"When a human community is rich it allows nature to grow side by side": Making Kin with the Urban Jungle
Livestream of Making Kin with the Urban Jungle
Making Kin with the Urban Jungle was livestreamed on the Ethos Books and Books & Beer Facebook page on 4 December 2021. You can watch the livestream above and the access full transcript of the programme on this page. Portions of the transcript have been edited for clarity.
About Making Kin with the Urban Jungle
How do we make kin in the face of urbanisation? Join authors Ann Ang and Constance Singam in conversation with Tok XinYing in this online panel as they explore the complex entanglements between urbanisation and nature, and discuss our agency in rebuilding our connections with nature. From animal encounters and natural knowledge to community gardening and nature walks, this panel will discuss the possibilities that exist to recentre kinship within our urban lives, and deepen our understanding of the diverse ecosystem that we are part of.
Wei Lin: Good afternoon everyone! Thank you for joining us this Saturday afternoon for Making Kin in the Urban Jungle.
This virtual talk is a collaboration between Books and Beer, Ethos Books and Climate Conversations. We're so excited to welcome Ann Ang and Constance Singam with us today, who are contributing authors in our ecofeminist anthology Making Kin. We are also very glad to have Tok XinYing, the co-founder of Climate Conversations, to moderate this talk.
Xinying, on to you.
XinYing: Thank you very much, very happy to be here, good afternoon everyone. Happy to have all of you join us this afternoon.
As Wei Lin introduced, my name is Xinying, I’m a co-founder of Climate Conversations. At Climate Conversations we create spaces for people to kind of discuss and understand how climate changes affect us living here in Singapore.
Starting with the pandemic last year, Climate Conversations started thinking and exploring about how art and literature can help us understand and see nature around us, especially at a time when we were all locked down and we were all cooped up in our homes. We were trying to find different ways to help people engage with nature.
So today I feel very honoured that given that small little dabble into literature, we’ve been invited by Ethos Books and Books & Beer to moderate this discussion about how we here in Singapore even though we’re very urbanised, how can we actually make kin with nature? And how can we make kin amongst ourselves in diff communities.
The way we see it, between the self and the nation, these layers of communities that we built together around us, and this is the fabric that really holds us together and helps us help each other in times of need.
The question really is: Is nature integral in helping us form these communities, and whether or not we can do this mutual love for nature, find a shared purpose, find shared unity in the spaces that we’ve created.
Today I have with me, two authors who contributed very heartfelt and very meaningful personal essays in this new book Making Kin.
When I was reading their personal essays they gave me much food for thought for these questions today. So I’m very happy to have them here explore some of the themes around nature, community building and discovery of self and how we connect with each other. And also take the opportunity to share some of the beautiful passages of their essays. Welcome Ann, welcome Connie.
As a start, how about tell us a little bit about yourself, why you said yes to contributing to this collection of essays, and whether or not through the process of reflection and writing something crystallised for you about how you relate to nature. Maybe I start with Connie.
Constance: Well, I wasn’t going to accept. At first, I was reluctant. Because my knowledge of nature is my own personal experience, and it’s not studied or expert about our environment like Ann is, I think.
So I was a bit reluctant. But then the editors knew—or the publishers knew—about the children’s books that I had been writing, and especially the first book, The Birds in the Bamboo Tree, because there were these birds came to my window and built a nest.
So that was my experience and I wrote about it, and the more I think about it I know that I’ve always been a close observer and I take great pleasure being among trees and among gardens and so I haven’t for instance gone into—been brave enough to go into— jungles and into wetlands, and I’m always afraid of snakes and crocodiles and what have you, so I am in that way an urban gardener, an urban citizen, comfortable in controlled spaces, I’m ashamed to confess. And that’s where I am. And I was writing about my personal experiences and my joy in my contacts with birds and one particular animal that I wrote about.
XinYing: Thank you so much! How about Ann, how about yourself?
Ann: In writing this essay, there were several thoughts that were crystallised. I have to thank the editors of this collection, Angelia and Esther, for first planting the thought in my head that I should write about my birdwatching experience as well as my nature guiding experience at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve where I was a volunteer guide for a number of years.
I came to birdwatching quite late in life, it was at the encouragement of a colleague from one of my former workplaces, and I think this essay was an opportunity to make sense of something beyond just the act of birdwatching and to put all these thoughts in some sort of order.
