Urban Tropical Ecology in Singapore

A day of Life in Singapore
by -- March 6th, 2017

We students were left to our own devices for a rare relaxing morning that didn’t start at 8:30 with a fast-paced walk and journey to some part of the country by bus or MRT. This was a welcome treat for me, as it was my birthday! I am the only one in our group to have a birthday during the trip. I was excited to celebrate and enjoy the day in Singapore.

At 10:30, a group of us hustled to the bus stop to get started on the activities we had been instructed to complete by Dr. Dan and Tom. After nine days in this country, all of us felt more than comfortable navigating the public transportation system and could think of multiple routes that would get us where we needed to go. 30 minutes later, we popped out from the Chinatown MRT station and were immediately amidst the tossing and turning crowds of the Chinatown market. Having been here once before, on our very first day in Singapore, things looked vaguely familiar. This part of the city also felt so alive with life (and albeit, many western tourists just like us). Even if it is commercialized, Chinatown is one of the parts of the city that reminds me of what Singapore might have been like before the skyscrapers dominated the skyline, and a train could catapult me from one side of the country to another in under an hour. Here, traditional Chinese medicine shops and food stands still linger among the stalls selling Singapore keychains and magnets. Here was an ancient way of life persisting in a highly urbanized environment, a life that had not gone completely extinct in a modern world but that had instead become integrated into it.

Those thoughts only grew as we entered the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, the site we had been tasked with exploring that morning. My own knowledge of Buddhism was slim and consisted only of what I had picked up in my high school world history class. I felt embarrassingly ignorant of the symbolism, meaning, and power behind the artworks and statues preserved in the temple. However, one of the Temple’s exhibits was a well-organized walk through that displayed historic Buddhist artifacts in conjuncture with the story of how Gautama Buddha came to be and how his teachings became Buddhism. All of us students agreed how helpful and well designed that exhibit had been, and also enjoyed the rooftop garden of the temple, where a unique prayer wheel had been placed. Throughout the walk through of the temple, here again I was struck by the persistence of an ancient way of life into modern times, and also the ease at which this religion, and those who practiced it, found harmony with other religions in Singapore. Indeed, the life and culture of the people here is as biodiverse as the rainforests that once stood here.

When our stomachs began to rumble, we headed to a restaurant right next to the temple, a vegan western restaurant that was a big change from our usual fare of $2 meals from hawker stalls. But, since it was my birthday, I got to pick where we ate and I was really craving some fresh leafy greens (there are four of us who are vegetarian on this trip and it can sometimes be hard to find a satisfying vegetarian option at the food stalls). We enjoyed our lunch but hustled back to the hotel to meet up with the rest of the group, as well as Dr. Dan and Tom. By two o’clock, we were off to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

The museum began with explaining life, how it began, and how it is described. From there, it progressed to beautiful exhibits of different specimens, from mollusks to reptiles to fish to mammals. I had one of those rare beautiful moments where I was hit by the scale and complexity of our world, the fact that life is at the same time so fragile and so resilient, that where once were dinosaurs now are skyscrapers, and that while we humans may be numerous the rest of the world teems with all sorts of life forms that outnumber our feeble 7.4 billion. I am reminded of a quote by John Muir (one of my personal heroes/role models), “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

Nothing is exempt from the interconnectedness of life on earth. Singapore has picked out its human population to prioritize in development and economics and construction of a modern country in its short history as an independent nation. As a result of these actions, about 70% of Singapore’s biodiversity has been lost, their fate hitched to human action and manipulation of ecosystems. As parts of the museum informed me, Singapore is currently heading many efforts to restore some of this biodiversity and natural habitat for native species. I am left wondering how much can be done for an area of the planet so far gone from the tropical rainforest it once was.

After the museum, the group ate dinner and proceeded to the Sodhi Memorial Lectures. The first lecturer spoke on the bleak history and outlook for biodiversity in Southeast Asia, the whole of which is a biodiversity hot spot due to its large number of endemic species and huge threats from industrial and agricultural activities. Dr. Dan then talked about the universality and edibility of plastics in the ocean, which are readily consumed as food by organisms from birds to sea anemones, but these actions have drastic consequences. After these two lectures, I am left feeling stressed, sad, and searching for solutions to these ever intensifying problems. Tom provides some uplift with his talk about coral genetics possibly showing evolving resistance to increased water temperatures. Perhaps our coral reefs are not doomed to death by climate change. Lastly Dr. Sivasothi gave a lecture on instances where Singapore had taken a complete U-turn on environmental issues. The first, Chek Jawa on Palau Ubin (where our class had visited only the day before this lecture), a place where most Singaporeans had never been became a place that was treasured by the population for its existence as one of the last wild biodiverse spaces in the country. Palau Ubin was saved from development as a result. The second was the story of otter conservation, which has captured the hearts of the people here and inspired citizen science, involvement, and support. Conservation now has a very cute face in Singapore.

So if these small success stories can happen in a country that is constantly growing and developing, can they happen else where? Can they happen on a global scale? How can we get people to care about biodiversity in Southeast Asia, or get plastic companies to own responsibility for what they put in their plastic that makes it so toxic to marine organisms?

Being in Singapore, I feel the clash of the modern and the old, the controlled and the wild, the development and the preservation. These dichotomies exist here in a close setting and high concentration, and are also present in diluted forms around the rest of the world. I cannot wait to see how what I am learning how will help me in the rest of my life to come. 21 years now gone, and (hopefully) many more in the future to work on making sure that life and biodiversity continues to exist in the world, on encouraging people to value their natural and wild spaces so that some may remain untouched, on science that helps inform solutions to problems of toxicity and pollution, and on so many other issues that we face in the world today.

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