Thoughts

Some honest reflections: Part two – Inequality, injustice, and escaping the System

I am no economist, nor do I really know very much or in great detail about the economics or the politics behind such issues. What I do know though, is that I have never been fully satisfied with the capitalistic lifestyle offered, and the more I learn about the world, the more outraged I get at the injustices that still exist. The world has always been an unequal place, I don’t know enough to say objectively that we’re better off or worse off than other times in history, but I somehow feel like we’re not that much better off, despite all the technological and social advances.

It seems almost juvenile to be raging over the age old problem of inequality.  “Mummy it’s not fair!” What ever happened to that child-like sense of justice and fairness that used to exist? Has social conditioning reduced us to accepting that life is never fair and we can’t do anything about it and let it be so? Or has the System succeeded in throwing endless distractions at us so we just keep our minds off things that truly matter? I use the word ‘System’ here because I know no better term to describe this world we (or I) live in. If I have to define it, I can only say I’m referring to governments, the capitalist system, corporations’ power, social norms, and everything else that defines or appears to define how we live.

The past few months, I’ve been suffused with journalism about the plight of the Rohingyas, educating myself about what’s happening between Palestine and Israel, following the Guardian’s feature series on The Defenders, and reading articles about land grabbing by governments and corporations, such as experienced by the Shuar people in Ecuador. Meanwhile, we just live our lives as usual, a little shaken occasionally perhaps, by bombings and attacks in the UK and USA, but still continually consuming.

I’ve become jaded with the way we’re told to live, with the way lives are led in Singapore, with capitalism, with how capitalism is really the master of all our lives. I’ve always hated shopping, though the stereotype constantly perpetuated about women is that women enjoy shopping. And now that I’m older and more aware, I realise I hate advertisements for telling me what I need when I really don’t need those things, I dislike shopping malls for being the face of capitalism (and because they get ridiculously crowded), and most of all, it infuriates me that these items are put on display with a price tag that reflects neither the true environmental nor social cost. (People get killed for protesting the opening of a mine, and many more suffer in the mines from which metals are extracted to produce our things.) But none of us will think twice about how the items were made, because hey look it’s on 50% discount, such a good deal!

We’ve been told from young, in Singapore, to study hard, to do well in school, so we can get a good degree and good jobs. True, yes we need to have some economic security to feed ourselves and look after ourselves. But ultimately, to what end? The endless chase for paper qualifications is still just about getting money and more money, and though success may be more broadly defined now than before, it still refers to something tangible, monetisable. Just being a good decent human being with morals and sound values is not valued.

I could go on a rant about Singapore, inequality in wages, prices, and how people buy too much. But the venting wouldn’t serve much purpose. We’ve been numbed and sedated. We spend our energies playing the game of trying to save a few dollars by paying with a certain credit card, or getting a discount with another card. But I am starting to think that this capitalist system doesn’t work, and we should all stop trying to play its game. I don’t know of any alternative that might work, but continuing to live the way we’ve been living merely serves to make the rich richer, give them power to marginalise the poor, and make the poor poorer.

We need systemic change, a cultural shift, a paradigm shift, an economic shift, because this current system has failed environmentally and socially. The rich and the powerful who want to get even richer are able to claim ownership of land and natural resources, extract whatever monetisable resources while trashing the environment, and leave the place polluted and unliveable for the poor people who had been living there and living off the environment agreeably the whole time. While on the other end of the chain, we the consumers who are far removed from such natural resources because we live in built-up cities, merely move money around the system and line the pockets of the rich by buying items made from those natural resources while the injustices to the environment and the people are left unaccounted for. And I know all that I’m saying isn’t new, but I guess it’s the first time I’m really feeling the pressure of the System to conform and to live as I’ve been told to live (since I’m no longer a student but a working adult), working as a cog in the System till I get so entrenched with my credit cards and insurance premiums that I cannot get out of it.

I thought I was just unhappy with the Singaporean system that makes me feel trapped, but I realise it’s the entire System which most of this world now runs on. I don’t know just yet what I could do, but I know I won’t be satisfied with just living as I’ve always lived and doing what I’ve always done, and just trying to minimise my impact on the earth by avoiding unsustainable products, while ultimately feeding the System.

Some honest reflections – Part one: This country

I’ve been facing internal struggles and spiraling depressive thoughts for a while, and while I’m a nobody and my thoughts and opinions count for little, it’s helpful for me to organise my thoughts and air them. Who knows, there may be others out there who feel the same. Perhaps it’s easiest for me to first pigeonhole myself, then to step outside stereotypes. I am, by all external measures and statistics, a middle-class (upper middle-class? what’s the dividing line?) millennial, born in a first world country where I’m the racial majority and have thus far lived most of my life according to how this country would like it to have been lived. I’ve studied (fairly hard, but I enjoy learning), done well (enough) in exams, gone to first-rate schools, and now have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cambridge and a master’s degree from Imperial College London. I travel widely, on a mix of some savings (minimal contribution), parents’ money, and grants, hiking, climbing mountains, volunteering for environmental/ecological projects or social/humanitarian objectives, visiting new cities and different cultures. I am a privileged minority, but within this group, I also feel like a minority.

