Tree planting in Lim Chu Kang nature park and birdwatching in Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve

Although it is challenging to advocate nature conservation in a country that often prioritises economic growth and property development at the expense of the forests, we do what we can in replanting trees and trust Nature to take care of the rest.

It’s been a few years since I learnt to plant a tree as a volunteer for NParks at Kranji Marshes.

On 17 March 2023 afternoon, I took time off after my morning food delivery shift to participate in a tree planting session at the upcoming Lim Chu Kang nature park.

I was glad that the demonstration by the NParks guide helped to refresh my memory on the techniques of planting a tree.

They include digging a hole in the soil deep and wide enough to fit a tree sapling, removing the covering after planting the sapling, filling the hole around it with soil and leaf compost, and watering the sapling.

Kudos to our communal efforts in planting native trees, such as yellow flame, in this upcoming nature park west of Sungei Buloh

I look forward to seeing the young trees grow to form a forest.

Upon returning to Sungei Buloh wetlands reserve extension, I went to check out a couple of baya weaver nests near the visitor centre.

We have much to learn from the baya weavers, who adeptly use natural materials to build intricate climate-resilient architecture.

I am reminded that a number of baya weavers had to move house from Tengah forest ever since deforestation took place around 2018 onwards for development.

Some of them might have taken refuge at Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve, as I don’t recall having seen their nests during my volunteer photography assignment during the opening ceremony of the new visitor centre in December 2014.

Still, the baya weavers are often on the lookout for potential predators, such as white-bellied sea eagles who regularly patrol the sky above.


Bukit Batok hillside park area hiking trip, 8 January 2023

We are the eyes, ears and voice of the voiceless flora and fauna who cannot speak up for themselves. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Thanks to my hiking buddies, we had an immersive forest bathing experience, known in Japanese as “Shinrin-yoku” on 8 January afternoon.

Our climbing along the steep slopes shows us how important the trees are in holding the soil together, while also helping us to stabilise ourselves. (Top left map by; photo by Jimmy Tan)

The trees in the forest are truly our friends, as they provide shade, fresh air and immune-boosting phytoncides, even as they prevent soil erosion and cool the urban heat island effect, among many other ecosystem services.

I hope that the forest can be spared from further removal for BTO (Build To Order) housing development in this area, especially since the application rates for the BTO launches in Bukit Batok have been relatively low.

As noted in our feedback to the authorities last November:

“Although Bukit Batok Hillside Park area is relatively small and seemingly insignificant compared to other bigger forests in Singapore, it may well be our weakest link because any further disruption along this part of Bukit Batok nature corridor may irreversibly affect the safe movements of fauna (including pollinators and seed dispersers vital for our food security) between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve.

The physical and mental well-being of our residents living in the vicinity is also at stake.”

P.S. A wild boar was seen by some of us at BBHP hill 2, which demonstrates that it most likely uses the forest here as an ecological corridor to move between Tengah forest and Bukit Batok nature park.

My proposal to NParks et al on conserving and restoring mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river

Panoramic view of Jurong river mangrove mudflats (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Below is my message sent to National Parks Board (NParks) on 9 December 2022:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to propose to NParks and other relevant agencies to conserve and restore Jurong river mangroves and designate Pandan river mangroves as a nature park or wetland reserve.

The purpose is to complement the roles of the current nature reserves, such as Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, and other nature parks, to strengthen Singapore’s climate, ecological and social resilience, in view of the current climate emergency.

Location of Jurong river (which flows through Jurong Lake Gardens) and Pandan river (which flows past Dover-Ulu Pandan forest towards the sea) in southwest Singapore. A visitor centre for the proposed Sungei Pandan wetlands reserve could be built next to Pandan river tidal gates, not far from the upcoming Pandan Reservoir MRT station. An ecological corridor could be designated to link both proposed conservation sites. (Base map: Google Maps)

1. As noted by Nature Society (Singapore) in their post dated 13 September 2022, Jurong river and Pandan river are among the 3 remaining mangrove patches in the southern sector of mainland Singapore (the third one is Berlayer Creek).

They have identified a green area in the vicinity that is contiguous with the Old Jurong Line and a corridor for wetland bird species from the Southern Islands, thus giving us the opportunity to preserve both our natural and historical heritages.

2. Although parts of the banks along Jurong river and Pandan river have been concretised or reinforced due to industrialisation since the 1960s-1970s, some mangroves (and back forest vegetation) and mudflats remain, as also noted by MND minister Desmond Lee in the aforementioned post.

These mangrove habitats support a diversity of flora and fauna, including endangered Nipah palms, smooth-coated otters, horseshoe crabs and threatened giant mudskippers, as well as resident and migratory shore birds, many of which were spotted by my hiking buddies and me during our recces and environmental clean-up sessions.

Smooth-coated otters swimming along Jurong river mangrove mudflats on 8 September 2021

A crocodile was also spotted in the West Coast area yesterday (8 December 2022), which I believe testifies to a gradually recovering ecosystem, in spite of the environmental impacts of industrialisation and land reclamation in recent decades.

Hence, restoring Jurong river mangrove mudflats and protecting Pandan mangrove wetlands can ensure that these native flora and fauna can continue to survive, and in turn help the mangrove ecosystem to become more established through the interconnected web of species interactions (including seed dispersal, pollination, prey-predator relationships, etc).

