The future (I want) in Singapore

We’re in the middle of election season in Singapore; parliament was dissolved on 23 June, signalling the start, and polling day will be on 10 July. Many questions can be asked about why the election needs to be called right now, given the difficulties posed by the covid 19 pandemic and made worse for overseas voters (like me) who are unable to travel to exercise our right to vote. Nevertheless, the campaigns and manifestos put forth by candidates are important to engage with because they represent the direction Singapore wants to move towards.

Cartoon by Kevin Kallaugher, taken from here. To be honest, I think the time of modern nation-states is past. Most have only been around for the last 50 to 100 years (since European colonial powers ceded independence to their former colonies, but still wield substantial political and economic power over every country on this planet). Nonetheless, as part of such a nation-state at present, one should actively participate to forge the future we collectively want.

I think it’s been much more exciting this year compared to the last one in 2015 (which was my first time voting in Singapore’s GE), since every one of the 93 elected seats in parliament are being contested (so everyone who can will get to vote) and the quality of (social media) campaigns seems to have increased. I’m really not a political commentator nor do I follow any political party closely enough to comment about the differences between this and the previous election, beyond just my personal experience that this year’s has more hype in it. It has though, been really encouraging to see the highlighting of social structural inequality in Singapore, and proposed policy measures to tackle these issues from most parties. (Slightly less encouraging to see the xenophobia take centre stage at times though).

Where’s climate change?

Yet many other issues – like our treatment of foreign workers – seem to have been sidelined in all the rhetoric about overcoming crises, having a great future, jobs and whatnot. The most glaring omission is perhaps any mention of climate change in any discussion…

From Twitter user @Laurie_Garrett, posted on 17 June, when temperatures in Siberia hit 32˚C; original cartoon (only showing covid-19 and recession) by Graeme MacKay for The Hamilton Spectator on 11 March 2020. I had actually first come across this cartoon but with ‘biodiversity loss’ in a bigger wave behind climate change, but after spending 30 mins scouring the internet trying to find it again, I gave up.

In a 5-yearly discussion about how our future will be directed, one would think that this very major threat – potentially for the survival of, if not our species, then at the least civilisation as we know it – the earth is facing at the moment would feature. Singapore isn’t climate-denying; that much is known. The government had previously pledged to spend SGD 100 billion on infrastructure to adapt to climate change (I know they used the word mitigate but really, they mean adapt to the effects of climate change, like building sea walls, polders, reclaiming islands etc. Not mitigate (to reduce) the effects of climate change). But yes, we need to talk about mitigation!

The petrochemical industry on Jurong Island is the leading oil trading/refining hub in Asia, within top five globally. The industry doesn’t just import crude oil, refine it, and export it to the rest of the world, they’re also involved in building fossil fuel extraction infrastructure (like oil rigs). And 25% of globally-traded goods pass through our port! Cargo ships use the dirtiest fuel and contribute greatly to CO2 emissions [Read more in this great NewNaratif article].

Our banks finance coal plants, oil palm or other cash crop plantations in the region (and sometimes further afield). To ‘develop’ Singapore, sand is imported from our neighbours, to the detriment of the communities from whom land is literally being taken from underfoot. 90% of our food supply is also imported, a large proportion of which is also from around the Southeast Asian region. These activities all contribute to climate change (by changing planetary dynamics) and are affected by the same. If we take climate change seriously for what it is – I don’t know how one does not, I spent days being miserable and angry about the recent 30+˚C temperatures in the Arctic circle – then we need to do something about it. It’s something that should be mentioned in manifestos and shouted about over loudspeakers and on social media campaigns!

The good people at SG Climate Rally and Speak for Climate have co-organised the campaign Greenwatch, producing a climate scorecard for each of the contesting political parties. On a score ranging from -90 to 90, no party did particularly well…

What future do we want?

There’s so much talk about the post-covid future, the economy, jobs, development etc. The assumption though, is that we all want ‘development’, and ‘progress’. It is after all, in our national pledge.

We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve, happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation. 

Who is development (equivalent to progress?) pursued for though, and to what ends? Supposedly, the pursuit of development (which manifests itself in chasing after constant economic growth, as in GDP), is to improve peoples’ lives, increase standards and quality of well-being and ultimately to allow everyone(?) to live decent and dignified lives.

On one level, past a certain point, happiness/well-being/life satisfaction does not concomitantly increase with Gross Domestic Product (used as a measure of development) – known as the Easterlin paradox.