And like Connie says, we come to nature very differently, we all have different starting points, and one of the things that crystallised for me was that the act of naming a bird does not come naturally, even though the act of looking at the bird seems very spontaneous and birds are so showy and so beautiful and so obvious.
As I was writing this essay, I was struggling with the idea of what does it mean to name a bird, and bird watchers are notorious for this. Because as a field of a study, ornithology is very well developed in terms of its taxonomy and classifications, and birdwatchers in the popular stereotype and imagination, they know all the names, they know everything. So where does that leave the rest of us in this divide between those who know and those who don’t?
And when I wrote the essay, "The Bird Without A Name", it was about that struggle to name when you feel ashamed about what you don’t know, or you don’t even have the language perhaps to put a name to what you see. So how do we go about this, how do we navigate this? The essay is an exploration, as many of the essays in this particular collection are.
XinYing: You have a lovely passage in there about that, that you might want to share.
Ann: Okay, I’ll read a little from "The Bird Without A Name". So this is kind of at the start.
It begins anywhere, this other kind of knowing. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that not every bird needs to be named, and that sharing the name of a bird could offend. Naming a bird—Oh! That’s a Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker—means drawing attention to the listener’s ignorance, and to the way an entire feathered tribe exists beyond sight and hearing, or rather, conscious sight or hearing, since a tropical island like Singapore is an ecological paradise with 417 avian species recorded to date. To name a bird is to insist that we look more closely at “so much empty space” and “all this grass, just breeding mosquitoes.” To give a bird a name implies that we welcome the wild into our words, and into language, that most human and humanly fallible of entities. But when we ourselves refuse to learn the names that will allow birds to sit in our lives, and after all it is so much easier to say “so many trees what, cut down also can plant some more”, we’re saying that we know enough in order to remain ignorant. We’re saying the human is all that matters, while we become less human for every bird that lacks a name.
That’s all I usually intend when I name a bird. I appreciate it’s a lot, especially for someone for whom a relationship with nature takes the form of a landscape painting, or a phone’s lock-screen, easily swiped away. I don’t judge my friends who hate nature with a capital “N”, and then add a capital “H” for good measure. One of them is bravely and politically incorrect, and will tell anyone how he deplores trees, mud and grass, and yet another warns everyone not to touch plants or walk barefoot at the beach because you may get a disease. After all, we have mostly bought into the myth that equates Singapore with the Lion City. This self-concept of the urban and hyper-modern pushes green spaces, and environmental concerns to the periphery, where they exist in a zero-sum competition with other forms of land usage.
XinYing: Thank you Ann, that was a lovely passage, and I like the play between the imagery of an island, we usually use that word to kind of think about a place of nature, but Signaporeans define ourselves as being part of an island city.
So how does that shift the way we understand our relationship with nature? You mention a little bit about how that mind frame has caused nature to exist in our periphery only, but we don't really see it, and I think I feel that sometimes myself. I feel like we only get to experience nature in little pockets, and not as a whole.
Just like you say, sometimes when you see a bird that’s really beautiful, it feels like a rarity, it’s not something that should be part of our daily lives. But on the other hand historically in the early days of Singapore we have been quite deliberate in ensuring greenery was everywhere.
I read an article where a former Commissioner of Parks and Recreation actually recalled MM Lee saying that he felt it was important that greenery was not just where rich people stayed.
And I kind of wanted to take that and discuss a little bit first today. Is nature really just in our periphery? Is it around us and we don’t see it? Or is it that we’ve not made it accessible to everyone? Are there norms or practices that preclude people from experiencing nature themselves in their daily lives? What are some of your own personal experiences around this?
Connie: I think when you talk about pockets of nature, when I look around my estate, I don't see the pockets either. I mean I can’t complain, I live just opposite MacRitchie Reservoir.
I also notice that people go—I think that was one of the issues we raised—people go and use these parks for exercises but are they aware of the nature around them? Are they aware that they’re part of this ecosystem, or they’re just there to do exercise?
To engage with nature, how do you engage with nature? I think Ann raises—or you raised that. How do you engage with nature? How do you do it?
Whether we are jogging at Macritchie or Botanic Gardens or visiting, we go there as exercise addicts, and when they come to you, you’re a tourist. What kind of engagement do you have, and how do we get to that point?
Ann: I think there are a couple of things in the background here. One is how we continue to see nature in a use-value relationship to ourselves, so if you go to a park it’s to exercise.
