Mandai should be left alone for future generations

From ‘Use Punggol as a lesson in development’ and ‘Mandai should remain untouched for our next generation’, 15 Sept 2014, Voices, Today

(Sum Siew Kee): I was recently at the Punggol Waterway Park and it is an impressive development. No one was there, however, and I could guess why. It was the early afternoon on a weekend. The sun was blazing and the trees were small and few. The bare grass and concrete around the park did not help.

I looked at the woods in the vicinity and wished that I could be in the shade. Then I remembered that Punggol had been a forest/mangrove, razed for residential development. We are spending money to recreate the waterways and replant the trees. And if the trees do not provide sufficient shade, the park will be used only in the early mornings and late afternoons.

The redevelopment at Mandai should take this lesson into account. Instead of something “spectacular” made primarily for tourists, we should have attractions targeted at residents, which need not be big nor fancy. (“Mandai area set for major redevelopment”; Sept 5). Residents cannot visit the zoo or bird park every week, but can take regular walks in a nearby forest, if only to escape the city briefly. This may not bring in the tourist dollar, but it brings positive externalities and makes Singapore a more attractive place to live in.

…We must decide when to spend and when not to spend. Big-budget activities look good on a civil servant’s curriculum vitae, but may not necessarily be the best use of Singapore’s scarce natural resources.

(Ben Lee):…Having visited Mandai’s forested area, I am overwhelmed by the natural settings that house some of our most vulnerable fauna and flora. Many of our native animals survive in scarce spaces within our nature reserves, where human intrusion such as army training, jogging, cycling, school visits, et cetera, is pervasive.

These precious species include the banded leaf monkey, Sunda pangolin, lesser mousedeer, Asian palm civet and flying lemur, or colugo. Ground dwellers form the bulk of the wildlife. In my assessment, the status quo is more ideal for our next generation to appreciate our natural forest, which is dwindling due to developments for housing and recreation.

…My concern, as a wildlife conservationist and advocate, is over the plan to relocate the Jurong Bird Park. There would be more roadkill from heavier traffic and animals encroaching on human settlements due to lack of food and space, as well as an increase in the opportunities afforded to potential animal poachers.

Mr Singapore Zoo himself Bernard Harrison was against the relocation of Jurong Bird Park, citing cost issues (he estimates $200 million), wondering if there’s a dearth of creativity among Singaporeans and would ‘hate to see Supertrees’ in Mandai. The author of ‘Naked Ape, Naked Boss’ was also a former CEO of WRS who left in 2002 because he couldn’t stand the ‘civil service manual’, and didn’t see eye to eye with chairman Kwa Soon Bee. You don’t need to pack Mandai with another tourist attraction to realise that wild animals are already intruding into human territory, from pythons in swimming pools and toilet bowls, groceries-swiping monkeys to crocodiles in reservoirs. Like most people I know, I haven’t visited the Bird Park since primary school excursion days, and it’s unlikely that I’ll revisit even after the big Shift. Somehow conservationists have become afraid to tell it like it is, in fear of being labelled tree-hugging Luddites who collect useless knowledge like the difference between a mousedeer and a LESSER mousedeer, which is ‘Leave Mandai alone, dammit!’.

8 years ago, there were already cries of protest when STB got hooked on this ‘eco-tourism’ craze, proposing a ‘mixed use’ attraction and ‘back to nature’ accommodation. They promised that they would be ‘sensitive’ to the environment. Today, they tell us the same thing, even though the decision has already been made. Since when have we conducted and completed an ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ that was NEGATIVE and we trashed all our mock-ups and blueprints going ‘Oh well, too bad, let’s just build another casino on Sentosa then’? How about doing an EIA on a more regular basis AFTER you’ve poked your itchy fingers into virgin land? That is the only way to determine if you had been ‘sensitive’, or just bloody clumsy. Tell us how many trees would need to be uprooted, how many animals displaced, instead of throwing a EIA report in our faces saying ‘See I told you so!’.