But I’m not here to crow about a moral high ground, or claim to be better than others – in fact that’s a confounding problem that’s been plaguing me. I have been brought up – with influence both from my parents and from my schooling education – to acknowledge my privilege, and therefore the need to give back to society, to better ills, to make the world a better one, to contribute for good. And since graduating from my master’s and coming back to the society that brought me up, I’ve been constantly confused and upset with myself, with my lack of action on my perceived problems with this society, and with my desire to find a place I feel I fit better into. I feel like I should be doing something, but I am not, because I want to do something that makes the most difference (root than symptomatic), and I don’t know what I can do or what I should do, and general inertia in not really wanting to commit too much either. The first step is the hardest, as some say.

There are many things that I feel should not be in Singapore, many things I think can and should be changed (though I don’t know how), many things I see and hear and experience on a daily basis that makes me upset with this country and society. But all I do is gripe about them to my family and friends, grouse and wallow in a pool of self-constructed inability-to-act and dis-empowerment. More on this to come, but it would help me to first expunge my view of all that is not right in this society.

My main gripe is that it’s hard to feel like a human here. In a country that is largely built on capitalistic ideals and whose main selling points are economic success and continued economic growth, the human side of society is increasingly hard to see. Many people here seem to lack a soul. They seem to have forgotten themselves as people, as human, and that others around them are also human. I say this coming back to Singapore after 4.5 years abroad, seeing my country and the people within (because how can I say my people, when I cannot identify with them?) in a different light. Whether it’s due to the changes in the country during that period, or just because I’ve seen how things are in different places and how stifled we are in this country.

Although we constantly talk about society and family units are still perceived as the basic unit of society, many people here are rather individualistic and self-centred. Few think as a collective, as part of a larger society (I don’t just mean this country now, but also as a global citizen), or for the well-being of others. There appears to be a lack of empathy in the general populace towards everyone around there. Of course, there are little bright spots of hope, within the social or environmental (or other?) sectors, and once in a while, we come across heart-warming stories. But it’s still in the minority, not in the norms of our society, when I think it should be.

Examples of what I mean range from the activities we experience on a day-to-day basis – people being rude to others for standing in their way, or taking too long to do an action – to apathy and lack of awareness of others’ plights. Taking driving on Singapore roads to illustrate my point about the lack of collective thinking, we’re known for being rude and inconsiderate. Few people give way, most partake in very aggressive driving such as cutting in to another lane at fairly short notice, causing the driver to have to brake, and not signalling intentions. Instead of seeing the whole road system as a whole, with everyone using the road wisely to make the whole journey better for everyone, people see it as theirs, their right of way. Every empty space represents a possible spot to occupy, and they will do what it takes to overtake a few vehicles and get to their destination faster. Even without causing accidents, it makes other people’s days worse, having to put up with this behaviour.

We’re not exactly a country well-known for empathy. It always infuriates me to see someone asking/ordering the cleaner – usually an elderly who really should not be working, in my opinion – to clear the (hawker) table for them. I cannot understand why these people cannot do it on their own, it’s not as though there was sick all over the table, it’s just a few plates that either need to be placed at the return counter or in the bin. And in a country that’s increasingly xenophobic, we sure show it by our inhumane treatment of foreign workers.

That foreign workers (I mean people here on a work permit, not employment pass) are here to be exploited and treated as less than human is acceptable, if not by our active agreement with the statement, then by our passive shrugging of “what can we do, we need these jobs done”. God forbid we actually pay construction workers (let alone their just pay), because we’ll have to pay more for housing, and how are we to afford that? Never mind that these very people who work day (and sometimes night) in the heat of day and the drenching rains are in debt way over their head just because they want to give their families back home a better life with the S$550/month pay they earn here. It’s true, they know what they’re getting in to coming here as a construction worker – it is hard work. But they came thinking they’d be paid the amount that was stated, and put up with horribly cramped living conditions for that. (Read more on Transient Workers Count Too website about these issues).  And how is it acceptable that you keep your foreign domestic worker’s passport and give her maybe one day off per month? How would you feel if your child went abroad (in search of a better life or for greater financial returns), and was treated the way these domestic workers are treated? Because that lady living in your house, she’s someone’s child too.

And I guess if we can scarcely care about people living in our midst, then it’s harder to even contemplate the impact we have on the rest of the world. We’re not an uneducated population, yet we fail to educate ourselves on how our choices and actions have a wide-ranging impact outside this (very tiny) country. Almost everything we do has a (negative) impact somewhere else in the world. The cheap food we eat, the buffets we want, the clothes we wear, the houses we need. That the prawns you crave were probably the end product of mangrove destruction in Thailand and Vietnam, the fish that’s supposed to be the healthy and good option was probably the blood and sweat of enslaved Cambodians and Burmese who work 20-hour days at sea constantly in frigid conditions, the fashionable wear we can’t wait to get hold of during our constant sales the result of women and children working under slave-like conditions in overcrowded factories in India, and in matters perhaps outside the average Singaporean’s control, the land on which some of our houses and iconic buildings are built the reincarnation of a previously intact ecosystem upon which local communities depended on.