And the other assumption in the background here is that there’s a kind of binary divide between the urban and the natural, so if you want to see nature you go to a nature park and you view it like a tourist and then you come back into the urban.
And then you’re in your situation where there’s no nature here because I’ve visited nature and I’ve come back from it. And this binary, this norm actually conditions how perhaps we may not notice as much of nature in the urban spaces as we’d like to.
And I think as a nature guide, when I take visitors or the guests onto the walks, I of course show them how to see what there is in the wetlands, but at the same time I try to make sense for my visitors of where we are in Singapore, it’s a stopping-over point.
That you can see birds anywhere, migratory birds pass through and they drop into little pockets of green. Simply by noticing where you are, how rich this island is, you start to get a sense of location we’re in and the natural history that’s ours to claim. And somehow we forget; we're interested in human history but we’re not interested so much in natural history that’s creeping into all these corners around us.
Constance: It’s become an artificial way of integrating with nature, or relating with nature. If you go back hundreds of years ago, even a hundred years ago, nature was part of your life, you know. You grow your own food, and I remember my mother used to take great joy, and she used to grow her own tapioca and her own sugarcane, and vegetables, and all that.
You feel it, you touch it. And by feeling it and touching it—now I’m becoming very dreamy about this integration—you are passing some kind of energy between you and (nature)—I don’t know whether rationalists will accept that—and people say that it is healthy for you, that kind of relationship with nature, which we can’t have, we don’t have, because of the situation we are in.
Ann: And unfairly so as well, because we have to do so much work to restore that relationship, but the silly thought that I alluded to was, there is definitely this residual longing to be with nature, to grow your own food, and unfortunately not everyone can do that.
But I’m wondering that if people paid attention to the food on their plates they might see that there is a relationship, in the sense that if I look at a leaf on a living plant, and then I look at the kangkong leaf that I eat, there are similarities, it is miraculous how this leaf has grown and it’s now on your plate.
Our mothers will say don’t play with your food, but I’m sure we’ve all looked at the fish on the plate and said "it’s got eyes, it’s got scales". I think that curiosity and wonderment of the living matter that we are and that we interact with should be encouraged even though it seems rude to play with your food.
I agree with you Connie, there is a kind of divide in the sense that when we buy our food, it’s transacted through money, it removes that immediate relationship, that more organic relationship we still yearn for with something that is living and something that is green.
Constance: Yeah, one of the things that I mentioned earlier, one of the things I noticed when I read your essay and when I was looking at my essay, it’s all got to do with how nature and things natural, whether birds and what have you, serves my needs. Whereas I get the impression that you are talking about nature for its own sake, its importance for its own sake.
Ann: It’s a difficult thing. Because obviously we still talk about it from our human intention to decentre ourselves, which is a contradiction in itself. I’m quite a strong believer in observing nature, not simply to study it but to experience it. I have the sense that sometimes we don’t see, not because we don’t know it’s there but because we don’t have the language to describe it or we don’t have any community with which to talk about it together, or there’s no one who has walked with us and shown us how to see it.
And I think Connie your essay spoke about your neighbour who you did not actually talk to for a number of years till you grew a garden, and your twin gardens became a space to talk about things.
And so in an odd way even though I think that nature shouldn’t serve your own uses, in a strange way when a human community is rich it embraces nature and it allows nature to grow side by side. The more extreme view would say “Oh, humans are a blight upon this earth and we should reduce our population”, but I somehow feel that’s rather ungenerous, it gets the wrong way round somehow.
XinYing: So it feels like there’s this dual relationship, right, because a nature space can create space for humans to come together, humans to realise some joy, some peace maybe. But what Ann you’re saying is that there's also that opportunity then, as humans come together in this space, they start to form a different relationship with nature.
I want to explore a little bit of the different spaces that we can create around us where these communities can come, whether—I think Connie you mentioned in your essay about community gardens, you talk about that innate relationship when you start growing food, when you start having that.
But then there’s also the corridor space outside your home. We know that a lot of people who live in HDBs want to bring that nature next to them in their corridors. What do you think we can do to build a lasting connection with nature? Is it more of these spaces near us? Is it maybe as Ann was sharing, learning more about the species? What do you think is necessary?
Constance: You know you talked earlier about community building and how nature serves a purpose. So I looked at it again, and sorry but it’s always serving a purpose. Either to the individual or to the community.
