the Land Use White Paper, sufficient for another day.

A letter to Today Voices (“A transportation plan that crosses the line” by Ms Vinita Ramani Mohan, 20 May 2013) put it this way:

I continue to read with dismay the ongoing plans to develop the Cross Island Line, which will cause habitat damage in the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

We withdraw from the crowds in urban areas and visibly relax in an environment that alleviates stress.

There is also a strong spiritual and cultural value attached to these places. I see Singaporeans meditating, doing tai chi and stilling their minds in the forest reserves. I see families teaching their children about nature.

The Cross Island Line is worrying because it sends the message that we need not care about stewardship and responsibility.

It would be a pity to see them irreparably damaged by transportation developments.

In a word, destroyed by Singaporeans who have a responsibility to protect their land.

The Nature Society (Singapore) is steadily stepping up its pressure for a realignment of the line. Natalie Kuan of the Straits Times reports (“Route of MRT Line a concern: Nature Society”, 25 May 2013):

The Nature Society… noted that the present design has the train tracks passing through the nature reserve to connect Bukit Timah and Ang Mo Kio. This will cause habitat fragmentation and soil erosion, leading to significant environmental damage, it said.

The society’s official spokesman on this issue, Mr Tony O’Dempsey, said: “Nature reserves are gazetted for the purpose of conserving native flora and fauna.

“We should not even be thinking of putting infrastructure through our nature reserves.”

I thought that was pretty well-said.

Although the LTA says that it “fully intends to commission an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to study the environmental impact of the Cross-Island Line… before engineering investigative works into the central catchment nature reserve begin”,

…Mr O’Dempsey, who holds a Bachelor of Applied Science (Surveying) and has worked in the GIS industry in Singapore for 19 years, feels it is too late to conduct an environmental impact assessment if soil investigation is to begin by this year.

He estimates that a credible EIA would take almost a year to complete. “It is never too late to start but if you start now, there won’t be any possibility of doing soil investigation along the alignment this year,” he said.

Then again, I see the usual conflict of interest here: since LTA is proposing the Line, it should not be the one commissioning the EIA. The NParks, at least, is from another Ministry, although under the same one as the URA which is probably fully supportive of the Line, given that it is the agency that put out the Land Use White Paper. But at least the NParks has the institutional mission to protect the reserves.

At this point, it seems rather curious that the alignment was drawn before an EIA was conducted, rather than the other way around. Talking about doing an EIA now seems rather… insincere, if you were to ask me. In addition, why was there no mention of consulting with NParks on this? Isn’t it obvious that your colleagues whose turf you are digging under would be the first you would seek out for an opinion?

Interestingly, a protest by another environmental NGO has been planned from 22 to 23 June 2013, together with guided walks through MacRitchie Reservoir. Protests in Singapore seem to be getting really common?

Two other Forum writers to the Straits Times weighed in on 29 May 2013 regarding the way an EIA seems like an afterthought. The first appearing in print (“Rethink route of Cross-Island MRT Line” by Chia Yong Soon):

Even if the rail system runs underground, much construction work will have to be done on the surface, such as providing access to transportation and building site offices.

Large tracts of forest would have to be cleared. This means erosion, pollution, noise and a whole host of other ill effects.

One wonders how an Environmental Impact Assessment can have anything positive to say about such a venture.

That such a proposal came to pass throws into question the claims by the Government of its commitment to protect the environment. It seems that even a gazetted nature reserve is no longer protected.

There should not be soft or easy options, and certainly not explanations such as “this is the most direct and shortest route across”.

And the other on the Online edition (“LTA must be proactive in engaging stakeholders” by Eugene Tay Tse Chuan):

Nature reserves are sensitive habitats and gazetted areas, and the LTA should have anticipated the concerns of stakeholders before unveiling its plans in January.

There were apparently no proactive attempts to engage or consult stakeholders before the announcement.

Concerned stakeholders have waited patiently for four months to engage LTA to understand its plans for the Environmental Impact Assessment and feasibility studies. How much longer do they have to wait?

The LTA should come forward with a concrete date for the stakeholder engagement.

Now is the time for it to be proactive and sincere in engaging the Nature Society and interested individuals and groups. The future of our nature reserves is at stake.

With the heat on, LTA’s Media Relations and Education Director Helena Lim responds, first to the Today letter (“LTA will minimise environmental impact”, 30 May) and then the other to the Straits Times Forum writers (“Protecting nature reserves a key consideration”, 31 May), that “the detailed alignment of the Cross Island Line (CRL) has not been decided”.

This is a non sequitur. I can’t see how coarse the current alignment is that it can be refined not to touch any part of the reserves.

Both responses are so similar:

As part of the [EIA/assessment], the consultant is required to develop guidelines to guide the Engineering Investigative Works, [which] will be carried out in compliance with these guidelines.

…We share the environmentalists’ concern on any possible impact on the Central Catchment Nature Reserve and assure that sufficient time will be accorded to address these concerns.

Protecting the nature reserves will be an integral consideration for the project and all efforts would be taken to minimise impact to the environment.

In particular, we would like to assure the public that some of the [concerns/scenarios] that have been [expressed/raised], such as the need or intention to clear large tracts of forest in the nature reserves, or the possibility of there being major construction works within the nature reserves, are not contemplated. We ask for some patience as we continue to make preparations for the consultation and the EIA.

I find it unfortunate to label those concerned as “the environmentalists”. I also noticed the qualification of “major construction works” (emphasis mine). As mentioned earlier, since this is called a nature reserve, there should be NO construction work of any kind, other than that assessed as for long-term conservation benefits.

I wonder if total track rerouting around the reserves would be considered as one of the options to “minimize impact”?

Have the journalists quietly thrown their hat into the ring? A special Sunday Times Life! feature (“Green Gems” by Lea Wee, 2 June 2013) writes rather poetically:

…the Central Catchment Nature Reserve is home to ancient forest trees, crystal-clear freshwater streams and cooling freshwater swamp forests.”

Nice. But newbies taking a bash through our rainforests might be in a for a disappointment, though. Most of the time, you’re probably too busy sweating (cooling?) and swiping away bugs than looking at ancient trees and crystal-clear streams.

The richest and largest remaining pockets of lowland dipterocarp forest in Singapore, and possibly the surrounding Riau island region, are found at MacRitchie.

Now that’s interesting. It’s not surprising given that the Johor-Riau area has undergone massive development, so this may be one of the last remaining spots for this floristic subregion. Put that way, our MacRitchie forests suddenly have broader conservation significance than to just Singaporeans! Another interesting morsel of information is that a small remnant patch of Shorea curtisii of the coastal hill dipterocarp formation in the area may be a relic from the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago. (I think Shawn must have been the one who supplied these tasty tidbits.)

Just a tiny bit of error in this good article:

The two subspecies which are found only in Singapore are the cream-coloured giant squirrel and the banded leaf monkey.