True, there might not be much one can do about all of these things – how can one live, bearing all that in mind? We need shelter too, and food, and a living. But perhaps if we are more aware of the impact we each have through the consumer choices we make, and try and live a bit better, collectively, there will be a difference made.

During the build up to National Day on 9 August, when we celebrated our nation’s independence, I continually questioned – what exactly are we celebrating? Perhaps by many measures and by many people we celebrate our success, as an independent nation, a small one lacking in natural resources that we could plunder for wealth. We have achieved economic success, going by our high national GDP per capita. We have an excellent education system, going by our high literacy rates, constant high rankings in math and sciences at school level, and universities ranked top 15th in the world. We have all that, and yet I look at people around me and feel we’re still lacking something, something more important and fundamental. We’re lacking a sense of humanity, lacking empathy, lacking social and environmental consciousness.

We’re a country that stereotypes, a country that is quick to jump to conclusions based on appearances, a country that prides its exclusivity. So much of our culture is built on a us vs. them rhetoric (think benignly of houses in school, halls in university, and more insidiously of races, economic classes, ‘elite’ schools), creating rivalry to build social cohesion but inadvertently creating individualistic and entitled people. We keep to people who are like us, and shy away from others who are different. And in doing that, fail to understand that we are all the same human beings despite outward differences. But it’s not this case all throughout Singapore, I know. I’m generalising and stereotyping myself, and there are many who interact with diverse peoples, and the human library project shows that we are trying. Yet when we have a National Day Rally – an annual address given by the Prime Minister “to address the nation on its key challenges and announce major policy changes” – and the main takeaways were 1) more/better preschools, 2) eat more brown rice & walk more to reduce diabetes, and 3) become a SMART nation, then I despair.

Then, separate from the grouses I have about this society, the structural things about Singapore that I find hard to adjust back to, but there is little one can do about it. 1) The sky that never darkens. I have difficulties sleeping, I cannot see stars, nor watch meteor showers. The last bits of nature that still feels untouched, uncontrolled by humans, yet can barely be enjoyed by the average person here. 2) The lack of wilderness, whether real or not (is there really anywhere on earth that can be considered wilderness?). To go somewhere with few humans in sight, except those who are also there to enjoy the beauty and peace of being real and human in nature. And 3) which is coupled with my second point, the lack of ability to just go somewhere, spontaneously, freely, without a need to book flights in advance. To be able to drive to a national park/nature reserve/wilderness area and camp a few nights gratis. Because here, land is never free, and freedom is never to be had, but merely perceived.

But this country is not all bad. I get a smile here and there, from bus drivers, cleaners, or other strangers on my path (usually people who don’t appear to be Singaporean, but I don’t want to give in to my stereotypes). At the petrol station once, the cashiers spoke to each other in Malay, though neither of them was of that ethnicity. And that makes me smile, and be glad I’m from here.

The security and the cleaner
Only greet each other
But sometimes I look and hope for a smile
Cos the human touch goes a mile
And I am human too.

Food as a common good

Always a hot and popular topic, we all consume food yet give it so little thought at the same time. What kind of food do you most commonly consume, where do you get it from, how was it procured, what were the lives of the animals/vegetables/people who grew your food like?

I attended a Green Drinks session on mapping the food sharing landscape by Monika Rut on 29 June 2017, a researcher based at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland who is working on a project about food sharing in cities (SHARECITY), with Singapore as her case study. The project is still in its preliminary research stages, and I felt the session served mainly as a platform for talking about food-related issues. As the organiser remarked, food is a great way to bring people together, not just because everyone eats and most Singaporeans consider eating to be their past time, but because you get the whole gamut of people interested in growing food (urban farms), making food (chefs), and sharing food/cutting food waste (sustainability). Personally, food is an easy entrance for me to talk about sustainability (and link to environmental conservation) to the average individual, who may not otherwise care about wildlife, or plastic in the oceans, or other natural resource exploitation. When I was doing my master’s at Imperial College London last year, we had to organise a symposium as part of our course requirements, and we chose the topic of sustainable food for the same reason.

A comment made by one of the audience, a chef who has had many years experience working in hotels, was that food should be perceived as a common good. And that was a novel thought to me, to frame food as a common good. Classic examples of common good would be freshwater and air, at least according to Wikipedia (my economics is slightly rusty). In our society, surrounded by commercialisation and capitalism, it is easy to see how common goods can be exploited by private firms and become non-sustainable — and we as consumers and citizens fail to consider the links between our actions and the inevitable end result. Why do so many Singaporeans waste food (average of 179 kg per person in 2014), or consume food unsustainably?

