A drone sweeps through the forest, first tracing the spine of an exposed river. It skims the undergrowth, banks smoothly and turns back just before the treeline meets a road, diving through the narrow gap between two branches of a leafy giant.
If this were a dream, you could decode its subliminal messaging to mean any number of things: a longing for adventure, a need for fresh perspective, a craving for stability. But this is the waking world—specifically, Clementi Forest, a lush patch of greenery and a wildlife habitat second only to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in scale.
Clementi is one of several local forest patches recently ‘rediscovered’ by Singaporeans after two drone flight videos were posted in October and December. The footage went viral. Astonished by the beauty they’d never realised was hidden just beyond impenetrable-looking foliage, many laced up their boots, spritzed mosquito repellent, and plunged through the green wall to see for themselves. With COVID-19 still strangling most non- essential travel, there has been a dearth of strange new worlds to explore. So foot traffic into Clementi—and other wild, unmanicured forest spaces like it—has spiked in the last six months. On any given weekend, you can cross paths with hikers, cyclists, photographers, drone pilots, retirees, families, joggers and birders, both on- and off-trail.
“I think it’s a low price to pay to raise awareness. I’d rather have people come in, see and experience it, and trample a few young plants, than have the whole thing get bulldozed”
Conservationists, activists, scientists and members of the government have been watching this ‘green awakening’ carefully. When Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS), first started doing field work as a graduate student in 1989, he would see very few others in the woods. “Maybe, on a good day, 100 people,” he says. “Now, you can get 1,000 or more in an hour on weekends.”
Some newcomers have a quiet reverence and tread lightly; others stomp through the shrubbery, intent on getting a good workout or the perfect photo. Already, the National Parks Board (NParks) has had to stage a rescue mission in Clementi Forest, salvaging specimens of two rare orchid species. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Chua Chin Tat, a teacher and environmental activist who is mapping Dover Forest to raise awareness about its vulnerable plant species. “I think it’s a low price to pay to raise awareness. I’d rather have people come in, see and experience it, and trample a few young plants, than have the whole thing get bulldozed.”
This is the larger, more existential threat that looms over Singapore’s remaining wild spaces. Clementi, unlike the four nature reserves—Bukit Timah, Central Catchment, Sungei Buloh and Labrador—is unprotected by law. Neither are any of the other unkempt forest fragments growing all over the country. Instead, most are ‘earmarked’ or ‘zoned’ for future development—urban planning markers that are a unique kind of limbo.
Theory of evolution
Densely populated and land-scarce: two labels unfailingly ascribed to Singapore. The prescribed solution is a brusque, perennial push for urban development. On top of that, a legacy of deforestation begun in the early 19th century has meant that Singapore has lost more than 90 percent of its primeval forest cover, according to NParks (unofficial estimations by citizen environmentalists tend to be even higher). What smatterings of wild forest that now remain are secondary, having regenerated out of the remains of kampongs, prawn farms and plantations abandoned a generation ago. In a 2019 study, these secondary forests were estimated to make up roughly a fifth of the country’s land cover.
But biodiversity is thriving in Singapore. (Look no further than the much-celebrated return of otters to local waters, alongside other indicator species like hornbills, wild pigs and crocodiles.) Danwei Huang, an assistant professor with the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore, is used to reactions of shock or disbelief when he casually mentions that Singapore has 11 types of sea grasses, 111 species of reef fish or 200 species of coral.
“That’s sort of a natural way to think because you can’t see through it,” Huang, a member of the university’s Reef Ecology Lab, says of Singapore’s surrounding oceans. “It feels muddy and murky—but it really is clean. The fact that you have marine life there at all suggests that the water isn’t as polluted as people suppose.” The same is true of the wetlands, mangroves and forests, each patch hosting dozens and often hundreds of plant and animal species.
Several of these sites—Sungei Buloh, Lower Peirce, Chek Jawa—exist today thanks to a small army of nature-lovers, who have been cajoling and prodding the government towards root-and-branch conservation since the 1980s. And the government, in turn, has been increasingly willing to at least hear these activists and scientists out. This wasn’t always the case, however.
