“Our eating turns nature into culture”: We Are How We Eat panel transcript

Photo of banner for We are how we eat: A discussion on food, sustainability & history


We are how we eat was livestreamed on the Ethos Books Facebook page on 8 May 2021. You can access the captioned livestream recording here and the full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity. We would also like to thank Singapore Heritage Festival for collaborating with us! 


A rich food culture lies at the heart of Singapore’s identity, and agri-food technology is now on the rise in a push to grow local and eat local. But what are the traditional histories that remain sidelined in our "food paradise" and how might we reimagine the narratives of food in Singapore?

In collaboration with Singapore Heritage Festival 2021, Ethos Books is proud to present this online panel, featuring Christopher Leow (Urban farmer), Firdaus Sani (Orang Laut), Neo Xiao Yun (Ground Up Initiative) and moderated by Melissa Low (NUS Energy Studies Institute). This panel examines our relationships with food in a climate crisis world and a "resource-scarce" nation. What are the possibilities for sustainable food production in Singapore and what can we learn from the traditional histories of the food that we grow, cook and eat?


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



Photo of the panel (Top to bottom, left to right): Christopher Leow, Firdaus Sani, Neo Xiaoyun, Melissa Low


Melissa: Good morning everyone! My name is Melissa. I’m a research fellow at the National University of Singapore, and today I am really glad to be here to moderate this Ethos Books discussion, “We Are How We Eat”, a discussion on food sustainability and history. This panel was put together by Ethos Books in collaboration with the Singapore Heritage Festival. It will focus on the importance and relevance of food in the climate crisis as well as in our personal narratives.  

We hope that through this conversation, we will all make connections with food and the larger Singaporean identity and society. 

Thank you everyone for joining us on Facebook live. Today we have the pleasure of having three distinguished speakers. Some of them are probably quite familiar to you if you’re in the food sustainability landscape. So today we have with us Neo Xiao Yun. Xiao Yun authored a chapter in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene (ECC), actually the title chapter. She also volunteers with Ground Up Initiative (GUI) so that’s where she’ll be coming from today. We also have Christopher Leow. Chris is an urban farmer, so he will be sharing with everyone his experience as an urban farmer and some of his relevant projects. And we also have Firdaus Sani. He identifies as an Orang Laut, and he’ll be sharing with us today about his family and history, as well as the experiences of Orang Laut people moving to mainland Singapore from pulau semakau.

I will get each of the speakers to give us a short introduction to themselves, probably about five minutes for each person, and perhaps you can first share about yourself and your own relationship and history with food and sustainability, just very briefly, and then we can go into the Q&A very shortly. So perhaps we can start with Xiao Yun?



Xiao Yun: Hi everybody! Thanks Mel for the introduction. I’m Xiao Yun. By day I am a policy officer, and when the office hat comes off, I work overtime. Okay just kidding, but what I mean is I find time for my other passions like environmental education and biodiversity conservation. So as Mel says, I’m a volunteer with GUI. We are a non-profit organisation that is in the heartlands of Yishun and Khatib, and we’ve been there for the past 13 years. We just celebrated our birthday on Earth Day. 

So basically what we believe in is connection: connection with the Earth, connection with others (meaning other volunteers), and connection with yourself. And how we do that is we facilitate these connections via nature. We do a lot of regenerative farming with natural farming practices. We really believe in building a community for the community. 

So when I’m at GUII’ve been volunteering for the past two yearsI lead sensory farm tours and harvesting programs. Over there, participants can learn about where our food comes from and how much work goes into growing them. So every session I just strive to provide a safe space for participants to touch soil, to touch dirt, microbes, earthworms, flowers and of course, their produce, and hope that that touches them too in the process. Because studies have shown that human interaction and contact with nature helps to boost emotional health. That’s where I come from, the farming side of it.

Maybe just to segue a bit, I believe that we cannot love, respect or advocate for something that we don’t know. That’s why experiential learning is so important.

So how I got into food specifically, or how I got into writing the essay was that for the longest time, my twin interest was in environmentalism or sustainability and history. But I actually never knew how to bring the two together, I was quite clueless. I started off as a history major in Yale-NUS, but I was chairing the Yale-NUS sustainability movement. We were doing things like instituting Green Mondays in our dining halls: so basically, we have three dining halls, and on Monday one of them is green. Which later was so popular that it became Green Wednesdays and Green Fridays. And because I helped to bring it about, I thought that I also need to become vegetarian, and not just vegetarian on one day but on all the days, ‘cause why be vegetarian 40% of the time?

So I was then ending my second year of university, I was still clueless but I decided to follow my heart. Quite cheesy, but it’s true! So I did two study-abroad programs in the Himalayas: one in Bhutan and one in India, and that spanned nearly six months. Because I just think there’s something about being outdoors that gets me in the zone, flowing. When I came back to Singapore, I decided “okay, time to focus.” So I did all my history requirements, and I decided to do one environmental studies module, and that was Environmental Humanities with Prof Schneider-Mayerson.

That really changed me, because I learnt about the role of arts and humanities in responding to the climate and environmental crisis. So basically I think a fundamental cultural shift is very important to adequately address these pressing issues, and culture is studied, expressed and shaped by arts and humanities. Long and short, this was the module that inspired the essay “Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene”. It’s published by Ethos Books, and you can grab a copy of it. So I think that’s how I got started, and of course GUI continues to show me the importance of knowing where our food comes from and of course supporting local farms, and also passing on these farming practices which I can elaborate more on later. Thank you!


Melissa: Thank you so much Xiao Yun! Yeah, I’ve got a copy of the book, Eating Chilli Crab, and I helped to moderate the launch, and at the time I was sharing that I read it in a day and a half. I was so enamoured and continue to be really inspired by the authors of the book, and how you’ve taken the narrative to the Singaporean public. What I was extremely pleased with, having worked in the area of climate change for so long, is I said that it’s the first time I’m seeing so many young peopleI mean, the book was authored by people between 22 and 27 years old, and so this really changes things, right? So really glad that you’re part of that project with Matthew (Schneider-Mayerson) and the other authors. So we can get back to the book a bit later.

But perhaps now I can ask Chris to introduce himself quickly. Chris, how did you get involved in food and sustainability? 



Christopher: Hey Mel. I’ve spent the last 10 years involved in food, and I’ve ventured into all the different parts of the food chain. I started out as a chef, then as a trader, then as an urban farmer. How I got started… I did travel for about 7 months backpacking around the world. That was my discovery trip to understand where food comes from and how it’s grown. What really changed my perspective was when I lived with a family in Australia. They were self-sufficient, completely, so all their energy, food, everything was created on the land that they grew. And that made me think, could there be a different way that we can live back here in Singapore? And so with the lessons that I learnt, I came back to Singapore and ever since, I’ve been advocating for this movement where we could be more self-sufficient. 

Currently I’m with a new start-up called Bootle’s, it’s a concept that combines farming, a kitchen, and retail, so it does cumulate all my different experiences in food in this space. 


Melissa: Wonderful! We’ll get into that a bit later, Chris. We’ll talk a bit more about some of your urban farming projects during the Q&A. So last but not least, of course, we have Firdaus Sani, he is a… well I’ll let him introduce himself.



