20 mins with NMP Faizah Jamal: Harnessing the Power of Mother Nature for a Happier Singapore
Madam Faizah Jamal (centre), with her daughters, Azura (left) and Almira, rallying to save Bukit Brown from getting demolished to make way for new roads. (Source: Madam Faizah’s Facebook page / Photo credit: Balakrishnan Matchap)
“Tak kenal maka tak cinta” is a Malay proverb that translates into “You cannot love what you do not know”. And that is the motto that Madam Faizah Jamal, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), lives by — especially when it comes to sharing with others her love for Mother Nature.
A corporate lawyer by training, Madam Faizah has since hung up her robes to focus on what’s close to her heart. When she’s not teaching the Environment Education module at Republic Polytechnic or carrying out her parliamentary duties as NMP, she’s deeply involved in environmental activism to save Singapore’s wildlife (or what’s left of it). Madam Faizah is also a strong advocate of cultural education being a promoter of the rich heritage of Kampung Gelam (which she clarifies is often misspelt as ‘Glam’ in modern literature about the locality), where she still lives in the shophouse she grew up in.
Madam Faizah has been a member of the Nature Society Singapore (then-Malayan Nature Society before it re-registered as NSS in 1991) since 1984 and was part of the team that engineered a 17,000-signature petition to the Singapore government in 1992 to speak out against the construction of a golf course to be built over Lower Peirce Reservoir. The plans were eventually shelved, whether or not as a result of the efforts of the NSS members. Her activist work was so remarkable it landed her a scholarship awarded by the European Commission (now European Union) for Asean nationals in 1992 to pursue a Master’s degree in Environment Law at King’s College London without bond.
After some ten years of practising law, Madam Faizah reached an inflection point where she decided that her priority was to spend more quality time with her young daughters and to be closer to what she was truly passionate about – nature. Fast forward to today, Madam Faizah successfully carved out a second career based on her passion for the environment, teaching local youth about the empowering role of nature in modern society and facilitating nature walks.
She recalled how she had “almost fallen off her chair” when she was approached by NSS to be nominated for the post of NMP to represent the interests of environment civic groups, or what is officially termed as the ‘Civic and People Sector’. As the representative of this platform, Madam Faizah raises concerns in parliament about a myriad of environmental issues — from the ‘green’ (conservation) to the ‘brown’ (waste, pollution etc.) to the ‘blue’ (marine).
Only 18 months into her job as NMP and Madam Faizah has already gained prominence for her work in parliament, thanks in large part to her impassioned speech about her problem with the Population White Paper and her eventual vote against it. She highlighted how no one in the House had raised the concern about the impact of development on the environment.
Here’s an excerpt of Madam Faizah’s speech in parliament:
“The White Paper is to my mind, utilitarian…Land, even valuable nature areas, which are in the way, has to go, if humans require it for GDP growth. I especially note with concern the potential disappearance of natural spaces with regards the 50 km Cross Island Line (CRL)…The fact that it goes through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, and I emphasise the term ‘Nature Reserve’, is a serious concern.”
“If there is no environment, there is no economy. If we continue to act as if as if human beings are no more than economic digits, as if humans are the top of the heap and we think we can get away with it, we will, as a wise person once said “continue to be an egocentric society which has cut off its own heart and then attempts to live without it”.
FSaaM caught up with Madam Faizah recently for a conversation and she shared some of her most candid thoughts on a variety of topics, including why she had voted against the Population White Paper.
Madam Faizah Jamal (centre) getting her hands dirty to help create a sustainable food garden in Tioman in Malaysia. She is pictured with her daughter Almira (right) and a volunteer. (Source: Madam Faizah’s Facebook page)
On Singapore’s pursuit of GDP growth at the expense of the environment
Madam Faizah said: “I think the reason why we are in danger of becoming soulless is that we don’t take into account things that are intangible, things that can’t be counted in dollars and cents, and for me specifically it’s about the environment. Look at how we define green spaces. In Singapore, green spaces are not just your nature reserves but also parks and golf courses. There is no understanding that when a nature person talks about nature, you’re talking about wild nature, the biodiversity that you cannot recreate, even with a lot of money. Look at Gardens by the Bay – why are we having that? It costs so much to construct and maintain and we take pride in the fact that we’re getting plants from all over the world yet at the same time we don’t even know our local flora and fauna.”
Madam Faizah added that in our nature reserves alone, there are more species of butterflies and plants in that tiny piece of land than the whole of the United Kingdom!
For Madam Faizah, there is no real understanding among the authorities that “certain places are inviolate”. She said: “(The rainforest) is there for a purpose – providing us with carbon dioxide and oxygen, it acts as a filter, flooding can be minimised by having a lot of trees. There is a need to understand the intangible. How do you measure how much a tree gives off oxygen? Because we can’t measure it in GDP terms, we think it doesn’t exist.”
When quizzed about the possibility of conserving green spaces in Singapore without forgoing economic gain, Madam Faizah was quick to respond that the authorities could look at developing our eco-tourism and encouraging more people to be certified nature guides or facilitators.
”We can do a lot in small spaces and still have a viable economy. You just have to be different in your paradigm,” she said. Here, Madam Faizah was referring to the paradigm of humans having “a very anthropocentric view of the world and that everything must be for the human person.”
