"We need to see what we have in this piece of land in its own right as a precious living being that has existed for a long time" | Treasures from our Forests panel transcript

Livestream of Treasures from our Forests on YouTube.


Treasures from our Forests was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 21 May 2022. SADeaf provided SgSL interpretation. You can access the livestream above and the full transcript of the programme below. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity. We would also like to thank Singapore Heritage Fest for collaborating with us! 


What is in a forest? How can knowledge systems foster greater care for our earth? Drawing on Forest School Singapore and the global earth education movement, this panel examines eco-literacy and its role in emphasising transition virtues to prepare the next generation for a climate-changed world, as well as indigenous knowledge gleaned from intimate knowledge of the forest.

In collaboration with Singapore Heritage Festival 2022, Ethos Books is proud to present this online panel, featuring Diana Rahim, Darren Quek, Angela Ferguson and moderated by Woo Qiyun. Our panelists will explore the ways in which we can rekindle our connection with our natural heritage.

You can find the speaker bios at the bottom of this page. Enjoy the conversation!


Photo of the speakers (left to right, top to bottom): Shimei (SADeaf Interpreter),

Angela Ferguson, Darren Quek, Diana Rahim, Woo Qiyun 


Qiyun: So to kick off the discussion, we would like to talk about the way we relate to forests and the importance of the forest. As an environmentalist, for me, I feel that the forests are inherently important in the way it provides life, it provides knowledge, nutrition, oxygen. And it helps us regulate us on the planet we live on. But when did you really start noticing your relationship with the forest around you? For me the question is really difficult to answer but I would like to pose it to our fellow panellists, to share a little bit more about how their relationship with the forest developed over time.

So, to kick things off, Darren would you like to take a stab at this question?

Darren: Sure. Thanks, Qiyun. And thanks everyone for the introduction as well. I guess, when it comes to relationship with the forest, I think we all agree, especially those of us who stay in Singapore—I know Angela doesn’t—or, grew up in Singapore, sorry. So, I mean, we grew up in Singapore and it’s basically an urban city, right from when I was born till now. There are pockets of forests, but we are so near yet so far, in a way.

So, my personal relationship with the forest and gains from the forest really started due to Forest School (FS). As a kid I wasn’t as much in touch with the greens and nature. I was more on the courts of sports and games. The only greens were the football pitch and football field. (Laughs) So that was my upbringing.

But Forest School really changed my relationship with the environment and the forest. We start to see a personality there than just what is seen in the textbooks, in the science. We start to realise there are relationships and there are meanings, and almost spiritual things that exist among the spaces as well. So, yeah. Thank you.

Qiyun: Thanks for sharing that. I think, the fact that you mentioned something like the personality of the forest, right, that's something that, at least growing up in Singapore, formal education doesn't really talk about forests in that way. They tend to take a very scientific view of it, so that was really very nice to hear.

Now maybe I would like to invite Angela to share a little bit. I mean, you were a facilitator at Forest School. So, Darren, you talked about how Forest School changed your relationship with nature, Angela, how has that experience been for you?

Angela: Thank you so much Qiyun and thanks everyone for being here today. It’s interesting that Darren mentioned Singapore is such an urban environment that maybe it feels like there are all these smaller pockets of greenery, but actually I found that even though I grew up in the US where there is a lot of greenery where I live, I feel like my relationship with the forest actually first started to deepen when I was in Singapore, and specifically during the Circuit Breaker. And that relationship began with me, not so much with noticing forests as a whole, but actually individual plants and animals outdoors. Because, during Circuit Breaker, almost every day after work I would take a walk on the same Park Connector loop. And, even though I was walking in the same place every day, it actually never felt the same because when I engaged all my different senses, there was just so much to notice about individual plants and animals. So, when I paid attention, I found that there were so many different kinds of trees, flowers, plants, insects. When I touched the leaves of these plants, they all felt different. Sometimes I would see otters, and smell a sweet smell from the nearby mango trees.

Before I started to really pay attention, I might have just called all of this “nature”. But actually, when I started to pay attention, I realised that all of these are individual living beings around me. They’re all alive like me and have their own strengths, things that they can do which I can’t do. And so I think that’s been an amazing journey, to now feel like whenever I’m outdoors, I'm actually just one member of the wider community of life.

Qiyun: That’s a very nice way to put it. And I think it’s always ironic that a lot of people’s relationships with nature bloomed over, I guess, a period of isolation, when you’re forced away. Or when nature becomes the balm, especially when there's nowhere else that people could really visit. And, I think, Diana, you’ve written about the human experience and the relationship with the environment. How has that been for you and has that relationship changed over time?

Diana: As someone growing up in Singapore, I think anybody living in the tropics, anyone living here or in Southeast Asia in general, the forest is very much integral to what we see around us, but not just that, but also in terms of our own identity, culture. It's reflected in stories. When I was young I was really terrified of the forest, because there were so many stories told to me about how you shouldn't just go inside unaccompanied or without asking for permission because then you could be beset by any kind of spirit, negative spirits and stuff like that. And I remember there’d be ghosts there or something.

I think, in retrospect, it was kind of a way for adults to kind of ensure that their kids don’t end up getting lost or in danger, but of course it’s still stuck in my imagination and I’m still very much in fear of the forest.

Darren was saying something earlier about Singapore being an urban city. I realise these stories aren't really part of what we hear anymore. Which is quite sad. Why? Because it's not as integral to us anymore, the forest. And we’re being given a very different kind of narrative. And we have lost a lot of forest in Singapore. So I think that’s why that chain of transmission of stories, where the forest is the main character, is now lost.