Firdaus: Thanks Melissa. My name is Firdaus, I am a 4th generation Orang Laut. I started the project oranglaut.sg in the time of Covid. I think the silver lining is that I had a little more time. I kickstarted this idea because I always wanted to do this for the longest time, it’s just that I had work, and then Covid came along and it was really bad, but also it’s really good for me personally because I’m able to be closer to my family as well.

So during this season whereby I had a lot of family dinners at home, we talk about food a lot. We talk about the stories that my mum used to share, such as how a piece of fish would end up on the table, and how she would go about catching that fish at Pulau Semakau. So a little bit of history: my family used to live in Pulau Semakau till the year 1977 when they were relocated to Singapore at about mid-1977 or so. So during that time of 1977 to 1991, my grandparents still visited the island a lot, I think they almost lived there for quite a bit. I was fortunate enough to be part of this journey, I was able to be exposed to the life of the Orang Laut growing up in Pulau Semakau with my grandparents. They taught me how to fish, they taught me about the seascape and the kind of biodiversity that the Southern Islands used to have.

I think I kickstarted this project because I wanted to be able to reclaim our narrative. I think from the Orang Laut perspective, history has always been written for us and not by us, so I hope that as a 4th generation Orang Laut, I am able to give more in-depth views into what we believe, and our culture, and a little bit more about our history and why it’s so important to us. Right now, Pulau Semakau is a landfill, but to us it’s more than that, and I am basically just the middleman sharing these stories of my family members, and it is an ongoing project that I kickstarted, and this will be ongoing hopefully for the next few years or so.

Just to touch a little bit more on food: food is really important to us. At the island itself, at Pulau Semakau, our diet mostly consists of seafood and vegetables that can be found on the island. Through the years, especially through conversations like what I’ve shared earlier, they would reveal a little more about where the food comes from and there’s always a story behind every dish, and stories such as how they used to catch crabs at the mangrove on Semakau, or they would tell me about the different fishing and preparation methods for our family’s asam pedas, for example. So food is really important to me because it reflects a certain time of our lives, our livelihood, and I want to be able to use food as a vehicle to talk about who we are and talk about our identity and also help to shape our narrative as well. 


Melissa: You’re getting me a bit hungry right now, talking about asam fish. I recently went to the Human X Nature exhibition that’s currently ongoing at the National Library on the 10th floor. I know that you and some of your community and family members were featured in a video and write-up on the orang laut which is really interesting, and I would encourage everyone to go and take a look at that exhibition; it’s on till the 26th of September. I really learnt a lot from listening to that short video, and we’ll come back to that in a bit. 

So for the next segment, for around 40-45 minutes, what we’ll do is, I’ll be moderating a discussion session with our panelists, who will be unpacking and interrogating humans’ or rather Singaporeans’ relationship with food here in Singapore. To start us off, I’ll ask Xiao Yun a question.

Why did you pick the iconic chilli crab as an example of how intertwined and complex our history is with the food that we eat? To you, what does “Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene'' really mean, and do you think that we can continue eating chilli crab in the anthropocene and what can we expect if let’s say—we talk about crab populations right?—do you think in a climate crisis we should still be buying into this chilli crab kind of … I think you can explain a little bit more as to why, and share a little bit more about the thinking behind your chapter and some of your thinking behind why you became vegetarian? I know you managed to share a bit with us earlier. So I will pose that question to you first. 



Xiao Yun: So firstly, I love crab. More importantly I want to be readable to a general audience, and honestly, what’s more Singaporean than food? Food is really so central to Singaporean culture and identity, particularly seafood, as Firdaus mentioned. So actually the chilli crab dish is really a hook, and I want to recreate for my readers the sense of wonder when I realised all the different ways that we are related to crab. So I guess maybe we can take a step back and take a look at the crab. The crab, when it’s presented, that’s the last stage of its life. But if you think about where it comes from, most of our crabs are Scylla Serrata, that is the giant mud crab which is imported fromwe call them Sri Lankans, but actually they’re imported from all around the world now because of our expanding demand for food. Not just us, but also rising countries like China.

So actually we import from India, Sri Lanka, even Myanmar, Indochina countries, as far as the east coast of Africa. So that’s the crab. But locally, we also have our own species of crab that are also Scyllas but not as big. The mud crab is 28 cm long, the local crabs which the Orang Laut probably caught grew up to 20 cm. So we have three Scylla species: the orange, green, and the purple. These crabs are probably the ones that the settlements of Orang Laut used to catch all the way in the 19th century, so they were eating crab even before us. But if we think about how it’s not just the crab, but it actually introduced the culture as well, maybe [Firdaus] will share more as well but it influences the things used to catch the crab, it influences how crabs are seen as very important because you could use them to barter trade with the communities on the mainland because they are bigger and have more protein, so they’re considered more valuable. 

So when you look at symbols of the crab, for instance in early 20th century Peranakan-Chinese culture, you actually see a lot of these motifs of crabs carved in gold that are used as decorations for their costumes. Because I was looking at some artefacts for an NHB talk slightly later in the month, so I learnt about all these ways that local culture, different communities in Singaporean culture, valued the crab. But if I could take us even further back into history, about 165 million years ago, along the coast of Africa, archaeologists discovered this huge pile of middens. So middens are essentially discarded shells. After you finish the shellfish, after you finish the crab, you throw away the shell. So these huge piles of middens were found in a lot of places in Africa, and that actually coincided with the migration out of Africa; they followed the coast. That’s actually a favourable route of migration out of Africa. So I think it’s really fascinating that… I think it’s just influenced us in more ways than one. 

So I myself was enthralled and I wanted to reproduce this wonder for everyone. My hope is that by conveying this understanding, it can be the basis of a new respect and appreciation for how we’re so related to the non-human world. Both food related but also beyond consumption. Maybe going into the “anthropocene”, it’s quite a long word. It just means the era where we find ourselves as the dominant force on Earth, where our impacts can actually be found to impact the geologic structure. So if future humans, a thousand years from now, excavatethey do soil cores, or ice block cores, they can actually see the impact of the current generation, meaning from the industrial revolution to present-day until we de-carbonise, probably.

So the anthropocene is just characterised by things like climate change, deforestation, widespread plastic pollution, amongst other things. So why bring the chilli crab and the anthropocene [together]? Actually it’s intentional, because we want to get people thinking about how global environmental problems are not just something happening far away, but also happening in Singapore. It’s happening here and now, it might affect you, the impacts are not the same, some people just experience it more and some not as much, but it’s not something far away. 

The question was really long, you also asked if we could eat chilli crab? So when I was doing research, I think technically and probably yes, in the short term. We’re pretty innovative. I’ve found a few ways that the restaurants have adapted to supply crunches. So House of Seafood has vacuum-packed crabs, and they have ample stocks of these vacuum-packed crabs. And Jumbo has 20 crab suppliers from five countries, so I think that’s how they get over the supply crunches, which have been happening. So as bad weather conditions and over-harvesting happens, some of the suppliers in some months have dwindled by 20%. Higher temperatures in general has also resulted in more crabs dying, so it has led to some countries harvesting juveniles. So I believe that it’s probably not viable in the long term.