The opinion that our banded leaf monkey is an endemic subspecies is outdated. Observations by Huifang and team that the generally-white newborns have a cruciform set of black stripes running from the head down the spine to the tail and across the shoulders and outer forearms suggest that it’s the same subspecies as the one in Johor.

On 18 July, the Nature Society released its formal Position Paper on this issue (covered by Neo Chai Chin of Today, “Nature Society proposes alternative route for the Cross-Island Line“, and Grace Chua of the ST, “Nature Society suggests different route for Cross Island MRT line“). The headlines say it all. The proposed alternative is supposed to be up to 2 km longer, or the equivalent of four minutes’ train time. From the Today article:

This would present an opportunity to serve residents near Adam Road and visitors to the MacRitchie Reservoir Park, it said. “We believe four minutes is not too much to ask for conserving probably the most pristine part of our nature reserve,” said Mr Tony O’Dempsey, an NSS council member and the society’s spokesperson on this issue.

My personal opinion is that the recent Circle Line already offers a way around the reserve. The Caldecott station, for example, is not too far from MacRitchie Reservoir Park. Perhaps to eliminate redundancy, the Cross Island Line should be two disjunct lines, perhaps names CRL1 and CRL2 in the same spirit as Downtown Lines 1 and 2. Changing stations, however, would add to travel time, and the extra load on that segment of the Circle Line may not be within expectations. However, I fear stations that are situated right at the edge of the nature reserve would exacerbate opportunity cost problems in the future… As described in the Today article’s quote from the Position Paper:

…the non-governmental organisation said nature reserves “should not be treated as vacant State Land available to be used for the convenience of transport infrastructure or other purposes”.

While we’re all hoping that LTA will simply give up on even the thought of carrying out potentially damaging “engineering investigative works”, they’re not:

…responding to TODAY’s queries, an LTA spokesperson assured that “the alignment of the Cross Island Line has not been decided, and that no decision will be made until after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been conducted”.

Any decision made will seek to safeguard Singapore’s nature reserves “even as we seek to meet the infrastructure development needs of Singaporeans”, she added.

Shortcomings of a Population White Paper

In order to keep this post from being unnecessarily long, I focus mostly on the Population White Paper, which I have read as carefully as I can.

What I agree with

I support the need for maintaining a pool of Permanent Residents to support an immigration to make up for the shortfall in Total Fertility Rate (TFR) among Citizens. I like that the median targeted immigration rate of 20,000 new Citizens would stabilize the Citizen population along a trajectory equivalent to population replacement rate, i.e., TFR=2.1. I accept that this would mean Resident population would increase from 3.82 million currently to 4.1-4.4 million by 2030. This represents a 7-15% increase in Resident population over the next three decades, but I take comfort that the increase would become flat by 2030.

Proposed Non-Resident population size is the biggest problem

However, the White Paper takes several leaps in reasoning to suggest that the Non-Resident population can increase from 1.49 million currently to 2.1-2.8 million by 2030. This is a 41-88% increase, far outstripping the increase in Resident population.

In other words, Non-Resident proportion of the population will increase from 1/4 currently to 1/3 by 2030.

How, then, is this in line with the first pillar of maintaining a Singaporean core stated in the White Paper?

It is in contradiction with other parts of the White Paper saying that foreign worker intake has been and will continue to be moderated.

I have combed the White Paper to find the rationale for the increase in foreign worker intake and could only find the following reasons:

  1. to buffer the dependency ratio (page 13). However, Chart 1.5 only sketches one scenario with current low TFR and no immigration.
  2. to either (a) prevent a decline in, or (b) grow the workforce. Here, the White Paper is unclear (page 32) whether the objective is (a) or (b), which would require different approaches.
  3. to improve labour competitiveness (page 40-41) by: (i) by taking up lower-skilled jobs at lower costs, (ii) to kick start new industries, and (iii) to buffer up- and down-swings of economic cycles.

A key problem is that the White Paper stopped short of showing how eventual numbers of foreign workers were arrived at using these three reasons. (It is not even clear from the presentation of the White Paper that these are indeed the reasons for a high foreign worker deluge to come.) It was also not shown how this increase is to be sustainable beyond 2030.

  1. The White Paper needs to show how the scenario with population-replacement immigration would improve the dependency ratio. The White Paper then needs to first argue why this dependency ratio is still not acceptable, derive a target dependency ratio that is acceptable including showing how this was arrived at, and then finally work out a foreign worker population that would bring the dependency ratio to the targeted rate.
  2. The White Paper needs to be clear if the target is to: (a) avert a decline in the workforce, or (b) grow the workforce. However, if the target is (a), the population-replacement immigration rate of Residents should already achieve this without needing Non-Residents; this reason would therefore not support an increased Non-Resident proportion. If the target is (b), the White Paper needs to do better in arguing why it wants to grow rather maintain the workforce. We cannot grow the workforce indefinitely anyway, so how does this approach make sense for the long term?
  3. The trade-off between importing cheaper foreign labour versus higher business costs and consequently higher taxes and costs of living has not been thoroughly  debated and internalized enough by the public yet. It is acknowledged that overdependency on cheap labour has impacted productivity and resulted in socioeconomic strains. To me, therefore, I would personally be willing to accept reasonably higher taxes and costs of living in future as long as those earning much less than me have a net increase in income, rather than the problems associated with addiction to cheap labour.

Liveability

I am almost certain that the increase in total population from 5.31 million currently to 6.5-6.9 million in 2030, or 22-30%, will affect liveability in terms of green spaces and biodiversity. Even to provide housing for the current population, natural vegetation on reserve land is being destroyed, prompting protests from both nature lovers as well as nearby residents that enjoy the benefits of such natural vegetation. To support the possible population increase, the White Paper on Land Use already shows that coastal areas of East Coast Park and Pasir Ris Park will reclaimed over, while Tanjong Chek Jawa will be affected by both reclamation and road-building. Most natural green spaces outside of the Nature Reserves will be destroyed, while proposed train lines will cut under the Nature Reserve, with potential impacts on hydrology, flora, and fauna not openly acknowledged or addressed.

The Singapore Sustainable Blueprint by an interministerial committee endorsed in 2006 a target of 0.8 ha of parkland per 1000 persons to be achieved by 2030. I have problems with the “parkland” in this ratio, but let’s keep to it for the current discussion. In recent years, the ratio has languished below the 2005 peak of 0.77, likely due to a sudden population surge in the last few years but no corresponding increase in park area. With another population surge, even this flawed ratio will not be achievable.

I glanced the following headline on the Berita Harian when I walked pass a makcik reading it:

Singapura tidak akan sepadat Hong Kong

There has been comparisons between Singapore and Hong Kong, with Minister Teo saying that even with the population increase, our population density will still not be much less than that of Hong Kong’s. This directly contradicts openly available data (e.g., World Bank) showing that Singapore’s 7,200 people per km2 is currently already higher than that of Hong Kong’s 6,800 people per km2. This discrepancy is likely because he correct these densities with the percentage built-up area of Hong Kong (33% from the Hong Kong Planning Department, corrected density=20,600 people per km2) and Singapore (71% from Alex Yee et al., corrected density=10,100 people per km2).