In terms of how my relationship has changed, I was afraid of it when I was young. But, I think, as I got older, in my head, in my mind, I’m also thinking, okay, it’s very fearsome, but I know that it's also an incredibly important part of the ecosystem. Extremely important. It sustains us, you know? And I try to learn a little more about it. But I always think that for me, unlike our two other guests, I’m not as knowledgeable in terms of specifics or scientifically and stuff. I’m very much just a normal person experiencing the environment. So that fear is still kind of there.

Qiyun: That's a really good thing to bring up. I think that very nicely leads us to our next question about how the forest is really a space that can inspire both fear and wonder.

I have a funny anecdote where I met someone who was forest bathing growing up and was offering forest bathing experiences in Singapore. She told me that when she started to bring all these CBD folks or very business-y folks to forests to forest bathe, a lot of them were very reluctant to remove their shoes, to touch the soil, to touch the bark. And I think, when she told me that, it was a lot of stories about how us city-dwellers are just so far removed from what the real forest looks like that we fear all these things. And, to us, the wonderful part of the forest is, perhaps, air-conditioned, very manicured gardens and things like that.

So, the question I’d like to ask is: how do you think Singaporeans then as city dwellers can understand or build meaningful connections with the natural world, to sort of reconcile this disconnect? Maybe Darren, you want to start first?

Darren: We get this question a lot across the board over the past 6 years. But I’d like to assure Diana first that, myself and Angela, we are all also not exactly scientists per se. People always ask me, do you know all the plants and animals that you teach kids about? I say, no, I don’t. They are so wide-ranging and varied that sometimes we don’t know as well. But I think the process of learning with nature, learning together with nature is more important than the results of that learning. So, I mean, your stories of fear, your stories from your background were as meaningful as impactful and is part of the ecosystem as well.

I think that’s what I learned over the years. So when it comes to really getting Singaporeans to reconnect, I think it’s not very far actually. I remember a agriculturalist professor in Malaysia who shared with me how to get people to actually connect back with nature. If I were to think on Singapore’s context, I think the most basic and Singapore people’s passion for food is the simplest way. We’re not saying just gardening, weeding, and then doing the whole manicured process before we get the food, of course we can do that, but really realising there are so much more on the roadside that nature has to offer.

I always remember this particular plant by the roadside. It’s very common. You can see, everyone can see almost everywhere, this particular pepper plant. And it’s grown everywhere on the ground. And when you realise, “Eh that thing can eat leh!” (laughs) I think the aunties last time will bring back and cook that with fish. The Peranakans will use that to cook with fish. Some of them use certain species of that leaf to cook or to boil water for the pregnant ladies.

Then in the forest still got tongkat ali which is a very interesting story right, it is a sexual driven (laughs) kind of plant and medicinal effect, and it’s in our forests as well. So, when people know about things like that, then the perspective of the forests change, for a start.

Then, I think, where Diana’s story, which I absolutely love is, and is true, we’ve done our studies before on Malay archipelago, as well as Orang Laut, Orang Asli, they also told me, like, “most of our stories are more fear-driven than the very beautiful fairy tales.”

But the truth is, because our nature can be quite ferocious, people forget that tropical nature, if you step inside, the density is very high. We have more biodiversity and animals and insects and plants combined than, I think, the whole of America, something like that. Which technically can be true, because the variation is wider in the tropics. So it’s very interesting. To connect people back is to find the ground that we can relate.

I know Singapore really is an urban city, we are all living there, and we know that really finding that sweet spot will be more important than trying to force what everybody else in other parts of the world is doing. But it’s really finding our own sweet spot. So I think that food is the spot, for a start Of course when we go deeper then stories from Diana, stories from other people, culture and everything then comes in to slowly build up.

But if you want to start, we have to start with food.

Qiyun: I think that’s an interesting way to put it, you need a gateway, right? Food as the gateway to a better appreciation of the environment. I know a lot of events in Singapore now have foraging events just to get people to realise that there are foodscapes even in our parks, along our roadsides. So, that was a very good example there. Thanks, Darren.

So, since you mentioned Diana’s story, Diana, do you want to go next, on thinking about fear and wonder in the forest?

Diana: Just talking about fear and wonder?

Qiyun: Yeah. Yeah. I guess the question really is more about how the forest is being perceived. Because I talked about fear and wonder, but I believe that you've shared before about your cultures, which is stories. Could you share a little bit more about that?

Diana: Like I mentioned earlier, and I also wrote a letter for Ethos about this fear that I have about this forest, it’s very much intrinsic to our culture. Like Darren mentioned, it’s because the tropics, our forests, are really not the same as the forests that we hear about in the stories of the West, a little more idealistic where you receive reflection and stuff. Here, even our rain trees look a bit more scary, a bit demented the way their branches kind of spring out. And the biodiversity is immense, like he mentioned.

I think, within, for a lot of Malay people we think we must have a symbiotic relationship with nature. It must be balanced, there’s a lot of give and take. And I think this emotion or fear is actually reverence and respect for the power we know that it has, not just in terms of sustenance but we actually see it as a full living being. I think that is quite important because it does regulate your behaviour when you go inside.

Malay people in the past would ask for permission when they go inside. They would say a certain thing and then, even when I went for my secondary school trips. Going to forest anywhere, people would behave in a certain way because you don’t want to anger any spirits inside. But it regulates your behaviour in such a way that respecting the surroundings becomes very automatic.

But it’s not a severance, you see? Today people don’t have a relationship with nature like you were mentioning earlier because we completely severed the interaction we have with nature and the forest. We just see it as like, okay, we should leave it alone. Even this thing about foraging, I think, is a very good way for people to form a relationship with the forest again, or nature. And foraging would be important but I think legally there’s kind of a complication when it comes to foraging, which in itself shows the way that this relationship with nature has been, I don’t know, just the understanding of it has been muddied. We need to reframe that.