3. By having a bigger and healthier mangrove ecosystem, Singapore can benefit from greater carbon sequestration (since mangroves can sequester more carbon than tropical rainforests) and protection of the coasts from rising sea levels and resultant floods.

For example, as recent as 17 April 2021, Ulu Pandan river canal experienced flash floods as a result of the intense rain and high tide.

Earlier today (9 December 2022), I noticed that Pandan river was almost full capacity near the tidal gates around 1 pm plus during high tide – see link for pictures.

Given that Singapore may experience rising sea level up to 1 metre by the year 2100, having more mangroves along the coast can help stabilise the mudflats, build higher ground and mitigate floods to some extent, which can help reduce the socio-economic costs of flood damage, since we cannot solely rely on engineering solutions due to high costs, resource-intensiveness, reliance on global supply chains, and other factors.

4. Economically speaking, Singapore can benefit from the restoration of mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river in terms of not only flood prevention but also ecotourism. For example, with the expected completion of Pandan Reservoir MRT station by 2027, both rivers will be much more accessible to visitors and tourists. 

The (UNEP) report outlines that every $US1 invested in restoration creates up to $US30 in economic benefits. “Restoring our ecosystems will help avoid 60 per cent of expected biodiversity extinctions,” Atallah says. “It will also help absorb carbon and crucially, help us adapt the effects of the climate crisis.”

Why nature holds the key to meeting climate goals” (UNEP, 15 November 2022)

I believe that a new Sungei Pandan wetland reserve can help draw more international tourists to visit Singapore, given that mangroves are unique to only certain tropical coastal areas. It can also help ease visitorship in Sungei Buloh wetland reserve, as too many human visitors may cause stress to the wildlife there (just as too many visitors in the central nature reserves may also be detrimental to the sensitive wildlife, hence the need for buffer nature parks outside the nature reserves).

Some wildlife sightings in/around Pandan river mangroves in May 2022 (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Having the new Sungei Pandan wetland reserve can also facilitate school and public education and foster scientific research on mangrove habitats and their manifold benefits.

5. Last but not least, residents and people working in the highly built-up industrial estate around Jurong river and Pandan river can benefit from having access to cleaner air, cooler environment and more dense greenery in the neighbourhood, which is good for both physical and mental health. 

This in turn will help them save costs of electricity bills (from using air conditioning) and costs of medical bills (from falling sick due to stress, heat injuries caused by heat waves or rising urban heat island effect, and so on).

Protecting and restoring the mangrove forest in Pandan river will bolster its role as a water catchment for Pandan reservoir and as a nature-based solution to rising sea levels and urban heat island effect. (Photo by Jimmy Tan; base map from NParks)

I understand that Singapore is considered land scarce, and I believe the above proposal does not involve having to sacrifice much land zoned for other purposes, since the mangroves in Jurong river and Pandan river already exist, and the main work to be done is to first protect them as nature areas, so that we can focus on making these environments more habitable and conducive for both humans and non-human residents (and more pleasant and attractive for visitors as well).

Going further, we can redevelop old industrial sites in this part of Singapore, since many of the single-storey or low-rise industrial buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s are old and possibly run-down or underutilised, so that we can rebuild taller and more integrated modern industrial buildings in order to optimise land space fully.

The island-state’s sixth national report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, submitted in 2020, said: “Due to the limited land area in Singapore, our natural areas tend to be small and isolated.” But to maintain the biodiversity of these areas, it is important to connect the green spaces, restore habitats and implement species recovery projects, among other efforts, the document added.

Protecting 30% of planet’s forests and habitats can save 1,000 wildlife species: Study” (The Straits Times, 5 December 2022)

Thank you for your attention, and I look forward to your favourable response.

Yours sincerely,
Jimmy Tan San Tek

“Counter-imagining the Dystopia” Photo Exhibit

My first forest experience was in MacRitchie forest during secondary school, which organised a cross-country run event every year.

Since the forest is part of the central catchment nature reserve, it is in no danger of being cleared.

Since then, I had taken forests in Singapore for granted.

It wasn’t until 2016 when I saw firsthand how one secondary rainforest after another was razed to the ground by bulldozers.

First was Bidadari forest, followed by Lentor forest, and then Tengah forest.

Then came news reports of roadkills and human-wildlife conflicts, mainly due to deforestation in Mandai, Punggol and Pasir Ris.

Finally, revelations of development plans in Bukit Batok hillside park area, Clementi forest and Dover forest in 2020 were the last straw that compelled many concerned citizens to advocate the conservation of our remaining forests.

Lately, as I revisited MacRitchie forest, I realised how fortunate it has escaped the axe, after having been regenerating from human disturbances 150-200 years ago.

As I survey the lush greenery, I hope that the photographs of this forest will inspire action to be taken to conserve and restore the forests outside of the nature reserves for climate resilience, biodiversity protection and public health management.

The OML photo exhibition hopes to bring together leaders who provide active resistance that challenge our social, cultural, economic, environmental, and imagination crises and open thresholds to foresee the shape of what can become possible.

One challenge of advocating nature conservation and environmental sustainability is not to fall into the doom-and-gloom fatalism (which I occasionally find myself meandering into).

Hence the need for “counter-imagining the dystopia”, which is the theme of this OML (One Million Leaders) Photo Exhibit, organised by NELIS Global.