However, does the correction actually reflect the living conditions? Humans are dependent on natural areas, therefore natural areas should not be excluded when considering the carrying capacity of a place. The 67% natural green area in Hong Kong provides place for city dwellers to escape to the countryside if they want to. On the other hand, with the possible population surge, Singapore’s 29% natural green area will be further reduced to only the small and already heavily-used nature reserves, putting stress on the ecosystem and also reducing per capita enjoyment of these areas.

On social media, already there is much talk about emigrating. If this is indeed a widespread sentiment, after the White Paper at its current state is endorsed, emigration will increase, further eroding the Singaporean core, therefore exacerbating the population woes.

Worst case

Although Ministers Khaw, Balakrishnan, Gan, and the Prime Minister have now tried to assure us that the 6.5-6.9 million number is the “worst case scenario” for planning long-term limits, this will therefore be another aspect where the White Paper has failed. Without even sketching out the target scenario, how can the White Paper only sketch out a worst case scenario? What, then, is the target scenario? Further, nowhere in the White Paper is it mentioned that this is a worst case scenario.

Conclusion

The White Paper in its current state is unsatisfactory. If the Party Whips are lifted for the vote on endorsement, I am hoping against hope that most Members of Parliament would vote against it unless the following points are addressed to satisfaction:

  • how was the Non-Resident proportion/growth rate arrived at?
  • why are we choosing to grow the workforce rather than maintain it at steady state? How is this a sustainable solution?
  • explain alternative solutions to population growth, such as allowing taxes and costs to rise, and compare the costs and consequences of these scenarios;
  • state clearly that 6.5-6.9 million is indeed the worst case scenario, spell out clearly the actual ideal scenario, and explain what measures will be taken to stay away from the worst case scenario;
  • review the outcomes of past population projections since the first Concept Plan, how they were busted, and how this current projection will not have the same fate.

I have written to my MP. Have you?

Today is the last day of Parliamentary debate on the flawed White Paper.

When I first heard last week that a Parliamentary vote of endorsement would be called on the White Paper, I felt some despair. The ruling party that is tabling it has a super-supermajority, after all. How then can we have any hope of even tweaking it in the direction that we think is better for Singapore?

Now, I feel quite a bit happier. Sure, it’s still going to be passed. But there has been some calls, from within the ruling party itself, for an Amendment to be passed along with it.

It seems that the small but significant increase in elected opposition presence in Parliament, the unfamiliar prospect of political competition for ruling party backbenchers, and help from the non-constituency opposition members and some nominated members of Parliament, was able to shake the authority of a supermajority that would have seemed immovable in the past.

Suddenly politics in Singapore seem real. Suddenly “Singapore politics” is no longer an oxymoron.

While some have lamented that the last General Elections have “divided Singapore”, others have talked about how, perhaps for the second time since 2006, during the period of hustings they suddenly felt Singaporean again. Likewise, while undoubtedly some would write in the the press and call for us to “move on as a nation” after the White Paper is passed, I think the debate on the White Paper has already moved us on as a nation.

Meanwhile, somebody needs to come up with a rival White Paper.

The debate in Parliament already sketches out what such a rival would look like. If this is indeed the most important policy document post-independence, then I think it would be hard for anyone to say that the Workers’ Party is not doing anything significant in Parliament anymore. What’s more impressive is how it seems to have channeled its campaign-rally strengths into its time in Parliament (see its slogan switching words around to change the emphasis, and the consistency among its MPs’ and NCMPs’ speeches).

Here’s how I think the valid counter-criticisms of the PAP can be incorporated into the WP proposal:

  • They opt for a relatively low citizen intake rate of 10,000 per year. At current total fertility and death rates, such a low immigration rate will certainly shrink the population, at least in the short term until initiatives are somehow successful in improving the TFR. They should instead come up with a formula where the coming year’s intake rate of new citizens will be a function of the last year’s TFR to match population replacement over the long term. Permanent Residencies on offer should similarly match the new citizenship rate.
  • They proposed zero growth rate of Non-Residents (note that this is different from zero Non-Residents, which is insane and nobody is saying this). In the short term this will certainly be a shock to businesses (Ministers KhorTan and Iswaran). What should be done is to target zero growth rate in, say, 5 years’ time, that gives a window of opportunity for workers to continue to be brought in to put up the infrastructure shortfall, e.g., housing, from the past years. Therefore, slowing the growth rate from the past (which is already being done, so the ruling party can’t object to it) in a systematic, predictive manner. I.e., the quota of S-passes and EPs and whatnot for the next 5 years will be announced so that companies can make plans to adapt. Can be further calibrated by sector, i.e., construction worker quotas can be kept constant but experience a more rapid tightening at the end of five years’, domestic worker quotas to match growth in number of households, etc.
  • They will need to show more courage in communicating trade-offs. The tightening in non-target sectors, e.g. services, will mean that these companies will (1) fold up or pack up and leave, or (2) pay more or improve working conditions to entice locals, or (3) innovate to eliminate tedious/labour-intensive tasks. It can argue that (1) is usually overstated, while (3) is a no-brainer. However, (2) will eventually result in (a) higher costs of domestic goods, and (b) less competitive exports. Accelerated inflation or (a) will hit poor families the hardest; the rival paper will need to address how incomes for the lowest strata will need to be raised at the same pace as projected inflation. Progressively richer and privileged strata will have to suck it up, but at least the rival paper needs to be honest about this consequence. (Populism is not always wrong; it is dishonest populism that is wrong.) More money will need to pour into social work (especially to improve social worker salaries and working conditions to attract best talent equivalent to that of the educational sector) and aid for the disadvantaged.
  • They target a population cap of 5.9 million. Intuitively, I like it. But the mathematics behind it need to be demonstrated.
  • The challenges of integration was touched on somewhere. One way to ease the integration process is to choose more of the similar. Malaysians and Indonesians, Southeast Asian countries, southern provinces of China where our forefathers come from including Taiwan and Hong Kong, and then further abroad; that should be the order in which quota are set. Further, a balanced diversity immigrants is essential, to reduce the formation of enclaves and push them to interact more with locals. Such measures to improve integration need to be explicit.
  • They propose that a higher quality of life and work-life balance is the real solution to low TFRs. This can be the emotive sell of the rival paper . One strategy to distinguish itself more clearly from the current two White Papers is to emphasize nature recreation as a cheap way to improve the quality of life. Conservation of natural and historical heritage will pitch the paper in a different emotive light: a sense of stability and security, and a people finally reaching maturity as a community.

