Lianhe Zaobao interview: The future of our survival as a nation depends on how sustainable our development is

Yesterday, Lianhe Zaobao (Chinese morning daily newspaper) had a special feature “Non-zero-sum game of ecological conservation and urban development“.

Here’s a rough translation of the opening paragraphs of the article in English.

This is a familiar argument: the island-state (of Singapore) has a small land area and a large population. For economic development and urban housing construction, nature has to be sacrificed; no matter how important nature conservation work is, it must give way to economic development.

But must ecological protection and urban development be a zero-sum game where you have to choose one of the two?”

In response to the above question, the following are some excerpts of my answers that I have given to the interview questions posed by journalist Tan Ying Zhen.

At that time of starting the petition to save Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) area last September, I didn’t really know what to expect because it was my first time creating a petition and it was a steep learning curve. I also had to find a balance between coming across as too demanding and too soft in my approach when I eventually wrote an open petition letter to the key decision makers. I sought to cite as many credible sources as I could find in order to back my observations and suggestions.

At the beginning, I had thought I would be lucky if at least 1,000 signatures were collected, in order to show that this issue matters to not just a handful of concerned residents. I was pleasantly surprised to find that more than 13,000 people have supported the petition so far.

By late last year, the news announced that about half of the BBHP area will be designated as the new Bukit Batok Hillside Nature Park. However, my petition didn’t really move HDB to agree to conserve the entire BBHP area. Instead, HDB went ahead to launch BTO flats in one plot of land within the forested area in February 2021. They have also started to install fences around part of the area this month, apparently to prepare for partial clearance of the forest for housing development.

Because of that, I am not satisfied with their response. I am still gathering data and following the latest news updates and conversations on nature conservation, in the hope to engage HDB again for further feedback. I have written a blog to summarise how housing development in BBHP area would most likely adversely affect the natural habitats and biodiversity.

In spite of the disappointment, perhaps one consolation I could find is that the petition has at least helped to bring awareness to more people about the urgent need to conserve our few remaining secondary forests in order to maintain our biodiversity and deal with the climate emergency effectively.

More and more people expressing concerns about environmental issues

Singapore has been heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world, mainly due to rapid deforestation and urbanisation resulting in increasing urban heat island effect. According to, the annual mean temperature in Singapore has been rising steadily from 26 degrees Celsius in the 1970s to 28.5 degrees Celsius in 2019. The maximum daily temperatures are also predicted to reach 35-37 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

Since the rising temperatures affect our health and well-being as well as quality of life, more and more people acknowledge the urgency of climate change emergency and the need to retain our few remaining sizeable dense forests, which are much more effective than fragmented parks, gardens and roadside trees in cooling the surroundings.

I think that many of our youths are more willing to admit the fact that we have serious environmental problems because they have observed keenly in their formative years the destructiveness of our modern capitalistic system on our natural habitats and wildlife (and ultimately on ourselves).

Many of them are also more willing to speak up as they are usually filled with idealism and vigour, wanting to deal with these problems proactively (despite feeling at a loss about what they can actually do at their young age to make a significant difference).

In contrast, many of us adults have been too caught up with various responsibilities of work and family as we seek to make ends meet in order to deal with the rising cost of living, to the point where we hardly have the time and energy to think or do much about environmental issues.

Possible to have win-win situation through sustainable development

I think that conservation doesn’t always mean that we have to sacrifice development, and that it is possible to have a win-win situation (which to me is about sustainable development, which ensures the well-being and survival of ourselves and our future generations).

It is because we can ask ourselves what “development” means to us. If need be, we can redefine “development” in order to be able to “develop” in such a way that is in harmony with Nature as far as possible.

Development usually means growth, maturity, advancement, etc.

But let’s go one step further: why do we need to develop, grow, mature and advance?

Although every individual may have their own answer, one common denominator that we all share as human beings, regardless of language, race or religion, is that we all want to be happy.

To me, a win-win situation is all about first rediscovering that we are already self-sufficient and we don’t need to depend on material wealth and status to define our worth, so that our mindset will naturally translate into our actions and lifestyles that support sustainable development (such as redeveloping brownfield sites, repurposing underutilised lands, recycling, reusing and reducing waste, etc).


Channel 8 News: Increase in number of hikers visiting Dover Forest has resulted in more litter and more mature trees being damaged

English translation of the Channel 8 News Chinese article (partly paraphrased in my own words)


“The recent debates about the planned development and the need for conservation of Dover-Ulu Pandan forest has attracted much public interest, resulting in more hikers exploring the forest out of curiosity.

There is an increase in littering, and some mature trees have also become favourite subjects of photography, to the extent that tree climbing for the sake of photoshooting might invariably result in damaging the trees.”