The exhibit showcases visions of a more beautiful, compassionate, regenerative future that already exist.

After all, we live in a world where contradictions and paradoxes exist, as I have come to realise.

Whether we are for nature conservation or economic development, we find ourselves inextricably enmeshed between the two spheres.

For example, since we live in a monetary-based society, nature conservation advocacy work requires funding to be successful.

Similarly, no business can remain sustainable without relying on the regenerative nature of the natural environment.

Perhaps it is a matter of where the resources are channeled to.

For example, are they used to protect the environment, biodiversity and thereby our physical and mental well-being?

Are they also used to promote nature awareness?

On this note, I am glad to have my three photos – together with other amazing photos by other photographers – contributing to the success of the OML Photo Exhibit in Tokyo, Japan, which I learnt “was very well received”.

The online gallery is found here.

Their video, heartfully received by NELIS’s audience on the 5th of November, is helpful for their ongoing Web Expo awareness campaign this month.

Feel free to watch and share the link.

If you feel inclined to help support this Web Expo movement, may I invite you to share the post and/or purchase any of the photos in the online gallery?

By doing so, you will be supporting the OML Programs running worldwide (OMLA -Africa-; OMLATAM -Latinamerica-; OMLAS -Asia-; OML-MENA -the Middle East & North Africa-).

You will also be supporting the local doers, dreamers, and their communities or initiatives working towards “one world in harmony”.

P.S. For the purchase of each photo, 50% of the funds goes to NELIS/OML and 50% to the photographer.

Dover Forest East walk, 22 October 2022

Thanks to environmental educator Tan Hang Chong for briefing us on the natural and cultural heritage of Dover Forest, to Andrew Tay for co-leading the hike, and to everyone for being part of the nature appreciation experience.

Though Dover Forest is a regenerating secondary forest with a history of rural settlements and agricultural practices, it is also part of the former Pandan forest reserve and – going further back in time – the original primary rainforests.

Hence, the forest retains the rugged appearance of wild nature, with naturalised streams and forest-dependent wildlife such as lineated barbets, hill mynahs and raptors, which aren’t found in the usual parks and gardens.

I realised the sounds are made by a hill mynah. Incidentally, hill mynahs are one of the key indicator species, according to NParks’ Ecological Profiling Exercise. Hence, by right, Dover Forest East ought to be recognised as an important ecological corridor, instead of being dismissed for supposedly “having less biodiversity than Dover Forest West”.

We felt the coolness of the forest interior amidst the densely growing trees and their evapotranspiration effect.

We breathed in the immune-boosting phytoncides released by the lush evergreen natural vegetation, which provides an immersive forest therapy experience.

Some of the iconic trees in Dover Forest East

We enjoyed the spontaneous discoveries of rare or unusual flora and fauna, which cannot be replicated in manicured parks and gardens where cultivated plants look orderly and predictable.

Critters of Dover Forest East

We appreciated the usefulness of the deep loamy soil and plant roots that absorb rainwater and help prevent floods and landslides along Ulu Pandan river, even as we are experiencing more inclement weather brought about by human-induced climate change.

All in all, it is a memorable experience with invaluable lessons from Mother Nature, who is sovereign over us all, despite the self-proclaimed sovereignty of an island-state that endeavours to be a City in Nature.

Lush green spaces: Where can they be found and how important are they?

Lush green spaces with rich biodiversity and coherent ecological connectivity can usually only be found in nature parks.

That’s why we need to conserve the forests in Singapore.

The lush green spaces, such as in Tengah forest, provide climate resilience, support rich biodiversity and protect our health and well-being.

Even as this forest is being cleared and the soil paved over with concrete to build a new HDB town, it is hoped that the greenery in Tengah remains lush and habitable for the forest-dependent flora and fauna too.

For the environmental impact studies have shown that there are hundreds of species depending on the forest for survival, including rare and endangered species.

In the era of pandemic and uncertain geopolitics affecting global supply chains, we need our wildlife pollinators and seed dispersers more than ever for our food security and self-sufficiency.

Our health and well-being also depends on the therapeutic benefits and heat-stress-alleviating effects of the densely growing trees.

International Day of Biological Diversity 2022: A celebration of birds seen in Singapore

22 May is the International Day for Biological Diversity.

I was inspired to do a video as a preview to some of the common and less common wildlife seen in Singapore in the past couple of years.

Some of the videos were shot during my solo recces, while others were taken during group hikes (thanks to my hiking buddies).

Almost all the shots feature birds, except for one featuring a butterfly, which shows I am biased towards our feathered friends.

The video features:

  • Common kingfisher (uncommon migrant)
  • Hill mynah (forest-dependent indicator species)
  • Asian koel (common resident)
  • Red jungle fowl (endangered)
  • Common Caerulean Butterfly
  • Greater racket-tailed drongo (forest-dependent)
  • Blue-tailed bee-eater
  • Pacific reef heron (uncommon resident, dark morph)
  • Grey heron
  • Intermediate egret

The common kingfisher is actually not so common, compared to the collared kingfisher and white-throated kingfisher in Singapore.

It was spotted in Woodleigh park forest, where it was filmed after catching a fish from a canal that leads to Kallang River flowing through Potong Pasir.

The hill mynah was heard before it was seen near Springleaf nature park and Sembawang Woods, which was being partially cleared for the North-South Corridor viaduct to be built.