Qiyun: Thanks for sharing that. I resonate with that because I remember stories about foraging, or even collecting mangos and durians from parents when they are younger. But now there are laws surrounding that, and for whatever reason there may be, I think it's still fundamental to the fact that we are not able to be so intimate and so close to what's around us or the trees around us. Perhaps that might have affected the way that we view some of these things as national property rather than natural property, to some extent.

Lastly, Angela, in terms of fear and wonder, do you have anything to add from your experiences and how you manage that balance?

Angela: I would say that I think having a mix of fear and wonder toward the forest is actually a good thing. Mostly because I agree with Diana that I think a certain fear comes from respect for the forest, knowing that actually the forest and the land give us everything that we need to survive but today, many of us, myself included, don’t actually have the knowledge needed to live off the land as people have done for thousands of years. So, for myself, sure, I can enjoy a hike in the forest and take some nice photos, but if I were to be stuck in the forest for some time, would I know how to find drinkable water? Do I know how to avoid poisonous plants and find edible ones? And, take care of the soil as well so I can grow more? I think it is cause for fear that this fundamental knowledge that has allowed for a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and forests for all of history is fraying now because many people have lost that knowledge.

I agree with Darren that food can be a good way to try to bridge that gap a bit. I remember a few years ago I went to a supermarket here in the US where I'm living now and I was so shocked to see a peach that had a single leaf still attached to it. I was so shocked because I had been so used to seeing not a single leaf attached to any fruit in the supermarket and it was such a shocking reminder that actually, yes, all this food comes from plants which come from soil. It was just so shocking to realise the level of disconnection that I had from where my sustenance comes from.

I think a mix of fear and wonder is healthy, because it means you’re not romanticising the forest, only seeing the flowers and the butterflies. Food as well can be a helpful way to grow closer.

Qiyun: Thanks for sharing that. I do agree, you know, some level of fear as spoken by the three of you speaks to, perhaps, us being more cautious about what's around us. Perhaps there are some things that are built to just not be edible for humans or to be poisonous for adaptive reasons. Or really, that fear could stem from one of reverence and I really liked how that was put across by Diana.

I think from that, I remember telling people, if you’re going hiking in the forest, expect mosquitos, because that is the reality of the natural environment that we live in. And they are part of our ecosystem. You can't just say you're going into forest and you're not getting bitten by something, like an ant or a mosquito.

Darren: We like to say you’re paying the “entrance fee”.

Qiyun: You pay entrance fee with your blood. (laughs)

Darren: Yeah, you have to pay some entrance fee, right. Not free one.

Qiyun: That’s true. And that's also part of you being a part of the entire ecosystem, right? You're feeding something that allows it to thrive, so exactly right, the entrance fee analogy is on point.

I think we talked about learning from the forest. There are lots of things we can derive, that people in the past have used for all sorts of reasons, like medicines, for food, for burning, like to create fire. These are things that often don’t get written down in the past and they get passed from word-of-mouth by parents, by your ancestors.

I would like to pose the question of, what does nature as a classroom look like, and what does that mean to you? So, in this question, I want to break it down into that as the first part. The second part I want to go into is, how does nature as a classroom differ from what we understand as conventional education?

So, Darren, maybe you can kick us off with how you started Forest School and what nature as a classroom looks like.

Darren: I was an educator first and foremost, definitely not from an environmentalist or conservationist background. Children and families were my focus. Teachers, parents. And I think as I progressed along that journey, Forest School came to me because I realised a lot of kids were just, especially in Singapore and in the city, they are really, very pent up. There’s a lot of psychological issues. I’m seeing 7-year-old kids gritting their teeth in their sleep, which is a sign of stress. And I just think it’s very unfair. My opinion is: adults, we deal with stress. That’s our journey, we chose the path. But I never think that children should be the ones feeling stressed. Children should be playing, children should be enjoying, making mistakes, being stupid. (laughs) Being foolish. It should be the adults’ responsibility for stress, not the children.

So that got me thinking about other ways to educate children and Forest School came to be that. I won’t say it’s the perfect way, but it’s the best way I found that could include every single human being, and their needs, their nuances. Because when people say nature in the classroom, or nature classroom, they must remember that when they say that that means the trees, the insects, the mosquitoes, everything that’s comfortable and uncomfortable are the teachers for that session. So, when we go to forests or we go to nature and have nature as the teacher, fear is there, which is why kids are actually safer in the forest than in the playground. Truth be told.

We have more injuries at the playgrounds than in the forest because there is fear. If there is no fear, we are concerned. If our kids or our participants have no fear, then we will fear. Because we realise that the person is not paying attention and respecting the environment. So fear is good, in a way.

And also I guess there is a sense of wonder that mixed with the fear that Angela mentioned in the Nature classroom. We always like to say this. Over time I’ve learned, fear keeps us alive. Love keeps us hopeful and going. So that combination and balance is what progress us in the nature classroom.

When people ask me do we teach them sciences, I say, we do when there is a need, or when things arise. We explore it together. Teaching would probably not be the word to use in the Forest School. It’s actually more of a journey than teaching in a nature classroom.

I guess that’s a very brief sum-up, for more further details you can attend a one-hour training… No la (laughs). You can come to us for further discussion.

Qiyun: Thanks so much, Darren. Then, I guess this is a good time to go to Angela now. As a facilitator, I'm curious as to how you see self-directed learning in nature or nature as a classroom because you yourself has also been a part of the Singaporean education system while you were here at Yale-NUS, though maybe not so conventional. So how has nature as a classroom changed your perspective on education in general?

Angela: That’s a great question. Thanks, Qiyun. I think growing up I always had the idea of education as something that happens when there is an adult who is the expert. And then there is the child, who is there to just receive the knowledge from the expert. And so, with that comes a big power dynamic, because it almost doesn’t give space for the student to take charge of their own learning, to build on the knowledge they already have, and to go deeper into the things that interest them, rather than basically having to memorise information that an adult is telling them. This is important, so download this information into your brain. And I think there are pros and cons to any educational model, but I think one big benefit that I’ve seen from the Forest School model is that the children feel respected and empowered in that space. And I can give an example.