This is a hard-to-come-by opportunity for an opposition party with a foot already in the Parliament door to strengthen its policy credentials. If the Amendment is passed, a rival paper will get its chance in 2020, after the next elections with possibly an even greater opposition strength in Parliament. If there is any time to invest in rival policy that will accelerate it closer to government-in-waiting status, this is it.

But during this time, things will have changed, so the policy making behind the rival paper must be in real-time: acknowledging positive directions and identifying additional damage.

Conversations on greenery: the Pasir Ris green belt

It was first reported on 31 May 2012 in The New Paper, “Pasir Ris forest may soon disappear” by Eunice Toh that the fate of the “forested area behind Pasir Ris Heights” that is “sandwiched by two other plots of land, which are also forested” was on the minds of some of nearby residents, even though they “do not have any plans of their own to save the area” at that time.

Where exactly was this plot of land? An image from Google Earth:

pasir ris green belt

On 12 April 2012, Yellow Parcel was sold off to Elitist Development. (What an unfortunate choice of a name.)

Four days later, Blue Parcel was sold off to Capital Development.

So what remains that was not yet a done deal is Red Parcel.

At that time, Subaraj when interviewed made a good point:

… “That land has a good variety of birds, but it has never been a reserve or a park. It has always been temporary.”

A member of the Nature Society (Singapore), Mr Rajathurai is afraid that if they were to push hard to conserve this area, another area with greater biodiversity might be taken away.

This is the problem of leakage, where the benefits of taking a conservation measure at one place was lost at another place of equal or higher conservation value, so there was no net benefit, perhaps even a net loss.

On 9 July 2012, Neo Chai Chin reported in Channel Newsasia/Today, “Save our green lung, say Pasir Ris residents“, that some residents from Pasir Ris Heights had decided to take action.

Six of them “who call themselves the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee” were “leading the petition” and would be garnering support from households around the area.

Six out of nine interviewed from Pasir Ris Heights reportedly were in favour of preserving the woodland. Some views:

Some of them cited views expressed last month by property analysts that the north-eastern part of Singapore is at risk of housing oversupply, and said it would be hard to recreate a wildlife habitat that has taken decades to generate.

I am assuming that the Greenbelt Committee members were not among the interviewees.

The quote of one resident was particularly interesting:

We moved here because of this,” said pre-school teacher Shashee Devi, 40, gesturing at the trees and a white-bellied sea eagle’s nest from the second floor of her home.

On 6 August 2012, Neo Chai Chin reports in Channel Newasia that the original six have grown to “200 show up in bid to save green lung at Pasir Ris“. The petition by then had been signed by more than 1,200 residents.

It was revealed then of the plans for an international school on that site, although “although this is not confirmed”. This, however, contradicts with another statement:

A URA spokesperson said the area had been intended for residential use since the start of the development of Pasir Ris Town, which was reflected in the Master Plan since 1998.

The Master Plan 2008 does indeed show that the three parcels were categorized under “residential”. Educational institutions are of a different colour in the Master Plan. If the land use could be changed from residential to educational, it means that the zonings in the Master Plan are simply not as cast-in-stone as they are sometimes made out to be.

While the meeting also considered alternative sites for the school, the URA spokesperson also pointed residents to alternative “nature” spaces at Pasir Ris Beach and Pasir Ris Town Park.

A beach is a beach, and there is no natural woodland at the town park.

By this time, two Members of Parliament of that constituency had been down to dialogue with residents:

Mr Zainal said he may raise questions in Parliament – after discussion with Pasir Ris West MP and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean – to learn more about how the URA decides which areas to conserve.

He said: “I learnt from the URA that there was public consultation. But knowing the ground wants to be engaged more, maybe we should rethink our strategy in terms of public consultation.

On 6 November 2012, Neo Chai Chin (again) reports (this time, in) Today of the decision by URA and MND: “Pasir Ris woodland to make way for school“.

The site was among those included in a request-for-interest exercise announced in April, said the letters sent via email and signed by Strategic Planning Manager Loo Jian Sheng for the ministry’s Permanent Secretary.

“The request is to meet the demand for places for such [i.e. international] schools that play an important role to support international businesses and investments growing their activities and creating economic opportunities and jobs in Singapore,” he wrote.

The site was chosen to provide a “good distribution of such school sites islandwide“, and is of sufficient size “while minimising impact on surrounding developments“.

In short, they decided that they needed an international school somewhere in the east, and suddenly now I know that international schools are such an important component of our economy.

What I didn’t get especially was the last part about how the site choice also took into account minimizing impact.

NParks now gets dragged in: their data that there were “no rare plant species” and only birds and butterfly species that are “also present in other parts of Singapore”.

“While there are some bird species of potential conservation importance … NParks notes that not all of these bird species are nesting on site and are likely using the site as part of their overall home range for foraging. There is a realistic chance of these birds nesting at alternative sites,” he added.

From an ecological point of view, however,

  1. If these are rare species, protection of local populations are important, even if there are other populations elsewhere. Having separate populations reduce the risk of overall extinction.
  2. If this is an important foraging site within the home range of species of conservation concern, it actually implies that it should be protected. The argument for conservation should not be based on nesting sites alone but also other needs of relevant species.

The questions therefore are:

  1. how rare are the species that were found there,
  2. how would it impact the really rare species if the site were to be cleared, and
  3. are there alternatives nearby, both for the proposed school, as well as for the rare species to use?

The grounds are, therefore, “not sufficient to call for a detailed environmental impact assessment [EIA]” that would defer development plans.

This makes it seem as though that there are clear guidelines on which to decide if an EIA is needed. EIAs are not mandatory by Singapore’s laws, and the decision processes leading up to when an EIA would be called are opaque, with pieacemeal provisions littered throughout Singapore’s statutes.

Isn’t it a good idea to always carefully assess developmental plans before allowing them to proceed?

Without an EIA to advise them, here are some examples of what were conjured as mitigatory/compensatory measures:

…the school will be encouraged to retain the mature trees to form a natural buffer between the low-rise houses at Pasir Ris Heights and the teaching blocks of the school.

…The school will be accessed via a new road directly off Pasir Ris Drive 3, while the agencies are working to ensure traffic management measures are in place.

These are not measures for mitigating ecological impact from the loss of habitat. These are measures of mitigating impact on humans from the dust, noise, etc.

The residents that supported the petition would naturally be disappointed.

So the tension from the disappointment grew into something quite a bit more. On 9 January 2013, two articles were published.

In the Straits Times, “Fight to save forest patch hots up” by Grace Chua:

A group of Pasir Ris residents, unhappy with a decision to build an international school on a patch of forest near Pasir Ris Heights, is locked in a battle with the authorities.

… one incident on Dec 29 tipped them over – when HDB ordered a tree with about 90 parakeets chopped down because other residents had presumably complained about the noise. They confronted workers preparing to cut it down and, after a discussion about whose authority they were acting on, the workers took their ropes and left.