This forest-dependent bird is one of the six indicator species, in NParks’ ongoing nationwide ecological profiling survey to study how best to connect existing fragmented forests.

The Asian koel is a modern version of our local “alarm clock” that helps to wake us up from our sleep in the morning, or sometimes from our nap in the afternoon too.

The red jungle fowl is the traditional version of our natural alarm clock, whose crowing reminds us of good old kampong days.

The greater racket-tailed drongo has striking features, such as iridescent dark feathers and a conspicuous fork-like tail.

It is also a forest-dependent bird, and has been spotted in secondary rainforests, like Bukit Brown heritage park and Bukit Batok hillside park area.

The blue-tailed bee-eater was spotted in a vacant land in Jurong industrial estate, which possibly flew over from Jurong Lake Gardens across Ayer Rajah Expressway.

The Pacific reef heron was dressed smartly in sooty grey plumage, matched with its yellow bill, eyes and legs.

It was a pleasant surprise to see this uncommon bird in Jurong River, where few surviving mangrove strands lay forgotten and hidden from public consciousness, after mass destruction of the mangrove and freshwater swamp forests took place in the 1960s-1970s to make way for industrial development.

The grey heron is one of the largest birds in Singapore, found in various waterways and estuaries.

The intermediate egret has a yellow bill and black feet (which differentiates it from the little egret who has a black bill and yellow feet).

To support forest conservation, may I invite you to sign the petitions to conserve at least 30-50% of Tengah forest and the rest of Bukit Batok hillside park area?

My feedback to HDB on Environmental Baseline Study report regarding Choa Chu Kang N1 (including Pang Sua woodland and river canal)

Aerial view of Pang Sua woodland and river canal, which are flanked between the built-up areas of Choa Chu Kang (background) and Bukit Panjang (foreground) housing estates (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Here is my feedback on Housing and Development Board (HDB)’s Environmental Baseline Study (EBS) report for Choa Chu Kang N1, which includes Pang Sua woodland and river canal, in Singapore.

I understand that this forest patch is one of the few sizeable natural habitats (which include Kranji woodland, Clementi forest and Alexandra woods) located along the long and narrow 24-km Green Rail Corridor.

These core forest habitats are vital for native wildlife, such as critically endangered Sunda pangolins, common palm civets and wild boars, to rest, roost, forage and take refuge from apex predators, human disturbance and noisy motor traffic, otherwise they will be exposed to danger in open spaces and may also end up wandering into urban spaces and becoming roadkills or getting involved in human-wildlife conflicts.

(The above video records a sighting of a wild boar (whose species is invaluable for tree seed dispersal and regeneration of tropical forests) along the Green Rail Corridor between Pang Sua woodland and Kranji woods in February 2021. As noted in my feedback to NParks, wild boars are sensitive to disturbances of their natural habitat, which may force them to wander into residential areas. In 2017, a wild boar was involved in a conflict with a human being before it got into a fatal road accident in Hillview, about 2 km south of Pang Sua woodland.)

The EBS report noted that the “original vegetation at the Study Area was likely to be a mangrove swamp forest which was subsequently cleared for rubber plantations”. Since mixed vegetation, comprising mainly mature trees and shrubs, currently occupies around 15 ha of the study area, we should conserve and restore the forest to what it originally was as closely as possible, by naturalising Pang Sua canal and rewilding the woodland and Green Rail Corridor, in order to recreate a mix of lowland secondary forest and freshwater swamp forest (since the water in the canal is no longer saline after Kranji river has been dammed to form a reservoir).

This is because besides providing climate resilience and ecological connectivity, Pang Sua woodland is also a sanctuary for human residents and visitors to seek relief from the heat and stress of urban living that affects physical health and mental well-being.

Pang Sua woodland receives strong support from Nature groups, such as Nature Society (Singapore), Cicada Tree Eco-Place and Lepak in SG, as well as Nature enthusiasts, to be conserved for ourselves and our future generations.

Taking into consideration the official responses to public feedback on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports regarding recent planned housing development projects in greenfield sites, such as Bukit Batok hillside park area and Dover-Ulu Pandan forest in 2020-2021, I would like to address possible objections or questions concerning the conservation and restoration of Pang Sua woodland, which is proposed by Nature groups and Nature enthusiasts, including me.

1. Is Pang Sua woodland still worth conserving since it isn’t near any nature reserve in Singapore?

As shown in the map below, Pang Sua woodland is a core habitat located at the Green Rail Corridor (as also noted in the EBS report). It is connected to Tengah forest and Western water catchment via Hillview and Bukit Gombak within 2-3 km in the south. It is also connected to Kranji woods and Sungei Buloh wetlands reserve, Kranji coastal nature park and Mandai mangrove mudflats in the north. To the northeast, it is linked to Bukit Mandai (within 2-3 km) and Central catchment nature reserve.