In a Forest School session, as a facilitator they would address me as Coach Angela. So, I'm not Teacher Angela, I'm not there to teach them, but my role is to be a coach and hold space for them so they can explore their own relationship with the environment, their own relationship with the other children in the session and through all experiences, actually, explore who they are, what is their relationship with themselves. And so, in the session, we don't tell the children what to do. Actually, the whole idea is that the children as a group have to come to consensus, a decision about where to go in the forest each time we meet. And so, that's a whole deliberative process. And then once we arrive at the destination they've chosen, it's totally up to them what they do during that time in the session. I've just seen children really flourish and find their own niche when they are given the space to just do what calls them. I've seen some children really gravitate towards the arts, like artistic expression. Singing, dancing. I've seen other children gravitate towards more like group leadership roles. No adult told them to take charge. No adult told them, no, I think you should organise a game.

With the space and freedom to do whatever they want, they can try out these different parts of themselves. See what they like and what they don’t like. On the whole, I think what I love about the Forest School approach is that it is a very gentle kind of education, nothing is forced. And, you know, the forest provides so much diversity and constant change as well, from week to week, and so people of any age actually, not just children, can really explore whatever interests them and feels relevant to their own life.

Qiyun: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences as a facilitator. I really like the reframing of facilitators as coaches rather than as teachers. That speaks to nature being the ultimate teacher in that setting. And I think when I talk about nature being the teacher or being a repository of a lot of knowledge, Diana I know you as a very reflective person and I’ve followed your work. I’m just curious how much of your writing and your work is inspired or taught by the natural environment or anything surrounding that. Could you share a bit more about that?

Diana: I don’t think I have a direct line kind of knowledge, so I don’t think I can say anything like that. But I would say that, for example, there are certain things that I've written, like a psycho-geographical essay on the three fields in my immediate neighbourhood. Of course, that one was very much, because of the nature of writing, you know, psycho-geography, it’s really about the individual experience of the environment.

I would say that it really kind of teaches you to slow down and to be attentive to whatever rhythm that space that you’re looking at, whether it's a forest or a field, what kind of rhythms do they have, and to actually not try to impose so much.

I think, today for a lot of artists, that instinct is very automatic to impose your ideas or framework onto it. And, yeah, so I think the essay on fields it taught me a lot just by being able to do it. So it wasn’t like the usual process of writing, where it’s really directed from your own mind. But whenever I write about nature, if I'm directly experiencing it, it’s a very organic process. So I really had to walk there, pay attention to how I felt, what were my memories there.

When I wrote about my family’s minyak lam, I would say the education you receive is not just in terms of the forest in itself but also these other indirect ways that it teaches you or it gives to you. And in the case of my family’s minyak lam, which is like a traditional medicinal oil. There are many different variations of minyak lam. If you Google, you can find many different kinds of minyak lam. Every family will have their own recipe. When I talk about my one, someone was saying, like, “Maybe my family use yours!” then I was like, “Oh, was your family from Marsiling? Cause like, the minyak lam in my family is from Marsiling.” No, hers is from like Toa Payoh or something. So different families from different areas have different recipes.

So, that one was interesting because you can see how nature has provided this background against which your family has created something. It allowed you this gift and then it provided you this memory that has gone on for so many generations. I don’t know if I answered your question but that’s what I thought of.

Qiyun: Yeah, you did. Thank you so much. I think, from what you talked about, I, I’m now thinking of the larger picture of narratives. The kind of narratives that we know about our forests or the kind of narratives that have been used for us to think about forests. So it’s no surprise that in Singapore forests are often spaces of contention when it comes to our national agenda for development, for conservation, for recreational use. And, yeah, just so many different competing uses because of how small we are. Sometimes nature is seen as outside spaces of residential homes. To me, the bigger question is always: how do we navigate the idea of forests in our national consciousness. And what are the narratives around it, and have they been helpful? And perhaps, I know Diana you just went, but I’m wondering whether you want to talk about some of these narratives about forests that you have heard or you want to argue against?

Diana: In Singapore, the kind of understanding we have of the forest is very clinical, very manicured right? And also very… it always has to give something back to us. We will cut down this whole woodland, this whole swath of forest and then build up something all made of wood and then say we made this eco-friendly thing, which is happening in Sembawang right now. We have lost so much forest, it’s extremely upsetting actually. When Khaw Boon Wan went door-knocking, I actually talked to him about it.

And then they're building up something, some communal hub and it’s all made of wood, and it’s supposed to be eco-friendly or whatever. I’m getting ready. When it’s ready, I'm going to make so much noise.

But to answer your question, I would say that we can even think of forgoing this frame of nationalism altogether, because it’s very diminutive. It is in itself a very violent framework that wants to impose a certain ideology, certain narratives. Borders. And for a very long time, when we think of forests in this region, we don’t think of it in nationalist terms. Because, in the first place, Singapore is a very young nation. This piece of land that we’re on, it’s part of the larger Nusantara. The biodiversity here cannot be understood independently or in isolation from the biodiversity that’s available in the rest of our region. And we need to see and learn about our forests not just like in a personal, individual way, but also to actually learn the history, what cultures that have interacted with it have said about it. We need to see what we have in this piece of land in its own right as a precious living being that has existed for a long time, has provided for us, and that we have assaulted and need to make amends to, because the land here is older than the concept of Singapore. And we ourselves are part of the larger Nusantara and its rich biodiversity.

So it’s not just learning to look at the forests outside of the nationalist frame but also we need to be able to look at ourselves as individuals outside of this nationalistic framing. Because the whole problem is that, the narratives that we have of the forest right now, it’s very much produced by people with very specific national narratives. I mean, those in power. If we can see the forest as just what it is, learning it on its own terms, then I think it'll be much better.