Conservationist Chua Chin Tat: “Having witnessed how some people have taken turns to climb such large trees of significance, I am concerned that these actions may cause the tree branches to become weakened and broken over time, or their bark to become damaged.”

Commentator: “People have also noticed that Dover forest has various kinds of litter, such as empty containers, drink bottles, etc, which mar its natural beauty. Last month, freelance writer Chen Zande (Jimmy Tan) has called his friends to do weekly clean-up of the forest.”

Freelance writer Jimmy: “I have a WhatsApp group, which has about 100 plus members. So, I told them, “ok let’s go and pick up the litter (in the forest) this Sunday…. For safe distancing, we would form 2 groups of 8 people each”, and many members signed up.”

Commentator: “Within an hour, the volunteers filled up about 20 bags of trash that they have picked up.”

Video by Channel 8 News, 21 March 2021

Reported by Lee Zhengyi

Some thoughts on “The 8% Solution: biodiversity, imperialism and nature in Singapore” video

1. Despite the title showing “biodiversity”, the biodiversity of Singapore wasn’t discussed at length. No mention was made regarding the extent of extinction and endangerment of our native flora and fauna in the last 200 years.

2. Although around 96% of the original rainforests were replaced by agriculture by 1880s, Singapore was still considered greener than it is today, as there wasn’t much urbanisation. Even the tigers could continue to exist until the last tiger was hunted in 1930.

3. The indigenous peoples such as Orang Laut were left out of the conversation, as if they didn’t exist in Singapore’s history. We are doing them a disservice as they were the original owners of the land, who lived in harmony with Nature and whom we should learn from regarding sustainability.

4. If the natural environment of Singapore could no longer support an expanding human population of 137,722 in 1880, what makes us think that it can support a growing human population of nearly 6,000,000 today in the context of climate emergency?

5. Even if 56% of Singapore’s land is said to be occupied by vegetation today, about one-third of it is managed parks, gardens, roadside trees, etc, while the remaining comprises mainly secondary forests or spontaneous regrowing vegetation.

Moreover, if we say Singapore is a “green city” or one of the “greenest” cities today, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t suffering from the effects of rising urban heat island effect, urban claustrophobia, human-wildlife conflicts due to further fragmentation of forests, etc.

Further thoughts

Though both are small post-colonial island-states, Hong Kong has allocated a larger proportion of green spaces (56% tree cover in 2010) than Singapore (30% tree cover in 2010), despite having one of the highest population densities in the world.

Mauritius is also a former colonial tropical island like Singapore, but it has more wild green spaces (47% tree cover in 2010), thanks to a smaller population and greater environmental consciousness.

Singapore should learn from Hong Kong and Seychelles on how to prioritise nature conservation, instead of trying to develop at the expense of our biodiversity and our health, well-being and quality of life.

It doesn’t mean we should all settle for cramped apartments or live in villages, but rather we should focus more on redeveloping brownfield sites, repurposing underutilised lands and managing our population dynamics, so as to have more breathable, liveable spaces for everyone.

Dover-Ulu Pandan Forest recce and voluntary clean-up events

For three weekends since Valentine’s Day, we nature enthusiasts came to pick up litter in and around Dover-Ulu Pandan Forest.

By cleaning up the environment, we help make the forest safer for our wildlife, and by raising awareness of our mission, we hope to inspire others to do likewise and hike responsibly.

We also recced the forest for nature awareness and conservation, while we took nothing but pictures and left nothing but footprints.

We hope Dover forest will be preserved for its impressive biodiversity, its excellent ability to cool and purify the air, and its important contribution to our physical, mental and spiritual health, well-being and quality of life.

Let’s all continue to be good stewards of our environment for the sake of our fascinating native wildlife, ourselves and our future generations.

To sign the petition to protect Dover Forest, click here.

My feedback to HDB on the environmental baseline findings of Dover-Ulu Pandan Forest

With a high biodiversity of (at least) 158 fauna species and 120 flora species, including critically endangered species, as well as having a rich heritage of former kampongs, farms and plantations, Dover Forest has the potential of attaining a UNESCO World Heritage status. In fact, its potential status may equal or even exceed that of Singapore Botanic Gardens. After all, Dover Forest is more local than colonial and is also more wild than cultivated or manicured.
According to the Environmental Baseline Study, the Dover/Ulu Pandan study area is “not located near to any Singapore Nature Reserve”. However, it is actually closely connected to Clementi Forest (which leads to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve) and Green Corridor via Ulu Pandan PCN (which runs towards Southern Ridges). Thus, Dover Forest should be considered an ecologically sensitive area instead of vacant vegetated land.

