Seven ways Singapore can learn from indigenous societies to be more humane and responsible stewards of the environment

Proud and dignified, not primitive

Who are the real primitive people?

One dictionary defines “primitive” as living in basic, unpleasant, and uncomfortable conditions.

It is usually used in a derogatory or disapproving manner, especially in modern societies.

“Primitive” is sometimes used interchangeably with “uncivilised”, meaning cruel, heartless and barbaric.

That said, lately I noticed a disturbing trend in a Nature-based Facebook group (of all places).

When I shared a post to lament the loss of a mutilated tree and mention about the cold, clinical system in this country, someone commented:

“Go live in the jungle.”

In another instance, when a nature lover mourned the death of a civet cat, mentioning how it is a victim of “our development monopoly ignoring the beauty of green spaces”, someone responded sarcastically:

“Yes, let’s all get rid of all malls and HDB! Let’s all live in tree houses!”

Truth be told, I would delight in such ideas as I have longed to live in Nature since young, as I would love to enjoy the serenity and fresh air.

But it is the way these people talked about jungles and tree houses that is disturbing.

It is like they look down on the indigenous peoples who live in the forests, probably seeing them as backward, primitive and uncivilised.

If so, let’s do a quick comparison between people in indigenous societies and people in the city-state of Singapore in general.

We shall see who are the really primitive ones.

1. Indigenous society: NO DEBT because they live off the abundance of Nature without relying on a debt-based monetary system.

Singapore: Average Household Debt per Capita: S$57,637 (as of 31 Dec 2017).

2. Indigenous society: NO BOMBS because they don’t subscribe to mass destruction ideologies. For example, historically, Native American communities had methods for dealing with disputes. 

Singapore: Have fighter-bombers and artillery in military, though they are said to be mainly for self-defence.

3. Indigenous society: NO PRISONS because they choose the higher way of “:the resolution of disputes, the healing of wounds and the restoration of social harmony“.

Singapore: Have prisons (and even death penalty) for punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation, supposedly according to the severity of crimes.

4. Indigenous society: NO POVERTY because they live sustainably for thousands of years through sharing and cooperation. A study shows that “modern hunter-gatherer tribes operate on egalitarian basis, suggesting inequality was an aberration that came with the advent of agriculture”.

Singapore: “In 2012, Singapore city was ranked as the sixth most expensive city to live in the world—after cities including Tokyo, Sydney and Oslo. Despite these statistics, one-tenth of Singapore’s population is currently living in poverty. Today, the income inequalities have become more noticeable than ever.” (Source: Borgen Project)

5. Indigenous society: NO HOMELESS because they build their own homes in natural environments. One article noted that “the architecture of Aboriginal houses built prior to invasion depended on climate, natural environment, resources available, family size and particular needs of the Aboriginal nation of that area”.

Singapore: “About 1,000 people live on the streets of Singapore, according to the first study done here to measure the scale of homelessness.” (CNA, 2019)

6. Indigenous society: NO JUNK FOOD because they eat fresh, organic food provided by Mother Nature.

Singapore: “Experts say that fast-food chains do particularly well in Singapore because the healthy eating movement here is not as prevalent as compared to other countries such as the United States which is tackling high obesity rates.” (Today, 2019)

7. Indigenous society: NO POLLUTION because they don’t use motor vehicles or industries, and they are responsible stewards of the environment. A 2018 National Geographic article highlighted the fact that “comprising less than 5% of the world’s population, indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity”.

Singapore: By some measures, Singapore’s air quality is terrible – twice the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guideline limits, and worse than Manila’s, according to a 2017 report in the Guardian UK on global air pollution.

More than 7,700 cases of high-rise littering were reported between 2016 and last year to the National Environment Agency (NEA), as of 2019.

A new study from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that Singapore’s average outdoor sound level throughout the day is 69.4 decibels, which is equivalent to the noise made by a vacuum cleaner. (ST, 2017)

The main sources of water pollution in Singapore are industrial effluent and domestic wastewater. Industrial effluent contains chemical and organic pollutants.

Domestic wastewater contains mainly organic pollutants, both suspended and dissolved solids. (Source: NEA)

Depiction of pollution and environmental degradation in Sustainability Gallery in Singapore

So, it is clear which society is really primitive.

To be sure, this post is not meant to put Singapore down, but rather an attempt to put things into perspective through the objective lens of reality.

If we are honest, we must own up to our shortcomings and strive to be better, more humane and civilised in every sense of the word.

P.S. Not all tribes in indigenous societies share the same values and practices, and I have included links to relevant examples of role models where possible. None of the indigenous societies is perfect, but their compassionate, egalitarian and sustainable practices embody timeless ancient wisdom for us to learn from.

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