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The Straits Times 9 Aug 05
I pick my battles

Associate Professor Peter Ng, 45, the director of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, is famous for his passionate views on conservation and has been highlighted in the world's top scientific publications for his work in the field. The top crab man here, he has also discovered and named numerous crabs which were new to science, some of which are found only in Singapore. He talks to CHANG AI-LIEN

My first brush with conservation? Someone gave me a cream-coloured giant squirrel once when I was very young. It's found only in Singapore and was so common 40 years ago that it often ended up in cooking pots. There have been only four spotted in the central catchment area over the last 10 years. It's finished.
Inside Track
Flora & Fauna

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Nature's rescuers
Living sanctuary: Nee Soon Swamp, Pulau Tekong
Garden of Eden: Tree Top Walk
Green peace: Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
Waterfront developments: Chek Jawa and Pulau Ubin
Coral islands: Southern Islands
Swamp things: Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
Coast guard: Labrador Park
I pick my battles: interview with Prof Peter Ng
Singapore namesakes: plants and animals named after Singapore

My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but human beings, I find them too annoying. At one stage, I almost became a lawyer, but an old family friend told me to follow my heart. So I took up a PSC scholarship in biology instead.

I look at those in my cohort who became lawyers, many are earning a lot more money than me. I guess the grass always looks greener on the other side. The main thing is I'm happy with what I'm doing.

Most of us have a certain fascination for things not human. Human beings we take for granted. With animals there's this inherent curiosity, dealing with a life form not your own. Whatever they do, it's unpredictable.

Animals also don't complain.

The universe is not built around us as human beings. We're sharing it with so many living things. If we believe that we're the only important creatures on the planet, then we're truly screwed up.

I started work liking birds and mammals. But in my late teens, I used to go to the East Coast to watch fiddler crabs, and decided to do a project on their behaviour and ecology. That's how I started to like crustaceans.

You have to try. I knew nothing when I started, and I wrote to a world-famous crustacean expert in Holland for advice. I thought he'd ignore me or tell me to go to hell. Instead, he wrote me a very encouraging letter - which I still have today - saying 'tell me what you need', and from there I was hooked. I still keep in touch with him, my old sifu.

You know what was sweet? Finding Singapore crabs. I was looking for new species as a young student and went to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. I couldn't identify the crabs I caught, and then later I realised these crabs that dozens of biologists had seen over the years were new to science, and unique to Singapore. It's one of the nicest discoveries to see new species on your own turf, in your own backyard.

The stupidest thing I ever did happened a few years ago when we were looking for a crab in the waterfalls of southern Thailand. As we went higher, I became obsessed with finding the animal, and went off on my own, breaking the first rule of fieldwork. Before I knew it, I was sliding down a rock face at full speed. Luckily, I managed to stop, but wound up with cuts all over, and my leg swelled up like an elephant's. After all that, I still couldn't find the stupid crab.

My family thinks I'm nuts. My three boys, they have their own interests. I'm glad they understand nonetheless. My wife, Siew Leng, is so supportive, it would have been tough to do what I have done and yet have a great family without her.

If people are poor, talking to them about conservation is a waste of time. Usually it can only come when your basic needs have already been satisfied. That's why the strongest proponents of conservation are First World countries. Problem is, they have already messed up many of their own forests and oceans. They teach through hindsight, and developing countries often find this hard to swallow. How can those who have sinned chasten us?

What we have now is a government which has learnt to react to a public that sees green issues as important. Chek Jawa was conserved because thousands went out of their way to see it one last time before it was to be cleared. The Government reacted to this by keeping Chek Jawa. I would never have imagined this 20 to 30 years ago.

The most important battles aren't fought, they're negotiated. Direct confrontation with the powers-that-be is silly. A few years ago, some nature-lovers were arguing that Marina South should be preserved as a wetlands area. Most of us scientists refused to join in. It didn't hold water since you don't conserve an area just because a few ducks happen to be floating around the cattail reeds. If somebody wanted to build a condominium on Bukit Timah Hill, we'd fight.

Knowing what I do of human nature, I tend to be very cynical. I think conservation faces an uphill battle of enormous magnitude.

The other side is: I may fail, but I'm not giving up without a fight.

The 'three laws' of thermodynamics can also be applied to life: you can't win, you can't break even, you can't get out of the game. Which means that you're left with only one option - you lose. But you can manage your losses. It's all about how big you lose and how long you stave off defeat.

Related articles on Singapore's biodiversity and Wild shores of Singapore

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