She cited an example of an upcoming night marathon sponsored by the North Face, and from what she understands the running trail is likely to cut through the nature reserve at night. This, she argued, demonstrates the absence of awareness and sensitivity on the part of the commercial organisers that most of our fauna are nocturnal, and would be affected by such heavy human impact.
Madam Faizah was even more disconcerted that the authorities have apparently given the permit for the run to take place even though the guidelines state that the nature reserves are officially closed at 7pm, and despite the Parks and Trees Act (Chapter 216 of the Singapore Statutes) expressly forbidding activities that would cause damage or injury to wildlife.
According to Madam Faizah, one of her pet peeves about the Population White Paper was the absence of an environmental impact assessment (EIA), which she has been advocating to be ratified. “With an EIA, you delay a project until you know exactly what the consequences and impact would be down the road, not just on the land but also on people,” she explained.
Importantly, she noted how it was also about people’s emotions and sense of attachment to places of nature and heritage. She did give credit to the Land Transport Authority for consulting NSS to help them scope out an EIA on the back of the proposal to cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to make way for the Cross Island Line. At the same time, however, Madam Faizah acknowledged that more needs to be done before the LTA would be convinced to reverse their decision.
On the Southern developments how it may impact marine wildlife
With Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently announcing that the container port will be moved to Tuas to make provisions for redevelopment on the Southern tip of Singapore, Madam Faizah raised some valid concerns in regards to the potential environmental impact.
First of all, she wondered who the development would be for and if it was going to be accessible to ordinary Singaporeans. Next, she noted that our Southern islands host a teeming marine wildlife and how the development in the South could upset the rich marine biodiversity with the issue of siltation.
Madam Faizah then touched on the issue of animals in captivity. “Again, people say that there’s nothing to see (in Singapore’s waters), so they go to see dolphins at Resorts World. ACRES tried to stop (keeping the pink dolphins in captivity) but it didn’t work. We have dolphins and dugongs in the wild and yet they want to get dolphins from somewhere and put them in an aquarium. That doesn’t make sense.”
She added: “My concern (with the Southern development) is how it is going to impact the marine wildlife. On the one hand, you’ve got this (marine) survey that’s commissioned by NParks. On the other hand, you have the developments (that are being planned).” According to the NParks website, the “comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey (CMBS) takes stock of Singapore’s marine ecosystem and species diversity, species distribution and abundance over three years from end 2010 to end 2013.” Whether the findings of the survey would have any bearing on the development plans in the South remain to be seen.
With the port to be moved to Tuas, Madam Faizah said that we will indeed have a nice view of an open sea, but the environmental impact of what’s beneath the surface and whether marine wildlife would survive was her primary concern.
On ‘Project Jewel’ at Changi Airport
Similar to Gardens By the Bay, manicured parks like ‘Project Jewel’ do not sit well with Madam Faizah.
She said: “I think at the moment Singaporeans generally think of nature as something they can enjoy from afar and that there must be a barrier. It’s the same with (Project Jewel) and we’re perpetuating this sort of paradigm. What we’re saying is that we cannot enjoy nature for what it is. We must engineer, manipulate, landscape and have this huge human hand in it for us to like it.”
On engaging the government to discuss green issues
Madam Faizah emphasised the importance of using language that is empowering and building relationships, rather than using the “Us vs. Them” approach.
“There is the engagement going on with the government. This is where civil society has to play a part. We can be all aggressive but sometimes it’s really about being more patient and to language our concerns in a different way. Language can be empowering or disempowering,” she said.
Madam Faizah added: “You have to learn to create the relationship first, and relationships take time. We (NSS) are still at the table (with the government) so I think we’ve done a lot.”
On how to improve awareness and appreciation of nature in Singapore
Madam Faizah noted how “nothing is ever wasted” in the natural environment, and she used that analogy to demonstrate how we can apply the learnings from the forest to improve society and the individual. She highlighted how nature is the best recycler and, at the same time, in life we can use our experiences to make choices that are “empowering” to each individual.
She also noted how there was order in the chaos that is Mother Nature. “You look at the forest, is there a straight line? No. Nature is seemingly messy and yet there’s some kind of order. However, (in Singapore), we think that life must be linear. Nature is not like that. If we learn from nature, we are OK with messes. Life is messy and that is not necessarily such a bad thing. This is what I mean by the value of nature.”
For Madam Faizah, there is no other way to appreciate nature than to get into the thick of it, literally. This is why she facilitates nature walks for her fellow MPs and their youth groups, as well as for her students at Republic Polytechnic. Madam Faizah also emphasised how educating people on the value of nature can only be effective insofar as the individual wants to learn. She said: “From a spiritual perspective, I have a belief that we cannot transform anyone who doesn’t want to be transformed. In this kind of paradigm, we can only help facilitate transforming people who are just half a step behind us.”
She expressed hope that those whom she had influenced would in turn share their newfound passion for nature with others.
On what she hopes to achieve in her term as NMP
Madam Faizah admitted that two-and-a-half years is not a long time but enough time to “plant seeds that would continue to bloom” long after she has completed her term.
She said: ”It’s not short in terms of the relationships I wish to establish. I tell my students that if there was one thing that they learn from the Environment Education module (at Republic Polytechnic), it is the importance of relationships – be it our relationship with the environment or with other people.”
Madam Faizah is right in that you can only love what you know. It’s all about re-creating the special connection we have with the environment and understanding how “we are nature”. And that truly can be empowering for the human soul in this cold, concrete jungle that we live in.