But because I think we have to go back to our original relationship with nature, which was more authentic, and which was part of our lives. So even we who are very much urbanised and live in an urban jungle, we can still relate to nature. We can still find a connection because we have that centuries-old connection to nature which we have left along the way of urbanisation and so on.
But there is that innate—it’s there in our system, so there’s something that we can make the connection with the human being. I see it as a connection— there’s nature, there’s us, and we can come together through our experience of nature.
That’s how I experience with my own garden in my own block. Because you’re sharing something, you’re sharing an interest. Again I’m saying nature is serving our purpose.
Ann: I have to say though, about this innate response to nature. Children seem to possess it more strongly than adults, at least I’ve observed this on my guiding tours.
Sometimes they will point out things that—and they’re able to—maybe because their lenses are not yet so conditioned, so burdened, it’s like "oh what’s that, oh why is it like this", so on and so forth.
And I think if we can push the point further, I would like to say that to build community we first need a language to talk about what it is that we’re all trying to build together. And more than just naming the kinds of plants, the kinds of birds, it’s also about naming the kinds of birds and plants that exist in this place called Singapore, and unfortunately many children—I know it is in the primary school syllabus, basic terms, parts of a plant, but most of the time children don’t really have too much of a vocabulary for wonderful and rich flora and fauna we see around us.
And it would be lovely if the way we teach language to our children, if parents would also teach being eco-literate or nature-literate as one of the languages that they speak. Learning a language is not just about knowing individual words, it’s about being able to string a sentence together. So I recognise the heart-shaped leaf of a sea hibiscus, I would say, oh, it’s similar to a real hibiscus plant, but not quite the same. So in a way I’m making a sentence across my different experiences.
And I mean, I would like to say it’s essential as being bilingual. If you’re truly bilingual, not just to take an exam—I’m not a good example—truly bilingual in the sense of not just passing an exam, it means you walk in these cultural worlds, that you’re part of these cultural worlds where you can converse, interact, you understand the histories of things.
So to teach eco-literacy to a child, to say that you should be multi-lingual in that sense, means allowing them to unlock this whole world, to make sense, to talk about it, to notice and to walk and even to say "I can make a sentence, make a paragraph. I can say more about this to a friend around me and notice it as well". It might be too romantic for a Saturday afternoon but I wanted to say it..
XinYing: Saturday afternoons are pretty much suitable for romantic notions.
Ann: Despite the humidity, yes.
XinYing: But I think that’s very lovely, the idea that we need to become multilingual, that we need to be able to talk about the trees as they are, and I think I experienced this myself too when I went to do my masters in environmental management no less.
One of the classes we had to do was walk through the forest—this was not in Singapore—and collect geospatial data on the trees. And for the life of me I couldn’t recognise the trees, and there was no way for me, even though I was given very simple indicators like look at the bark, look at the shape of the leaves, but I found myself for two hours really trying to figure out, is this what the bark description was given to me, Or is this the shape of the leaf that was described to me? And it was terrible.
And I don’t think we have that in our education system in Singapore to kind of—or not even in the system, like, the playtime of children which is to understand nature, I think that could be very interesting.
So I think we talked a little bit about the role of education already. Do you feel like there are some mind frames in Singapore that prevent us—I think Connie you mentioned that for you yourself there’s some fear with some of the uncontrolled nature. There’s still some fear with that, and whether or not that is something very ingrained with us, or the idea that we have so little land, there’s always a tension between what we can save and what we have for the rest of us, our daily lives. What do you feel about some of these mind frames and mindsets that we might need to start reconsidering if we want to build that relationship?
Constance: I think two years ago there were the poultry, hens wandering around Bishan area, and the cock crowing offended some sensibilities of people and they complained about it. They wanted the family of cock and the hen removed from the estate, culled probably.
But other people protested, and so they’re still wandering around Bishan area, and if you go to Bishan park you’ll see them, you know.
For me it has made a difference to see these natural birds being allowed to run freely. Walk freely. It just makes our urbanised environment less frigid, less artificial. And life more natural, more human. Well, not exactly human, but makes us more human, I think.
I was also interested in your notes, somewhere I read just now, that the government had promised in the big environmental meeting that they’ll stop deforestation in 2030. And I was thinking by then they would have deforested the whole island anyway, there wouldn’t be much left after 2030, so that was not a huge promise, you know.