Pang Sua woodland functions as a critical ecological corridor to ensure safe movements of native wildlife species, including critically endangered Sunda pangolins and straw-headed bulbuls, between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve. Without such ecological connectivity, having rare and endangered species (such as mousedeer, Sambar deer and Raffles banded langurs, which may one day use these green corridors too) confined to Central catchment nature reserve is like putting all the eggs in one basket, where the threatened species risk experiencing population decline and extinction, due to factors such as inbreeding, climate change accelerating tree mortality, lack of healthy genetic exchange, etc. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

2. Should Pang Sua woodland be conserved fully as it doesn’t seem to have very much biodiversity?

Critically endangered pangolins have been seen using Pang Sua canal and woodland as an ecological corridor, which may also be used by straw-headed bulbuls as a stepping stone. It is a vital conduit to ensure their safe movements and healthy genetic exchange so as to sustain their existence in the long term. Even the common species, such as rain trees (Samanea Saman), serve as shelter and provide food for less common species.

Although rain trees are common non-native species, they support the growth of epiphytes and provide food and shelter for wildlife. As also noted in Tengah North Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) report (page 185), “it is important to recognize that both common and rare species contribute ecological functions in an ecosystem.” (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

Incidentally, the pangolin is one of the six indicator species identified in NParks’ island-wide ecological profiling exercise, which were selected “as they are sensitive forest dwellers that may venture out to forest edges, provided suitable habitat is created for them there”.

It is noteworthy that after Singapore authorities conducted massive seizures of pangolin scales in 2019, “NParks said the authorities take a zero-tolerance stance on the use of Singapore as a conduit to engage in illegal wildlife trade, as well as the illegal sale or keeping of wildlife”.

Even as Singapore’s strict enforcement of the ban of international trade of pangolins is commendable and should be applauded, it seems contradictory that our local pangolin population continues to face the risk of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, as well as roadkills, due to ongoing urban encroachment which threatens their existence and safe movements in core habitats and wildlife corridors, such as Tengah forest and Pang Sua woodland.

The Singapore Pangolin Working Group noted that “Sunda pangolins are mammals native to Singapore and are classified as Critically Endangered in the Singapore Red Data Book 2008 as well as the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Their main threats in Singapore are habitat loss and alteration, as well as road traffic accidents — this contrasts with the major threats that this species is facing regionally, which include poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Singapore is not losing its forests as fast as its neighbours, but the slow creep of urbanisation continues to shrink the patches of forest pangolins depend on for food and shelter.” (Photo by Jimmy Tan for illustration)

3. Isn’t there a strong demand for public housing, and shouldn’t human needs come first instead of nature conservation?

Regardless of the reasons for a strong demand for public housing, brownfield sites (such as old or underutilised industrial sites, abandoned schools, open car parks, golf courses whose leases are expiring soon, old HDB flats nearing their 99-year lease that can undergo Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) or Voluntary Early Redevelopment Scheme (VERS) as early as possible, etc) should be prioritised over greenfield sites for housing development or redevelopment projects. For example, the heavy vehicle carpark and defunct bus terminal near Pang Sua woodland can be recycled to build tall Build-To-Order (BTO) flats. Also, human needs aren’t restricted to just housing, but also physical health and mental well-being. Since Singapore is already heating up twice as fast as the rest of the world, it would be detrimental to one’s health and well-being in the long run when one lives in a highly built-up area in hot sweltering conditions, even if it is within 10 minutes’ walk to small pocket parks, as they can hardly cool the urban heat island effect in the surroundings.

According to studies, a large forest of an area of 10 ha or more (such as Pang Sua woodland) can cool the surroundings by 1-2 degrees Celsius up to a distance of 350 metres, whereas plants on building facades can only cool up to 4 metres. The denser the foliage, the greater the transpiration and cooling effect of the forest (and the more it can help residents reduce electricity bills by relying less on artificial air-conditioning). (Photo by Jimmy Tan)

4. Hasn’t the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) master plan 2019 already designated Pang Sua woodland for housing development many years ago?

Much as we appreciate the efforts made by urban planners, we also need to acknowledge the fact that urban planning 10 or 20 years ago was different from today’s context. Back then, urban planners weren’t required to take a course on basic ecology and the EIA process, so they might not have taken habitat fragmentation and climate crisis into consideration adequately. The Climate Action Tracker has considered Singapore’s climate policies and actions to be highly insufficient as of July 2020. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also declared Code Red for the climate emergency in 2021. We cannot afford to adhere rigidly to the master plan if we want to be responsive to be more climate resilient and prevent biodiversity collapse.

Climate resilience and biodiversity protection are urgent needs in the post-pandemic era we live in. Lama El-Hatow, an environmental and social consultant, showed an illustration “where future crises were represented in tsunami waves, each bigger than the one before it. She explained that once COVID-19 (the first wave) comes to an end, economic recession, climate change, and biodiversity collapse will follow”. (Illustration from The Cairo Review)

5. Should we not consider this issue as a zero-sum game, but rather consider how conservation and development can be done in tandem to have a certain balance, such as by replacing forest loss with replanted trees?

We can achieve that balance by prioritising the recycling of previously developed lands. It takes decades for newly planted trees to grow and mature to be able to provide the same level of ecosystem services and biodiversity support as the existing mature trees, so forest conservation needs to take precedence over tree planting, inasmuch as the latter is also important.

For example, Pang Sua woodland functions as a natural “rain garden” to absorb rain and purify surface runoff and groundwater flow that goes into Pang Sua river.

The river flows into Kranji reservoir, where the water will be treated before it is transported to residential and industrial areas.

The healthy riverine ecosystem downstream of Pang Sua river canal testifies to the water purifying and life-giving effect of Pang Sua woodland, which serves as a natural rain garden. (Photos by Jimmy Tan)

Such essential ecosystem services are provided by Pang Sua woodland free of charge.