Part of the problem is a result of the culture we’re surrounded by. For all that we’re a ‘foodie nation’, eating out is a huge part of it. Compared to other nations well-known for their relationship with their food like Italy and Japan, where their people take pride in their knowledge of producing and cooking their food, we just want to know which restaurant/hawker stall sells the best *. While paying for food makes people realise the value/cost of producing it, on the flip side it also results in a sense of entitlement that they have the right to waste it. When that really shouldn’t be the case.

Constantly buying food also results in a disengagement with how the food was produced, or where it was procured from. I never thought about how fortunate I am, or how different it is to the way most others in Singapore might live. We’ve always had home-cooked meals, if not lunch then at the very least dinner. Especially since my younger brother started his baking and culinary science diploma, and my mom became semi-retired, we’ve increasingly prepared more (and more elaborate) meals at home, rather than eating out. Just today, three out of the five people living in my household spent hours/the whole day preparing food: baking bread, preparing tarts/pies, making traditional tapioca kuehs, and cooking shakshuka for lunch. What is perhaps usually a once/twice a year affair for most families is an almost daily occurrence for us.

How can we get more Singaporeans to care more about the food they’re consuming, the way they’re obtained and the sustainability of them? Ground-up movements like Love Food Cut Waste are a great start, but Singapore being Singapore, where government public education campaigns have proved time and again to be fairly effective, I am inclined to think that food waste numbers will only go down when our government agencies are fully on board.

Preaching for the environment

How can we reach out to more people about the need for a more environmentally-friendly way of living? The UN designated 5 June to be World Environment Day, a day to Celebrate Nature, a reminder to go outside and be #withnature. For some organisations, the day can be a huge and important event – but for most of us, even those who work on environmental issues, it’s mostly just like any another day. Nothing like the hype of Christmas, or Chinese New Year, which of course have the power of commercialisation and capitalism behind them. Without excessive banners and advertisements telling us to not shop for nature, to spend less on unnecessary goods and resources, or to go out and enjoy nature for free, how else can we reach out to the larger, unconverted population?

While I was in the UK, belonging to a religious faith seemed to be rather niche. It does make you think that trying to spread the environmental message through religious communities would be rather futile, since they themselves seem to be facing difficulties trying to sell their message to the masses. However globally, according to a Pew Research Centre study in 2012, 8 out of 10 people declare themselves affiliated to a religious organisation. That’s quite a lot of people who look to someone else for guidance on how to live.

While there are many examples of religious communities protecting nature, from Cambodian Buddhist monks and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Churches protecting community forests, to Tibetan Buddhist monks protecting snow leopards from poaching and Malaysian mosques promoting sea turtle conservation, there are fewer examples of religious communities preaching general environmental messages. Active conservation efforts for habitat or species protection are to be lauded and publicised as great examples, but the problem we face in this day and age is a bigger one, that of general excessive consumption of resources at every level, the promotion of unfettered consumption, and the lack of understanding of the interdependence of every living (and non-living) entity on this earth.

That is not to say that it doesn’t exist; most famously, the Roman Catholic church’s Pope Francis published his papal encyclical (Laudato Si) in 2015 on caring for the environment, which he gave to US President Donald Trump recently. But I doubt Trump would read it, as would most Catholics; I’ll confess I’ve barely read it, but the first chapter at least provides a very good and general basis of all the environmental and social injustices in our world today.  Unless the message is constantly reinforced through weekly sermons, I’m not sure how much actually gets through to the 1.2 billion Roman Catholics around the world. I was listening to one of the priests talking about baptism and the river Jordan one Sunday, but he never made mention of the fact that the same river barely exists now. And yet, if he were to mention it, how can he draw the link from that to how we live comfortably here in Singapore? Priests aren’t ecology teachers.

When there are no specific problems, like the poaching of wild animals or the cutting down of local forests, how does one preach the need to take care of the environment, to reduce mindless consumption and waste of resources and energy, and be heard and understood and followed? In an urban setting, which drives most of these problems, how does one reach out to the masses and get everyone to live a more thoughtful, environmentally (and socially) friendly life?

Organised religion has its critics, and it may or may not benefit the environmental cause, but I feel like with its reach, surely it would be a start. Like this solar-powered mosque in Morocco. I do think though, that for conservation and the larger environmental movement to succeed, any wonton destruction has to be as taboo as murder.

A question often asked is, why protect wildlife? Development can improve lives so why forgo it in place of killing off a few species? One can go through all the different arguments – its economic worth, its value importance for future generations or simply its beauty. But the powerful answer must be because it is part of our culture and therefore part of our beliefs and even our own identify. Once it’s second nature and part of a value system, no one will ever again ask the question why protect it.