The 1990s were a particularly fraught decade for organised action. “In those days, [if you worked on] nature conservation, you would have been in some circles considered anti-progress, anti-development,” says Lum, who was a member of the NSS in 1992, when reports emerged of a proposed golf course to be built at Lower Peirce reservoir. A circulated petition against the golf course garnered 17,000 hand-collected signatures. “The president of the Nature Society, over this golf course issue, was visited by people from the Internal Security Department.”
Of course, their suggestions are not always taken to heart by the authorities. But if there was ever a honeymoon period of ecological cooperation between civil society and the government, it was in the setting aside of the Rail Corridor. More than 10 years ago now, Malaysia handed back land along 24km of railway track, which bisect the country from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. The environmentalists leapt into action; Leong Kwok Peng, the chair of the NSS’s Conservation Committee, wrote an article in The Straits Times—“opening my big mouth” as he puts it today—calling for it to be made into “a fabulous nature corridor.”
But never in his wildest dreams did Leong think they’d get exactly what they asked for. “We were quite audacious to ask for the entire [stretch of] land to be kept,” he says, laughing. “I’m surprised they embraced the whole idea.”
As recently as this year, politicians have spoken up in favour of enshrining unprotected green spaces. NParks has watched Singaporeans’ new-found love for the wild with interest, too, but mainly because it confirms a shift it began gauging during last year’s circuit breaker. As an experiment to gauge public preference for ‘manicured’ versus ‘naturalistic’ spaces, “we left some of our landscapes to grow a little bit”, says Sophianne Araib, NParks’ group director for corporate strategy and planning. “We saw wildflowers start to grow because we cut the grass less frequently… People responded quite well.”
Managing Singapore’s green vision for the future has meant adaptation—from Lee Kuan Yew’s Garden City vision in 1967, to 2008’s more intricate A City in a Garden plan, to last year’s City in Nature project. The conversation around conservation has changed; climate change is a recognised reality. In May this year, Singapore unveiled it Green Plan 2030, of which City in Nature is one pillar of six. It includes pledges to develop 1,000 hectares of green space and 160km of park connectors, build a green ‘network’ so wide-ranging that no home is more than a 10-minute walk from a park, and plant a million trees over the next 10 years. “We have very ambitious targets. It’s a paradigm shift in which we’re taking Singapore forward,” Araib says of City in Nature. It’s a framework that builds on plans that have come before, but at the same time, she adds, “it’s quite a big shift”.
Right now, Singapore’s wild spaces are fragmented— isolated sections of forest dab the country, pinched and eaten into by everything from golf courses to water treatment plants to where a reservoir comes a little too close to meeting an expressway.
Over the previous two decades, NParks has thrown its considerable weight behind protecting and expanding Singapore’s greenery, steadily taking over much of the legwork and science, much to the activists’ delight. “Their focus is on trying to build up biodiversity,” Leong says. “They have the resources to really do it. Not just planting any old tree along the roadside, but smart planting—vegetation that encourages biodiversity to come back, connects one space to another. NParks nowadays is very enlightened.”
Chua, the Dover Forest explorer, has experienced this for himself. When he spotted what he thought might be a critically endangered Ficus virens (a kind of fig tree) near the School of Science and Technology, he took a sample to the Botanic Gardens’ herbarium for confirmation. “I only expected an identification,” he explains. “But they actually made it a voucher specimen. It has a serial number and a barcode, and it’s now part of their archives. I was quite touched by that.”
Particularly crucial to the survival of Singapore’s wilderness are the promised park connectors, which will physically link patches of forest to one another. Right now, Singapore’s wild spaces are fragmented— isolated sections of forest dab the country, pinched and eaten into by everything from golf courses to water treatment plants to where a reservoir comes a little too close to meeting an expressway. They’re often at best only loosely connected to each other via thin, sparse strips of green, which animals refuse to traverse.
How far the plan extends to properly reconnect (or save) these patches is unclear. “At the end of the day, it boils down to how Singapore is able to deal with these climate challenges going forward, yet still remain liveable,” says NParks’ Araib. “You know, as a city, in terms of being attractive to talent, and that we still continue to thrive economically.” A middle ground between ecology and economy will be reached—how the scales will ultimately tip, though, is still anyone’s guess.