XinYing: There were some—in that space of deforestation and a lot of it for the purpose of building new homes, I think there were a lot of campaigns this year, Dover Forest, Clementi Forest, Kranji, and I think with the Dover Forest there was a little bit of a change in mind, so one third of that space was going to be saved or retained as a forest. I don’t know whether you feel that this—not so game-changing pledge of 2030 that we might have made some headway in—is it a demonstration of our community’s love for nature increasing, you feel?
Constance: Yeah, it’s a global issue, and people have become more aware, more because of that, not because of Singapore's attempt or Ministry of Education’s attempt to teach our children about nature. It’s mostly because young people are more aware and more open to what’s happening in the rest of the world.
We can contribute a change in attitude, and so we have more young people interested in raising issues that are about the environment.
But one of the things that we haven't paid much attention to is that it is becoming hotter, not just because of what’s happening in the atmosphere but because we have far more buildings now and the buildings are so close to each other. And what the trees do is to cool down the environment.
So there is that—if you talk about even the government becoming more aware and promising to contribute, to ease the pressures on the environment, it doesn’t come down. You know my complaint about the trees being cut down every year, and why are the trees there? They cool the environment. And we have these buildings so close to each other and they’re getting more and more—our environment is getting heated up, we’re switching on the air conditioning to cool ourselves down, and we cut down the trees which will contribute to cooling us down. So there is that contradiction. It’s not connected.
XinYing: Right. There’s still some actions that kind of go against that trend.
Constance: We talk about one thing but then we do something that works against the ideal.
XinYing: We have work to do.
Ann: Yes, we all have work to do.
I wanted to go back to XinYing’s question about the mind frames that kind of shape our approach to nature in the urban. I agree with Connie, there seems to be this weird irony in the sense that there is a lot of rhetoric about how we should be green, that we should be a city in nature, but somehow it doesn’t filter down to the daily actions of whether we preserve trees, whether there’s real thought that goes into landscaping and so on and so forth.
And I think one of the mind frames is that we still think we can build our way out of this climate and environmental muddle that we’re in; we’re still very much in that modernising sort of mindset where in the past if you have floods you build bigger drains, bigger longkangs.
And I think we’ve come to the point where we’ve realised that Singapore is going to flood and it’s beyond our control, we can stop it getting into our homes and that there’s a bigger issue at hand which is learning to live with the natural in our midst, and it somehow still doesn’t quite translate down into the daily actions in seeing that maybe the tree is more important than the temporary complaint that the birds are noisy in the trees.
So there's still quite a bit of work to be done there, but as to whether there’s increased love among Singaporeans for nature, I think love is a complicated word, and I think there’s definitely a lot more awareness, there’s a lot more reactiveness to natural or nature related issues because if you look at Dover forest—and actually before Dover forest there was this other small scandal, well it was quite big, it came out on Chinese New Year Day when someone took a photo of the clearing of secondary forest near the green corridor at the Kranji area.
And I’m bringing these two examples up to say that it’s actually the increased visibility of nature on social media that has made people aware that there is nature in our assumably entirely urban environment. And so people, from whatever starting point that they're taking, it’s a loss if we let more destruction go on. But I think we have to go beyond this reactiveness to this liking and sharing on Facebook and this outrage on social media to maybe looking into ourselves and saying "what about the tree in front of my window, what about the next complaint I’m going to make about mosquitoes breeding or the koel that wakes me up every morning".
If there’s a love for nature, love means embracing the other, however different that other being is, then you really have to look at yourself and how you should re-orientate yourself to this thing that you say you love. I have a romantic theme going on today I think.
XinYing: Yeah it carries on. But I think it’s really important. We always say that love means you love everything of the other party, whether it’s good or whether it’s bad, or whether it annoys us, and I think the manifestation of Singaporeans' love for nature still sometimes stops at “I’ll only love it as long as it’s okay for me, “I want to live close to trees but I don’t want the monkeys to come steal my food”
Constance: As long as the leaves don’t fall on my car.
XinYing: So we did have some questions, but before I wanted to move on I think here’s one section in Connie’s essay that I think really sums up why we shouldn’t have this conflict between us humans and nature. And I thought we can close the discussion today and move to Q&A with that.
Constance: Okay, thank you XinYing. Well, it’s from my essay, and if you have the book it’s on page 161.
