Mr Joseph Lai (Uncle Joe) Interview
In 2001, Mr Joseph Lai, a botanist, stumbled across the beautiful beach in Pulau Ubin. The richness of the marine life left him bewitched. To his horror, he found out the area was about to be reclaimed. Together with the support of other conservationists, he made a plea to the government, fighting hard against the plan. After a long battle, he won.
In May 2008, The Ess Army were honoured to have the opportunity to interview him, whom we found to be a very cheerful, kind and informative man, on his views on climate change and environmental conservation as a whole.
Some people have opinions that global warming is just that the earth is balancing its temperature. What is your view on this? Do you think climate change is real?
I think climate change is real. Basically it is not just a matter of balancing earth’s temperature. There were ages such as the ice age where natural processes caused mass extinction. It is quite a puzzle as to why such things happened in prehistoric time. Nowadays, however, the change in temperature is man-made, mostly due to consumer habits. One good example is deforestation. You know, the forests are the lungs of the earth. Deforestation is as if you take one lung away. This affect living things as a whole. Because of global warming, there is less of nature. It is killing off sea lives, especially the reefs near the shores, where most fishes live. They are part of a food chain, connected to the deeper ocean. This shows how land reclamation affects life on the deep ocean. We can tell the temperature of the earth is really going up. Other effects are shortage of food and a lot of natural disasters happening.
How do you think humans should balance between development and environmental conservation?
It is quite difficult. Every country wants to be developed. Singapore is among the upper half of the countries in the world, making us considered to be developed. However, there are still many countries, under-developed, who wants to develop themselves. It is impossible to stop development, but we can reduce the effect, such as by incorporating nature into the environment. Building casinos in Sentosa, for example, one is faced with the alternatives of destroying the coral reefs or think of alternatives. If one can do that, now that is good development.
The problem is most developers think of profit first. They should rethink their strategies of development into “Earn less, conserve nature.” Conserve nature for the future generation, their own children. In Sentosa, the big corals just outside the underwater world will be killed by reclamation, and after they build the casinos they plan to dig some more to make something like the largest tank in the world. This destroys nature. This is wrong.
What do you think is the most important thing to do in humans’ effort in environmental conservation?
The 3Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse. I did not say ‘Recycle’, which is done and said by everybody these days. It’s only a fraction, not everything can be recycled. Recycling brings more harm than good, as to recycle we need materials such as heat, water, and this means more demand on earth’s resources. So we turn to Refuse. An example of refuse, let’s say you have a handphone. You need not to change and buy a new phone despite new functions introduced by another phone model. In Refuse, we think of our own need first, whether it is important or not. Keep things simple. This will mean less waste.
Reduce. For things that we cannot do without, that we cannot Refuse, we reduce. Let ‘s say you cannot live without drinking Coca cola, say, seven cans a day. You reduce it to three cans. That is reduce. Cut down the usage, meaning less demand. You do not need to stop completely. Probably you cut your demand halfway first, then after a few months, another half. As for reuse, you can reuse your bottles, clothes, maybe donating them to someone else. Keep the lifespan longer.
Also, remember, when one grows into an adult, one has to remember a very simple phrase, “Consume less, share more.”
How do you think youths can contribute to environmental conservation?
Well, the simplest thing to do is to share with your friends what you have learned, any information about the environment. Then, of course you have to be a role model in the society. You cannot just talk but do nothing. Home is the best place to start. Encourage your parents to be more environmentally friendly, participate in environmental community services, put waste to the correct bins. When you grow up as working adults, then maybe you can start a movement. If you’re the boss of a company, for example, you can set a goal in your company to use 20% less paper.
How can we compensate for irreversible damages caused by climate change?
(laughs) That is hard.
Pulau Ubin has been quite a tourist destination. Do you think the government will develop the place? If so, how do you think it will affect the nature there?
If that happens, I would be very sad. At the present moment, people will go to Pulau Ubin and relax, as it is a very green and rural environment. During my parents’ time, it was a playground for everyone. If the government urbanises it, it will literally take it all away. There will be no more special nature areas. I don’t know, maybe Chek Jawa could be turned into another Sentosa. There will be more land demand, and more reclamation. We will lose everything Pulau Ubin has to offer.
Do you think tourism will harm the nature in Pulau Ubin?
No, no. The tourists stay within the boardwalk, and the system allows damage to be kept to minimum. And as people visit Pulau Ubin, they will see its beauty and have a sense of belonging. If the government plans to develop the place, they will probably stand up for it. If they do not know about the place, they will not care. At the moment, the natural environment in Pulau Ubin is very good.
Actually there are not many tourists visiting Pulau Ubin. Not because it is not interesting, it is because people are not aware of it. Those who know are not promoting it. I am talking about the tourism board. They only offer entertainment units of a certain company, Temasek Holdings, such as the zoo, Jurong Bird Park. They all belong to the government. The Singapore Tourism Board is a state-driven organization. They know that the money they spent on promoting the tourist destinations will go back to their pockets. In Pulau Ubin, you cannot do that. When the tourists go there, the money will go to the villagers, the tourism board will get nothing.
On behalf of the whole group, we thank you so very much, Uncle Joe ((:
Interviewer: Tommy & Jeremias