And this is not just for crabs, but across all our key ingredients, like you can think about how climate change is also affecting our rice, our fish, our coffee, so on and so forth. And so that’s why I think the crab was the conduit to think about how we can try to transition to a low seafood- and meat-consumption lifestyle in Singapore, which I understand would be very difficult because we are extremely carnivorous. I would say even as I transition to the work lifeI’ve been working for two yearsI’ve had to be more “flexitarian”. You just have to socialise with people, and not all the restaurants have good vegetarian options. But it’s a matter of realising that you can have some days where you’re entirely vegetarian. It shouldn’t just be an individual thing, it should be a cultural and societal-wide norm. So that’s why I wrote the essay: we should start thinking about how we can change norms. Thank you, I hope I answered everything.



Melissa: Yes, you did! Excellent. I am so pleased that you shared, and very eloquently as well. I’m not a chilli crab eater, so it’s really different but in terms of what you said, what really struck me was how climate change is affecting food supply. Earlier we talked about how climate change is such a far-off topic for regular Singaporeans, and this is some of the complaints that we get, that people are not inspired to act. But food is so emotive to a lot of Singaporeans, right? I don’t have to go into detail, but you know how worked up we get about food, particularly with our neighbours on who has the best so-and-so. 

So I wonder, you talked about food supply and food security. And as you all know, during the pandemic, food supply was affected in Singapore because we import nearly everything. And that to our Government announcingactually it was announced slightly before the pandemic but it became even more apparentwe have this “30 by 30” target in Singapore, which is to grow 30% of our nutritional needs by 2030. So I thought that would be a good segue to Chris. Christopher can perhaps share about how as an urban farmer, in your role when you look at this landscape, how do you think that the ‘30 by 30’ target can be met? Separately there’s also another plan, the Singapore Green Plan, I wonder perhaps if you can give us a breakdown of how you view this plan and whether it’s helpful in the urban farming landscape here in Singapore.



Christopher: Thanks Mel. I think the question about food sustainability and self-sufficiency is actually a very complex one. I’ll just unpack that a little bit first, because I think to directly answer you about whether we can hit the target is a bit difficult. So I think firstly to be self-sufficient is to use whatever we have in our resource base and, for example, not importing stuff. But we live in a very difficult position because we have in our DNA been traders all along, and so if we were to cut off some of these trading supplies, what that would do is have a negative impact on, say, some of the regional farmers that we have already developed relationships with. And also do we really want to cut off some of these important relationships? That’s a very difficult question to answer.

The other part about being self-sufficient, as I lived with the family in Australia, it’s a real commitment. You have to live and breathe, you have to sacrifice a lot of things. So the question for us is, what are we willing to sacrifice? So your question is how much can we achieve this increase in production? I think the answer to that is we could probably achieve—I’m just throwing out a number here—we could probably achieve between 10% to 50%, but the real question is, at what cost? Singapore has achieved self-sufficiency in some food products before. In the 60s, we were self-sufficient in pork production. But the cost that it came with was huge environmental degradation. So all that manure had nowhere to go, it polluted our rivers and streams and all that, which is why eventually when the country decided to re-prioritise and move into more economic development, we had to remove the pig farming. So we can increase the number, but that also means that it is going to be more energy resource intensive, there’s going to be more waste, and will we just be doing it blindly, just as a processing facility for agriculture products? So I think we have to tread carefully on whether we want to do that. 

Now that’s maybe a bit of a more negative thought. On a more positive thought about what urban farming can do and has done is a lot more holistic benefits to the country. For sure there is an aspect of food production for nutritional needs, and it definitely fulfils that. In fact locally grown food that is harvested straight away instead of being kept in the cold chain for days has a lot more vitamins and nutrition, so that on a health perspective is better for us. Also by being able to grow... a lot of produce in the tropical region, for example moringa, which has 25 times more iron than spinach and lots of vitamins, we don’t even need to eat maybe oranges or other kinds of leafy vegetables when we can grow such a hardy and easy-to-grow crop like moringa. So these are some of the opportunities, from a nutritional point of view, that local production can give. From a holistic mental and physical well-being, just being out there, shovelling the soil and being around nature, there’s numerous studies that show that biophilic interaction is good for the body, mind and soul. When I was at Edible Garden City, we did a test study with NParks that proved that horticultural therapy can reduce stress levels and increase the well-being and confidence of people with dementia. So I think that is the gist of what I think urban farming can do, and it also helps to build a community and that’s something that Xiao Yun is very passionate about and speaks strongly about. 

The last thing I want to talk about is the tension and comparison between agri-technology and the more traditional ways of farming. First, to unpack agri-technology. The main focus of the current agritech scene is on automation and robotics. The second is on more biological control like gene editing to make plants maybe more drought-tolerant or climate resilient. The third is on controlling your climate: you can control your lights, you can control your air-conditioning. That is the current focus on the agritech scene in Singapore. The way I look at it, these are very good tools to be able to control the production, but it does come at a very high cost. The energy cost is high, et cetera. But I think we shouldn’t fear it nonetheless. It’s something that continues to develop, it’s a very new industry, and I think what’s important is that we learn from what good value we can get from the agritech scene.

The more traditional farming methods that we experienced before, mainly soil-based, I think there’s a lot more human element to that where it’s basically humans being out in nature and understanding and observing the patterns of rain, the patterns of sun, and what’s happening in the soil. So there’s a lot more human interaction. And there are actually very environmentally-friendly practices that I think Xiao Yun can maybe talk about later. So the pros of this is that there are practices that does benefit the environment, but the downside is it might not produce as much volume or tonnage as some of the more intensive production methods that technology can provide. There are pros and cons for both and I think we should continue to explore how we balance the ratios of these different methods and how we can learn from each other. 


Melissa: Thanks Chris! Really appreciate you taking us through the 30-by-30. I know I posed a really tough question to you about whether we can be self-sufficient, and I believe you shared the trade-offs that are inevitable, right, when you talk about agri-technology. The fact is it’s good to explore for Singapore, because of the pandemic we realised that we really need to be innovative in order to become or at least try to be self-sufficient. This is very evident in the water sector in Singapore. We’re well aware that by 2061, Singapore will probably not be able to import any more water from our neighbours, so therefore we put in a lot of money, time and effort to building our national taps. So likewise with food, likewise with energy, these are all resources we need to survive essentially. 

So thank you so much for that. We’ll come back to the farming part in a bit and I also want to tap Xiao Yun’s experience with GUI, so after we get to Firdaus then we’ll come back to that. Firdaus, I would love to hear more about the Orang Laut community from you and its relationship with food. So I mentioned earlier that I was at the exhibition just last week, and I heard… so affectionately they’re known as Mak Ani and Mak Noni, right? But I think their names are Rohani Rani and Nooraini Rani. So they were talking about how difficult life was for them in the kampong, but it’s difficult but then they also enjoyed learning about the natural, native plants and the medicine. I was so enamoured looking at the video and they were talking to each other about cat-nets, gill-nets, bubu fish traps—I wrote all of this down on my phone—traditional medicine. How have these narratives been captured through oranglaut.sg and how do you think they help Singaporeans today to better understand the Orang Laut relationship with food, sustainability and history?



