Energy-intensive local diversity

… humans tend to sacrifice ecological and geographic heterogeneity for an artificially maintained, energy-intensive, local species diversity. Take, for example, the large numbers of plant taxa maintained in the… cities of the world. Most of these species are horticultural varieties that do well in landscaped gardens and parks. One sees a great variety of such plants… But the roses, citrus, camellias, bougainvilleas, daffodils, eucalyptus, and begonias are everywhere similar.

This combination of local variety and geographic homogeneity produces several pleasant benefits for humans. Not only are the exotic species more spectacular, but the world traveler can always feel botanically at home… But the aesthetic benefits are costly. The price is low geographic diversity and ecological complexity.

-Soulé, M. (1985)
BioScience 35: 727


“Plants have feelings too, you know…”

When Nature and Science both choose to review the same book, furthermore in the same week, there’s got to be something interesting about it.

According to the Science review, the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben “became a surprise best seller in Germany and is now being released in English.” Book reviewer Gabriel Popkin tries to be gentle:

“…his anthropomorphizing may irritate those seeking to understand trees on their own terms.”

And irritated was exactly what Richard Fortey at Nature felt:

“…I have problems with Wohlleben’s narrative approach. He describes trees as if they possessed consciousness. During times of drought they make “cries of thirst” or “might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues”. They experience “rising panic”. A seedling’s growth is portrayed as fratricide as it sees off its siblings… After a while, the urge to attribute motivation to the behaviour of trees becomes irksome.”

Popkin’s review also mentions an older (and very long) article in The New Yorker about a predecessor book from the 70’s, The Secret Life of Plants, which was chockful of quack experiments that

…has been discredited. But the book had made its mark on the culture. Americans began talking to their plants and playing Mozart for them, and no doubt many still do. This might seem harmless enough… But in the view of many plant scientists “The Secret Life of Plants” has done lasting damage to their field.

But there may be a positive side to anthropomorphizing plants yet. In an essay (published in Conservation Biology and covered by, Balding and Williams suggests that it may help to counter the tendency of people to ignore plants and build more awareness and support for plant conservation.


Journal article titles on Pokemon ecology and evolution

Pokemon Go is out in Singapore and is all the craze now. There can be two common reactions by biodiversity science workers to this. One is to ask: What’s that? After all, we’re too busy doing real work… The other is to roll our eyes, and wonder why so few people appreciate the real plants and animals around us.

Some call this passive-aggression. To be honest, I did go on a rant to the wife about how I would absolutely give a student zero if I caught him/her playing Pokemon Go on a field trip.

But the world of Pokemon should be really intriguing to us who search for patterns in the (real) natural world. It led me to think: what research hypotheses would I test using Pokemon Go? Which in turn leads me to fantasize: what would the titles of the papers look like?


1. Excessive use of lures homogenizes Pokemon beta diversity

2. Fourth-corner analysis reveals habitat preferences of Pokemon functional groups

3. A test of temporal niche-partitioning in nocturnal- vs. diurnal-spawning Pokemon

4. Invasive species, or urban commensals? Population control of Rattatas and Pidgeys does not increase Pokemon diversity nor abundance

(On evolution:)

5. A phylogenomic approach to estimating speciation rates in the Eevee clade

(Typical review bullshit:)

6. The role of Pokestops in sustainable harvesting: prospects and challenges

7. Ontogenetic shifts in life history strategies for Pokemon displaying multi-stage metamorphosis

(‘Cos you gotta have one for the taxonomists:)

8. Lectotypification of Nidoran

9. Dynamic occupancy modelling of the amphidromous Magicarp

There are only nine because I could only think of nine. After all, I don’t play the game, so I don’t know enough about their natural history. For those who do, why not grab your nearest/favourite journal article, and think about how you might change it to one on Pokemon! It might help others understand the kind of work we actually do.

Thoughts on botany from 1959

A bunch of choice quotes from the Gardens’ Bulletin volume 17 issue 2, published in 1959 on the 100th anniversary of the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The knowledge of the correct names of plants is essential for the ecologist… I believe that ecological studies in the widest sense provide the only sound basis for the preparation of rational plans of land utilisation.