In spite of what the Government has done for the Park Connector Network, the Green Corridor, an upcoming marine park and Punggol, ‘development’ still sounds like a dirty word these days, and it’s only natural to be wary of our government’s intentions to revamp Mandai in a bid to pursue the tourist dollar, after what we’ve done to Tampines Bike Park, and proposing to do to Bidadari or Bukit Brown, in a frenzy of ‘progress’. Even Pulau Ubin’s fate looks to be on tender hooks now. As for Punggol, PM Lee once called the Waterways our very own ‘Venice’. Charming and novel the first time round, the artificiality of it gradually dawns on you, that the eco-park theme still pales in comparison to the raw, twig-crunching-beneath-your-feet joy of forest treading. Unlike the actual city, the only thing sinking, however, appears to be its popularity among people who’re NOT ‘Punggolites’.

No matter how creative you are with eco-projects, you can’t stop Singaporeans from eventually getting tired of them. A retreat from the city means a day spa in Batam or ECP for the average Singaporean, not wandering through the forest feeding mosquitoes. We’d rather be stuck on our sofas in our air-con rooms watching Animal Planet Youtube on our iPads. Ah, BUT NOT THE TOURISTS, they say. Seriously, if tourists want an ‘eco’ experience they’d go to Indonesia or Costa Rica. STB should focus on preserving our hawker culture, not tussle with environmentalists whenever they want to chop down some trees to make way for a spa in a log hut facing a mangrove swamp.

Yet, we tend to be knee-jerkingly protective, and rightfully skeptical, over radical makeovers of untouched land when we have so little of it left, but the truth is that Mandai has been altered in bits and pieces over time, and because we eventually adapt to these ‘developments’, we fail to realise that today’s Mandai only vaguely resembles the old Mandai of the past. From what used to be lush tin mining territory, we’ve snuck in a Zoo, widened its roads, built extensions of a reservoir, highway and golf course, warehousing, army camp, orchid garden, a state-of-the-art crematorium, and finally a Night/River Safari to its current incarnation. Before you know it there’ll be a freakin MRT line there. It’s like replacing parts of a vintage car with new shiny ones. You’ll only realise the stark difference once someone adds the finishing touches and by then it would have been already too late, your protests drowned out by the assurance that this spanking new vehicle will be ‘bigger and better’, and that many ‘consultations’ with concerned parties have been held. More like ‘consolations’ really, because they’re going to DO IT ANYWAY.

This incursion into Mandai isn’t a brutal rape of Mother Nature; it’s a slow creep to the death, like a painless, but invasive, tumour, and before you know it, 30 years from now, you’ll have condos facing our new Mandai Reserves called ‘Mandai 8’, ‘Le Fauna’, ‘Sky Safari’,  hipster cafes dedicated to the late, great orang utan Ah Meng, a jungle-themed mall and cinema. Rare creatures like mousedeer and pangolins would have died out before anyone this generation has seen one outside of the Zoo’s enclosures. Nature enthusiasts who’ll complain about the first condo in Mandai would have long forgotten that the same voices went unheard back when we talked of building a damn army camp there, when we were probably also told that the government would be ‘sensitive’ to the whispers of the wild.

If our obsession with progress, little-by-little, goes unchecked, it would not be nature’s whispers but the haunting bellow of ghosts that we’ll be hearing. Bernard Harrison has proposed building an ‘UN-ZOO’ instead of lumping the Bird Park together with the current attractions. He would probably agree with me that a better alternative would be to leave the Mandai wilderness UNTOUCHED.

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One Response

  1. The 2 plots identified for development in Mandai are not virgin forests, but heavily disturbed and cleared land. The orchid garden plot is largely open grassland while the other plot has fruit trees and secondary scrub. Development can be done sensitively. The Zoo and Night Safari sites still harbour many native species, including colugos and pangolins, despite being so built up. I agree that the increased traffic would lead to more roadkills, and this is an area the authorities would need to look earnestly into. Let’s not kid ourselves that Singapore can afford to leave large swathes of land untouched given the limited land space (would you rather the Govt reclaim more land from the sea and in doing so destroy coral reefs and silt up waters?). The way forward is to find innovative ways of co-existing with natural spaces; nature is adaptable, and when given enough time and opportunity will recover and reclaim.

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