Image taken from this Medium article authored by Jack Herring- The Social Case for Degrowth, but which was (probably?) taken from the book Degrowth (The economy: Key Ideas) by Giorgos Kallis, Figure 4.2 of chapter 4 The Case for Degrowth.

Singapore’s GDP per capita in 2018, according to Google, is USD 64,581.94, and according to a poll reported in September 2019, half of the population isn’t very satisfied with their lives.

On another level, development is a concept introduced by USA president Henry Truman in his inaugural speech in 1949 – to be specific, he described most of the world as ‘underdeveloped’ and therefore should follow the Western mode of development to industrialise and achieve a higher standard of living, and so reduce suffering. I’m no longer so naive as to think that the USA (or UK) is a benevolent nation that wants to help poor people around the world. Through the past few months/years of reading into colonialism, postcolonial and decolonial studies, I fully see development as neo-colonialism, whereby concepts and schools of thought, ways of knowing, relating to others, and seeing the world are being reshaped and refashioned after Western ways (internal colonialism or colonisation of the mind – Tuck and Yang 2012; Fanon 1963), and where resources (land, people, ideas etc.) are extracted to benefit those in power.

Hence, I see development not as a ‘good’ thing, but as something to be questioned (which I have tried to explore and understand in previous writings). Development serves to entrench those already in power, exacerbating inequalities, does not make us (the general population) happier, and at the expense of our forests and biodiversity.

Singapore has lost 46% of her butterflies (Theng et al 2020), 22% of recorded plants (Kristensen et al 2020), and an overall loss of at least 28% of fish, bird and mammal species (Brook et al 2003). Since being colonised by the British in 1819, by 1990, more than 99% of our original forests have been lost (Corlett 1992). And even the remaining few areas of secondary forest are being lost to development and progress as we speak.

Read the rest of the Twitter thread here.

Needless to say, the loss of forests (albeit at a larger scale) contributes to climate change, while the localised effects are felt immediately quite noticeably – temperatures under forest canopy are lower than that in open space by 1.7˚C on average, up to a maximum of 4.1˚C cooler (De Frene et al 2019). Sure, we could (and should) push for more Environmental Impact Assessments before development starts, but that also has its issues. Rather than play the game on their rules, it’s time perhaps, to start questioning if we even need to play the game.

A future that is socially and environmentally just

I am quite well aware that at this point in time, any candidate questioning the need for economic growth and development would not get very far politically. After all, this is exactly what our education system and larger society conditioning was meant to achieve – to produce good workers for the economy so that growth can continue to be pursued.

– Spring, J. (2011) A New Paradigm for Teaching in (Ed. Rossatto) Teaching for Global Community: Overcoming Divide and Conquer Strategies of the Oppressor, p94.

But while we acknowledge the present political unfeasibility, it doesn’t mean that we should not discuss radical alternatives. What is the future that we, the people of the community, want to see and to build? Food sufficiency? Then why not have children learn more about growing food, and doing that in their school gardens? (Some schools have started these initiatives, and it supported by NParks) A caring community? Then we need to reduce incentives for competitive behaviour (humans are not inherently selfish and competitive, no matter what neoclassical economists and the political elite try and tell you).

At the end of the day, what is it that matters? I would think the answer should be a planet we can all live and thrive on. If the trend of temperatures exceeding 30˚C in Siberia when it should be closer to 0˚C continues, then this will not be achievable. ‘Progress’ caused and continues to contribute to climate change1; ‘progress’ for some will always be at the expense of others (which is how the political economic system of capitalism works). If we want social justice, equitable outcomes for all and not not just the few (be they Singaporean citizens or not), if we want climate and environmental justice, then we need a new system. One that doesn’t rely on more development, whether it’s in our country, or enacted in other places by our companies. Without social and environmental justice (which cannot and should not be seen as separate, really), we. have. no. future.

This ain’t the future I want. Cartoon from here.

1 There is no evidence of absolute decoupling between resource/energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. to reduce GHG emissions we will need to reduce resource/energy use (Haberl et al 2020). There is also little evidence of absolute decoupling between GDP and resource/energy use (Ward et al 2016), particularly when taking into account embodied resources, where material production or extraction takes place overseas and is externalised.

Thinking about biological diversity

As we journey in life, we keep changing and learning, pausing to reflect on how much we’ve internalised only at the end of every year, if that. With the entry of Facebook and the publishing of our lives on the platform, I find that I’m prompted to think and reflect on these changes more often, with every ‘memory’ I shared on the platform from years ago. This day 8 years ago, Facebook reminds me, I was helping to organise the inaugural Festival of Biodiversity in Singapore, prompted by a photo of an excited, younger me and Siva, my mentor.