Firdaus: Thanks for the question, Mel, also thank you for visiting the exhibition. So just to touch on what you have asked, the main objective of the project I kickstarted, Oranglaut.sg, is to share a bit more about our culture, our livelihood, and the kinds of things we used to do on the island itself. I think through storytelling, through digital means of today, I am able to do so. Thankfully we have Instagram, so I’m able to share about the practices we used to have, and thankfully we also have a bit of documentation thanks to photography. I am able to just transport people to the past and share with people about how the island was, and how life was like. And you’re right, my aunty is Mdm Rohani, and my mum is Mdm Nooraini, they are the main gatekeepers of our cuisine. I’ll also want to touch on what Xiao Yun has mentioned earlier today, she mentioned about the significance of the Sri Lankan crab or, on the island itself we call them Ketam Bangkang, that’s the local name for that.  

I think ketam bangkang, like what you also shared, we use specific traps for it, we used bubu traps. And there are different types of bubu traps, there’s not only one specific type. So the bubu traps that we use is the bubu trap for darat, which is more towards the reef area. There is also a bubu trap for deep sea fishing. So for example if you want to catch fish such as pufferfish, we would use a bubu trap to place in the middle of the ocean and wait a couple of days to catch a pufferfish.

Touching a bit more on pufferfish: it is such an important fish for that, because we do know how to de-poison the pufferfish, we know how to cook it in a certain way that it tastes very delicious; it is a delicacy to us. Of course, the narrative of today is that the pufferfish is only fugu, and it’s only a Japanese cuisine, you have it with sashimi. But as an Orang Laut, the pufferfish itself… we would eat every single part of a pufferfish, of course excluding the skin. So what we would do is we would double-boil the innards of the pufferfish. We would cook the liver of it, it is also the fattiest part, also they mention that this would be the most toxic. But it’s actually very delicious to us and for many, many years, we have honed the craft of how to cook the pufferfish. And when we cook it, it is such a huge event because we have to coordinate with our family members.

Out of the many family members that we have, like 10 aunties and uncles, only one knows how to de-poison pufferfish, and I worry that this kind of skillsets are dying within my family, because his eyesight is giving away, so as a fourth generation of Orang Laut, would we be able to still continue eating the pufferfish, because this is such an important meal to us. And my mom knows how to cook it. The preparation work takes a lot of time, about a day or two just to prepare the pufferfish itself, and cook it, and distribute it to the rest of the family members. 

Touching on your question on how was life like on the island itself: they would of course say that it was really difficult for them, because as an Orang Laut, my aunty would say: you cannot be lazy, you have to work hard for your sustenance because you only have one area that actually gives you food which is the sea. We rely heavily on the sea. And during monsoon season, when we can’t go out to sea, they would work with the local tuck shop owners, I think they came from mainland Singapore. So they would work on the plantations: coconut plantations, pineapple plantations, just to help them pick up pineapples, et cetera, and sometimes when we do have additional fish, we would in fact barter with the tuck shop owners. How we barter is they would give us rice, they would give us oil that we actually use for cooking. I think Xiao Yun was right, barter trade was alive and well back then, and I think crab was one of the items we used to barter as well with the mainlanders. 

There were also some specific species of seafood that were actually requested from the mainland. So my family would look into sea cucumbers, for example. There are many uses for sea cucumbers. I think rightly so, you’ve mentioned that sea cucumbers are an important part of our life because we actually consume them. My great grandmother used to be a midwife on the island, so we depended a lot on local herbology and also seafood. So if let’s say someone has just given birth, we would use the sea cucumbers as a way to cure internal bleeding. They would have it raw, just add a little bit of spices to it, some grated coconut, and they would just have it raw. Because they believe that the sea cucumber, when you cut them into half and put them in water, they would attach themselves again. So they believe that this kind of thing would happen internally as well, and this has been a belief that they have used for many years.

When they first got back to Singapore, I think when my mother had just given birth to my younger sister she had it as well, and at that point in time I was about seven years old, if I remember correctly, and I tried the raw sea cucumber. And it tasted really delicious! I asked “what is this?” and they said it’s sea cucumber with sambal. And I said “it’s really delicious!”, and they said “oh, but it’s uncooked”. And I said “what!”, and I changed completely in terms of how I consumed sea cucumber, because I was a little disgusted by it at the time and thought cooked means good, uncooked means raw. But I would go back and devour it again because it was really delicious. 

So just touching on how life was like, it is very back-breaking but of course, in terms of whether it is easier on them, it would be because if you were to compare life in Singapore before they were displaced in 1977, they didn’t have any debts right? So for a family of twelve people living on the island itself, they were really relying on sea-faring methods and fishing methodologies to survive, and asking them to adapt to mainland Singapore where they had to live in a concrete jungle was very difficult for them. So they took up a two-room flat, with the fear that they did not want to take on any debts. It’s something so alien to them, the concept of owing people money, because they believe in just getting sustenance for themselves, and I don’t think the concept of overfishing was there for them, because they really get what they need, and just live for the day. I hope that answers your question, Melissa.


Melissa: Absolutely. It really does, and I think this takes us back to the title of this panel, which is “we are how we eat”, and if you know how to essentially grow your own food, catch your own food as with the Orang Laut community, I think as your mum and your aunt said, we cannot be lazy. Although it’s back-breaking as you say, as Chris mentioned earlier, you can also derive physical activity from it, and perhaps you can say that… because a lot of Singaporeans are quite detached from how their food is being caught and processed and made and imported, then it results in a lot of waste because you don’t know how much effort it took to catch it and to grow it, and you don’t have that direct interaction with the land, the sea, and so on. So I think this is something that certainly this panel is trying to unpack a little bit more, and trying to understand: how can we tell these stories better? How can we relate our experiences with food a little bit better to Singaporeans so we can collectively address the climate crisis and the environmental crisis that we’re in?

So I would love to take the discussion back to urban farming, and here I want to check in with Chris and Xiao Yun because I do know that both of you are involved, Xiao Yun in GUI, perhaps you can share with us a bit more about the farm over there and how you’re involved. And Chris for you, I know you’re working on the Serangoon rooftop farming initiative, and I know you were up really late last night because the soil is coming in today, right? So a bunch of volunteers were up with pails, and I saw some photos today on the group chat. So perhaps you can share with us a bit more about that initiative. Let’s start with Xiao Yun.



Xiao Yun: Thanks Firdaus for the sharing. I think it really captures for me this quote from a book I read from a book by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it says “our eating turns nature into culture.” You really captured it.

So to GUI. GUI is quite a big space, it’s the size of about four football fields. So when we first went on that piece of land, it used to be Bottle Tree Park, so it didn’t used to be farming grounds at all, and the soil was very infertile and dry, very hard. And of course the farmers took a long time to understand the ground. This is part of natural farming, where you don’t use any fertilizers, no insecticides, no pesticides. As in, no chemical fertilizers, but of course we use food waste, compost, dried leaves and orange rinds that we get from the islandwide iJooz machines. So that’s what we use as fertilizers. Of course it took very long to understand the soil, understand the conditions of that place. And right now I would say that we are still not a production farm, we definitely don’t have 100 kgs of any vegetable in a single week, but we do have a huge variety, because we just grow whatever fits that spot—based on the farmers’ guidance, (not me, I just execute) and we also do crop rotation, whereby if we grow sweet potato here, then next round we’ll grow kang kong.