It is a sunny morning. I open my window and a bulbul darts away at the sound of the window opening. I look beyond and am delighted by a splendid yellow hibiscus blossoming. The flowers, the birds and occasional butterflies offer bursts of delight on ordinary days. My little garden is a source of joy that keeps on giving.
My distraction this past week has been watching the second brood of bulbul chicks being raised. The parent bulbuls seem to have had a busy few months. They were here not so long ago in April raising their first brood, one of which had died. It fell to me to bury it. Not a very happy experience for me.
Now as I watch these couple of new chicks, it reinforces my observation that one chick is always more demanding and stronger than the other. That dominant one has already started to test its wings, exercising it, stretching itself and reaching out to feed, mostly by standing on top of its sibling. The nest is too small to accommodate the simultaneous activities of them both. This explains the broken wing of one of the April brood.
But in all of human life as well, it seems to me, we get stronger, to be dominant at the cost of another’s well-being. We stand on others to be where we are, heaved up at the expense of another. It is never fair. But the winners pay a price too. We cannot dominate, devalue or diminish another life without it affecting our own humanity.
XinYing: Thank you so much. I think that last line sort of leads to this comment that was just made on Facebook just now, whether or not we’ve been conditioned or educated to scrub out all traces of our biophilia for ourselves and maybe only now that we’re rediscovering that we’re part of nature, that we can’t diminish it without harming ourselves as well. I’m kind of glad that that point was being brought up by one of our listeners. But I want to go to the questions as well. Given this book, ecofeminist essays from Singapore, one of the questions that we had that was also upvoted was, whether as authors how might you define ecofeminism yourself, and what do you think is the role it plays in Singapore?
Constance: That was the most difficult part of this whole exercise, of writing this essay. And I want to know, what does ecofeminist mean? And I remember discussing it with the other writers, what does it mean, I’ve never heard of ecofeminism. But I think it’s got to do with the value system; Ann will probably be better at explaining it than I am. Ann?
Ann: So I tried to understand the concept of ecofeminism in relation to gender. This is dangerous territory. And the way I understood it or tried to make sense of it for myself is not gender in an essentialising sort of approach where this is what a woman is like, or a feminine approach is like. I understood it from the perspective of care, where you can have male teachers and male nurses as well but the role of care remains the same in these vocations.
At least from my own essay, looking with care at a bird or sharing the experience of naming a bird with care, in the same way that all good teaching is like, you give that person the gift of sight, the gift of a name, the gift of being able to do something more than you previously could, and not in the sense of dictating to the other person that this is a bird, this is the correct way of doing it; it’s an enabling sort of act.
So for me that’s how I understood the feminine aspect if you like, the idea that the care, the equitable sort of sharing of roles is important to this approach to encouraging more observation of nature. So it’s not a hierarchy of nature in a way, the way the scientists do it and the way the laymen do it, no, the way you participate is to kind of walk alongside each other. Not that scientific knowledge is irrelevant, and it is an important system of knowledge, but I think it’s also the kind of hierarchical attitudes we bring to some forms of knowledge and some forms of language being better than others that is disabling and paralysing for some people that are trying to get started.
Constance: You see, Ann has done it very well, thank you Ann.
XinYing: So remove that hierarchy, reexplore that relationship with ourselves and the earth, especially from a lens of care, what we can do to care for the earth. Another question, and this one I think is from Melissa. I think Connie just now you had already gave a little bit of your views of that target of halting deforestation, and I think Melissa was wondering, between Ann and myself, are we optimistic about Singapore achieving such a target, and whether or not we think that discussions like this one can help us get there.
Ann: Would you like to go first, XinYing?
XinYing: I think in a way I agree with Connie, right, 2030 is nine years away, and so what’s more important is what gets done between now and 2030, and what reframing can we do to understand why we might need to carry on taking away the forests that are already on this land.
And discussions like today I think are interesting and different. We’re trying to help people understand why nature matters to them, and many different avenues, whether it’s through literature, through art, through actually going to a natural space and spending time in it, breathing in the air. I think we need to start mobilising all the different ways of helping people understand why nature matters to us.
That’s my take on it.
Ann: In response to the 2030 target, I feel I don't have a good understanding of what the definition of a forest is in Singapore. Because obviously we have our designated nature reserves, we still have large tracts of land that are greened up and whether or not they are to the biologists, what sort of habitats are these. I think that I don't know enough to really have a strong view on how optimistic or pessimistic to be because I feel that we don’t have a fine-tuned sense of what is it that we’re trying to protect, to what degree.