-Bradnee Chambers, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals

 

Using R to search column in data frame for list of values

I made the jump from using Excel to R for data manipulation when I started on my Master’s project in 2015. I was pretty much forced to – I was looking at datasets of deforestation in the world, with 806,400 pixels. That was already aggregated by a factor of 1000 using Python (i.e. I had 805.4 billion pixels to start with). And I had about 14 such files. For me to load the file in Excel (apart from the fact that it was in raster GeoTIFF format, though it can be converted to a csv file) would already take a while, let alone trying to manipulate it (e.g. add/subtract/find mean etc.). Data manipulation can also be done in Python of course, with the pandas library, but I’m still trying to get my head around Python – maybe once I’ve somewhat mastered data processing in Python I’ll update this post. Here though, I just want to introduce using R for simple data processing, instead of using Excel.

There are many reasons to use R:

  1. It would probably be very useful for your career, if you’re after the kind of jobs that I am. (bit of a circular argument, but really, being proficient in R is very useful especially when many jobs these days require some level of data processing and manipulation). I.e. Looks good on your CV
  2. Coding sounds difficult but once you get a grasp of the syntax, it can and will make life easier (especially when it comes to large amounts of data). I.e. It’s pretty cool in a geeky way, in my opinion, and will save you time

I’m obviously no R expert, nor am I here to create tutorials for R beginners, I just wanted to write about bits of R programming that makes me go ‘that’s awesome’, or #:D 😀 😀 in my R script. As well as maybe help people trying to make the transition to using R as their main programme of choice for data analysis.


I wanted to find out if a list of countries are in this dataset that I have. What one could do in Excel would be to Ctrl+F the dataset for each of the countries on the list (or maybe there’s a more efficient way about it, I’ve stopped using Excel a while ago to learn the new techniques, but please comment if you know of something!). I only have 10 (the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations), so that wouldn’t be too painful. But imagine you have a list of 100 countries – while the digital age and Microsoft Excel have made life easier for us, saving us from having to pore over pieces of paper – that quickly becomes tedious work.

[code language=”r”]
# I’m not attempting to teach basics of R here, if you are unfamiliar with how to load files, please do a Google search. Here, I am using a GIS shapefile, though the same can be applied for a normal csv file
# Obtain a shapefile of world boundaries
download.file("http://thematicmapping.org/downloads/TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.zip", destfile="TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.zip")
unzip("TM_WORLD_BORDERS-0.3.zip", exdir=".")

# I am using rgdal library to read in this shapefile
library("rgdal")

# read in the GIS file
world_border <- readOGR(dsn=".", "TM_WORLD_BORDERS-03")
# you can look at the data contents (i.e. attribute table)
world_border@data #prints everything, I just want to look at the first few entries
head(world_border@data)

# at this point, I can ‘manually’ search the GIS files for the countries I want
grep(‘Singapore’, worldbound@data$CNTRY_NAME)
# and do the same for all the countries I’m interested in

# alternatively, I can create a list of the SEA countries
SEA <- c(‘Vietnam’, ‘Laos’, ‘Cambodia’, ‘Thailand’, ‘Myanmar’, ‘Malaysia’,
‘Indonesia’, ‘Singapore’, ‘Philippines’, ‘Brunei’)
# and create a loop to search the world boundaries file for these countries, and only report an error if the country can’t be found
for (i in 1:length(SEA)){
if (length(grep(SEA[i], worldbound@data$CNTRY_NAME))==0)
stop(paste(‘unable to find’, SEA[i], sep=" "))
}
# I had initially included ‘East Timor’ in the list of SEA countries, and my loop returned ‘unable to find East Timor’, so I know it works
# this would also work with a csv file
[/code]

I did this search not so much to check if these countries exist on the world map, but more to check on the spelling of the countries. There are some databases which spell ‘Viet Nam’ instead of ‘Vietnam’, for example, and if I don’t check how it’s spelt, I might run into errors later on. I don’t presume to be an expert in R, and this code might be considered clunky by more proficient R coders, but this is the best I could come up with!

Apart from using Excel to Ctrl+F the countries I want, I could also have used QGIS to load the file and click on each country for information, or use a polygon to highlight all the countries in the region and obtain the information at once. Or used Python, or any other programme that allows data management. I just like R, and though I could easily and perhaps more quickly have done it in QGIS (with its GUI, without having to Google for the right R code to do what I want, because I’m still not all that familiar with R), I enjoy these little challenges, and it’ll eventually make me more proficient.

Doing fieldwork as a female

How do females deal with their menstrual period while out field? It is a rather underrated and neglected topic, so today, we had a female health in the field session for the (female) students in NTU’s Asian School of the Environment. Though I don’t teach the students, being a Singaporean who’s used a menstrual cup for the last 6 years on field trips, diving trips, and hiking and mountain-climbing expeditions gave me an insight with useful experiences and stories to share.

The issues surrounding doing fieldwork as a female may not be obvious to males (who are also the more common sex in the field), and many females might feel like menstruation is a taboo topic. But getting menstrual periods is something that happens to half of the world’s population and just needs to be dealt with appropriately. Just as many people with the means to have embraced the use of sanitary pads and so go about their everyday life, instead of being confined to their homes while they’re having their period, we shouldn’t feel like we can’t do field work (i.e. go outdoors without access to a toilet with running water) while we’re having our periods, particularly when alternative possibilities exist.