It’s got to do with how long or short the roots are and also which nutrients they take up from the ground in that growing cycle. After three rounds of growing that crop, we’ll put legumes. Legumes are beans—all kinds of beans, could be butterfly pea, could be sunham, et cetera—because legumes actually help to rejuvenate the soil, they convert nitrogen from the atmospheric form to a form that is soluble for the plant roots. So that’s generally how they do it. Of course it’s extremely labour intensive, I think we purposefully went in that direction. Our late founder believed in getting everyone together in a community to work on the ground together. So we all use changkols and every Saturday, like today, there’ll be volunteers there, and the organisation is still 90% run by volunteers.

So I believe, back to the “30-by-30” question, GUI’s main contribution to this national goal is from the community and social aspect. Because it’s a collaborative food production and provisioning method whereby at the end of every harvest day, which is three times a week, the people around the neighbourhood would come, or the volunteers would buy the produce and bring it back home. It’s a lot of intangible benefits, even though the vegetables aren’t 100% of all the household needs. It’s an education space. We educate the volunteers, we educate the participants who come here to learn about food production, so they appreciate the amount of work that goes into it - how to mix your soil, how to make your compost, how to harvest: with certain vegetables you don’t harvest the entire thing, like kailan, you keep the last two stalks so they can continue growing for three more times. So that’s one example. And of course, it has promoted the incubation of these urban farming practices. So that’s benefit one, I think, social learning, so when they go back home they can start growing their own farms in the HDB corridors. 

I think secondly, as I mentioned, would be the social contact of doing farming together. So everyone is really motivated to help out and enthusiastic to learn. And I think finally would be about how we actually cook plant-based meals in our kitchen, which is of course lighter and healthier on the environment, and for many of our volunteers, this one plant-based meal a week is the segue for them to go into a more plant-based and less carbon-intensive diet because when they eat the vegetables they’ve just harvested, they realise that vegetarianism can be delicious and nice. I think there’s something about how after volunteering, all kinds of food is nice including vegetarian food. So we often say that GUI has the best vegetarian food in the whole country. I think it’s because we’re really very shag haha. I think that’s GUI for the “30-by-30” goal.


Melissa: Maybe the food tastes nicer because you’ve worked so hard for it. Yeah, maybe Singaporeans would appreciate food more if they worked hard for it. So Chris, over to you.


Christopher: Thanks Mel. I was going to say the guerilla garden because how this rooftop garden was because of this slightly illegal activity that I did. So what happened was during the Covid period, I was quite bored, plus I was thinking about this food supply issue, so I thought why don’t I just start growing food for the community? I did some math, if a papaya tree can grow 100 fruits per year, if I grow a whole plantation, I could feed the whole Serangoon North neighbourhood. So I started doing that, and long story short, I got caught, and I got asked to evict the spot. But I tried to convince them that I really wanted to do something for the community, and lo and behold, the town council was very receptive and they said “MP loves your idea, and there’s this rooftop garden, are you interested to take it up?” It was a really amazing space, and we just started work on it. And through that process, MP Leon helped me to recruit volunteers, and Mel was actually one of the core team members. 

So the vision for the garden is we want the space to really be a place-making space, a space that is more than a garden. We want to bring people together, and Mel started some different initiatives. She suggested a free book library, and children and people can come and donate books and so that’s what we did. We started fabricating the library ourselves and it’s ready. And our garden is also going to be open, we don’t want it to be fenced like all other gardens. We want this to be a social experiment to see whether we can trust people enough to take ownership of the space. We also want to grow crops that can be taken copiously, like if someone wants to steal all the plants, go for it. There’ll be too much of it anyway. Stuff like pandan. 

And I think the broader vision is, I see a lot of potential spaces that could potentially be converted into urban gardens like this. The guerilla garden that I was asked to evict, the MP was actually very kind to let me stay on, so now I have both the downstairs and upstairs garden. So I do see that if we could start converting these spaces into edible gardens, not only can we, like what Xiao Yun said, involve the community and take ownership of it, but it can produce food at the same time, and this builds the whole network of social interaction and community spirit. So that’s the gist and the current progress of the garden. 

I just want to share one really heartwarming story about this interesting interaction. So the garden that we have already has existing plants like pandan, but the soil is not good, and the pandan and whatever plants there are not healthy. It’s not a well-designed garden for an edible garden. So we wanted to remove the plants. As we were doing that, this garden is actually connected to a quite a new elderly estate, so everyone living there is above 60 or 70. So as we were clearing the pandan, some aunties came down and they were very furious, like “why are you cutting down the pandan? This is for us to use! The HDB grew this for us, you can’t remove it!” So we were a bit caught by surprise. But later we explained to them our intention for the space, how we wanted to give back to them, and we gave them a pandan. They were super happy, they called the whole ging-gang to come down and everybody was grabbing pandans. And they started to open up and they were very happy with what we were doing.

One of the aunties actually said that she separated from her husband because he was too intense, so she was living alone at that block. She enjoys gardening, and when she saw what we were doing, and we said we’d like her to be involved as well, she almost teared up because she felt like she had some value to give, and she had also nothing else to do everyday, just tending to a small garden. So this was very inspiring and I do see that as something special about what these urban community gardens can do if we really tap on the aspirations of every individual.


Melissa: Thanks Chris, that was a very heartwarming story and I know also for you, it’s particularly valuable because you live nearby, literally a stone’s throw away and so I’m sure this is also a project that you feel improves your community and community spirit where you live. And likewise with GUI, Lai Hock was super passionate about growing GUI’s community and family, and we all miss him very much. 

Right now, we’re going to move quickly into the Q&A segment, so I hope all of you are populating the Sli.do with your questions. I just wanted to give the panelists a chance to… if you guys have any questions for each other, perhaps now’s the time to, before we segue into the Q&A, do you guys have any follow-up questions from each other’s sharing? Chris, you unmuted yourself. 



Christopher: Just very inspired by Firdaus’ sharing and I’m just very curious of how… is there more of these lessons that you’ve, over the generations, learnt how to eat off the land and is there any movement or how can we support this movement to keep that tradition? 


Firdaus: So I think what I’m sharing is more towards the perspective of an Orang Laut community living in Pulau Semakau. Eventually I hope the fourth generation Orang Laut community coming from other Southern islands would be able to share their stories as well. Because right now I feel a bit alone in this area, and I hope to inspire other individuals as well to share their stories. But of course I do not want to represent the entire Orang Laut community, I cannot, so I’m sharing the perspective of what my family knows, and I want to be able to just reclaim our narrative. That Pulau Semakau is more than just a landfill, basically. And I think the important thing of how you guys could support us is to share our story, that’s what I would say. And I use food as a vehicle right, and it is the one thing that connects us to everyday Singaporeans, I believe, it is the easiest way as well, like what Xiao Yun has mentioned, and I am really open to any ideas that you guys may have, and how I can get any kind of support from the community, because this is something I kickstarted in September last year, so I’m hoping that this movement will go beyond what it is now. I don’t know how you guys could support right now, but if you want to, please let me know. 