And we’ve not had even a detailed discussion on that. So definitely discussions today are helpful in the sense that it reaffirms that this is important to a growing group of people and that it’s okay to say, no I think we need to make some noise about this, or I don’t feel this is right, or maybe the priorities of development need to go hand in hand with some of these priorities as well.
I don’t think an all or nothing approach is helpful, which is why I'm not sure what deforestation is. It goes back to my beginning conundrum.
Any of the debates about deforestation in bigger countries with bigger land masses with forested land masses, are magnified in a small place like us. Where these concerns rub up like the tectonic plates of the earth even more sharply than anywhere else. So I can’t say exactly whether I will be optimistic or not.
I feel we don’t even know enough to get a grasp of the situation. We’re just very reactive, I think, at this point.
XinYing: Thank you. How we define forests in the way that we see it here in Singapore is a very fundamental question, I think that’s something that really needs to be explored as we try to understand what this means to us as a pledge.
There’s a question about education, about what is the role of the parent, and how do we enhance educating children about nature, especially in your homes?
I think the question was for Ann, but if Connie has thoughts as well it will be great to share.
Ann: Thank you to whoever asked that question, I appreciate it, and I appreciate that you see education as being from home. Because as a former teacher, the education system gets blamed for everything—everything! And it’s usually beyond the individual teacher’s control, because it’s a system. As to what the parents can do in a home, I think maybe parents themselves might like to explore together with their child.
Take them out to a natural place, but also as I said earlier learn the language of nature, learn how to Identify the various things that you observe and that bring joy to you. Maybe you want to start with plants, maybe you like birds, maybe you like butterflies or insects. Some people like creepy crawlies, nothing wrong with that. Maybe also to be led by your child, if your child is interested in a particular type or place in nature, go with them.
I know my parents are an example, they started bird-watching because of me, even though I was well into adult age at that point. But I have friends who started bird watching because their children are so keen on it. And they accompany them, so learning to see side by side and together I think is a bit part of that educational process. Again we seem to have this mindset where the parent should be teaching the child, but I think it’s an odd thing in nature where the parent becomes the child again, and you kind of play side by side, and that should be enjoyed, that should be taken as the start of it all.
I would just say that nature is not another source of tuition. I’m just being satirical here, but please don’t pack your children off to a nature workshop as if it’s another tuition class. That’s not how… have fun, go for ‘tuition’ with your kid, in that sense, go out into the natural world. It’ll be better that way, I think.
XinYing: There’s one question that I want to leave for the last, but this one is whether or not we feel… Maybe the terminology, the common use of the term “Mother Nature” becomes part of the reason why we use the terminology ‘ecofeminism’. Is using mother nature as a term kind of restrictive in how we think about who and how we should care about nature?
Constance: I was thinking of the Mother Nature thing; I also use that story in my essay, and again to connect me to ecofeminism, is that women benefit more. Women, because they are mothers and housewives, they are highly dependent on nature. Forests for example. Talking about agrarian cultures, and there was a story of this, quite famous actually, I can’t remember the name of it, but logging—companies logging forests. And these women tied themselves to the tree because they didn't want the forest to be destroyed.
And they succeeded, because it's the forest that provides food and kindling for fire, and so on, which are essential necessities for a poor woman and the families. So that way, yes, I can see that women are nurturers of nature. And they want to preserve nature. I don’t know where this Mother Nature came from. Maybe because of their nurturing qualities.
Mother Nature feeds us, the particular example in India of these women tying themselves to trees—It’s an example of how you require Mother Nature just to survive. So maybe that’s where Mother Nature comes from. It’s a whole globe, it embraces us. Mother Nature, it’s not patriarchal. They cut down trees.
Ann: Interesting to think of Mother Nature as the all-embracing, holistic understanding of the Earth which is outside of more human-centered endeavours, whether they are patriarchal or otherwise. I was also thinking of how mothers can be quite fierce as well. There’s a way in which Mother Nature, with the recent natural disasters, is telling you something. She’s warning you that we have not managed or stewarded this earth of ours very well. We might need to be told off a little bit before we get it right.
XinYing: The different facades of parenting.
Ann: That’s for sure. Don’t know if Mother Nature is a tiger mother, but–okay too many metaphors for now.