The session started out with Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and vaginal thrush, and how to prevent them. It seems like the best way would be to not hold your pee (wild pees ftw!), drink lots of water, and maintain a basic level of hygiene. Girls do require a higher minimum level of hygiene than boys do I think, going by my experience thru-hiking in Chile. Using toilet paper (and burying it) and changing fresh underwear is almost a necessity for us, whereas guys don’t seem to get UTIs when they neglect those. Most people are aware of feminine hygiene though, I think.

The more pertinent issue was that of dealing with periods while outdoors. Apart from not having a ready bin for disposal (i.e. you have to bag your used sanitary napkins/tampons and bring it with you till you reach ‘civilisation’), the lack of a toilet bowl/running water can sometimes deter females. Personally, the massive waste of single-use, disposable but un-recyclable sanitary pads/tampons are a major con for using them, and after experiencing the comfort of using a menstrual cup as well, I would never use the disposables again (except for emergencies/supplement to prevent leaks!). I switched from using sanitary pads to using a menstrual cup in 2011 when I planned to hike in Nepal, and have since used it even while camping in Australia, climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on expeditions in Ecuador/Peru, field trips in the UK, and long-distance hiking in Chile.

Menstrual cups are great especially when you’re out in the field because

  1. You don’t have to deal with disposing bloodied pads/tampons, you can just empty the blood out where you’ve been peeing/pooping (buried if necessary!).
  2. You don’t have to bring a massive supply of disposables.
  3. You can swim/dive.

There are many other pros of using menstrual cups over pads or tampons, like

  1. It’s really comfortable. You don’t end up sitting in your warm pool of blood, as you do with a pad.
  2. You save a lot of money not having to buy pads/tampons. I do use a thin, light-flow pad on my heavy flow days just in case my cup leaks because I haven’t had time to empty it, but otherwise a panty liner will suffice, so I end up using just 2-4 pads over the course of my period, as opposed to at least 10. And a menstrual cup can be used for many, many years – I’m still using the same one.
  3. You have to go to the toilet less often. When I was using a pad, I often worried about leaking, and so kept going to the toilet to check. The menstrual cup just needs emptying about twice a day usually, thrice if it’s a heavy flow, and once when it’s the last day.
  4. They don’t cause Toxic Shock Syndrome, because the cup merely collects the blood instead of absorbing it like tampons. Hence you can keep it in for longer.
  5. You’re not contributing to unnecessary waste. So much plastic and other waste goes to our landfills/incinerators every year. Waste less, don’t use disposables.

There is a higher starting up cost to using menstrual cups, in that they cost between S$30 (for Freedom Cups, a Singapore-based company) to S$50 (for UK-based Mooncup, which is what I’m using and was the only option in Singapore 6 years ago). It also took me about two periods to get familiar and comfortable with putting the cup in and taking it out.

However, maintaining hygiene while using the Mooncup is not difficult, I wash it out with water and put it back in (using my water bottle if a tap is not available). I have even accidentally dropped it in the toilet bowl while cleaning it out, and just rinsed it and popped it back in with no further issue (I am not advising cleaning your menstrual cup with toilet bowl water though, especially after you’ve peed in it…).

Everyone would have their own way of dealing with periods while outdoors, but to me, menstrual cups are a genius invention that should be embraced. It would be a huge shame if menstruation was a deterrent to more girls doing field work or going outdoors, though having (really bad) menstrual cramps would be a completely different issue.

We may be physically weaker (for most of the population) and have a slightly greater need of personal hygiene than males, but we shouldn’t fear it to be an impediment when doing fieldwork, nor allow it to be an excuse for not having more females on an expedition, because there is a need and value for women to be in the field at times, as Haifaa Abdulhalim accounts as when working as IUCN’s World Heritage Coordinator in the Arab region.

[Update: 10 May 2017] There are several other slightly more (than just trying to get let the blood out in a less disruptive fashion) drastic options for controlling your period, e.g. birth control/contraceptive pills, and intrauterine device (IUD). They both have the main/side effect of preventing pregnancy, so depending on your personal beliefs, you may prefer to use/avoid them. I’m not as familiar with these options so did not mention them as methods for controlling period bleeds, but from comments provided, they are sometimes a better option than menstrual cups.

Business and conservation – the hidden links

What do businesses have to do with biological conservation? When the word ‘conservation’ is mentioned, most people would think of Protected Areas (PAs), though with a stretch of the mind, consumer behaviour might also come into play. With issues like the illegal wildlife trade and the devastating impact of deforestation from palm oil plantations becoming more prominent in the news, influencing consumer behaviour is another angle that conservationists use to try and effect changes.