Two days later, the group published a letter on Facebook which it sent to the MND, Urban Redevelopment Authority, National Parks Board and Singapore Land Authority. It asked if they were “doing this to achieve their end of destroying the forest on the quiet, using what appears to be a fictitious pretence”.

No more nice guys:

They … had suggested alternative nearby plots for the school. They also want an independent study of the biodiversity of the forest and for the Government to provide statistical data to support its decision.

It threatened legal action unless the Government gave figures supporting its decisions by Jan 7.

Associate Professor Lye Lin Heng, an environmental law scholar at the National University of Singapore, said a legal challenge could be a test case that rests on whether residents have legal standing to stop developments on state land. An argument can be made that the Government holds the land on trust for the people, then they have a right to be consulted, she said.

Some flip-flop?

Late on Monday, the MND told residents the attempted felling was to stop the wild tree being toppled by strong winds. It said it was now assessing the tree and insisted the attempted felling “was with the intent to ensure public safety and not to commence clearance of the site”.

A good point on who should be assessing the site:

A member of the group’s committee, lawyer Deepak Natverlal, 42, who has lived in Pasir Ris for 16 years, … insisted that surveys by NParks were not independent enough.

Neo Chai Chin’s story in Today, “No rub of the green for Pasir Ris woodland” suggests that it was a misunderstanding of the reason for clearing the tree in question that boiled things over. After residents had met up with Teo Chee Hean to express their disappointment after Loo’s earlier letter in October,

… The MND promised to follow up with a clearer explanation, but things came to a head on Dec 29, when a big tree in the woodland nearly got cut down.

Residents halted the contractor’s work and wrote again to the authorities. The MND told TODAY that the Albizia tree was identified for removal for public safety under the National Parks Board’s (NParks) Tree Management Programme.

Mr Loo wrote to the residents that NParks is now doing a “detailed assessment” of whether the tree needs to be felled for safety reasons.

Albizia trees are always a tricky problem.

They are not native to Singapore; in some parts of the world they are even considered as invasive plant species. They grow so tall in such a short time that, or so it is thought, they prevent native pioneer plant species from establishing in the canopy. More important to pragmatic Singapore, wood from such rapid growth cannot be strong wood, and the immense height/size makes them “killer trees” when they fall, as they often did, in strong winds.

However, raptors often choose to nest in albizias, because of their height. Few (actually, can’t think of any) native plant species can replace such an ecological function.

Back to the promised “clearer explanation”:

The secondary vegetation on the land is suitable for a range of animal and bird life, but the number of species there is “considerably lower” than in nature reserves and many other nature areas in Singapore, wrote the MND’s Manager for Strategic Planning Loo Jian Sheng in an email to the Pasir Ris Greenbelt Committee on Monday…

Sites designated as nature reserves must be rich in native biodiversity across several taxonomic groups, such as plants, mammals and reptiles, he said.

Mr Loo’s reply, posted on the committee’s Facebook page, stated that the authorities had considered options to salvage and relocate the plants and animals at the site, but identified no rare plant species that needed to be salvaged.

“There are lower risks in permitting animal species to move out of the area themselves at the start of land clearance, than would be incurred by attempting to capture and remove them,” he added.

Sure, plants can be salvaged, grown, and planted as trees in parks. Or they may need to be planted in other remaining habitats, otherwise this would not allow them to serve their functions by interacting with other ecosytems. Where are these habitats?

Similarly, when animals move out of this forest, they need other forests to move into. Given Singapore’s dwindling number of forest patches (this case being a perfect example), how then does this argument, that they can move out by themselves, still hold?

But the Greenbelt Committee is still unsatisfied with the MND’s reply. Committee member Cherry Fong said the Urban Redevelopment Authority has yet to explain the need to clear the woodland “when there may be other alternative sites” for the school.

Addressing the point on nature reserves,

first, Neo Chai Chin’s article:

“Every effort” should be made to protect areas with endangered or uncommon species, even if they belong to one taxonomic group, and the committee has proposed an alternative site of less biodiversity importance, [Cherry Fong] said.

then back to Grace Chua’s article:

Dr Ho Hua Chew of the Nature Society said … “Of course you can’t compare forest fragments with nature reserves, but the carrying capacity of the nature reserves has been exceeded for some species. That’s why they are resorting to these areas outside nature reserves,”…

Two days later (11 January 2013), Dr. Wee Yeow Chin wrote to the Straits Times Forum (“Not all green patches worth conserving“). As with Subaraj, Dr. Wee rightly brought up the problem of using up “lobbying capital” on a degraded piece of biodiversity when there might patches elsewhere more worth saving.

The Nature Society, he felt, should help to advise residence about such trade-offs, and the differences in ecological value between degraded land and nature reserves.

The Pasir Ris plot is a highly degraded piece of wild growth…

There will always be such plots of wild growth, especially when an area is left undeveloped for some years. But this does not mean that we should clamour for their conservation.

I wonder, though, if Singapore would really always have wild growth. I do not have hard data [yet] to show this, but all signs point to lesser and lesser natural vegetation outside of the nature reserves… It is not hard to imagine them almost completely gone in the near future at the relentless growth rate that is being projected for our population.

Such natural vegetation certainly lose out to the nature reserves in terms of biodiversity “content”, but what of their value in terms of improving access for residents, and hence its indirect contribution to ecological literacy and societal support for conservation? A student in our lab is working on this; we may get some answers by the year’s end.

…if such areas were to disappear altogether, the mostly resident birds could always find refuge in our parks and gardens, where there are plenty of trees to provide food and shelter.

To what extent is this true? My research has some interesting results. Will blog about it when the time comes.

Not Endangered: CITES or IUCN?

In an article on Channel NewsAsia (“RWS forecasts 17 million visitors for 2013”, by Dylan Loh, 7th December 2012), the Chairman of Genting Group and Resorts World Sentosa, Mr Lim Kok Thay, said in response to the recent dolphin controversy:

“These are really not endangered species, so it is really no different from, if you want to put it, the panda bears…”

In another article on the same day in TodayOnline (“Bottlenose dophins ‘not endangered’: Genting Group chairman”, by Neo Chai Chin), he was quoted:

“I cannot emphasize enough that the dolphins we are talking about are definitely not on the endangered list,” he said, citing how some have perceived otherwise.

This confusion over what is endangered and what is not arises from someone either having a lazy mind and tongue, or making the common, tiresome mistake of using listing on the Appendices of CITES instead of the the IUCN Red List assessments.

CITES stands for “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora”, but just because there is the word “endangered” in the acronym does not make it an authority for deciding if a species is endangered. CITES is essentially an agreement on trade restriction. There are three lists or “Appendices” in CITES. Appendix I means no import/export unless under really exceptional circumstances. Appendix II means trade must be tightly controlled. Appendix III means a country has asked for assistance in regulating the trade of that species. Whether a species is listed on which of its Appendices depends on bargaining between government representatives, which are swayed by conservation NGOs and lobbyists employed by corporations. Listed species may or may not be threatened/endangered.