Melissa: Okay, excellent! Thank you so much for that. Actually, in fact there was a question that was posted on Slido about the available volunteering projects to support your initiatives. (Note from Ethos Books: We have consolidated the volunteering details from the speakers. Please refer to the full list at the end of the article)    

So the first question that I would love to ask with 5 votes is from Rina. And Rina asked: As we become more aware of the food we eat, is there a risk of fetishising traditional/locally grown food? Will this affect what chefs cook and growers grow?

I wonder- I would imagine Chris would you like to take this question? Meanwhile, Xiaoyun and Firdaus can think about the question. 


Christopher: I think we should absolutely fetishise F&B. And be absolutely- 100% passionate about it and go out advocating locally grown and native foods. There just isn’t enough awareness and education about it. To be honest, two generations have lost that knowledge, even though it’s right in front of our eyes and has always been there.

So I think ultimately the end goal of it is to be able to increase the understanding and appreciation of how to use different vegetables and spices. Then it will be normalised and we shouldn’t worry about it being perceived as “hipster” or something like that. The reason for it is that these crops- I mean there’re a lot of things that grow really really well with very very little input. And also the flavours for some of these things are amazing. 

One herb that I really love is ulam rajah. I think in Bahasa it means “king of salads”, if I’m not wrong. And it has green mango flavour, so it’s lightly fruity. And how it’s been used from my understanding is that it's chopped up finely, and used in nasi ulam. It’s like a rice herb salad. The flowers are also very aromatic and flavourful. So that’s something that is so special and unique. And we should be proud of it. I think everybody in the whole world should know that this amazing crop exists. 


Xiao Yun: I love Chris’ answer. I really think we should support local food. It’s also got to do with our natural history. In fact, right now I think there’s a fetishisation of agro-tech. We are importing so much to support 30 by 30. I kinda feel like it has to do with the fact that we don’t know our roots. We used to have a lot of small family farms. 

So most Singaporeans would know that we are a huge exporter of rubber, pepper and gambia, in different parts of our national history. We’re the reason why there’s so many rubber plantations all over the world, because Henry Ridley smuggled seeds outside of Singapore. 

But there was a diversity of subsistence crops that are now making a comeback in all these urban farms around Singapore. Because they take well naturally to the soil, so Ulam Rajah and coconut cloves, lemon grass, blue pea flower, sweet potatoes, yam, cabbage. All these grow very well and it won’t be expensive. I think that’s the main thing about fetishisation, there’s a concern about cost. But if it grows well and there’s a huge supply, I hope we can keep the cost low. I think cost is the main thing; we don’t want it to be an equity issue. And so if we can understand our local history about growing vegetables well; whereby up to 1984 family farms were meeting about 25% of national needs for vegetables. Then we can rely less on agro-tech. Right now, there’s a natural choice- natural assumption that when you talk about 30-by-30, you definitely have to use technology. We actually have to strengthen this local core so that we have a diversity of ways of growing. And that actually improves the resilience of the entire food system. Yeah. 


Melissa: That’s really interesting. I actually didn’t know this statistic - that up till 1984 family farms were actually supplying so much of our local food. I’m very curious. Is it because of land constraints that this shrunk? 


Xiao Yun: I think it was just, as Chris said, it had to do with national development. It was decided that farmers belong to a more backward… it was deemed as a backward job. They changed the land use. The pig production, as well as the vegetable production was slowly phased out. 

For this statistic, you can read “The End of Farming” by Cynthia Chou. 


Melissa: Excellent suggestion. I’ll definitely pick the book up. As you were answering that question earlier, we had one more question that was upvoted. So we’ll go fast and furious. This is a question by Alfian and the question- there are two questions within this question. The first is: What are the possibilities of a community garden as a commons? How do you decide who “owns” which plots and how to distribute the harvest?


Christopher: I… I don’t know. I don’t think there should be a silver bullet solution. I think every garden will have its different ways of management. Maybe it should be a conversation for each garden and each gardening team. Let's say they say sit down and say "okay this is the intent of the garden, we want to grow food for ourselves - for people within this community - and this is how we choose to manage it". 

Then maybe for other groups, they wanna keep it open, like for our group, then it is a conversation to be had internally. Probably there needs to be some form of mediation, some policing of… in case some people do something crazy or build structures that may not be safe. There needs to be a bit of that but I don’t know, I do feel that the current model is possibly a bit too exclusive. Where everything is fenced up.

There's already a thousand of these community gardens. More than a thousand. So maybe what we can do is to encourage more gardens that are not fenced up. But I know that’s not really giving a clear answer, so the answer is I don’t really know how to manage it. 

But I think for me, how I manage.. There’s a book I’m reading on how to manage difficult conversations. The reasons why most community gardens fail is mostly political, and that’s not being managed well. One leader wants to do everything, and he just- other people don’t have a say. So maybe what needs to be done is more people have a say and more spots are opened up. 


Melissa: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I remember when we were applying for the Community in Bloom initiative? Is it like a fund or something? Well we had some instructions- you had some instructions that were given to you by our colleagues at Nparks. I mean these were mainly for pest control, and the soil was contaminated. And therefore they listed a few things we’d have to do if we wanted to tap into the funding. So in some way, that’s also an intervention; even though it is a community garden, there’re still specific rules to abide by if you want to tap into available funds and resources. 

So next one. It’s an interesting point, I love this question. It certainly helps us think into who really owns.. They call it community gardens.. But this group may or may not stay there. So the aunties, coming down from their apartments say, "Eh what are you doing with our garden?" That, to me, is about who claims it first. We certainly need to investigate a bit more as to how this happens, and whether we can make sure that everyone has a stake and can continue to enjoy the garden. I do get distressed when I see a fenced up garden. I walk past park connectors where it’s like lock and key. Yeah, I’m glad that our rooftop garden isn’t fenced up, anyone can go there. Hopefully we keep it that way. Let’s move on to the next highest vote question. It's by Nick and he asks: How do we talk about food in a way that is not 'gentrified'/ "privileged", but possibly more inclusive? Whether it's film, art or even discussions like that. 


I’d love to pose this question to Firdaus, because your initiative is doing storytelling. Perhaps you can share a little more- or elaborate a little bit more about your approach or strategy to telling stories about food and culture and history that are more inclusive. 


Firdaus: Thanks for the question. I think the question is a loaded one. My approach to food is more towards how we perceive food. As a 4th gen orang laut, to us, food is more than just something we eat over dinner or lunch. It is something with a story behind it. If we look into the kind of food we have, it reflects the type of life that we used to have; the fishing methodologies, the kind of livelihood we used to have on the island. 

So to make it more inclusive, I’ve of course, often tried to relate it to the Singaporean context as much as possible. And I’ll try to talk about how our culture and food is part of the history as a whole. And I think just to share with you all some examples of how I think food could bring people together right. Recently on our social media channel on oranglaut.sg, I shared a picture of belimbing buluh, which is a different species - a different type of starfruit. It’s actually locally grown in Singapore, on the island itself. 

