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​Public Service Medal winner Dr Shawn Lum’s views on water & nature issues

Published on: 17-Aug-2020

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By Nurhidayah Binte Amirhamzsa 

This post was first published on the College of Science Blog

Dr Shawn Lum, a senior lecturer at the Asian School of the Environment and President of the Nature Society Singapore, has recently been awarded the Public Service and Long Service Medals. Previously a member of the Public Utilities Board (PUB)’s Water Network Panel for over ten years, his expertise has helped shape the various programs and initiatives spearheaded by the PUB. Science@NTU caught up with Dr Lum to find out more about his time on the panel, and also his views on water and nature issues.

Congratulations on being awarded the Public Service Medal! How were you selected to receive it? 

Thank you very much! I was nominated by the PUB for the Public Service Medal. I have worked closely with them for over ten years, as a member of the Water Network, as a partner on a number of outreach projects such as World Water Day, on developing nature trails for the public, or on nature conservation related projects at PUB project sites.

I am of course honoured to have been awarded the Public Service Medal. I am surprised and touched, really, to have been recognised, but it is really a testimony to the inclusive, community-oriented outlook of the PUB. When they established a 3P Network to engage stakeholders across all sectors of society, they gave many people a chance to share their views on programmes, infrastructure projects, communications – basically all aspects of PUB operations. Without the support of the management of ASE and NTU, and for many years at NIE, people like me would not have felt as encouraged to spend time in community work as we sometimes do.


Can you tell us more about PUB’s Water Network Panel?

The Water Network is a group of community stakeholders from all sectors of society. Some of us are from government agencies such as NParks or the Curriculum Branch of the MOE, others are from industry, the People’s Association, from the water recreation sector, seniors groups, environment groups – basically anyone whose activities have some connection with water. And since everyone relies on water, each one of us is a stakeholder in water and our lives in modern societies would be unimaginable without a safe, dependable and affordable supply of water.

When the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (prior to that the Ministry of Environment; recently renamed the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment) made the pioneering effort to actively and meaningfully engage the people sector, they also put in place projects to bring people closer to water. Instead of keeping people as far away from water as possible for safety purposes, the PUB reasoned that encouraging people to develop a closer relationship with water would improve our quality of life and also lead us to use water with greater care. The result of this new approach was the implementation of “ABC (Active, Beautiful, Clean) Waters” projects across the island, with perhaps the most ambitious of these being the restoration of the Kallang River through Bishan-Ang Mo Kio from a fenced in, concretised canal, to a winding, freely accessible waterway. Since 2000, water usage per person has been reduced from 165 litres per person per day to slightly over 140 litres today. That is a remarkable decline.

We take clean water at the turn of a tap as a given, but it is really such a priceless privilege made possible by planning, technical expertise, and forward looking policy.

What has been the most rewarding experience for you during your time on the Panel? 

There have so many incredible experiences for me during my time on the Panel. Getting to know other stakeholders in water was at a personal level a wonderful experience. Out of these grew some collaborations such as one between the Nature Society and the PUB to promote native butterflies, or the development of nature trails for visitors to the Marina Barrage. I also got to know the technical and engineering sides of water, and being able to contribute to making some of the projects more nature friendly (pipejacking works at the Kallang Service Reservoir; laying of water pipeline from Murnane Service Reservoir along the Rail Corridor, and more) have been very satisfying in that I could apply what I know to something for the good of both the public and for nature. PUB also supported a fund-raising activity called the Green Corridor Run, a 10 km run along the Rail Corridor, and one year as a symbolic gesture participants could carry water bottles to symbolise the great distances (on average 6 km) that hundreds of thousands of women and children have to walk to get their daily water supply. A group of army commandos heard about this initiative and registered in large numbers, hoisting large jerrycans of water on their shoulders for the entire 10 km distance. We take clean water at the turn of a tap as a given, but it is really such a priceless privilege made possible by planning, technical expertise, and forward looking policy. And it requires buy-in and support from all of us.


How has the relationship between nature groups and government agencies such as PUB developed over time?

I came to Singapore in 1989. In that time, the relationship between the PUB and nature groups has undergone a complete transformation. (I would have said “sea change”, but that would have taken the water analogy a bit too far, perhaps.) In the early 1990s, there was a very public fight over the fate of the section of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve surrounding the Lower Peirce Reservoir. There were plans to degazette that section of the Reserve and develop a golf course. The effort to have these plans changed pitted nature groups and academics against the owners of the Reserve. As the Central Catchment Area is a water catchment area, the “owners” of the Reserve land is the PUB. Plans for the golf course were eventually scrapped, but there was understandable and lingering ill will between some at PUB and nature groups.

But something amazing happened in 2008. In response to requests from the Nature Society to adopt a section of the Kranji Reservoir fringe known as the Kranji Marsh, the PUB not only acceded to the request, but they became an active partner in the effort. The principal representative from each side had been bitter opponents in the Lower Peirce Golf Course episode, but not only did they put their differences aside, they actively collaborated for the benefit of people and nature. Since then the PUB has actively reached out to nature groups for many projects, and it makes sense – clean water is not only vital for people and for industry, but it supports thriving aquatic habitats and biodiversity.