Using consumer behaviour to pressure businesses and corporations to improve their environmental standards, or to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products, was about the only link I thought the (strange and foreign) world of business had with my normalised world of biological conservation. Recently though, I came across this article that rather shocked me. There is a great deal of literature out there about the effectiveness of PAs, but most people would agree that having more PAs will be good for the environment. (In fact, some conservationists are advocating that Nature Needs Half. I might write something else on that another time.) The difficulties of setting up an effective Protected Area aside, I am of the opinion that the main problem is the lack of political will. That if a country is willing to create a PA instead of a natural resource concession, then the greater battle is won, and details of how it should be done to make it effective and not just a paper park can be settled later.

It appears that it’s not entirely the case. The article by Divya Narain on Free Trade Agreements, Corporate Power and Suing Countries for Protecting Biodiversity points out that a country that has signed a FTA with another can be sued for obstructing free trade if they decide to delineate a protected area. A 2016 article by Chris Lang on the REDD-Monitor website highlights that same issue of the Columbian government being sued by Canadian mining corporation Eco Oro, because it had passed a law that prevented mining in moorlands. That the power of corporations is so deep-seated and insidious is quite terrifying, though not surprising.

Will transparency about the operations of companies that obtain resources, and greater visibility of their work (and environmental/social commitments) in the press improve matters? Are consumers concerned enough that they will get sufficiently outraged to boycott companies that do not work up to certain environmental standards, or write in to flag up their concerns? I personally am not sure of the effectiveness of that, given that I myself haven’t written to a company to tell them they should use Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified palm oil in their products. (Though I am more inclined to buy products from a company that uses RSPO-certified palm oil than otherwise.)

Using consumer actions to pressure companies into adopting higher environmental/social standards is an interaction between business and conservation that I’m familiar with. What I hadn’t realised, was that shareholders of corporations can also do the same. At NTU’s Asian School of the Environment, where I am currently working, we had a seminar on Friday evening given by Asst. Prof. Judith Walls from the Nanyang Business School. She was looking at the factors that influence corporations to engage in dialogue with their shareholders with regards to improving the corporations’ environmental/social standards.

I will admit that I know next to nothing about corporations, shares, and shareholders. Judith was great and gave us a 101 class, explaining to us what corporate governance meant and how the board of directors differed from the management board. My main takeaway though, was that shareholders of various companies, if they cared sufficiently, could actually propose that the company improved some aspect of their environmental/social commitments. The company can then choose to accept the proposal and put it up for voting by the other shareholders during the Annual General Meeting, to apply to the Stock Exchange Council to reject the proposal, or to engage the shareholder in a dialogue to withdraw the proposal. Judith’s work focussed on identifying why some companies choose to engage in dialogue, but to me, the idea that shareholders can influence the company was entirely novel. Now that I think about it, it makes sense, and I might well be the only ignoramus who never knew that. But that just led me to question: why do we not appeal to shareholders to improve the standards of the companies in which they have a stake in? To try and tell huge investment banks and pension fund managers that environmental/social standards should be upheld, rather than telling oil and gas, or timber and plantation companies?

Maybe instead of chaining ourselves to trees, we should consider becoming activist shareholders like the Sisters of St Francis of Philadelphia. Oh, I know why we’re not – we don’t have any money 😂

What I’d like to see changed in Singapore’s current societal mindset

My brother has stage 2 lymphoma cancer. He is in the midst of his treatment and has lost all his hair, but apart from that, you probably couldn’t tell he’s a cancer patient. He has a few shitty days after chemo, but most of the time remains happy positive and occupied, like most others his age – or perhaps even more positive than most. 

He was recently selected to be amongst the pool of students that his teacher would choose a valedictorian from; he’s due to graduate from his diploma on 3 May. So he duly prepared his speech, attended the rehearsals, and it was finally down to him being either the valedictorian or the spare. 

Then he came back from school and told us that he wasn’t going to be the valedictorian, because the teacher thought his speech would be too depressing (as an opening for the graduation ceremony) and because the other person had more awards. 

Which is the point of this tirade really – not being sour about my brother being the spare, that’s his issue to deal with not mine to write about – but that in our society, it’s still not okay to openly talk about things like having cancer. Or mental illness, for that matter. And that ultimately, despite what the Singaporean government has dreamed up to get students to learn for the sake of learning, we are still a society focused on awards. 

Awards are good, or can be good. They acknowledge hard work and effort, excellence and commitment. But when we publicise and focus only on those who have achieved the most awards, it creates a gap. It causes other students to believe they will never be as good, because they never got this award, or that scholarship. And as most pedagogy goes, causing students to think their potential is limited is probably the worst you could do. Plenty of ‘successful’ men and women you see today probably weren’t students who won the most awards. Or scored the highest GCE ‘O’ or ‘A’ level score. Or Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score for that matter. So why do we keep emphasising that, with headlines and pages in our national broadsheet The Straits Times dedicated to talking about these students every year? I think it would be interesting to see an article on the top scorers from the 80s/90s and what they’re doing now. 