Qiyun: I love what you just said and I totally agree because even my background here, as one of our listeners actually mentioned on Instagram, if you can recognise that this is Clementi Forest and all the… the big hoo-ha around Clementi Forest. I remember when that whole thing happened, in my head it was just, why was the conversation always about how we need to give this up for development? It’s like an either-or. There's no in-between, there are no grey areas.

Diana: That’s right.

Qiyun: And I think that bugs me the most about the narratives around it, where it’s almost like there should be a clear answer when there isn't.

Diana: The narrative is very either-or here when it comes to the forest. I forgot what’s the line, but we cut down so many trees just to save six minutes of train time.

Qiyun: Oh, the Cross Island Line.

Diana: Yes! Is that really the only two options, save 6 minutes or save all the trees? I’m pretty sure that’s not the only two options but that's the narrative that we’re always presented with. If we don't cut down the trees, where are we going to live, there’s no space for HDB, you know?

Qiyun: Yeah exactly, and because we make it so binary, I remember a Mothership article that came out at that time where the writer wrote, “13 things that people are willing to queue for that are more than 6 minutes". I mean, that was very funny.

He wrote: bubble tea, Hello Kitty merchandise. I guess now it’s the new Swatch that came out. I mean, that was funny but it made me think what six minutes really meant. Because, before that, based on the newspaper narratives, it feels like this six minutes meant a lot when actually it’s not that big of a deal if you really think about that. To me, the national narrative became very stark to say, oh my gosh, I really absorbed what I was being, what I was reading, what was being said.

Darren: I’m not sure how much information I can provide here but I’m part of the Friends of Clementi Forest, the recent set up group by NParks to now look at how we can manicure the site per se. And regarding the Cross Island Line issue, I actually joined in conferences with NUS legal societies and they were in talks about how to legally stop the government from actually going through the land using three NPark acts. But there were so many really fine prints and things, and how the ministers, prime minister and commissioners can supersede the whole legal system even.

Last week I just had many meetings with all these things. If I’m being frank, the public also knows—I don’t need to mince my words—all these politics, sometimes, half of it is nonsense, it’s bullshit. And what you all mentioned about this binary, and I think I'd like to go deeper than that, which is that in Singapore, in fact with the world now, with capitalism, with the way we see economy, everything is very linear. And if we could see it more in terms of spherical moments, more in terms of how things coexist, co-interact, affect each other. The rock affects us just as much as we affect the rock. We affect everything. Even the laptop we are looking at. People say that, oh machines and robots are fixed and blocked. But the truth is, no what. Our laptops jam us randomly, out of nowhere.

So, they are also as much a natural item after a while, as much as everything in nature. There’s that whole interconnectedness. I think my Forest School sensei said it best. When we are able to see that we are one with everything, we are empowered as much as we are humbled by it.

I love Diana’s statement on—scrape that nationalism nonsense lah. (laughs) We are connected together as a whole ecosystem, regionally, almost globally as well after a while. Why are we talking about these stupid borders that the… that when the colonies were rampant around the world they drew out all these lines and caused many of the conflicts after that. So, I think understanding the geography of our land, understanding the geography of our neighbouring land. We have a Forest School in Medan, Indonesia as well, and we are very close in contact with Malaysia.

So, going there, I really love the whole experience, because, in Malaysia when we go into the forest, we’re always like, “Got tiger or not?” (laughs)

They’ll say, “Don’t worry, no tiger. Got black panther here.”

I’m like, “Huh! Black panther, then how?” He say, “Don’t worry la, black panther at night only.” “Black one eh!” “At night only, at night.”

Then they say, “But don’t worry. The main worry is the elephants.”

“Huh, what do you mean elephants?”

The range of concerns are so much wider than what we have in Singapore. So we look at Singapore, we have few concerns, and then we look at Malaysia or Indonesia and like, these are small things. But still not to be forgotten, of course.

Going forward, now that I’m actually in the crux of these dual issues, and I would love to bring you guys in absolutely. Because we need more people talking like this than going out there and going like, we are PAP youth leaders or we are whatever political or whatever agenda just trying to cover our backside. The truth is we need people who come up and talk about and to really dialogue and push the narrative and to then develop the true consciousness of our region. But not if everybody just going to sit there very comfortably, warming the seats, and not move, which is very common. I've gone into those situations to speak up, ask further about, probe them, go further. And, they all got stuck la cause systematically, Singaporeans are very—I mean, the so-called scholars and whoever in place up there are not stupid as well. They know how to design the system so that it forces us to really find it very difficult.

But! I think we have hope because Clementi Forest is the best example, I say. People walk there. They complain that we disturb the place, right. And we get that as well in Forest School. We get a lot from public that we disturb the environment. I won’t disagree that we do disturb. We have Environment Impact Assessments. We do it ourselves. And we have seen the disturbance. But I have also seen nature recover.

I agree with Diana. We need to ask permission. And the permission is not to be asked from the humans managing these issues. The permission is to be asked from the forest herself. I can tell you from the stories that I’ve met, real life, when the nature don't want you to enter you will know. I have gone to places and didn’t heed the attention of nature. A king cobra appeared, and I didn’t pay attention. It was there lying for 15 minutes, and after that I continued doing my programmes at that place and it was very disturbing.

There was a lot of issues, there was a lot of things that turned out and there was a lot of problems la, basically. And, looking back, the king cobra was there. Right at the beginning when I first came, the king cobra was there, already telling me, “This place, don’t come”. There’s a good reason why you shouldn’t come to this place. I won’t say where the place is, but there are some places in Singapore that, yeah, they will let you know.