Hence, conserving the forest would be a cost-effective and self-sustaining nature-based solution to ensure water security, rather than removing the forest and replacing it with man-made rain gardens which will cost a lot of time and resources.

Then again, that might well be a pipe dream that would only come true in an ideal or enlightened world.

This is because if we continue to subscribe to the environmentally destructive capitalistic economic system that prioritises Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth over ecological health, then we will be tempted to justify clearing the trees to sell the land to developers, and give more business to architects, landscaping companies and property agencies.

After all, these companies look to the government for new development projects in order to earn profits too.

(A case in point: property agencies were quick to chime in after the government announced their response to public feedback on the Environmental Baseline Study for Dover-Ulu Pandan forest in end July 2021.)

We will also be tempted to justify using public funds to plant a man-made rain garden to replace the existing woodland and then credit it to our national efforts to transform Singapore into a “City in Nature”.

While we are at it, we might as well also spend more public funds to research, design and build carbon capture machines to offset carbon emissions, and then pat ourselves on the back for being able to do the job (albeit at great costs to the ecosystem) that Mother Nature has been doing for us for free.

Surely by creating (preventable) problems through incessant deforestation and urbanisation in order to solve them using expensive technology, we can then profess to achieve our Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and present Singapore as a smart and sustainable nation?

Or should we be working towards the implementation of a less resource-intensive and more sustainable and equitable economic model that actually respects ecological boundaries and connectivity, instead of finding ourselves gravitating towards greenwashing while heading towards self-destruction?

Spiders, frogs, geckos and dragonflies are some of the natural predators of mosquitoes. Once a forest is cleared to make way for concrete buildings and roads, the warmer microclimate and loss of natural predators tend to allow mosquitoes to breed profusely and spread dengue virus. Aedes mosquitoes thrive in highly disturbed greenery, construction sites and urban areas, where they lay eggs in warm stagnant water uninhabited by their natural predators. Fogging or fumigation has shown to be not very effective in controlling the mosquito population, and instead tends to make them more resistant and harder to kill. There is currently a rise in dengue fever cases, and it is imperative that we conserve and restore our natural ecosystems, in order to experience good ecological health and mitigate the disease outbreak effectively. (Illustration from Philippe Birker)

6. Isn’t it a fact that Singapore is a small island-state and doesn’t have a large hinterland like bigger countries?

Yes, it is precisely because Singapore is a small tropical island that it should be respected for originally having tropical rainforests and mangrove forests that are best suited to the hot, wet and humid equatorial climate, instead of being dominated by the increasing number of buildings and roads that are worsening the urban heat island effect virtually every year.

As rightly declared by the Singapore Parliament in February 2021, climate change is an existential crisis. Public housing is not, even though it is a hot-button issue (despite Singapore’s low birth rate, slow or zero population growth and high public housing occupancy rates). Have we been getting our priorities right in our long-term planning review?

For example, the Singapore Green Plan 2030 mentions about our ambition to be transformed “from mudflats to metropolis”. Yet I have come to realise something about the science of mangrove mudflats:

The very thing that we seemed to be ashamed of in the past is now helping us deal with the very crisis that we have brought upon ourselves because of our disrespect for and over-exploitation of Nature in the name of (unsustainable) economic development.

If we compare our post-independence narrative of the 57-year-old city-state with the natural history scientific narrative of our thousands-of-years old rainforest and mangrove forest heritage of a tropical island located at the Equator, I wonder how much we are actually force-fitting the concept of “eternal” economic growth and increasing population growth and density without further risking our climate, ecological and mental health thresholds.

Maybe we need to consider adapting the doughnut economic model for better sustainability and rethink the ambition to go “from mudflats to metropolis” because the mangrove mudflats (and forests) have been shown to help boost climate resilience, mitigate urban heat island effect and floods, and protect biodiversity and mental health of our population.

Mangroves can absorb up to five times more carbon dioxide by area than tropical upland forests due to strong carbon storage in the soil, but are being lost at an alarming rate. Both types of tropical forests play an important role in combating climate crisis and supporting biodiversity. (Illustration by IUCN)

Thus, conserving and restoring our forests, including Pang Sua woodland, is a scientifically proven, cost-effective, nature-based solution to deal with the danger of declining quality of life and deteriorating health and well-being for the populace (especially those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as the very young, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions, those who work outdoors and those who lack access to adequate air-cooling devices or facilities) in a metropolis that isn’t suited to a hot humid tropical climate in the first place. 

Summary of my proposal

I agree with the general recommendations on pages 71-72 of the EBS report, such as greening Pang Sua canal, establishing eco-links and planting trees intensively with shrubby undergrowth.

May I also propose the following scientific nature-based conservation and mitigation measures to further enhance the environment in Choa Chu Kang N1 study area, for the sake of better climate resilience, biodiversity support and public health protection in the long term?

