The incision on the right still stings, especially when I shift my weight or get up to water my pony. Apparently, the doc used older surgical methods that require a whole lot of stitching, dressing and patching, rather than newer minimal impact 'keyhole' techniques. So the weekend was spent shuffling around the flat and gobbling up much more than the usual portion of junk food. I had planned to attend a talk on Saturday about the ancient lost city that was discovered in Johor, but now I wonder if it's possible to even get to work tomorrow.
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In the past week, my preferred source of news featured a few reports that served to spark some thought. One story told of illegal shark fishing in the waters off the Galapagos Islands, thanks to the high prices commanded by these chunks of chewy cartilage in Asia. In the same marine reserve, sea cucumbers are being harvested by growing numbers of fishermen for export to .... Asia. A second feature noted China's immense demand for imported timber, which is served by both legitimate shipments as well as illegal fellings from Russia, Myanmar, Indonesia and Brazil. The most recent issue highlighted the report of a global ecosystem assessment that found about 60% of the earth's ecosystem services that support life on earth – fresh water, fisheries, air and water regulation, regulation of climate and natural hazards, pest control – are degraded or used unsustainably. Worst hit are marine fisheries, where the stock of fish in many areas is now less than a tenth, or even a hundredth, or what it was before the rise of modern industrial fisheries. The report issues an implicit warning that unless natural resources are protected or used at less unsustainable rates, the costs incurred by their degradation are likely to vastly outweigh the economic benefits obtained by future generations, or even within the next 50 years.
Often, one hears the view that developing regions such as Asia can't afford to care much for the environment, as averages incomes are still low and the costs of cleaning up rivers, managing forests, protecting tigers and enforcing pollution standards would drag down the growth rates of nations striving for that optimum blend of first world economies and third world politics. And besides, those silly Europeans and Americans only started to bother about the birds and bees long after their Industrial Revolutions had chopped down most of their forests and tinged their air with the bittersweet odour of acid rain.
And what right do people who still hunt whales, skin baby seals, and shoot wolves have to tell us struggling Asians how best to exploit our very own natural resources, especially since we have no choice but to squeeze every nugget of value from our earth and water before
it runs out our neighbours do likewise and prosper? What do you expect us to do – build a casino? Why should we waste precious aid money on frivolities like education, training and this namby-pamby sop they call human resources, when a nice big hydroelectric project will generate the inward investment and foreign currency reserves vital for the ruling party greater good of our country? Pity those peasants can't even understand why we need relocate their villages and dam their traditional fishing rivers for the sake of the national coffers. Well, it just goes to show that giving them even an ounce of education or empowerment over their land and lives won't be of any use; they will simply start demanding for the right to organise and even *shudder* vote! And we all know how inefficient and wasteful prolonged and proper democratic processes are, don't we? The rule of law is for wimps...
Macroeconomic and socio-political rationales for environmental apathy aside (I must admit I got a wee carried away there), what I wanted to delve into is how the typical Asian, or more specifically, Malaysian or Singaporean of Chinese extract, regards nature within his or her Weltanschauung. Drawing upon personal encounters, some broad observations are possible.
Long ago, when I stayed in premises susceptible to invasions by scaly and furry intruders, it was the default policy that any non-human visitor, especially winged and squeaking guests, be greeted with a fly swatter. With this whack-first-and-ask-questions-later policy, my efforts once to bag a live bat were defeated when one unfortunate Fledermaus found itself lying in bloody pieces on the bedroom floor following a high impact encounter with my dad's badminton racket. The garden was also an occasional host to barn owls and other nocturnal beasts, and the standard reaction when their presence was noted later is "Oh, if only I were there to shoot the damn thing!"
It is of course a slight overreaction to want to reduce all wild creatures to a fleshy pulp. Why not make use of them for sustenance instead? I can still recall a not unrecent Malaysian Chinese-language TV pseudo-documentary about life in the rainforest; only this version of wildlife wonders focused largely on their gastronomic appeal, with the clearly hungry host delighting in the hunting and skinning of jungle rodents with his native guides or palming for shiny little fish at a hillstream. Moral of the story? There's lots of tasty little things out there, if you are averse to a little digging or trapping.
But nature is not just edible. It can eat you as well, and that's one good reason the existence of certain creatures cannot be tolerated. The sight of tigers and sharks on TV screens would prompt remarks from my elders who wonder why these hateful things still roam the earth. "Haven't they shot every single one of these evil creatures?" Furthermore, one shouldn't stop at mere macrofaunal extinction. There's still those dark and dangerous woods to worry about, where snakes and thorns make for a habitat utterly inimical to man's needs. As a fellow passenger once remarked when we were driving along South Buona Vista Road and passing the still well-forested fringes of Kent Ridge Park, "Why haven't they cut down all these trees and developed the whole area?"
Borrowing lines of thought expressed here, one could plausibly consider the average urban Singapore-Malaysian Chinese/Malay/Indian/Other to be
rather almost completely alienated from nature in both knowledge and regard. For some, nature, be it an unfamiliar reptile or rodent, or an entire pristine ecoscape, from wetland to wooded hills, is more often than not perceived as a hostile, dangerous element that intrudes into the comfort and security of civilisation's amenities and sheltering walls. Life could not be any better if one suffers not a single encounter with any creature wilder than a tom cat, and it is utterly intolerable to find any open recreational area that lacks air-conditioning, MacBurger stands and paved sidewalks bordering manicured lawns. Why are there so many lush, untrimmed groves of trees all over the island? Don't you know they harbour mosquitoes, spiders and other nasty bugs, or even dens of foreign workers and unauthorised casinos? Why, it's a scandal they haven't slashed and burned that tree-infested area by the golf course where female joggers suffer sexual assaults and young children risk mortal infection from the toxic powders that swirl from wayside butterflies?
For others, nature is equated with culinary bounty, from the paws of endangered ursids to the dessicated remains of marine equids. Tigers, sharks, snakes, turtles, abalone, nosehorns, mustelids and any other creature deemed to have medicinal – or better, virility-enhancing – properties, or simply the misfortune to have its consumption associated with good luck, enjoy the utmost regard from connoisseurs of traditional cuisine and pharmacopoeia who remain blissfully unconcerned that unlike hogs and hamsters, most of the species they prize are clinging to existence by a thread. Just ask any diner at the various game restaurants that dot the Malaysian state north of the causeway. "Extinct? You've gotta be kidding! There's lots more where that came from..."
A more quirky facet is shown by those who see nature through anthropomorphised lens. The lion that stalks the zebra is a bad animal who should just leave the poor herbivore alone, while that fat luohan in my little tank who kills every single tankmate is a mean, ill-tempered bully who can't get along with other fish. The behaviour, signals and responses of animals are interpreted using purely human motivations and emotions, demonstrating a complete ignorance of ecology and biological drives. And as I have noted before, the concept of a species and sheer diversity of evolution's twigs escapes the minds of those who see the rasboras, barbs and loaches in my aquarium as fodder for cooler, predatory pets ("Wah, my luohan can whack all these little fellows in one bite leh" were one contractor's unwelcomely honest words).
In this cultural milieu, might one dare ask if petty concerns like resource recycling, pollution abatement and waste minimisation on a personal level even feature on the average Joeh's mindmap? Can one attribute this general apathy to gaps in the elementary syllabus, or trace its roots to the broader void of unconcern that pervades the typical heartland household? Is there hope that long-fossilised attitudes impervious to the link between nature's welfare and man's future can be chipped and gently exposed to the difficult yet vital truth that nature – and humanity – deserves much more understanding and care than a heart of consumptive callowness?