I am a resident of Bukit Batok, and I work as a freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. I have worked with the Ministry of Education on Geography textbook projects for secondary schools, and I am also the author of the open petition letter in support of the conservation of Bukit Batok Hillside Park area to ensure a sustainable future for us.

Although I don’t live near Dover-Ulu Pandan Forest (aka Dover Forest), I occasionally cycle around the vicinity, due to my shifts in Clementi zone or Bukit Timah zone as a part-time food delivery cyclist. I can vouch for the fact that the air there often feels cooler and fresher, especially along the Ulu Pandan Park Connector Network (PCN), thanks to the presence of Dover Forest next to it.

Does Dover forest have no economic value? Well, it actually has immeasurable worth in terms of its ecosystem services, such as cooling the surroundings, purifying the air, preventing flash floods, providing food and shelter to support forest-dependent wildlife (including pollinators and seed dispersers), and so on.

In fact, it is found that a single healthy tree can have the cooling power of more than 10 air-conditioning units, and trees can filter air pollution, “improving our health and that of the planet”, according to Ms Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She also said:

one of the best technologies for tackling overheating cities was invented long before humans appeared: trees” 

Dover Forest: Don’t sacrifice trees for space” (Straits times forum, 18 February 2021)

Does that mean we can replace Dover Forest with residential buildings, so long as we incorporate some greenery by planting trees around the new Build-To-Order (BTO) flats to cool the air?

No, I don’t think that is advisable in view of the climate change facing us. Instead, I strongly suggest that we should conserve Dover Forest entirely as a nature park-cum-public park (as also proposed by Nature Society), rather than destroy the forest partially or wholly for housing development.

How Dover Forest helps to deal with climate change: Size and density matter

Climate change is an existential threat caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions due to rapid deforestation, urbanisation and industrialisation in Singapore and around the world. Every day, automobiles and factories running on fossil fuels emit tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and there are fewer and fewer trees available to serve as carbon sinks.

Annual mean temperature in Singapore from 1948 to 2019. (Source: Singapore is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world – with maximum daily temperatures predicted to reach 35-37 degrees Celsius by year 2100.

In view of the climate change, we need every sizeable forest (of at least 10 ha), such as Dover Forest, in order to mitigate the negative effects of climate change, such as global warming, more frequent extreme weather changes resulting in flash floods or droughts, as well as increased danger to food security and biodiversity.

We must not forget that Singapore is located at 1 degree north of the Equator and experiences a hot, humid and wet climate. Hence, all the negative effects of climate change pose a significant threat to our safety, health and well-being, as well as quality of life, and ultimately our very survival as a human species in the long-term.

As Singapore is located just above the Equator, it receives the direct impact of the Sun’s rays during daytime. By default, our tropical island is blessed with tropical rainforests and mangrove forests that help cushion the full intensity of the Sun’s heat. Now that we have lost about 95% of our original rainforests, we are much more vulnerable to the suffocating heat of the sun and global warming than the rest of the world. Only about a third of the island is covered by trees today, which is insufficient for our optimal living and functioning in our daily lives since the trees exist mostly in fragmented areas.

On 1 February 2021, the Singapore Parliament rightfully stated:

“That this House acknowledges that climate change is a global emergency and a threat to mankind and calls on the Government, in partnership with the private sector, civil society and the people of Singapore, to deepen and accelerate efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and to embrace sustainability in the development of Singapore.”

Parliament declares climate change a global emergency (Straits Times, 1 February 2021)

Although the Singapore Green Plan 2030 has called for 1,000 hectares to be set aside for green spaces and one more million more trees to be planted across our island, it fails to include our responsibility to conserve our remaining dense secondary forests and redevelop brownfield sites instead of sacrificing our forests.

Studies have shown that sizeable forests that are at least 10 ha in area are more effective in cooling the surroundings than fragmented green spaces (such as many of our small parks and gardens).

For example, a research article reveals that:

“The results of the present study illustrate that the highest cooling effect distance and cooling effect intensity are for large urban parks with an area of more than 10 ha; however, in addition to the area, the natural elements and qualities of the urban green spaces, as well as climate characteristics, highly inform the urban green space cooling effect.”

Urban green space cooling effect in cities, Heliyon, Volume 5, Issue 4, April 2019, e01339

With an area of more than 30 ha of mainly densely growing trees (except for the small patch of grassland in the middle), Dover forest is considered sizeable enough for providing a significant cooling effect on the surroundings, which is more effective than that provided by our smaller parks and gardens, or roadside trees for that matter.

The mist above Dover Forest in the morning is a clear testimony of how the evapotranspiration from the densely growing trees has helped to cool the surrounding air significantly. We would be hard pressed to see such mist in our small, sparsely vegetated parks and gardens.

[to be continued as it takes time to put together the latest data]