I think those are the things that we need to pay attention to. And with that then we know how we can work with the environment. Does it really have to be housing, does it have to be what. Ask the person you’re going to have to interact with. Ask the environment, do something with them, try to use our limited scientific knowledge to go and understand. Yeah, that’s really blunt I guess, sorry.

Qiyun: I really like what you said about asking permission from the forest, right? When you mentioned about the king cobra, or even just instances where nature really already tells you that they don’t want you coming in, it reminds me that the forest is ultimately alive. It’s not static. It's dynamic. And we need to respect the dynamism of the entire ecosystem.

And, Angela, you have been a researcher, you were an activist, you were an educator, how have you navigated some of these narratives about the forest?

Angela: I think one of the most macro narratives that I come across about forests, not just in Singapore but here in the US as well, is the idea that humans are separate from nature and above nature. And so what this looks like is that, in conversation it will be clear that some people see the plants and animals in a forest as basically inanimate objects. So, objects that you would refer to as it. Oh, the tree, “it” looks like this. Or, the animal, “it” did this. Rather than talking about them as living beings. We will never refer to another human using “it”. That would be extremely insulting. But yeah, we do that for our kin in the natural world. And so, I think this detachment where we talk about the natural world using the same language that we use to talk about objects like… We would describe a bulldozer as “it”, the building is “it”. But we use this same language to talk about the natural world which is very much alive. I think this is maybe almost a macro narrative that underpins a lot of the ongoing climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse.

Qiyun: Thanks for sharing that. I think that is definitely important. As what Angela you were saying, we do have a good question here: “Given our current trajectory as a nation, how do we rebuild or change our path towards respecting rather than dominating nature?” And the example that this person shared is about culling.

So, when I think about culling, I think about the culling of pigeons, conversations about culling monkeys, jungle fowl, wild boars. So, how do we navigate the whole respecting versus dominating nature conversation, especially when in Singapore we do things like culling, right? Does anyone have thoughts on this question or on this topic?

Darren: I think the brutal answer is: we need the tigers back for culling issues. I’ve actually seen some of these processes, and questioned NParks, Town Council and ACRES about these processes as well. Their reply to me is they’re changing the Town Council’s behaviour on culling of pigeons. Which is good, but as all changes of people's behaviour it takes quite a period of time and for people’s feelings on it to change But I would say the root of this issue is something that a lot of times they’re not solving and a lot of us also are figuring out how to solve as well, which is the disconnect from nature.

I think all the question here, to me, the foundation is the disconnect, and how do we reconnect is that when we can find the reconnect then it will resolve every single question that is put out there with regards to this almost binary kind of issue, this or that, tit for tat. So, because I only found myself realising it only because of nature, and spending time alone especially with earth was fearful. Diana, don’t worry, it was fearful. Alone with her was fearful. But, like what Angela said also, it’s the fear also because you know you are not alone.  

I went into a depression phase in my life, you are basically alone everywhere you go, feeling that way. But when in nature, you don’t feel that. That’s just a different world altogether. And, the fear of nature never existed in the depression world, in that sense. The connection then suddenly opened up to another whole different realm. I feel people are going through that and the disconnection which is there for all the issues. And maybe nature is trying to help? And then after that you can build back to your whole life, but, yeah, I feel that this culling is changing, at least policy-wise it’s moving, it’s changing.

But I’ve seen many of our bigger animals like the wild boars and this manicured repopulation of the environment. The wild boars are rampant at certain period of times. There is just no animal that can eat wild boars except us, so… I won’t say culling is the way, but worst come to worst, radical idea I suggested before was: we can have a festival every year that people actually do it, but do it properly together as a community, so that we watch each other. I know, there are a lot of countries out there who bar this common community kind of hunting season.

And, actually hunting is not all bad. People understand what they eat. It’s not just coming from the stupid factory farm where we don’t know what went on. We actually have to slaughter, actually have to do the process and feel that kind of energy and essence that is required to consume our food, especially the animal as well. That process can be very… can realise a lot about ourselves and make us more connected as well.

And I think the Muslim have this practice in halal. Halal is not just cannot eat pork, it’s actually the killing of the animal, how they kill it. It’s very important, the killing process, very important to make sure that the animal does not feel pain as much as possible. That’s halal. Diana, correct me if I’m wrong. When I learn that, I was like, yeah, that’s very Pocahontas, very Avatar way of looking at the thing. That’s my take on this.

Qiyun: Yeah, thanks for sharing that. Angela, Diana, do you have any thoughts on this topic?

Diana: I do agree with Darren, it’s really about this disconnect with nature and so actually that's the fundamental thing. It’s really a far deeper thing that we need to address. Because, how do we get to a point where we feel so comfortable just being able to clinically kill off animals and other things? Just with like a decision, you know? Last time, my grandma, she was telling me how when she hears when we have some virus, or whatever, let’s say avian flu, they would just kill off tons of birds. She said it's not like we didn't have this last time in our villages. These kinds of outbreaks, or whatever. But she said their method was… they would look at this fleet of birds and they would try to isolate those that look sick, and then only kill those. They don't kill everything. So, our method is really extreme.

Also another thing I think is that, because we are so disconnected, and also in a way quite self-absorbed, we always view the problem and solution entirely as on nature’s side to take the cost. We don't really interrogate how we as participants in this world as part of this wheel of nature are also instigators of certain kinds of problems. When it comes to pandemics and all these things part of it is because we keep encroaching closer and closer into other animals’ territories and stuff like that. And we keep meeting more often, when usually we used to be quite apart.

Regarding the slaughter, that’s another thing, right. Factory farming for me is so cruel. It's really an image of how disconnected we have become. And it’s very violent also, this disconnect. It’s a forced disconnect. It's not that we got lazy and then we didn't want to connect but there's a more violent force insisting that we remain separate, insisting that we are violent and cruel.