Purseglove, p. 146
“History and functions of botanic gardens
with special reference to Singapore”

The critical name of a plant species is the alpha of botanical knowledge…

Van Steenis, p. 162
“Singapore and Flora Malesiana”

…for the taxonomic progress with living plants and all the impetus to botany, theoretical and applied, which will follow, we must look to the botanical institutes in tropical countries… Western science has led the way to a better appreciation of nature, but the tropical countries must now help their eager students to extend this knowledge in their own rich heritage for the benefit of mankind… On the tropical students now falls the responsibility for writing their biological floras… Theirs will be the responsibility of preserving the native vegetation and the beauty of the country by wayside and in natural park, and of collecting the living assemblage of economic, ornamental, and rare plants for research and recreation in botanic gardens… At present they may lean on outside support, but I look to the time when students from outside will learn in the tropical institutes.

Corner, p. 214
“The importance of tropical taxonomy to modern botany”

Residents vs. municipal authorities vs. trees

Just up the road from where I currently stay, there are a few large Ficus elastica trees. I noticed them the first time I came down the street to view the house before renting it; For a couple of years Chow Khoon and I monitored bi-weekly the phenology of some Ficus elastica trees in Singapore, so I recognised them instantly.

The species is sometimes called the Indian rubber tree because the thick white latex was once experimented with as a source of natural rubber. It is also a popular horticultural import all over the world, perhaps because of the large, dark green leaves and long red stipules. It’s “Indian” because its native range includes India, and stretches east and southwards to Java, Indonesia. However, it’s not native to Singapore; in the wild, it may prefer more seasonal climates such as in Java, India, Indochina, etc. The wasp species that was known to pollinate the figs went extinct, leading EJH Corner to declare Ficus elastica one of the “living dead” species, but we discovered a healthy population of another wasp species happily pollinating the cultivated trees in Singapore, leading to ripe figs and successful escape of the species from cultivation. That’s another story, and not the point of this one.

It’s also certainly not native to Brisbane. In Brisbane, as far as I could see, the trees are less exuberant in displaying the strangling habit as they do in Singapore.

When I came back from Singapore to Brisbane last December, I saw that white boards with words had been put up around the trees near my home, slamming the Brisbane City Council (BCC).


From left to right:

These trees survived last year’s horrendous storm. But they can’t survive the BCC.

Why can’t these trees be maintained by the BCC when others can?

More superb community consultation by the BCC… not!

BCC playing the “safety card” again to take away our character!


From right to left:

In a matter of hours this December, these trees will be destroyed by the BCC.

These are significant landscape trees. Cooling and a safe home for wildlife. The removal of these trees will result in a hot embankment of mismanaged plants and weeds. Just look elsewhere to see.

No expense spared to save City Hall. Problem tree? “Just chop it down.”

Slipping in another sneaky decision at Christmas time. BCC the Bad Santa!

There is no emergency! Our rates have increased above the Brisbane average. Stop the destruction now and involve the community in the discussion! It’s only fair.

Brings to mind some of the recent conflicts over cutting down trees in Singapore to widen roads, etc. The Singaporean version is considerably more mild and passive-aggressive, of course.

Does it matter that this fig species non-native? And that, if the wasp species we found pollinating the cultivated population in Singapore (which is also present elsewhere as well) somehow gets introduced to Brisbane, this fig may run wild as some fig species have elsewhere around the world? Would people change their perceptions when they have such information?

Successional stage

The term “successional stage” is apt. Successional pathways can be viewed as an improvisational drama in several acts, with each act featuring the performance of a different set of actors. Some actors perform throughout the drama, but others have cameo appearances in only one act. Although each act sets the stage for the next, forest regeneration has no director and only a roughly sketched script, creating a high degree of spontaneity, randomness, and uncertainty. Each successional production is unique. Even when people serve as directors during fallow management and active reforestation, their direction serves, at most, to guide forest regeneration into more restricted performances.

– Robin L. Chazdon (2008)
Second Growth – The promise of tropical forest regeneration in an age of deforestation. Page 87.