So, how we used the belimbing buluh, we cook it with asam pedas. Today, it’s a little bit hard to find. So my uncle found this tree near to our area, and he took a couple, just foraged it and he passed it to my mum. So we cooked asam pedas with it. When I posted it on social media, I was surprised to find that there were lots of other Singaporeans sharing their stories about the belingbla- sorry it’s a mouthful- belingbin buluh tree.

They talked about in Katong, there used to be this huge belimbing buluh tree, that was actually owned by the community, they would pluck from the tree as and when needed. And I think it was such a beautiful story, and more and more people were sharing. And there are some trees that are still around Singapore. Some of the members are still sending me photos and telling me the belimbing buluh tree still exists and that I’ve just taken a couple today. 

So, I think in a way, food should bring people together, and we should be able to use food as a tool to talk about our past, or future, and what it means for Singapore. 



Melissa: Wonderful, that’s a really nice story. Actually, I was looking at your IG page as you were sharing. There’s a picture of the dish and it looks really delicious. Okay, cool. Thank you so much for that. Let’s take another question:  Has your relationship with food changed after working on what you are working on now? Chris with your urban farm, Xiao Yun with GUI, Firdaus with your storytelling. How has your relationship with your food changed? Anyone can take the question.


Firdaus: Since I work closely with food, I can take this one. So I think my relationship with food is a really special one, especially growing up with the island itself. I was taught how to fish for my own food and look into the kind of food that actually can be eaten or not. And I think my grandparents have taught me the value of food. 

Because if you just catch a certain fish, you gotta wait a couple of hours sometimes. I would excitedly wait for my grandmother to cook and we would eat it as a family. It means so much more because I know where the source comes from, and what it means to me and my family. 

While working on oranglaut.sg, for me, food right now is something so important because I'm able to share this part of my history with other Singaporeans. And I hope that through food, they will be able to understand a bit more about our culture. Understand that food shapes how we live at pulau semakau, and possibly some of the other southern islands as well. 


Melissa: Thanks so much! We actually have a follow up question for you, Firdaus. Alfian asked if you had any plans to record and document Orang Laut community knowledge? Like for example in the form of recipes—there’s a book on Orang Asli recipes.


Firdaus: That's a great question. So I think there are a few things I’m currently working on. 

To really record, through oral interviews of my family members, how we used to live. Also, beliefs right. I think for the orang laut community, we have different beliefs from those who live on the mainland. We have utmost respect for the sea. It’s evident in the kind of things we do before going into the sea. I shall not go into details. 

But I think also, this project allows me to be exposed to other communities. So there’s this guy - Wan- from Ubin, who’s recording stories on pulau ubin and sharing lesser-known stories from Pulau Ubin. And I hope through this project, I'm able to work with other people from other islands to share what we know, our methodologies, and look into, from the islanders’ perspective, various aspects of things such as beliefs, cultures, any cross cultures based on our research. This is like an ongoing project, I only started this a few weeks ago, and I hope that it receives more momentum. We are in the midst of looking for other individuals who used to live on the island. I think it’s gonna take a long time to actually research, but I’m happy to say that the work has started. 



Melissa: Okay cool. I think a lot of people in our Facebook live would be interested, so if  you could repeat the initiative again? And if you could also type it in for everyone on Facebook live? 


Firdaus: There’s no official name for it now. 


Melissa: But they can get in  touch with you right? 


Firdaus: Yes, they can.


Melissa: So through oranglaut.sg- it's on Instagram. But drop by oranglaut.sg and drop us a note. 


Firdaus: Yes, you just go through oranglaut.sg on IG or drop us an email at hello@oranglaut.sg


Melissa: Alright, fantastic. Okay, I have this question, it's just popping up. And I think it’s for Chris because it says - it’s by anonymous: What was your secret to convincing the MP to let you grow the Urban Garden? 

And your MP is actually Leon Perera. 


Christopher: You need some really good powerpoint presentation skills and pretty pictures…. I dunno! I just did a PPT presentation honestly and… I just spoke very honestly about my intent and I think it was very very fortunate that MP Leon’s value system is very aligned. He is super community focused and just wants any reason to bring people together. Any reason that is good and matches that... and this happened to be a perfect match, so that was a win. 



Melissa: So if anyone out there wants to set up a community garden, really do go speak to your MP. Well, not always the MP, maybe the town council too. First, the town council actually, not always the MP. 


Christopher: Yeah, I think when one door closes, you need to find a back door, a side door. At first, the front door closed and they said shut it down, pull it out and I just tried my luck in many other ways. Just keep trying. If you need specific advice, feel free to reach out to me on Instagram. I’ll see if I can teach you some tricks of the trade. 

Just to give you some context- I was very fortunate to have worked with this visionary called Bjorn when i was in edible garden city. He used his creativity a lot to convert these existing random commercial spaces into gardens. So that required a lot of convincing. The trick is how… Can you convince the other person, who is very risk averse - whether they are town council or an MP  or establishment- into believing that you can add value to them? Make them successful in whatever they are doing. And can you reduce the amount of risk that they bear? 

And I knew that the town council would be very concerned about maintenance issues - there’s mosquitoes, there’s the water pipe breaking. So they were like who’s going to be responsible for that of course. So I put up my hand and I was like I’ll be fully responsible for all the costs, and I’ll sign a contract to show them that I’ll put this under my ownership. And should I - also have an exit clause - so should I need to exit, I would reinstate the garden back to its original condition. For them this is very little risk. 



Melissa: That’s so interesting. What a great insight. Thank you all so much. I know we have a lot of questions still remaining, but we only have about 8 minutes to go. So perhaps we can take one last question, and have you guys share a bit more. 

So I think the final question I really want to ask is… someone - an anonymous person - highlighted this on Slido: How do you educate people about environmental issues? Moving forward, how do you use your work, beliefs, eating habits to educate people? And what are your hopes for Singaporeans’ relationship with food? 

Hopefully this represents the question well enough. Yeah, so for the remaining 7 minutes, I wonder if we could go in turns, just to share on education and your hopes for the future of how we eat. 

Let’s go backwards to our earlier sharing, Firdaus first, then Chris, then Xiaoyun. 


Firdaus: I think firstly, on the topic of sustainability right, there’s a lot of talk about parrot fish, about how important it is for the ecosystem. I think for parrotfish, it’s a staple for our family. Of course, we used to fish parrotfish whenever we needed to make dishes out of it. 

I also think it’s not only about educating Singaporeans, but it’s about educating the community itself. Some of the community that is still going out to sea to fish, I would go out to them and tell them, "hey parrotfish is something that is important to the ecosystem and we would need to just catch what we need, and not overfish". 

It’s also an ongoing effort for me to educate my community. Through oranglaut,sg, some of the seafood is sourced through a person that helps us to catch specific quantities of what we need. 

It’s also looking at the offerings we have on the weekends. We only go by pre-order. So through food, I want to be able to manage the quantity and not request additional supplies that we do not need. That’s why I think the preorder system is important to me. And just on that note, sustainability is important. Especially as someone who used to work at WWF for 3 years, I now understand better the kind of impact that it has on the environment, and what we as individuals can do. 