When Darren mentioned halal, it’s because these other methods of slaughter, not just Muslim, but humans for a very long time, when they want to eat an animal, that process is actually a very painful one. That’s why we come up with rituals to be able to make us feel more at ease, even killing an animal and eating it, so that we can pay some form of respect to the animal, or some cultures they would do something to ease the animal’s path into the afterlife. Muslims would say prayers. Part of this is because we maintain this connection and I think that's very important.

Qiyun: I really like what you said about the fact that it is a forced disconnect. Because even reading about the wild boar culling, and the extent that we went to to just kill that wild boar that ventured into a public space and hurt somebody. To me, it felt like that solution was kind of disproportionate from the problem itself. Because if we are going to be encroaching onto spaces, we need to face the inevitability of our actions, which is that nature is somehow going to stumble into our cityscapes and be completely disoriented. And if they are disoriented,  they are bound to act out of fear, act out of anger. And how could we blame them for that? How could we kill them for behaving in that way? Same with the otters that attacked various people. In the news, they’re described as ferocious. They’re described as having scratched somebody, as deliberate. When actually, they are acting out because we haven’t really reconciled how we coexist with them but we are forced to now coexist with them for whatever aesthetic or developmental reason.

So I think I really resonated with what both you, Darren and Diana, said. Angela do you have anything to add to this question?

Angela: I think, just to echo that, I think changing national narratives to me does start at the ground level with individuals and communities rebuilding their own relationship with the natural world because I think that's where culture comes from. And culture shapes the discussions that can even be had at the larger national level to push for policy change. So yeah, I just remember one statistic I heard about how an average child can recognise a thousand of corporate logos, but often cannot identify even ten plants or animals that are native to their home region.

It just makes me wonder, how can we begin to have large national conversations about forests when we don’t even know what we’re talking about. We don’t even know what is all around us and how important these ecosystems are to our daily lives. I think starting from this culture change, I hope that's where conversations can start to happen at a larger level where it's not just a question about wilderness versus public housing, but rather, if people have their own meaningful relationship with the natural world, I think we would be motivated to explore the alternatives. To explore, actually, is it really either-or? Or could it be a question of turning golf courses into land for public housing. Is clearing forests really the only option that we have, because we now know what is in these forests and how valuable they are to us.

Qiyun: Exactly. And thank you for that. The next question that I want to take is a combination of two questions on our Slido. So, thank you to those who submitted the question. So, the question is:

“How do we even begin to instil love for nature for those who are adamant about not being a nature person and who loves or prefers the city life and its comforts?” So, I’m going to combine this with the other question that says that, “It feels like a very Singaporean thing to also see nature as ‘dirty’ where sometimes parents do not allow children to even walk on grass. How would you deal with that?”

And I feel like this question is targeted at Darren. At Forest School, how do you navigate this? Do you deal with these conversations from parents or at least from the public or participants? How do you instil love for nature for those who may have certain preconceived notions of what’s dirty.

Darren: I saw that comment. We have it best at the Forest School. In Forest School Singapore we have this tagline: “It takes a village to raise a child.” It is a tagline that we picked up from an African proverb. We don’t know the source of the proverb but it’s always been used. And I think those two questions can easily be addressed to using this line. “It takes a village to raise a child.”

As a parent or as an individual who is not comfortable with spiders, you don’t need to be all compassionate and tell your kids, “Hey don’t touch the spider! Don’t get close!” or what. You don’t have to be that. You just need to be yourself. If you’re afraid, you’re afraid. And you have other villagers, maybe your brother, your uncle, your friends or maybe your forest school coach, or maybe Qiyun yourself or Shimei herself. I mean somebody else who's interested, to attend, help instil that element part of things. You don't need to be everything to try. I think we understand as individuals we don’t need to be everything.

You know, in Singapore, our city, we try to be everything. Everything also must do. People do we also must do, right. We don’t need to be everything. We realise we are nature as well. Because in nature, a tree doesn't need to do everything. A bee doesn't need to do everything. They do their own thing, who they are, and then after many years they work out an ecosystem. That’s how a village is there in nature.

I like the question on parents not allowing their kids to walk on grass because my brother does that to my niece. And I’m the one who ended up, when she was one and a half years old, I brought her out to the park. I never cared about what he says. I just let her walk. After she started walking, she was comfortable. Then after that things start to move. So, there are other people who will do it, you don’t have to be the one to do it.

And I think that’s the easiest way to move forward. It’s all about timing and readiness. We can’t force ourselves when we are not ready. And I think that’s very important. That’s nature. Nature doesn’t force things. Like this season the durians are not going to come out because the weather has changed. There’s too much rain recently, right? So the durians are not going to come out in June. You all can go and try to khio liu lian (Hokkien for “pick durians”) but it won’t happen.

So, nature won’t force it. If the flow doesn't happen, they won’t force it and you wait for the next time. That’s how it happens.

Qiyun: Yeah, I really like that. I think respecting the rhythm of nature, I think Diana brought that up also, the idea of rhythm, it’s very important. Because we have natural rhythm in the world that our hyper-capitalist state is just working in tension with. It’s not just that we cannot keep up, but these natural rhythms are just out of flux and it’s causing a lot of problems that we face today.

Angela: I agree with what Darren said, that there are different community members who can help you with wherever you are in your journey. I would also just say that, whoever asked this question, I hope you or whoever you’re thinking of doesn’t feel like they have to go from zero to a hundred. I think it’s perfectly alright to just start where you are. And to just start small.

Maybe you have a Park Connector next to where you live. I wonder how it would be for you to just try taking a walk there sometimes and just observe what you notice about the space. What do you see, what do you hear, what do you smell, and see how maybe what you notice what changes over time. No need to rush yourself towards being ready to camp in the forest for weeks on end. Being connected with nature can also just take the form of taking a walk on your Park Connector. And to your point about it being a Singaporean thing to see nature as dirty, I did experience that. One time I was laying down on the grass on my Park Connector, and someone, an auntie, came over and she said, “You shouldn't lie on grass cause dogs will poo and pee there.” So, ok, thanks auntie.