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species is the correct look-up source for conservation status at the global level. There are various categories, including “Data Deficient” which means there is not enough data but does not mean that the species is not threatened (but usually data deficient = little known = rare = very few left!!), and “Least Concern” which explicitly means not endangered. Of course, a species can be not yet assessed, which like Data Deficient means no one should make any proclamations whether it is or is not threatened. Species are assessed and given a status based on a working group of experts, usually biologists familiar with the populations or ranges of that group of species.

I was wondering which is the case that applies here (I certainly don’t want to be the one with a lazy mind or tongue!), since a while back, a Kirk Leech wrote in the Straits Times (“Sharks fins: one man’s delicacy, another’s poison pill”, 3 February 2011) that only three out of over 400 shark species are regulated by CITES, implying that the endangerment situation of sharks is being grossly exaggerated. A Jennifer Lee wrote back to the Straits Times Forum (“Who says sharks are not endangered?”, 8 February 2011), correcting him that the IUCN status should be used, and

…17 per cent of the world’s 1,044 shark species are threatened with extinction, and 47 per cent of shark species are data deficient.”

So let’s check: are “bottlenose dophins” endangered? There appears to be two species: the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dophin (Tursiops aduncus) and the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), but I have no idea which is the one that Resorts World Sentosa is importing.

According to the IUCN Red List, the status of the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin is Data Deficient. The status of the common bottlenose dolphin is Least Concern. Assuming that RWS is importing the latter, then Lim is correct in saying that his dolphins are not endangered. Both are listed on Appendix II of CITES, which means RWS had to deal with the proper paperwork to get their dolphins through the customs.

Let’s check too: are pandas endangered?

According to the IUCN Red List, the status of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is Endangered. (Incidentally, it is listed on CITES Appendix I, but China seems to be able to lend it out and back on its own will. Anyway the species is only found in China.)

Conclusion?

Not crow also complain

Last Saturday, a Daniel Ng wrote to the Straits Times Forum complaining that the “distinct and piercing”, “loud and aggressive” calls of the Asian koel wake him and his family up at 5 am. He used the word “invaded” to describe the unwelcoming barge of these “large black birds” into of his lush Queenstown HDB estate.

To his chagrin, AVA told him that the bird is protected, and “offered to trim the trees to reduce their roosting areas”.

The man demands to know why the bird is protected and what AVA is going to do about it.

Yesterday, there were a flurry of letters published in response.

A Sia Beng Choo reports similar torture at the hands of the koels, claiming that they “screech loudly and incessantly… even as early as 4 am”.

Yet others spoke up on their behalf: be grateful that there is still some nature in this city, and if you want lush greenery, you have to put up with some quirks. As we say sarcastically in our lab, people want beautiful birds without anuses, and beautiful butterflies that magically appear without the caterpillar stage. Not happening.

Over the past decade, the koel population has indeed increased by almost an order of magnitude on average throughout Singapore. In fact, the first letter came coincidentally on a morning when I was also woken by a rather insistent koel at an unholy hour of 6 am. Three other friends (including one of the same name of the first letter writer) similarly mentioned first calls at times ranging from 4.30 am to 6.30 am.

But populations of quite a few other bird species have increased. We recently published a paper on this. A modified version will be going into my thesis.

What is interesting about the koels is that their preferred host for their eggs are the house crows. Yes, koels make a cuckoo out of another unwelcome big, black bird. You would have thought that it would be a redeeming factor.

The house crow is alien to Singapore, while koels are native (although they may have been more of open country species, not quite so common when Singapore was covered by dense forest). Koels may have originally parasitized nests of the large-billed crow before the house crows arrived, but the former are rarely found in urban areas, which Singapore consists most of, and the latter are fully urban species. Using house crow nests enable the koels to expand their usable space in our city.

When the population explosion of house crows became an acknowledged problem some decades back, the government had to do something about it. Research was conducted by Navjot‘s team and a level of culling was determined. The culling intensified in the early 2000s, and today house crow populations are not quite so crazy.

Curiously, you would expect the parasite to decline when host numbers go down, but the numbers of the koel have gone up instead. Why is that so?

In our paper, we suggested that host switching is an immediately obvious possibility. But the real reason may be a bit more esoteric. We found studies in India and Bangladesh that showed that success rates of nest parasitism by the koel increase when the density of house crow nests are lower.

When house crow numbers are high, they can nest gregariously, and this is suggested as a neighbourhood watch program to chase off unwelcome intruders.

Culling house crows to low numbers but not completely eradicating them means that they are still around, and they build rather solitary nests. Without neighbourly lookouts, they become more vulnerable to the tactics of the koel couple. The koel prospers instead of declining.

Or so we suspect.

The koel is also a frugivore, so it has no worries about going hungry given the kind of plants one can usually find in the urban area.

Regarding the “protected species” thingamajig, it’s an artifact of outdated, uninformed biodiversity laws in Singapore. Only a few bird species can be killed; all others are protected. Not so much a bad thing, actually, just that some species that don’t deserve to be are put on the hit list.

(This is actually the first time I’m blogging about ideas from a paper I’ve published, hmmm…)

Update on 11 November 2012:

An article on Thursday on the koel fuss by ST journalist David Ee.

A student from Chai Chee was quoted as being woken up at 5 am by the “sharp and irritating” calls, consequently getting headaches and was unable to study well…

I remember hearing the koel’s sounds when I lived in Chai Chee, although I never knew they were called koels. In the last few years when I became a bit more ornithologically literate, I found out that on those morning trudging out to school at 6.20 am, I not only heard koels but also the golden-bellied gerygone’s melody.

AVA continues to think that reducing (but not eradicating) house crow numbers is the way to go. I still think that reducing house crow nest densities but not below a threshold that is enough to affect the demographics of koels would perversely benefit their numbers.

By the way, it has already been documented that Asian koels are able to parasitize nests of the black-naped oriole, another bird whose population trends show that it has benefited from the urban landscape in Singapore.

City in a garden, not city in a forest

A feature on the bird ecology study group’s call for contributions to a plant-bird database appeared in the Straits Times on 6 Oct by David Ee (“Matching birds and trees“).

Some responses in the ST Forum today (online and in print, respectively):

What works in the forest may not work in a garden

WHILE it is laudable that the Bird Ecology Study Group will compile an archive listing more than 200 species of flora and detailing birds that frequent them (“Matching trees and birds”; Oct 6), planners such as the National Parks Board should exercise prudence and care when using such resources to decide what and what not to plant in our parks and gardens, in their effort to attract fauna.

The finding that the common mahang, a tree found in our forests here, draws more than 20 bird species to its fruit does not recognise the fact that a tree growing in a forest, when grown in our gardens and parks, might not attract an equal number of bird species.

Birds that are forest-dependent will not visit the same mahang tree grown in a garden or park that is outside the forest.