The thing about sustainability and culture is that there is a grey area. Do you consume it because you have a cultural background that used to consume this species? Or do you deter away from it? It’s a question of balance. I feel that I’m trying to go in between, be in the middle and still keep my culture and traditions, at the same time have sustainability in mind. 



Christopher: I would like to educate people by creating amazing amazing food and having people eat it.  Because Singaporeans know what good food is, and they go crazy about it. We talked about having a pandan party, having excuses to create avenues where we can harvest, and prepare food. So we were going to do a Kaya toast sharing - giving out to the residents - and our fellow group member, Joy, was gonna make a pandan cake. That’s what we plan to do for the community garden. 

At work what I want to do is to redefine what people have as salads. Because what we have is quite bland, the same old baby spinach and arugula. I started using what I grow on the farm. Things like marigold flowers, things that give you really nice colours. Things like sorrel, that has a lovely purple colour and tastes very citrusy.

That little salad that I created I want it to excite people when they taste it, they start to understand. "What is this interesting ingredient? I thought it was a weed outside my house? I didn’t know it was edible!” 

So that has gotten some interesting conversations going, and who knows, the more we grow these things… And I think that can really change the way we consume, and this whole demand will change, once we realise the value of what we can grow.

The second part is - what I see food as in the future and my hopes for it. There's so many elements, from the passionate hobbyists gardeners, to the commercial farmers - it’s not easy producing all these foods with all these demands on them.  And you have the people in between, who are the small scale farmers. What I hope to see is networks that bring these networks of all these different groups of people together. 

So that with more of that holistic interaction, there is the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of experiences, the whole ecosystem can be strong, and therefore inspire a new generation of people to be interested in farming and food. 


Melissa: Okay, I’m going to ask you to  make that salad for our volunteers very soon. Last but not least, Xiao Yun please. 



Xiao Yun: I guess in sum, back to the topic of this panel - the relationship between food and us is rich in Singapore. What we know of it, or rather what we don’t know -- is the result of education. 

I believe in using arts and humanities as education. If we only think of food as just food, we lose so many opportunities. Which is why Chris and Firdaus talked about presenting food creatively, to inspire all these other thoughts about food. 

I believe that will continue to make ourselves very palatable to a general audience. For me, maybe I can at this point, bring a different angle of environment education that I’m doing, (which is) outdoor and biodiversity education. It’s got to do with igniting curiosity and care for local flora and fauna. Sharing about how there’s intrinsic value in preserving local diversity. Food is this very cultured way of using nature- of what Earth gives us. You must think of food as part of the greater goods of things that the earth provides us and nourishes us with. 

And so for me, that’s also the other angle that I tackle it at. When I see a mud crab or flower crab in the waters, when I bring people out for intertidal (walks). I say “Hey! You don’t recognise this? You probably eat it! But this is how they look, how they behave." Another interesting thing is the sole fish; they don’t know how it looks like and how it moves.  

For me (it is important) to continue doing that kind of education. Getting people up close to nature. Facilitating natural science learning outdoors will continue to be important. Because it’s not just about the species itself. But it also gets people thinking about protecting the spaces that harbour these diversities, our coastlines, our rainforests and so forth. 


Melissa: Thank you for sharing this! So this only leaves me to thank our panelists, Xiao Yun, Firdaus, and Chris for sharing their great insights and personal stories with our 60+ people on Facebook live. I would like to also thank Ethos Books for bringing this panel together. And the Singapore Heritage Festival. Please do check out the rest of the programmes, please do check out the Human X Nature exhibition at the NLB.

Thank you all for sharing your stories today. May we never forget where we come from, who we are, and how our food is produced. And may we never lose this fire and passion for making Singapore a better place. Thank you all so much and have a great weekend! 




About the panel

Christopher Leow has traversed from "Farm to Table", traveling and working as Cafe owner, Ramen Consultant, and was a key member in setting up the urban Farm at Edible Garden City. His mission is to further improve the different components of the food system. Christopher is highly involved in the local agriculture scene, both commercially, where he lectures in the Urban Agricultural Technology Diplomas, as well as working on community farming projects - such as leading a rooftop community garden in Serangoon North. He is currently a founding member of Bootle's Market- a Grocer, Farm & Kitchen concept.


Firdaus Sani is a fourth-generation Orang Laut, whose ancestry can be traced to the Riau islands. His maternal grandparents used to live on one of Singapore’s Southern islands, Pulau Semakau till 1977 before they had to leave their home for the mainland. In 2020, Firdaus started Orang Laut Singapore (http://oranglaut.sg), a page dedicated to retelling the stories of Semakau through his family’s eyes before it was turned into a landfill. With experience working at an environmental non-profit organisation as a Marketing & Communications Manager, Firdaus has a keen interest in conservation issues in Singapore and hopes to take on more sustainable approaches with Orang Laut.


Neo Xiao Yun is a policy officer concerned with advancing constructive international relations to secure Singapore's strategic aviation interests. When she is not firing email submissions, she's wielding her chungkol at Ground-Up Initiative (GUI), a non-profit community, with a mission to connect people with Nature, Self & Others through nature-placemaking and volunteering activities. She also marries her love for education and the great outdoors as a facilitator of ecological learning journeys with The Untamed Paths. Xiaoyun graduated magna cum laude from Yale-NUS College in 2019 with a major in Environmental Studies. She authored the title essay in the anthology Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene: Environmental Perspectives on Life in Singapore. In all that she does, Xiaoyun strives to be a part of purpose-driven businesses and groups that can make a lasting, positive impact on our environment and social fabric.


About the moderator 

Melissa Low is a Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute, NUS. She has participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) for over a decade and is an active sustainability thought leader, authoring, publishing and presenting at various forums. She is the Designated Contact Point for NUS’s accreditation to the UNFCCC and serves on the nine-member Steering Committee of the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organisation (RINGO) Constituency under the UNFCCC. Melissa provides policy analyses and conducts workshops for various stakeholders to improve understanding of the implications of the Paris Agreement and countries’ progress in meeting their climate pledges. Her current research focus is on transparency of climate action and reporting in Southeast Asia. Melissa holds an LLM in Climate Change Law and Policy (with distinction) from the University of Strathclyde, MSc in Environmental Management and BSocSci (Hons) in Geography from NUS. For her Master’s thesis on past and contemporary proposals on equity and differentiation in shaping the 2015 climate agreement, Melissa was awarded the Shell Best Dissertation Award 2013. She is currently pursuing a PhD part-time at the NUS Department of Geography.



🌱 Volunteering Resources 🌱

  • GUI's list of volunteer programmes are below. Due to COVID restrictions, GUI has limited vacancies and they seek understanding and patience while waiting for their response.

  1. Balik Kampung (Saturdays)
    Balik Kampung (meaning 'going home' in Malay) is GUI’s flagship community program that happens on Saturdays. It helps us to renew our connection with the land and one another by maintaining our Kampung Kampus. These activities on the land include farming, cooking, housekeeping and others. More importantly, we thrive towards the cultivation of caring and mindfulness in our urban lifestyle.

    A yummy Pay-It-Forward plant-based lunch is included where you contribute to the sustainability of the kitchen meal services by practising Pay-As-You-Wish.

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