(1) Avoid using chemical pesticides, including fumigation, in the vicinity, and instead leverage the help of natural predators of pest insects by ensuring the environment is conducive for frogs, toads, spiders, geckos, dragonflies, damselflies, etc to thrive (instead of concretising the ground surface and using harmful chemical sprays). As mentioned earlier, fogging is not very effective and tends to make dengue-carrying mosquitoes more resistant and harder to kill. It also harms benign insects and microorganisms, which are vital to a healthy functioning of the ecosystem. Even the use of Wolbachia-Aedes technology may have unknown or undesirable side effects such as the mutation of mosquitoes. Hence, we should use ecologically friendly mosquito control measures, such as making the environment habitable to mosquitoes’ natural predators, such as frogs, spiders and dragonflies, in Pang Sua woodland (as well as all residential areas in Singapore), in order to prevent dengue outbreaks successfully.

Spraying insecticides or pesticides in drains and gutters in the vicinity will contaminate the water that flows into Pang Sua canal, and then poison the fish and the predators that feed on them, such as herons, endangered smooth-coated otters, etc. This in turn may result in the accumulated poison being passed on to their future generations and possibly causing birth defects, neurotoxicity, greater susceptibility to diseases such as cancer, etc. (Photo by Jimmy Tan, which shows an excerpt of Bishan-Toa Payoh Town Council poster)

(2) Avoid or minimise the use of petrol-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers, not only in Pang Sua woodland, but also in all housing estates, because they cause air and noise pollution (thus affecting people’s health and well-being), and harm microorganisms and invertebrates (which include pollinators, such as bees, wasps, moths, beetles and butterflies). For more than a decade, members of the public have been calling for these pollutive machines to be banned, as noted in my recent Youtube video about this issue. Otherwise, we are merely paying lip service to the importance of biodiversity when we cause harm to the various organisms (by mowing them down, compacting the soil, and destroying the weeds and wild flowers) instead of protecting them for giving us food security and maintaining a healthy functioning ecosystem.

(3) Observe holistically the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, such as SDG12 “Responsible consumption and production”, by changing the way we produce and consume goods and resources, in order to reduce our ecological footprint, and SDG15 “Life on land”, by conserving and restoring the use of terrestrial ecosystems such as forests and wetlands, halting deforestation to mitigate the impact of climate change, and reducing the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity which are part of our natural heritage.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 15 includes the goal to “promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally“. This should apply to Singapore’s forests, regardless of whether we have a “forestry sector”, because the forests are considered renewable resources (in view of the economic value of their ecosystem services) and are part of the terrestrial ecosystems, which support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services to mitigate the impact of climate change. Otherwise, it would be inappropriate for us to claim that we are achieving sustainable development in this area. (Illustration by Margreet De Heer)

For example, if we do not practise responsible consumption and production, and even if we commit the grievous error of destroying Pang Sua woodland and all the other remaining forests in Singapore to build more BTO flats, there will still be a strong demand for public housing, since we have not addressed the insatiable human desire to keep wanting to consume more and more resources at the expense of the environment (and ultimately our quality of life and our very survival).

One of the reasons we keep losing our forests to the incessant building of new BTO flats is because of people wanting to buy BTO flats just to sell them immediately or shortly after meeting the five-year Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) to make quick profits.

Imagine the wildlife, such as pangolins, wild boars and palm civets, losing their forest habitats forever, while some humans occupy their former spaces just for a few years before moving or upgrading to another housing elsewhere.

The first scenario is largely a matter of life and death, while the second is largely a matter of lifestyle choice, comfort and convenience.

Ethically speaking, is it worth destroying forests (which are also natural habitats and wildlife corridors) just to cater to this kind of frivolous demand for public housing in greenfield sites (when we can choose instead to educate the public about environmental stewardship and sustainability and redirect such demand for housing towards renting flats/rooms, buying resale flats or new flats in previously developed lands, etc)?

Ecologically speaking, is it wise to replace forests with buildings and parks where newly planted trees take decades to grow, mature and provide the same level of ecosystem services as the existing large trees to combat climate emergency (in which we are racing against time “to avoid the worst ravages of climate breakdown“)?

Economically speaking, does it make sense to ignore the socioeconomic and health costs of losing forests while spending huge amounts of public funds to mitigate floods, dengue and zoonotic outbreaks, mental health crisis, etc?

“It has also been demonstrated that urbanicity could represent a possible risk factor for the spillover phenomenon, facilitating the virus transition from animals to humans via intermediate hosts. Particularly, deforestation policies may facilitate this process, resulting in the destruction of natural habitats of numerous species and reduction of biodiversity, as well as in greater interaction between wildlife and human activity.”

“The Influence of the Urban Environment on Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Focus on Air Pollution and Migration—A Narrative Review”, 2021

Therefore, as Pang Sua woodland and canal are an integral part of the Green Rail Corridor, which provides “unique, highly accessible green spaces island-wide“, let us all keep in mind Minister Desmond Lee’s words:

“Community involvement and stewardship will be a key strategy in realising our vision for the Rail Corridor as a vibrant, inclusive, and shared community space. Our community spaces can only become more vibrant when they are designed, programmed and cherished in partnership with the people who treasure, care for and use them.”

“Speech by 2M Desmond Lee at the Launch of the Exhibition for Rail Corridor (Central)”, Oct 21, 2017

Indeed, it is only by treasuring and caring for our community spaces, such as Pang Sua woodland and Green Rail Corridor, will we be able to ensure that they become vibrant and inclusive, not only for ourselves but also the flora and fauna which co-exist with us.

In a nutshell, Pang Sua woodland provides food, shelter, fresh air, cool ambience and immune booster for wildlife and human visitors who travel along the Green Rail Corridor.