Military area cum nature reserve

Zentelis & Lindenmayer has a correspondence in this week’s Nature (516: 170; “Conservation: Manage military land for the environment”) that would resonate with some of us.

They write that they have an upcoming article in Conservation Letters that estimates military training areas globally to be >50 million ha, most likely closer to 300 million ha, encompassing “all major global ecosystems, including those poorly represented within formal reserve systems”.

Likewise in Singapore, military training areas are restricted in access and protected from development. Although mostly abandoned plantations or wastelands that are still considerably disturbed and usually dominated by exotics and common pioneers, they are at least better than concrete and mowed grass for supporting native wildlife.

But several forested training areas have recently been degazetted, or about to be degazetted, and returned to state land, with an eventual fate of being developed.

Also, there is no regular or extensive ecological research program in existing military areas. While it’s possible to get permits, it’s still not as accessible as other sites and hence less enthusiastically surveyed.

Thirdly, our experience is that they can be possible festering grounds for invasive, non-native species. They would therefore have made excellent study sites, but are difficult to gain access to. At the same time, the military may not allow large scale eradication of problem species until the case is proven for their impacts, especially in terms that the military find problematic, such as posing risks to soldiers, security, etc. The need to show case for access and the need for access to collect data and build a case is a chicken-and-egg problem.

The question is: how do we re-align the differences between ecological goals and the military’s priorities to make the best biodiversity value of military training areas?

Mindfulness of Nature

In a few hours’, I would be taking a group for a walk around a part of the former Bidadari Cemetery.

Here are the contents of what I’m going to share.

1. The Environmental Crisis

Around the world, forests are disappearing at an insane pace. First, the loggers go in to extract the trees that are valuable for timber. Some of this is illegal, others are just badly planned without considering how slowly the remaining young trees will grow to replace the large, old trees that are cut down. Next, when the forest is depleted of timber, the land is given to agriculture. Now the forest is razed, to make way for plantations. Demand for wood, vegetable oil and paper is driving the deforestation and subsequent spread of oil palm and paper pulp plantations in neighbouring Borneo and Sumatra. Driving through Malaysia just next door, what you see are acres of boring palm oil stretching as far as the eye can see.

In places where small pieces of forest are set aside as nature reserves, illegal hunting of wildlife removes the animals that the plants depend on to disperse their seeds. Alien pests following in the wake of human activity invade these remnant habitats. Removal of tree cover nearby results in soil erosion. Plantations use too much fertilizer. The silt and excess nutrients kill off life in the already-besieged streams. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha and the first disciples lived and walked in lush subtropical monsoon forests. In a pilgrimage to these historic sites in India in 2007, I saw no such forests, only exhausted soil and polluted waters.

The climate is also changing. Hotter temperatures and unpredictable weather add to the uncertainty of the future of many species and the ecosystems that they constitute.

2. Mindfulness of our nature and of Nature

The reason why individuals continue to act in ways that damage the environment is because we have become disconnected from Nature.

The Buddhist model of how the mind works is a model of behaviour. It can provide insights into why we behave in unwholesome ways that are not beneficial to ourselves and others. Unwholesome behaviours, according to this model, are rooted in ignorance.

Why do we get angry? We get angry when we are unaware of the way that anger arises in our minds, and when we are unaware the consequences of acting on the anger. If we are aware, if we are mindful, we can catch the angry feelings and thoughts as they arise. Mindfulness of anger dissipates its energy.

Similarly, we live environmentally damaging lifestyles because we are unaware of our relationship with the environment, and we are unaware of the consequences of our actions. By reconnecting with Nature, we become mindful of Nature, and we are able to change our behavior with less effort.

Mindfulness practice is a tool with which we connect with our Inner Stillness. We term it “stillness”, but actually our mind and body are constantly changing. Our practice is not to force the mind and body to come to a stop, because that is impossible. Our practice is to watch and observe the true nature of the impermanence of our mental and bodily processes.

