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  wild thoughts:
How our wild places can build a stronger Singapore

(a personal letter submitted to the Remaking Singapore committee)

Why are our wild places important to building a stronger Singapore citizen and stronger Singapore?

There has been an effort to go beyond an economic citizen, someone who is only motivated by financial incentives and disincentives. The price to retain an economic citizen can only escalate. And in the end, an economic citizen will go with the highest bidder. Thus the effort to go beyond the 4Cs is timely and necessary.

The question is how to build a citizen who feels ownership of Singapore? Who feels a strong bond with Singapore? And will stick with Singapore regardless of other 'logical' considerations? 'Logical' financial and economic considerations.

I personally feel Singapore's wild natural places can play a strong role in developing Singaporeans with soul. The kind of bonding that happens in a wild natural place can't quite be duplicated in an artificial environment. And family bonds lie at the core of our ties with others around us.
A family outdoors becomes a natural family.

The parents lead, protect and guide the children. Children spontaneously discover; not only about nature, but also about themselves, each other and their roles in the family. Physical limits of comfort and stamina are tested and overcome.
These are the treasured moments of childhood and parenthood.

This kind of bonding is hard to duplicate say, in a shopping centre or artificial entertainment centre.

Wild places are natural classrooms, where learning is spontaneous.

In wild natural surroundings, children's natural curiosity get the better of them.

In ways hard to duplicate in artificial teaching situations, children in a mangrove or seashore can learn not only about ecology, but also our history and economics (e.g., history of coastal peoples, civilisation in southeast asia and the sea trade).

The possibilities are endless. Being in an actual living, breathing habitat awakens the senses, the questing mind.

The spark is lit and kids are fired up to learn on their own.

Wild places teach more than facts.

The challenge of dealing with the outdoors builds character. The big things are beyond our control: weather, terrain, mosquitos. We realise there is something bigger than ourselves. We cannot deal with everything alone, we need teamwork, planning. Self-centredness and other personality flaws become apparent in an outdoors setting. And quickly corrected as the individual realises he/she needs to change to survive to breakfast. The need to work together overrides race, religion.

These positive effects of interacting with wild nature is already core of Outward Bound School and school outdoor activities. These can only take place in wild places. Having similar activities in a manicured park or urban setting doesn't quite have the same impact.

PM Goh once asked "What are the aspirations and expectations of the third generation of post-independence Singaporeans? What kind of Singapore will make Singaporeans proud?" I feel Singapore's wild natural places are something that Singaporeans can be proud of.

But do we have any left? Yes! Some are secret places known only to the adventurous, others public places, well managed and accessible. All are special. Some are unique in the region, e.g., Chek Jawa: among the last seagrass lagoons on the peninsula; Botanic Gardens rainforest--among the few primary rainforests left uncut since Raffles'days. World-class scientists visit Singapore for easy access to some of the richest tropical biomes where species new to science are regularly discovered. For more about Singapore's wild places.

How wonderful, if every new town has a little wild corner that our children can explore. How fabulous if Singapore can show the world that we can achieve economic success without sacrificing our natural heritage.

Singapore is in danger of becoming a giant concrete island city with straight line contours under a bubble of airconditioning. Any bits of nature found only in artificial zoos or manicured parks. Or mechanised as in the Rainforest Cafe.

How can a citizen connect with such a Singapore? The Singapore of his childhood is gone. The new Singapore is sanitary, a Disneyquese virtual reality. No different from any other modern city in the world. Except everything is smaller and more expensive.

Natural places are horrendously difficult and expensive to duplicate. The costs of running the Zoo, Bird Park, Sentosa's Underwater World is not only in terms of money, but also in the lives lost and damage caused through the need to continuously replace animal specimens from the wild.

A "tame" park planted with non-native exotic flora does not engender the deep bonds of a truly wild and uniquely Singaporean place. A natural place like Chek Jawa costs nothing but offers far more in terms of spectacular diversity and unending seasonal changes. And it is ours and ours alone.

How sad if Singaporeans have to escape overseas to have a natural wild experience. The bonding happens elsewhere; the family album is filled with happy moments in Malaysia, Australia, China. Staying in Singapore is equated with the drudgery of work and school. Eventually, only the well-to-do can enjoy a superior experience in wild places.

We need to keep our natural Singapore; not just wild nature, but also the small eating places, inefficient but traditional shopping corners, the untidy dwelling communities. Here social bonds evolved naturally. These are what makes Singapore special to Singaporeans. It is something money cannot buy. And if bought, generally don't take off (as in re-creations of Chinatown and other "village" settings). This unique ambience is ours and ours alone. The "best mee siam" place with somewhat less-than-hospital-standard hygiene but cheap-and-good; the peaceful hideaway for quiet time with friends and family; the strange melange of festivals and traditions that only Singaporeans know how to deal with. Let's not sanitise and rationalise everything.

PM Goh also asked "What values must we preserve?" The ideal nature visitor is also the ideal citizen. Someone who respects other people and lifeforms. He does not litter, vandalise or annoy wildlife and other visitors. He is patient, eager to learn and share with others. He knows he is not the centre of the universe. He knows his actions will affect the lifestyle and surroundings that he leaves to his children. Exposure to wild natural places brings soul to the nation.

PM Goh asked "How do we strengthen our multi-racial, multi-religious society, in an age of intense revival of religions?" The wonder, awe and enjoyment of nature cuts across barriers. Bonds created in a group outing in the wild go beyond culture and are stronger than any made in an artificial environment. Character building in the wild happens regardless of race, language or religion. The respect for nature that is the basis of all religions and cultures can form the starting point for better understanding and stronger ties among citizens.

PM Goh asked "How do we help Singaporeans in their quest to realise their dreams? What political, social and cultural changes will make this a thriving economy and a cosy home?" Of course, there are immense pressures for more land, and thus on nature places. Pressures that will only mount with time. But this does not necessarily have to translate into a confrontative no-win situation. With creativity and sensitivity, good communication and complete information for decision-making, a win-win situation is usually possible. The third generation "greenie", like the new civil servant, is level-headed, open-minded, consultative, rational. Chek Jawa is a shining manifestation of such a consultative effort. I speak as both a civil servant and "greenie" and one of those involved in Chek Jawa. I have every confidence that effective dialogue will allow us to achieve the best home for everyone including all the other lifeforms that comprise Singapore's natural heritage.

Best regards, Ria.


these blog entries were first uploaded on MoBlog Singapore! Celebrate Singapore NDP 04
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