XinYing: So the last question. Given that this is a session that introduces and discusses some of the very interesting and mixed and diverse themes that come out from Making Kin as a book. There’s a question here on whether or not any other essays in Making Kin resonated with you, and why?
Constance: I haven't had time to read all of them, but I remember reading Mathilda’s. You remember that, Mathilda Gabrielpillai’s ["As Big as a House"]. She was talking about home, and why we cling on to homes. I’ve been thinking about that, and thinking about in Singapore, over the last 50 years, there’ve been so many dramatic changes. The one stable place you can hold onto, if you own a freehold, even then you cannot rely on it. But that’s one source of stability in your life, is your home.
I found that essay.. I haven't had time to read the other essays. Oh I have read other essays, there was one essay about the field. Yeah, I remember the field, but the one essay about home because she sounded so passionate and I have changed homes a lot. I was thinking it’s something we can hold onto, you know? The home. That’s one thing we have control over.
XinYing: The theme of home was quite common in a number of different essays for sure. The different definitions of how somebody feels like a place is their home was also very much explored.
Ann how about you, how about yourself?
Ann: To be honest I've not read all the essays as well, in and out. But the one that stuck in my mind also deals with the theme of home, and it’s Angelia Poon’s “Travelling in Place”.
For some reason, it was her recording of the lived physical experience of walking through Katong, how the body has a memory. So she talks about how when you walk along the five-foot-way there’s always this extra high step that you have to be careful otherwise you’ll trip or you’ll fall, or maybe someone has warned you that it’s dangerous.
Constance: Very problematic for old people like me.
Ann: I do think the articulation of these things is important. The experience of getting around. She also talks about how Katong used to be the seafront before it was reclaimed. And how I think her essay is about what we remember and the memories we inherit, which are not our own memories but we rediscover in this place, all these traces that we trace and retrace. And somehow they have a power over us. I’m still chewing over it, I’m not sure entirely what to make of it, but it stayed with me.
XinYing: I feel that sentiment about chewing over the essays. Actually quite a number of the essays I feel as if... The first time I read them, number one I felt like they were such brave articulations about personal history.
And then to then let them sit and try to understand the different facets of how this personal essay is bringing up different themes in life that I myself should really think about, like how do I define my home, relationships with parents who are getting elderly.
And also where do we find our own histories? Where do we find our own familiar or urban histories? Just now Ann mentioned, in Singapore when we talk about our heritage and histories. So much of it is buildings, it’s very concrete type things that are urban, yet we don’t really talk about the natural histories of our space that we have here.
So thank you very much, both of you today. An hour of contemplation and romantic notions, as Ann mentioned, as we talk about the innate. It is innate in us to have this authentic relationship with nature.
But there are so many different things that we might need to work on, to move from just being aware, just being reactive, to really just internalising or embracing nature, so that we actually do demonstrate our love in a way that is equivalent to what nature has given us.
This has been a very lovely way to spend my afternoon. I hope that the listeners feel the same way.
About the Speakers:
Ann Ang is a literature educator and published writer best known as the author of Bang My Car (Math Paper Press, 2012). She is the co-editor of the literary anthologies Poetry Moves (2020) and Food Republic (2020), and also the coordinating editor of PR&TA (Practice, Research & Tangential Activities) a new peer-reviewed journal of creative theory and practice in Southeast Asia. A keen birder, Ann also researches contemporary Anglophone writing from Southeast Asia and South Asia.
Constance Singam is a writer and civil society activist. Constance has led women’s organizations, co-founded civil society groups, been a columnist in national publications, and contributed to and co-edited several books. Her works include A history of the TWC: Building Social Space in Singapore (2002), Re-Presenting Singapore Women (2004) and The Art of Advocacy in Singapore (2017). Her memoir Where I was: A Memoir from the Margins was published in 2013 and her second memoir Never Leave Town without Chilli Sauce in 2016. Her children’s books The Birds in the Bamboo Tree and Toby the Cocky Rooster were published in 2021 and her third book The Adventures of Jingjing the Otter is a work in progress.
About the Moderator:
Tok Xinying works as a ESG & Sustainability Consultant on issues like Green Banking, Energy Transition and Real Estate in Asia. In 2017, she was a Fellow at the Climate Strategies Accelerator run by Packard Foundation, Oak Foundation and Good Energies Fund. She has worked on philanthropic strategies to mitigate climate change in China and the U.S. since 2014.
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