Similarly, Nature is dynamic. Energy and nutrients pass from plants to herbivores to carnivores through photosynthesis and consumption. Living things are born and die all the time. The forest gives the impression of stability, perhaps with the trees only swaying gently in strong winds. But stay inside the forest for a day, and one would see how things come crashing down ever so often, even as all kinds of animals pass through it. And there is a sublime beauty, a sense of peace and stillness, that one can find by watching Nature in action.

People are becoming increasingly unaware of our relationship with the environment because of urbanization. City life is one that is surrounded mostly by concrete, glass, and steel, less of birds, butterflies, and trees. Food does not come from toiling in the fields; instead, it comes in neat packaging in air-conditioned supermarkets. There is hope yet for reversing this disconnection: materialism will bring a yearning for spiritual practice; urbanization will bring a yearning for more green spaces.

3. Want not, waste not

Some people say, “Waste not, want not.” Let’s reverse that and say, “Want not, waste not.”

A central teaching by the Buddha is the set of Four “Noble” Truths. The second of these Truths state that attachment, i.e., wanting, leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Therefore students of the Buddha strive to live simply, and have fewer possessions.

I have a Buddhist friend that once remarked that a guideline for the amount of possessions we should have is whatever we can (perhaps with a nice big rucksack!) carry with us at any time. Having less possessions is actually very liberating.

Such a way of life has obvious environmental benefits. Wanting less leads to “wasting” less: consuming less resources and producing less pollutants. This reduces our individual impact on the environment. Developing such a mindset, we will naturally become uncomfortable with buying unnecessary things, and with throwing things away without thinking of how to reuse them. This is especially so for inorganic materials such as plastics and metals. It would weigh in our minds: where would all these generated “waste” go?

4. The Web of Life

Nature is as complex as it is dynamic. There are some animals that are so specialized that they are completely dependent on another species, without which they will go extinct. Yet there are some animals who are “engineers” of ecosystems, changing the landscape where they are present. There are parasites that parasitize on parasites of other parasites!

The web of life sometimes bring surprises. Bringing back wolves to Yellowstone Park in the US appeared to have resulted in the regeneration of the forests, because elk have become more wary and have stopped grazing on seedlings in certain parts of the Park. In return, the grizzly bears have more food because there are more berries and nuts in the shade of these forests!

The Buddha taught about interdependency between the arising of phenomena and the surrounding conditions. Like ecological webs, cause and effect is not linear; it is a web of multiple causes and moderating conditions leading to multiple effects. The effects will be in turn causes for other phenomena.

That our fates are entangled with that of the Earth’s ecosystems means that our actions that damage the quality of the environment will return to haunt us through multiple feedback loops that run everywhere.

When it happens, will it be the “collective karma” of human civilisations? Collective karma is a topic of debate. Regardless, we are risking our quality of life if we were to go about mindless of our environmental impacts.

5. Gratitude to the Earth

Depending on where you’re looking, there are several lists of “Four Gratitudes”, the debts of which we should seek to repay. There is the gratitude to one’s father and mother, one’s teachers, some say society and government, and finally, all sentient beings. These are essentially all related; the Buddha said that it is difficult to find a being, animals included, who has not, in some past life, been our father or mother. Gratitude to all sentient beings is sometimes phrased as “Gratitude to the Earth”. The Earth nourishes us and teaches us; surely hence the term “Mother Nature”. Therefore, we should view the Earth as we view our own mother, father, and teachers, and be constantly mindful of our debt towards Her.

6. Save all beings

There is a Mahayana vow that says:


Even though there are so many creatures being threatened, we vow to do what we can to save as many as possible. In learning to love all life, we will in turn learn to love the things in Nature.

I have heard some foolish musings before: “Wouldn’t the human population explosion and the extinction of species be considered something good from a Buddhist perspective? After all, the human state is considered the best state for spiritual practice, while the animal state is considered a state of suffering.” This is based on a partial picture of Buddhist cosmology: there are six categories of “Realms” of which humans and animals are just two, and there are many more world systems than just the one that we know. This is one account that is not ours to balance.

7. “Will a Buddhist freeze a cane toad?”

