Singapore’s (not so) ‘Wild, Wild West’

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Cultivate member and erstwhile West Oxford resident Joel Lazarus  is away on a year-long sojourn in Singapore with his family. So much is he missing the VegVan that he’s decided to stay in touch in blog format. This is the fourth in his series in which he tucks into the social and environmental dimensions of how this small, crowded island feeds itself.

Welcome to the fourth instalment of this monthly blog in which I share what I’m learning about the what, where, and how of food in Singapore. So far, we’ve managed to visit food courts and supermarkets, and also failed to visit the ‘hidden abode’ of a milk production plant. This month, I’m reporting back from family visits to Singapore’s self-proclaimed ‘Wild, Wild West’

The area of Kranji is located in the North-West of Singapore. It constitutes the vast majority of the island’s remaining farms. Since only around 1% of Singapore remains as farmland, we’re talking about a tiny area. Tranquil and green, Kranji feels about as rural as Singapore really gets. That said, it is far from ‘wild’. There are no fields to ramble in, no meadows to stroll in, no woods to explore. We’re talking roads with small farm units either side. To be honest, in some places, it felt more like an agricultural-industrial estate than a back-to-nature experience. But let me fill you in on the details of what we found and what I think it might say about Singapore. I took the kids to three places: Hay Dairies, Bollywood Veggies, and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Here’s what we found.

1) Hay Dairies

My 5 year-old daughter Betty was quite excited about visiting Hay Dairies, a goat farm producing milk from about 800 mixed breed goats. Unfortunately, her visit prompted an emotional journey that turned from initial excitement to disappointment and, finally, to a mixture of bewilderment, upset, and anger. What she was expecting to see was goats out to pasture in green fields, kids gambolling and frolicking at their side. What she found was something quite different. A visitor walkway ushered us past, on our left, hundreds of miserable-looking goats sat down, contained within metal pens. On our right, stood lots of kids separated from their mothers. This sight didn’t seem to disappoint the Singaporean visitors who clicked their cameras away with seeming relish and fascination.

We quickly made our way through the walkway back to the main entrance of the farm. There, at the request of my two youngest children, I bought two cartons of fresh goats’ milk. Betty sat down with her milk and began the mental processing, linking the milk in her carton to the forlorn goats she had just seen. I did nothing more than answer her questions honestly and directly. As we sat there looking at photographs of all the breeds of goats, she asked why they depicted goats in fields and not in the actual pens. We read an information board which told us how the new-born babies are separated from their mothers on the day of birth. It didn’t say what was done with the male babies. After some thought, Betty herself decided that she did not want to drink her milk.

goats

2) Bollywood Veggies

foodWe walked on under a hot sun to a self-styled ‘agritainment’ centre called Bollywood Veggies. By the time we arrived, we were tired, hungry, and thirsty, so we seated ourselves at a table at the farm’s ‘Poison Ivy’ restaurant. Our ice-cold lime juices and lemongrass teas were welcome respite indeed! Unfortunately, the rest of the food we ordered wasn’t so great and was quite expensive. However, I think we might have just chosen badly. The broader menu does look good and it’s full of food grown right there.

The centre was set up by a maverick character called Ivy Singh-Lim in 2000. Ivy was there when we were, raising her huge wine glass to toast the health of all her guests and her farm. After our meal, we walked around the farm, enjoying the huge variety of tropical trees and plants that flourish there. It was one of those ‘Ah, so that’s how x grows!’ moments familiar to all ignorant townies like me. Apart from the farm walk, there are fun things for the kids to play with, and fresh produce to buy. All in all, a good time was had by me and the kids at Bollywood Veggies. I certainly appreciated that Ivy and her team had worked immensely hard to set such a great place up that served as a base to campaign for and educate the public about the need to live harmoniously with and in close relation to nature. There was a strong emphasis on eating locally grown produce.

3) Sungei Buloh Wetlands Centre

We ventured on to Sungei Buloh Wetlands Centre. Sungei Buloh prides itself on being a nature reserve of great importance as it sits on the migratory routes of many species of birds. It is Singapore’s one and only ASEAN Heritage Park. At its entrance, we were confronted by many interesting and informative displays telling about these bird species and their migratory routes. We left this exhibit and joined the walkway to take us around the mangrove areas there. What we found left us really devastated.

In total contrast to the photos on display, we found a toxic environmental disaster. There were dead fish floating on the surface. There were plastic bottles and wrappers everywhere. There were bigger plastic and mental cans and canisters too. It was really painful to witness. I attach some photos for you to see for yourself.

fish1What we saw shocked us all. It wasn’t just the environmental degradation, it was the utter state of denial.

All in all, a day with its highlights and lowlights. The highlight for me was experiencing the creative output of a community of people committed to educating and campaigning on issues of sustainable food and health in Singapore. The lowlight was clearly the first-hand experience of environmental degradation at Sungei Buloh.

As for what I learned about Singapore, I’d have to say it was the degree to which Singaporeans seem so detached from nature and in a state of ignorance or denial about what’s really going on. Many ecologists, most notably John Foster-Bellamy, have developed Marx’s concept of ‘metabolic rift’ to explore the consequences of mass urbanisation and global production and consumption. Very simply put, as capitalism develops, and as people are compelled to find waged work in the cities (often after being kicked off their land), they lose their direct symbiotic relationship with nature and also lose their consciousness of this essential relationship. This seems to me a very helpful way to think about life for most Singaporeans. Food simply appears, waste simply disappears. Nature is merely a commodity to enjoy, an input into a production process or, like Sungei Buloh, a sink for our waste. This is a superficial and untenable reality.

In recent weeks, there have been quite a number of stories about pythons making unwanted appearances. One turned up in Toa Payoh public swimming pool. Another, again in Toa Payoh, popped out of a lady’s toilet and bit her bum! Where do people think that the snakes, made homeless by ever more housing developments, will go? It all leads me to wonder whether these recent appearances are symptomatic of nature beginning to bite back!

Next month is school holiday season in Singapore. We’re taking a break from this island and are heading to Hanoi and Sapa in North Vietnam and, later in June, to a tiny island called Camiguin in the Philippines. I’ll report back in late June, hopefully with stories of culinary delights to savour!

Thanks for reading

Joel