I do think that maybe part of the… I think stigma is too strong of a word, but like, maybe part of the hesitation people feel to just lay down in the grass somewhere is that we don't see a lot of people doing that in Singapore, except for at East Coast Park. But I do think that if it becomes more normalised to see people out and about interacting with the environment in different ways, hopefully it will just come to feel like a part of Singaporean culture is actually to lay on the grass.

Qiyun: Yeah, and it almost feels like there's certain places where we can lie on the grass, and other places not really, just based on what we think is cleaner than the other or acceptable.

Darren: Some grass we can lie on, some grass when we lie on we’ll bitten by the ants like nobody’s business like that. Those cannot. But I agree.

Qiyun: It’s okay. You live and you learn. I just wanted to take this last question from Alfian. I mean, since our topic of discussion is “treasures from our forests”, Alfian’s question is about the idea of re-enchantment. So, I think, re-enchantment, I take it to believe—I take it to mean you are re-enchanted by the forest. So his question goes:

“Was discussing re-enchantment at a panel last night and we had a little debate about what approach might be more effective. One is reconnecting with indigenous or animist cosmology, or going deeper into scientific knowledge where you learn more about the anatomy, the physiology of all these more-than-human beings which can inspire wonder.” To him, the question relates to two poles of a spectrum of knowledge, right? Do you dwell in the mystery or do you dwell in the mastery?

So I see this as whether you are reconnecting with indigenous beliefs, stories or ways of life versus the more scientific ways of knowing nature. Which one of these is more effective in enchanting a person or getting that person to be more enchanted with nature? This is a rather big topic, but I thought we could end off with this. Does anyone have thoughts on which might be the most effective way?

Diana: Actually, I feel like it’s not really either-or, they interact a lot actually. For example, I think part of my re-enchantment with nature, from pure fear to being enchanted to it was also because I learnt more about it. And I guess this scientific knowledge versus re-enchantment, these are two different modes of speech or understanding. But, in fact, it can interact a lot. For example, when I went for a foraging class with my mum, or when I learned about the forest and certain things from my own upbringing, when you learn about certain plants. I think, just being, just growing up here your parents and your elders will teach you about certain things. The indigenous wisdom that you receive which is very much cloaked in this enchanting language, although for them it’s not enchantment, it’s just the cultural way of speaking. But I think when placed in comparison with our present, that it seems like enchantment because our present is extremely disenchanted.

When I hear about these indigenous ways of describing our flora and fauna, its benefits, its medicinal qualities, it’s not like a modern Western scientific in a way. But of course it has its own experts, its own knowledge systems, their own expertise, and they know about the qualities of these plants. So they have their own way of talking about the properties of the plants, this hard knowledge, so to speak, is there. It’s very much intertwined also with stories of the plants, how people experience it, what it’s good for.

And I think that's the important thing that a relationship is built, you see. It's not just knowing it in your head, like, oh this plant is good for this, or this is the name of it. It’s also about really forming a relationship with the natural world around you, and having these two things in tandem. I think that’s the more important thing. And I think enchantment can mean different things to people also.

I feel like when I listen to certain scientists, I feel I can never be as obsessed as they are about certain things, but they seem very enchanted by it. I'm one of those people, like, I can talk about nature, I’m very much enchanted by it. But you ask me to go inside the forest I cannot last very long. My enchantment is specific. I can look from the outside. I can stay. Because I’m just too scared. But like Darren said, you don’t have to love it or experience it a certain way in order to respect it.

Qiyun: I really love that relationship that you talked about, because I can also see how in the many stories that my grandparents have told me about how—the way they relate to certain species, certain fruits, certain vegetables. And then when I learn about it in the scientific sense, and when those two things click for me, I feel that enchantment increases, or that respect and reverence for something like that also increases.

Angela: I think enchantment is very personal. I think whatever gives someone an in into learning more about the natural world, that's wonderful, and maybe for some people that will come through direct experience as well. I'm growing some small vegetable plants for the first time. And this is an experience of enchantment for me to see the process of life up close. So yeah, I think enchantment is very personal, but I hope that everyone here can find it in their own way.

Qiyun: Thank you. And I think that very nicely ends our session today. So I want to say thanks to our panellists, Darren, Angela and Diana, and our translator Shimei for being here with us today and for all of you for listening and all the questions you’ve sent in.


About the Speakers:

Angela Ferguson grew up in the U.S. and spent seven years in Singapore, first as a student at Yale-NUS College and then as a climate resilience researcher. She recently served as a Senior Coach at Forest School Singapore, where she helped facilitate a weekly session for children ages 4 to 7.

Darren Quek is the Principal of Forest School Singapore. He found out about Forest School, after years of being in the education industry, as instructor for sports, camp and various enrichment. He began his Forest School journey understudying Atsuko Yamamoto (a Japanese Forest School Leader). He is also a certified Forest School Level 3 Practitioner, by the UK Open Awards Certification Body. All the experiences led him to the realization that bringing nature learning into a human being's life is the key to living, as nature is the root of all our existence.

Diana Rahim is an editor, writer and occasional visual artist currently working in a non-profit organisation. Her present work across mediums have focused on the politics of public space, the human experience and relationship with the environment, and issues pertaining to Muslim women in Singapore. She has three cats and too many books to read.

About the Moderator

Woo Qiyun is a Singaporean environmentalist and self-taught doodler. Trained in sustainability, she combines her technical expertise with colourful graphics to break down the complexities behind one of the most existential issues of our time on Instagram (find her online at @theweirdandwild). She's also currently building a creative platform, Climate Commons, where her interdisciplinary team explores novel ways to communicate our changing world.