Never mind the awards culture, a more insidious problem is that we just don’t talk about important issues enough, but non-issues too much. Just cos my brother has cancer doesn’t make him depressing, or sad. He wasn’t even going to say that he has cancer, he is doomed but you know ultimately every dies so don’t let fear tether you, go forth and do great things. He is positive and upbeat, and him mentioning his cancer was a way of starting his speech. For him to go up and not even mention having cancer is like ignoring the elephant in the room, which is actually a thing that we commonly do in Singapore society. But why should that be? Why can’t we talk openly about cancers and other terminal illnesses, or mental illnesses? Ignoring problems don’t make them go away, and by our reluctance to talk about them in a casual everyday context, we make it harder for people who are suffering to seek help and talk about them. And there are many who suffer in our midst, with afflictions that may not be visible to our eye (though I think the worst and most incurable affliction is our addiction to non-renewable resources). I think that teacher just lost a great opportunity to show how open and forward-looking that polytechnic is, and for it to be a chance for others to talk about issues like young people having cancer in a more positive and upbeat light. 

That I’ve come back after 4.5 years of being abroad, to a country that’s advanced much technologically, yet still retains its close-mindedness in the way people are valued and important issues are sidelined is something that I’m still trying to get used to. This issue might just be limited to the polytechnic my brother is attending, but I think that’s highly unlikely. Though to be honest, I think my vested interest and greatest loss is that my younger brother would have brought up issues of sustainable seafood and reducing food waste in his version of the valedictorian speech, which would have had a far greater and ranging impact than any ranting of mine on this platform which preaches to the choir could do. 

What kind of conservationist are you?

Having taken a number of conservation science lectures/modules/courses in the last few years, the question of ‘why do you care/want to conserve (biodiversity)’ often comes up in introductory lectures. I recall sitting in the computer/discussion room of the Zoology department in Cambridge 2 years ago with a few of my course mates, discussing why we personally wanted to work in conservation (which probably culminated in my thoughts on the point of conservation and the role of econs in conservation). Part of our reading list was Kareiva and Marvier’s 2012 paper on What Is Conservation Science?, and we were trying to place our own values relative to what was discussed – whether our motivations were mainly biodiversity-centric or human-centric.  I remember being surprised at that time that many of my peers were more of the opinion that conservation was for people’s sake – for those living now but especially for the future generations, our children and grandchildren. I had thought that conservation was commonly perceived to be for nature’s intrinsic value, and that those who thought otherwise were ‘traitors to the cause’.

I have clearly shifted in my thinking since then, being labelled as a Critical Social Scientist now. A group of conservationists in the UK have come up with a Future of Conservation survey, which intends to collect views of conservationists and examine reasons behind the variation in the views held by them. It’s a short, 15 minute survey of the values you hold – more human- or biodiversity- centric, pro-market or not. Better yet, it provides a quick graphical representation of where you stand relative to other conservationists who have taken the survey.

I forgot to take a screenshot of my results, but I am slightly negative on both axes, putting me just inside the lower left quadrant of Critical Social Science.

Future_of_Conservation
Screenshot taken from the Future of Conservation website.

Conservationists have been pigeonholed to two sides of the debate – those embracing New Conservation (advocating economics/market-based solution and the corporate sectors taking the lead in solutions), and the Traditional Conservationists (who believe in conserving nature for its own intrinsic values and Protected Areas being the key solution). This survey examines the bigger picture behind the debate, and it would be really interesting to see the papers that come out of this survey.

Contribute your views now, and look at the direction conservation might take in the future!

A new blog for the next stage in life

If you know me, you might know that I’ve been blogging for many years on a few sites. I had been thinking about ceasing activity on both my personal blog (which I’ve maintained for a decade, and contains some of my most embarrassing teenage thoughts, though it also shows a slow and gradual maturity towards adulthood, I hope) and my nature blog (which I had initially started to log the field trips and activities I was involved in pre-university, but also has some of my contemplations on conservation and the environment, and hike/climb/travel logs) for a while. And while I was hiking in Chile at the end of 2016, I decided this would be one of my to-dos for 2017. So after a month of being back home in Singapore, coming into the fourth month of 2017, I’ve finally summoned enough energy to execute this move. I had initially wanted to get my own hosted domain, but decided I’m still not willing to put in that money – and what I’m currently doing hardly justifies that spending. So here I am, back on wordpress.com.

This to me is a fairly significant, if egoistic event. Maintaining two blogs – one personal, one more interest-based – appeared to demonstrate a dichotomy within myself, as if I had failed to harmonise my interests with my being. It had seemed necessary 5/6 years ago, but rather superfluous now. In addition to having started my first job and so entering ‘adulthood’, my increased clarity in my career aspirations encourage me to start a personal academic-oriented website.

There are many thoughts I’ve had that I’ve been wanting to pen down/type out, ranging from my experiences travelling through several capital cities (Santiago, New York City, London, and Singapore) in a month, job-hunting on the move/in other countries, the growing field of conservation social science, and my despairing/the need for systemic change. Maybe I’ll eventually find the time to write about those, but more likely not (my sites are littered with unfinished drafts). In any case, just to say me, my ego and my thoughts are back online, and I’ll be writing again soon, about more important things than myself.