There’s a public housing project in Yishun that sits directly opposite a mangrove. Celine Tan, brought in as an ecological consultant to the site, suggested making a connection between the mangrove and the land parcel, like attracting wild birds from the former to the latter. “They have the chance to cross over and settle on the urban side if we create the right conditions for them,” she explains. “Like water bodies or the right kind of plants they feed on.”
Tan is a design and research associate with bioSEA, an ecology and biomimicry consulting firm that works with architecture and urban planning groups. The entwining of the urban and the ecological in one building, be it Oasia Hotel or Kampung Admiralty, is something with which she’s extensively familiar. “As someone who’s working in this field, I think we can’t run away from the fact that we have to keep developing,” Tan says. “The question now is how we do it.”
That could eventually mean cutting into the ‘earmarked for development’ secondary forest patches, like Clementi—or Bukit Batok, Kranji or Dover forests. All of these sites have online petitions circulating in their names, but this purgatorial tag isn’t automatically considered a declaration of war by nature-lovers. Instead, it’s rather like kicking the can down the road. “When it’s ‘zoned for certain development’, they leave it alone in case future generations need that space. That’s fine with us,” Leong says. “As long as they keep it as is, as long as possible. I don’t expect everything to be switched to a nature park.”
In fact, earmarking can be a tactical advantage to activists in Singapore, as it’s a way of stalling for time. Singapore’s urban development closely follows the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Master Plan, which is revised every five years. “I think the plans have become a little more flexible,” says Lum. “We won’t keep everything. But we won’t clear everything, either. Everything that was set aside, say 30 or 40 years ago, not all of that has been developed. And not all of it will actually end up being developed.”
But a zone roughly the size of10 football fields in Kranji was infamously and “erroneously” cleared earlier this year, before a biodiversity study or an impact assessment could be conducted. And Dover Forest, which is home to endangered species like the straw-headed bulbul and the buffy fish owl, is part of the Ulu Pandan estate, a site on which several thousand build-to-order flats are planned to be sold later this year. In January, the NSS released a report suggesting Dover be made a public- cum-nature park instead; in February, a minister stated that all public feedback would be studied “in detail”.
Karl Png’s sister recently started sending him links to environmental news; his friends have begun asking him to bring them out to forested areas for informal guided walks. Png, who co-founded the organisation Singapore Youth Voices for Biodiversity, has been heartened by this. “It’s growing. It’s definitely growing,” he says of young people’s concern for the environment. “And I hope that people will take that interest in the forest and start to realise they have to make their own lifestyles more sustainable if they want to protect it.”
“Change is hard. But we’ve reached that point where there’s no looking back, there’s no choice. We cannot put our heads in the sand anymore”
That’s the lingering question many activists now have. Of all the fledgling nature-lovers who have entered Singapore’s misty forests for the first time in the past year, how many of them will ultimately take action? An appreciation for wild greenery doesn’t automatically make you someone who composts, contributes to conservation funds, or shops exclusively carbon neutral.
“It needs to be in your guts,” says Danielle Champagne, a sustainable business owner and one of the founders of The Green Collective. It’s a local store that hosts 48 eco-conscious brands (or kakis, as Champagne calls them). But since sustainability became trendy, Champagne has had to fend off more and more business owners just looking to jump on the bandwagon.
What’s more, it can be difficult to know exactly what living eco-consciously actually looks like. That’s why the importance of unpatronising education can’t be overestimated. “There’s still too many people happily comfortable in their routines,” Champagne says. “Change is hard. But we’ve reached that point where there’s no looking back, there’s no choice. We cannot put our heads in the sand anymore.”
The fight goes deep into the heart of the forest, as well as the individual. It remains to be seen whether the values of City in Nature will make inroads into the way we live our lives. But activists like Lum are ready to watch it play out. “If people are going out there with nature in their hearts and letting that guide the way they make decisions, wow!” he says. “It could be unbelievable. That’s the potential.”