The above question comes from the title of an article that discusses the conflicts between Buddhist teachings and environmental conservation. Such conflicts do exist:

In Australia, cane toads (a species with few predators) were introduced from America to control sugar cane beetles. Not only was it unsuccessful at this task, but the toad now threatens the survival of a variety of native reptiles, amphibians and mammals… Byron Bay, home to Australia’s famously ‘environmentally active’ local government, has more Buddhist iconography than anywhere else in Australia. Byron Council recently ran a cane toad muster, rounding up nearly 6000 cane toads. These were put in fridges, then freezers, for ‘humane killing’ and used in landfill. A relativist, individualist position allows for the existence of such irony. ‘Environmental Buddhism’ is a modern phenomenon that is yet to address its inconsistencies. However, to extend the ‘cane-toad-is-a-nasty-species’ logic is to arrive at a murderous position indeed. After all, humans are the most environmentally reprehensible species on the planet. Should ugly ones be removed? As the modern Western religion of ‘Individualism’ struggles to find its ethical rudder by adapting Buddhist or other moral frameworks, the precept of non-harming sits uneasily in a programme of engaged environmental action.

I can think of two other cases that I have been personally involved in where conservation conflicts with Buddhist religious practices.

One is the case of “mercy release“. Typically live birds or aquatic animals are purchased from the markets where they are intended for slaughter and consumption, and then released into the wild. There are two objectives to this practice, one noble and the other rather worldly: out of compassion for the animals, and in order to accumulate good merits.

Unfortunately, wisdom seems to be missing from guiding the act of compassion here. In Singapore, every year around Vesak, there would be people who are creeping into the nature reserves to release all manner of weird creatures. A few years back, my colleagues and I came across many American bullfrogs released into a forest stream. They were mostly half-dead because they could not adapt, so the “merciful” action may have gone quite to waste. If they survive, they are known to eat almost anything that moves. They may also carry diseases that may infect other native species of frogs in the forests.

This is quite an emotive issue in the Buddhist community. Many respected teachers and Buddhist organizations still subscribe to this practice, and try new ways to circumvent obvious pitfalls, such as releasing marine animals to the sea, and avoiding buying in bulk and on predictable timings such as Buddhist festivals. However, are there unseen effects such as population pulses? Is it not still economic participation in the markets that deal with these lives? I prefer to be cautious here, to see the weight of the evidence first.

Another is the slaughter of of elephants to provide ivory for Buddhist-related items. Such items are growing in demand in Buddhist countries such as Thailand and Sri Lanka. Buddhists associate the elephant with many spiritual qualities such as patience. The Maha-bodhisattva Samantabhadra is often portrayed as riding an elephant, which symbolizes His key quality of steadfastness in practice. Thus in many Asian countries, it is against the law and cultural norms to harm the Asian elephant. However, African elephants have been killed to satisfy the transcontinental demand for the ivory.

For issues on invasive pests and animal welfare, the conflict might be justified. For overconsumption, however, the hypocrisy is clear. The demand for ivory must be curbed. After all, “all things are devoid of self-nature“. It is silly and unskillful to be attached to the material that these trinkets are made of.

8. Oneness

I don’t like being torn into two or three parts. For that I am quite glad that my profession as a botanist and ecologist seems to be simply an extension of my spiritual practice as a Buddhist.

Even for Buddhists who are not especially active environmentalists, this also applies. We don’t live simply so that we have less impact on the environment. We live simply because it leads to happiness; it leads to less impact on our own mind. At the same time, the quality of the environment is preserved, and in return we find even more joy in this.

A whole bunch of Buddhist teachers have signed off on a declaration on climate change. In an invited piece to the scientific journal Conservation Biology, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa wrote:

…I am confident that such Buddha activity can be directly translated into environmental protection. With this vision, we now have over 40 Kagyu monasteries and nunneries across the Himalayas implementing environmental projects to address issues such as forest degradation, water shortages, wildlife trade, climate change, and pollution… We know that this is but a small drop in the ocean and the challenges we face are more complex and extensive than we can tackle alone. However, if each one of us were to contribute a single drop of clean water toward protecting the environment, imagine how pure this vast ocean could eventually be.

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.


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.


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.

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