If the fruits of the mahang tree draw the liking, too, of the noisy Asian glossy starlings or mynahs, we might even inadvertently propagate more roosting sites for these community roosting birds – a scenario we do not want.

The common mahang tree is also well known for attracting ants to its leaf stalks.

The presence of ants and the consequences when one unwittingly touches them, or if they drop on someone standing below the tree, also need to be taken into consideration.

The safety of the public is of paramount concern.

While we would certainly like to see a “City in a Garden” full of life and biodiversity, we must also be cognisant of the fact that what works in one place might not work in another.

No one size fits all.

Even lizards and butterflies have their own niches and will not readily adapt to a habitat unfamiliar and foreign to them.

Certainly, a lot more experimenting and study of what we want to plant has to be done first before we embark on planting any one species of flora.

Chia Yong Soong

Plant the right trees or risk attracting the wrong birds

THE Bird Ecology Study Group should be commended for compiling an archive that will list more than 200 species of flora and detail the birds frequenting them (“Matching trees and birds”; Oct 6).

But planting a common mahang tree outside the forest environment will not attract the same species and number of birds. This is because forest-specific birds like the cream-vented bulbuls, red-eyed bulbuls and red-crowned barbets will not move out of the forest habitats to urban parkland to forage.

Planting food trees outside the reserves may instead attract the more adaptable Asian glossy starlings and mynas, whose populations the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority is trying to control.

Botanists know that many of the wild scrubs and trees do not grow well or even survive outside the forest without the support of the ecosystem. Such trees are not used in our parks and open spaces. On the other hand, fig trees, with their root systems, are destructive to buildings, homes and roads.

The best way to protect biodiversity is to conserve their habitats, which cannot be replicated. You cannot “grow” back a primary forest.

Hospitals, community development councils, schools and corporations have been drawing from the database of the National Parks Board and the Nature Society (Singapore) for many years now to create butterfly- and bird-friendly trails, gardens and open spaces. Let us hope the Bird Ecology Study Group’s archive can supplement the existing databases for the greater good.

Alan Owyong

My comments:

Another thing about the mahang is that many of them are pioneers, which are fast-growing because they are adapted to tree fall gaps and forest edges, where they need to race to reach the canopy before it closes from the growth of branches in the periphery, or before other fast-growing species shade them out. The trade-off in fast growth is the poor quality of the wood in the trunk. Fast-growing plants therefore are usually shorter-lived and more likely to snap under strong weather conditions. This may make them unsuitable for planting in parks and especially along streetscapes. The common mahang cited, Macaranga bancana, is certainly one of the faster-growing pioneers.

Perhaps better to consider are the so-called climax-type mahang, such as Macaranga conifera. These are slower-growing and are known to persist longer in the forest.

Aside from fruits that attract birds, mahang leaves are also food for caterpillars of some forest butterflies.

Anyway, I think there are many more food plants out there that can attact birds and butterflies. The question is not just what plants to choose to plant, but also how and where we plant them. The messiness of natural vegetation remains essential. As yet, our cultivated plants are not a perfect substitute for natural vegetation as an ecological resource for animals.

Do we want to create a City in a Garden, or a City in a Forest? I prefer the latter.

Update: comprehensive response on 20 Oct 2012 in the ST Forum.

I THANK Mr Chia Yong Soong (“What works in the forest may not work in a garden”; Tuesday) for his interest in the Bird Ecology Study Group’s list of plants and the birds they attract (“Matching trees and birds”; Oct 6).

I would like to reiterate that it is a list compiled from seven years of contributions by birdwatchers interested in bird behaviour. As in any list, it is just a guide that planners need to use with prudence and care. Having said that, let me go into specifics.

The common mahang is a tree of disturbed forests and forest edge, not of the rainforest proper. As such, the birds it attracts need not necessarily be exclusively forest species.

In any case, our extensive park connectors can grow this tree, thus allowing for easy movement of woodland birds into parks that grow the tree.

The tree will also attract urban birds like the yellow-vented bulbul, scarlet-backed flowerpecker and brown-throated sunbird that feed on the nectar and fruits. So there is always the possibility that it will attract more than the 20 species of birds that we document.

Another concern of the writer is the possibility of the tree being used as a roosting site for starlings and mynahs. Birds roost in trees with dense canopies that are grown near food centres and in areas surrounded by tall buildings. Trees in such locations provide some shelter from the weather as well as from predators. So, it is not the species of the tree but where it is grown that attracts roosting birds.

For example, the angsana, a favourite roosting tree along Orchard Road, when grown away from tall buildings, is mostly devoid of roosting birds.

As to the ants scare, the common mahang harbours tiny, harmless ants that live within the hollows of young shoots. These ants mostly emerge when we roughly handle these shoots, and even then they do not swarm over our hands nor drop on to people standing below the tree.

The statement that lizards and butterflies have their own niches and are not readily adapted to an unfamiliar habitat is a fallacy. In the case of native species, given the food source, they will definitely be around. In the case of exotic species, many that arrived became more successful than the local species. An excellent example here is the changeable lizard that is native to countries as far south as the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia.

It was introduced into this country and is currently found all over our urban parks and gardens.

And many of our roadside plants have been introduced from faraway countries and have since adapted to our local conditions and are attracting their complement of local bird and other faunal species.

Singaporeans have, through the years, come to appreciate nature. However, many have yet to have an emotional connect with nature in our Garden City.

There are still people who demand that a tree be cut if its branches grow near their windows for fear of insects moving into their homes.

And I have even met many children who panic when a butterfly flutters near them.

We need to work towards exposing our children, not to mention adults, to the wonders of the biodiversity in our Garden City, otherwise they may not appreciate it when we fully become a City in a Garden.

Wee Yeow Chin (Dr)
Bird Ecology Study Group

Update 2 on 11 November 2012:

I learnt that there was a separate rebuttal to Alan Owyong’s letter, which was not published by ST but is on the BESG blog.

Conversations on greenery: Woodlands open space

Plan for recreational spaces even as new flats are being built
Straits Times Forum
10 Sep 2012

THE HDB is to be lauded for accelerating the flat-building process, so that the needs of young couples and others in urgent need of housing can be met (“HDB to offer 20,000 new flats next year”; Aug 7).

However, the authorities must also appreciate the need for heartlanders to have more recreational spaces, which must go hand in hand with the building of flats in any particular area.

I refer, in particular, to a green lung located in the vicinity of Blocks 893A, B and C; Woodlands Primary School; Blocks 896B and C and Block 897A in Woodgrove estate, bordered by the MRT line, on the other side of which are more HDB flats.

Google Earth image of site taken on 25 May 2010.

Google Earth image taken on 7 Apr 2011.

This open space, which is aesthetically positioned between these blocks, is heavily patronised by the old and young alike.

In the evenings and on weekends, scores of boys and girls can be seen happily playing there. Elderly folk also go there to relax in the evenings.

Of late, soil testing has been carried out at various points of the green space. It appears that this area may be slated for residential development.