Here at NTU, Sustainable Earth is one of our peaks of excellence, and water is a big part of that (witness NEWRI, SCELSE, EOS, RSIS efforts). Two UN Sustainable Development Goals directly tie people to water and nature: SDG 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation, and SDG 14 – Life Below Water. Our university is a major stakeholder and innovator in the water industry, but we are also about influencing hearts and shifting societal values, and NTU can do so much to change the way we interact with and cherish life-giving water resources.

As President of the Nature Society, you must be very familiar with Singapore’s nature and water issues. In the past decade, how do you think Singapore’s water and nature issues have evolved? 

In the quarter century I have been actively involved in nature conservation, we have seen advocacy for nature and biodiversity go from being a kind of fringe interest group to one that has now been subsumed into the mainstream. This convergence and intertwining of nature and water issues has been an amazing development. And one of the most celebrated of these has been the return of wild otters to our waterways. I recall that Mr N Sivasothi (Singapore’s beloved “Otterman”), then an MSc student in zoology at NUS, studied otters in Singapore without ever seeing one. He had to reconstruct their ecology based on prints, their spraints (characteristic piles of droppings they leave behind), and remnants of their meals. That is how uncommon they were. Today they grace our Marina Reservoir, rivers, canals, and shores. And everyone, perhaps with the exception of people whose ponds of valuable koi have been decimated, feel a strong kinship with otters and the waterways in which they frolic.

Water is central to human cultures. We have stories and myths about water. Entire cultures and ways of life revolve around water. Some traditions use water to purify or to initiate. We fight wars over water resources. Water gives life but it can also destroy.

In your interview with Straits Times, you mentioned how water and nature issues could be integrated into social science. Could you share more about that?

My many years of working with the PUB have turned me into a believer – this agency cares deeply about water. And they don’t view it as merely a commodity. However, the PUB has its roots in engineering and civil works, and their traditional KPIs are measurable – volumes of waters, kilometres of pipelines, parts per million of contaminants, and so on. Water is of course first and foremost up there with oxygen the most essential molecule for life on earth (although maybe not for anaerobic organisms). Humans live on land but we carry our ancestral aquatic environment with us in our cells. There is a clear link between water with engineering and natural science (and therefore nature), but water is so much more to us.

Water is central to human cultures. We have stories and myths about water. Entire cultures and ways of life revolve around water. Some traditions use water to purify or to initiate. We fight wars over water resources. Water gives life but it can also destroy. There are so many facets to the complex and wondrous ties between humanity and water, and we cannot – and maybe should not – keep these separate from the technical, scientific aspects of water.

I grew up in Hawaii, in a culture that revered water. Our places are named after water – the “Wai” in Waikiki means water, and “Wai/Way” survives in our own region as the ancient name for water (which today is more typically called “Air/A-yer”). We have chants and legends about water, but then again I can’t think of any human tradition that doesn’t.

I believe that if we view water, or any other major issue, holistically, we can create fertile synergies across broad swathes of society, not just academics or policy makers. Water is too important and wondrous to be the domain of narrow sector of society, regardless of how important that sector is.


Are there any NGOs/organizations you would like to work with further to expand your conservation efforts?

I feel that in Singapore we are starting to see convergence amongst many interest groups around water. I would relish the opportunity to work with people in the performing arts, to see how we can tell the water story in a way that we can relate to it at a gut, emotional level. I think it could be very beautiful and powerful, with a lasting impact.

What I really hope is that Singapore can use its considerable expertise in water for the benefit of humanity. The thought of hundreds of millions in Asia who will face severe water-related issues (water supply and quality, floods, storm surges, etc.) in our lifetimes is frightening and depressing. I’ve seen how the few people in the Water Network, working with the PUB, can play a role in shaping Singapore’s water related policies and practices. Now imagine if we turned outward and endeavoured to improve water security and usage across Asia. At NTU we have tens of thousands of learned, motivated, and creative young people; young people who don’t just want to go out and have a secure and comfortable living, which is of course important, but who want to do more; to have lives that mean something not only to their loved ones, but to humanity. If we harnessed this intellectual and altruistic energy to make our most precious commodity safer and secure for people everywhere…

If we don’t try to leave the world a little better when we leave it than when we entered it, what did our lives mean?

Is there a message you’d like to share with students interested in pursuing Science? 

I am a student of science, and I love it. But other fields are important too, and I feel that if we go through life with a limited vision of what humanity is and what we can accomplish across a diverse array of fields, that life has been impoverished in some way. For anyone interested in science, I would encourage them to make the most of opportunities that come their way. Explore as many facets of a scientific field as possible. Speak to lecturers, tutors, visiting resource people – get as much out of the university experience as possible. At the same time, science doesn’t have all of the answers to humanity’s many challenges, and science, as wonderful as it is, is just one aspect of what makes us human and makes life worth living. I would, perhaps paradoxically, encourage science students to expand their horizons beyond the sciences. Experience NTU in all its glorious breadth, and use opportunities to study abroad as a way to cement ties between us and young people across this wonderful world, its many troubles and future challenges notwithstanding. If we don’t try to leave the world a little better when we leave it than when we entered it, what did our lives mean?

About The Public Service Medal

The Medal may be awarded to any person who has rendered commendable public service in Singapore or for his achievement in the field of arts and letters, sports, the sciences, business, the professions and the labour movement. For more information, click here.

About The Nature Society (Singapore)

The Nature Society (Singapore) is a non-government, non-profit organization dedicated to the appreciation, conservation, study and enjoyment of the natural heritage in Singapore, Malaysia and the surrounding region. For more information, click here.

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