The International Day for Biological Diversity was last week (22 May), proclaimed by the UN “to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues”.

Image taken from:

My relationship with the concept of biological diversity (‘biodiversity’) is quite central to my identity and what I think is (one of) my purpose in life, heavily influencing the decisions I make, and may be it will resonate with some.

City girl to biodiversity advocate

Similar to many others who grow up in a city (particularly a city-state), I was pretty much insulated and isolated from ‘nature’ as a kid, one of those who find it ‘icky’ to sit on the ground/dirt/earth, and rather squeamish about touching non-human creatures. I didn’t mind being outdoors, per se, but I didn’t have any profound interactions with nature as a child that made me think about our relationship with the planet we live on or the many other creatures we share it with. I was/am privileged in my majority Chinese, middle-class upbringing in Singapore, and the following was experienced from that position.

The ‘revelation’ came about in secondary school (13-16 yo), with a great biology teacher (Mr Lim, who wasn’t actually my biology teacher) introducing plants (a durian tree, while on a hike in MacRitchie, Central Catchment Nature Reserve), the interconnectedness of organisms, ecology, biodiversity, and all the cool facts about plants and animals. Thus I started exploring biodiversity and habitats (marine intertides, seagrasses, tropical forests…), reading up at the same time about biophilia (a hypothesis put forth by E.O. Wilson), nature deficit disorder (proposed by Richard Louv) and various other nature writings.

During this time in school, I did ecology-oriented research projects, organised field trips with other students, and volunteered on citizen science monitoring projects (Team Seagrass, Mega Marine Survey; I do miss the marine tropical intertidal areas, and all the wonderful people there…). Through these interactions, I realised these natural habitats and the biodiversity that live within are threatened by development (I still refuse to visit Universal Studios on Pulau Belakang Mati/Sentosa), and moved towards a space of raising awareness about our local biodiversity, their importance to urban residents, and generally educating about the value of nature/the outdoors.

The most visible of these efforts was helping to organise the Festival of Biodiversity when working at NParks during my gap year post A-levels. Following that, I did my undergraduate and master’s focusing on ecology and conservation, learning about the science and tools to protect natural habitats – protected areas, spatial planning, prioritisation, modelling, monitoring, reporting, evaluating effectiveness etc. I thought that my learning was more or less complete and I would just go into refining my understanding of these tools and issues, and trying to effect change in practice.

Towards decolonising biodiversity conservation

Over time (during/post-masters), I realised that the science wasn’t really delivering results (biodiversity is still rapidly declining, habitats still being lost at incredible rates etc.). People-centred conservation was important, since it is humans after all who effect changes, not what the science says or policies being written. I got interested in the human dimensions of conservation, coupled human and natural systems, socio-ecological systems etc., trying to understand human relationships to the land and biodiversity, and how conservation (as a field trying to make changes to the way people live their lives) need to take these into account.

As I delved into these topics, I also started reading on different conservation narratives and paradigms, realising that conservationists are not a homogenous entity. In what we want to achieve, I think we are similar – we are all for giving ‘nature’ breathing space and reducing ‘human’ pressures on the environment/planet, broadly speaking. How to achieve that, is where most of the differences lie. And so I was drawn into conversations and discussions about conservation philosophy, ecocentrism vs anthrocentrism, role of (neoliberal) capitalism etc, drawing on the Future of Conservation.

The point on this journey that I’m at right now, is realising that conservation is very much a colonial concept, and as practised now, is very much neo-colonialism in action (such as this). Biological diversity, as a western scientific concept, is but one way of viewing the abundance of life on earth. It is useful, but when we use the term biodiversity, we often preclude humans in the mix. But diversity of humans, and our diverse cultures and ways of seeing and understanding the world, is critically important to conservation. (Western/European) Colonisation has made us view people and nature as separate (amongst many other ills, like racial supremacy), but in many other (typically Indigenous) cultures, the interconnectness or wholeness of the system is emphasised.

Reading Conservation Revolution by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher has been refreshing, for bringing these ideas together and helping me understand the various links between economic development/growth/capitalism, conservation, and colonialism, and seeing solutions beyond more protected areas and marketisation/commodification of nature. I’m still very much in the process of learning about decolonisation (Decolonisation is not a metaphor by Tuck and Yang is a great read; also check out this The Conversation article on Decolonise Science: time to end another imperial era) and trying to understand it in the context of conservation and in Singapore. So goes on my journey and relationship with biodiversity, and I really hope to find again, that eager, excited younger self who was full of hope for positive change.

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.

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!