Many residents have voiced their unhappiness over this.

Besides environmental and aesthetic considerations, the social impact of closing this space has far-reaching consequences, particularly for young people. Already, a part of this green lung has been siphoned off for HDB flats that are now under construction.

On behalf of the residents of this precinct, I appeal to the authorities not to allow any further building of flats in this much-valued green space.

The rush to build more flats should be balanced with the qualitative needs and aspirations of the residents.

Dr V. Subramaniam

HDB mindful of need for community and green spaces in estates
Straits Times Forum
17 Sep 2012

WE THANK Dr V. Subramaniam (“Plan for recreational spaces even as new flats are being built”; Forum Online, last Monday).

Plots of vacant land in HDB towns are set aside for future development. Their land uses are shown in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan 2008.

With the building of more HDB flats to meet continuing demand for housing, relevant plots of land will be developed progressively.

Dr Subramaniam referred to the land parcel along Woodlands Drive 50, which has been zoned “residential” in the Master Plan.

Pending future development, the site was kept as an open space for interim use.

In July, the HDB announced that a new Build-to-Order (BTO) project would be launched at this location.

While meeting the demand for new flats, the HDB remains mindful of the need to provide community and green spaces within our housing estates.

In the vicinity of the land parcel cited by Dr Subramaniam, there are two existing neighbourhood parks located at Woodlands Avenue 5 (near Block 897C) and Woodlands Street 81 (near Block 827), where residents can enjoy recreational activities.

Besides the two neighbourhood parks, residents can look forward to green spaces in the new BTO project, which includes a community garden and a rooftop garden at the multi-storey carpark.

To enhance community bonding, residents can also look forward to communal and recreational facilities like shelters, a precinct pavilion, adult and elderly fitness stations, as well as an adventure playground.

Kathleen Goh (Ms)
Director (Planning Dept 2)
Housing & Development Board

Still more room for a greener heartland
Straits Times Forum
14 January 2013

IN HIS letter, Dr Tan Eng Chun clearly demonstrated that Singaporeans, surrounded by a concrete jungle, feel for nature in its pristine form – trees, shrubs, green lungs, open areas, nature reserves, forests, wild life and fresh air (“Conserve green lungs on outskirts of Singapore”; last Friday).

However, this vital quest for a greener environment is something that is not sufficiently acknowledged, understood and appreciated by our planning authorities.

While it is true that planning policies do take into consideration the need for open spaces in the heartlands, there is still more room for a greener environment in our housing estates.

As Dr Tan has lamented, there is a relentless felling of trees and other forms of greenery to make way for more housing. A case in point is the proposed construction of an executive condominium along Woodlands Avenue 5 and the soon-to-be-built HDB flats in the open green space along Woodlands Drive 50. In these two cases alone, a substantial amount of green space is to be obliterated. Currently being used for recreational activities, these green areas will soon make way for heavy construction equipment, concrete piling and the resultant dust and deafening noise.

My family and I moved to Woodlands to take advantage of the lush greenery and fresh air, but unfortunately have to settle for something less.

Of late, there has also been a systematic and relentless felling of the beautiful and healthy trees that used to adorn Woodlands Drive 50 between Woodlands Primary School and 888 Plaza. These trees took several years to grow and were pleasing by their very presence, not to mention the shade and fresh air they gave residents. The street now looks bare, although little trees have been planted, presumably to replace the felled trees. These young trees will take years to grow, depriving residents of their much-treasured pleasure.

This scenario is being replicated throughout Singapore and I hope the authorities will consider the aesthetic needs and aspirations of Singaporeans in their quest for a greener environment and a better quality of life.

Dr. V. Subramaniam

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.

Old ways

For those who subscribe to the line of argument that what’s important is the intention during the act of animal liberation and we should not concern ourselves with the uncertainty of their survival: allow me to poison those pure and wonderful thoughts of yours.

A couple of days ago, two colleagues from lab stepped off a road into a stream near one of our reservoirs, and were given a nasty scare when dozens of things started jumping around.

American bullfrogs.

Sold as a delicacy, and bought and released by a misguided soul who wanted to accumulate merits on Vesak Day. In a square patch of about 2m x 2m beside the stream, my friends counted about 20 of them. Many more had jumped out of their way.

Whatever well-wishes the liberator had for the frogs, many already were dead.

Yesterday, I joined them when they went back to take some photos. It was not a pretty sight, nor a pretty smell. There were only a few that looked alive, and some of these were so weak that they didn’t bother very much to move when we prodded them. One that I picked up was flaccid and foaming in the mouth. Some of the carcasses have been washed away by the stream, but some still remained, either bloated or upturned or with flies buzzing around them.

So, now that you know their chances of survival, can you still plead ignorance and claim that your intentions during your next liberation will be as pure as ever?

This kind of animal release is a sure-lose scenario: if the frogs cannot adapt and die (so rapidly too), it obviously defeats the purpose of giving them a new lease of life. If they frogs survive, disperse into the forest and reproduce, it’s a ticking time bomb for the ecological integrity of our native flora and fauna. Either way, you have just paid a tidy sum of money into the hands of the suppliers of frogs encouraging them that this is lucrative business, while the several customers who were denied these individuals on their dinner plate have gone on to buy others. Just how much wisdom has accompanied this supposed act of compassion? Have you actually saved any frogs at all? Or have you actually caused more frogs on the overall to die?

Some have struggled to improve and adapt the practice with the times. I wrote about this to TODAY voices. This is the original letter:

Dear Editor,

Religious release of animals: a scientific way?

In many parts of Asia, the practice of animal liberation has kicked up much debate in terms of animal welfare and environmental impacts. Some recent developments have attempted to address these concerns. The ‘beneficiaries’ have largely switched from exotic freshwater pets such as red-eared sliders and birds to seafood such as fish and crabs on the rationale that these are native our region’s seas. A second, more questionable, recommendation has been to avoid purchasing patterns that can be anticipated by sellers.

The latest move has been to purchase only marine fish reared in fish farms, and not those directly caught at sea (“Buddhists celebrate Vesak Day”, May 18). While I admire such efforts to modernize our traditions, I would like propose that we go two steps further: first, construct an economic model to show how this better circumvents the usual market scenarios of animal capture and liberation; second, engage an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of possible short term ecosystem shocks and long term genetic erosion to the wild populations from such large quantities of a few species being released. The EIA can advise on husbandry practices, and recommend appropriate mixes of species and release volumes and timings for the best outcome. Buddhists can then confidently help to reach out to and educate those that still slip through the watchful eyes of our nature wardens and conduct the worst practices of releasing exotics directly into our reserves.

This is an opportunity to show how scientific method can complement religious devotion for a positive outcome.

But perhaps at the end of the day, we may find that the most enlightened way to practice compassion would still be the long and hard way: live simply, reduce consumption, and be kind and gentle to all life around us.

In short, I think there is no cheap way.

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