All are welcome to visit, regardless of race, language, religion, gender, social status or vaccination status.

No payment is needed.

The complimentary ecosystem services, which are of immeasurable value, are provided by Nature 24/7, 365 days a year.

(Photos of zebra dove, collared kingfishers, changeable lizard, monitor lizard and plantain squirrel taken by Jimmy Tan at Pang Sua woodland on 26 April 2022)

[Last updated 30 May 2022]

Sighting of a reticulated python (and what to do if you encounter one)

During my lunch shift earlier this afternoon, I was pushing my bicycle past a large tree when I saw something moving on my right side.

It was a young reticulated python, apparently disturbed from its sleep at the foot of the tree along Kallang River PCN.

I stopped to observe it, and it appeared a little frightened as it adopted a defensive pose.

I remained standing behind the bicycle, while the python attempted a mock strike, gaping and baring its fangs but went no further, as if to say, “whoever you are that woke me up, don’t come any closer or I will bite you.”

I instinctively moved to one side to maintain a safer distance and watched it slide its head back to its cosy corner at the tree roots.

Soon the snake coiled its long body more tightly and settled in snugly to continue its peaceful snooze.

This is an educational opportunity for us to see that snakes aren’t dangerous to human beings, so long as we don’t disturb or provoke them and we keep a safe distance from them.

Pythons are also beneficial for our ecosystem, as noted in the articleSpot a python? Just leave it alone, advise wildlife groups” (10 July 2019):

“Most people may not be aware that snakes play a vital role in regulating Singapore’s ecosystem, said wildlife experts.

As an apex predator preying on small mammals like rats, reticulated pythons are a natural way of keeping pest numbers low.

“Pythons are an important biological control for local rat populations,” said Dr Sonja Luz, director of Conservation, Research and Veterinary Services at Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS).

She cited a study funded by WRS, which had found that reticulated pythons in Singapore eat mainly rats – 75 per cent of its diet is made up of rodents.

Removing the reptiles may thus result in more rats in the area, ACRES said.”

Our disappearing forests: From Nature appreciation to Nature conservation

Aerial view of Bukit Batok Hillside Park area on 26 January 2021
Aerial view of Bukit Batok Hillside Park area, after part of the forest was cleared to make way for BTO flats on 6 April 2021

In view of our disappearing forests, I am learning to move beyond mere Nature appreciation to Nature conservation.

A plant observation or animal sighting becomes less of an academic exercise and more of an emergency exercise, in order for us to document as many species as possible, so as to (hopefully) protect them from being destroyed in the name of unrelenting development.

After all, undocumented flora and fauna species are like undocumented humans, who will stay invisible and marginalised and fall through the cracks of a discriminatory and dysfunctional dystopian regime.

As long as they are unnamed and unaccounted for, they remain unacknowledged, in spite of the intrinsic value they hold in the natural ecosystem.

Although they may be indigenous on this tropical island, they have become refugees in their own homelands, having been displaced by human migrants, no thanks to imperial colonialism in the 1800s and capitalistic nationalism since the 1960s.

Crass consumerism has resulted in certain “cute” wildlife and certain manicured gardens gaining celebrity status and being commodified for wealth and status, while other wildlife and unmanaged vegetation (such as in Tengah forest and Lentor forest) fall by the wayside.

It is an ongoing struggle for emancipation, as we seek to restore biodiversity in a holistic and sustainable manner, such that no one will be left behind.

Wild reflections on the nature of forests

Aerial view of Bukit Batok nature park, which is sandwiched between Upper Bukit Timah Road, Old Jurong Road, Hillview condos and Bukit Batok East housing estate.

As I wandered deep into the forest after finishing my shift and catching up on rest, I found myself wondering what Mother Nature could be telling me.

I am learning to keep my senses open and attuned to the quiet mysterious voice of Nature, allowing Her to be my teacher.

While I was sitting on a park bench and typing this post a while ago under the dimming evening sky, a beetle suddenly landed on my phone screen.

It gave me a startle, and I dropped the phone on my lap, and away flew the beetle.

Such an unpredictable encounter underscores the very nature of Nature – that there is always something new and/or unexpected to be revealed during a nature outing.

Perhaps the allure of the wilderness is not that we will eventually figure everything out, but rather that we will learn to embrace the unknown and accept the mystery.

After all, the whole forest is greater than the sum of its parts – it is much more than simply a certain area of the forest having an X number of species, or absorbing Y amount of carbon dioxide, or cooling the surroundings by Z degrees Celsius.

Instead, there is a certain X factor about wild Nature, which we cannot quite put our finger on but know intuitively that is important, if not indispensable, to our existence.

It is such that no high resolution photograph or video can fully encapsulate the experience of being in a wild forest – the sights and sounds in a nature documentary cannot capture the indescribable thrill of being there.

Unlike a garden that is arranged by human hands, a forest has no apparent order.

At the most, we can describe a forest by its structure, age, size, biodiversity, and so on, but is that all there is to it?

Research suggests that the seemingly random sights and sounds of a forest calm the nerves and inspire creativity.

It is almost as if the forest has a way of unlocking the untapped potential and hidden primal memories from ages past, buried deep in our soul, which we would not have known had we stayed entrenched in a programmed modern society.

In other words, the forest may well be a mirror of who we really are, independent of the social identities and societal expectations imposed on us by the system.