Speech by 2M Desmond Lee at the Festival of Biodiversity 2019

May 25, 2019

A very good morning to everyone. 

We are very honoured this morning to welcome Madam President as our Guest-of-Honour today. Thank you Madam President for taking time to join the nature community in supporting this celebration of our natural heritage.

Some of you may recall that Madam President launched the Volunteer Gardeners@Istana initiative two years ago. This was to encourage Singaporeans keen on community gardening to help shape the gardens at the Istana. Currently, 170 community gardeners actively volunteer at the Istana.

Let me also thank our very hardworking members of the Biodiversity Roundtable and our partners for organising the Festival of Biodiversity for the 8th year running. It’s also my 7th time hosting FOB, and each and every year I look forward to this coming together of the community to reach out to the wider community in Singapore. 

This year, we mark our bicentennial –  200 years since Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar arrived in Singapore. Both men were keen naturalists who, through their collections and commissioned drawings, facilitated studies in the region’s natural history. In fact, several native species such as the Raffles’ Pitcher Plant and Farquhar’s Nutmeg were named after them.

Over the years, many other researchers have added to our repository of knowledge, both on land and in our waters. Amongst them are some very passionate and talented Singaporeans. For instance, Dr Chang Kiaw Lan, a botanist who helped to advance research at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Another example is Professor Leo Tan, a marine biologist who has dedicated his life to raise the profile of science in Singapore. One of the champions of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Prof Tan even has a crab named after him – the Stoliczia leoi.

Over the years, we have seen more and more Singaporeans, be it in academia, conservation groups, or NParks, taking a lead in documenting, researching and conserving our native biodiversity. One such person today is Dr Karenne Tun, Director of Coastal and Marine at NParks. In 2011, she led the team that rediscovered the Neptune’s Cup Sponge in our waters after it was long thought to be globally extinct. 

Indeed, although we are small, we are such a biodiversity hotspot that we continue to make discoveries and rediscoveries of plants and wildlife in Singapore. 

Last year, we completed a 4-year comprehensive biodiversity survey of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. The survey found that the Reserve is home to more than half of our native plant species, and 84 per cent of our native amphibian species. It also recorded around 40 potentially new species. This further strengthens our resolve to continue protecting the Reserve for future generations to come. 

We need to enhance our efforts to study and document Singapore’s biodiversity. The knowledge we accumulate will be instrumental in guiding and strengthening our conservation and management efforts.

For instance, studying the chemical makeup of a stream can tell us more about the specific qualities that make it a suitable habitat for certain species. This would help us to tailor our approach in managing the habitat accordingly. It is not just a conservation effort, but also an opportunity for our outdoors to be an open classroom for our students, through practicing science in action in conserving our biodiversity.

Looking ahead, we need to work on two areas, in order to protect our biodiversity to co-exist with this urban and busy city of ours at the same time.  

First, we need to ensure that the passion for discovery and nature stewardship reaches the broader community. Only with our community’s buy in and support can our conservation efforts succeed. 

We have been making good progress on this front. I am pleased to report that over 3,300 citizen scientists took part in nationwide BioBlitz activities as part of our Biodiversity Week this year. Some of them also helped to enhance the habitats in our nature reserves, parks and gardens around the island.

We are even reaching out to the very young. NParks has engaged over 80,000 students from some 1,700 pre-schools in the past year with interactive talks, guided walks and hands-on activities. 

We will continue to provide more outreach and educational activities to encourage a deeper appreciation of our biodiversity across a wider cross-section of society.

Second, we will continue to improve our data gathering and analysis with the help of technology.

We can now detect organisms that were previously very hard to see. For example, acoustic technology, such as bat call detectors, has allowed us to detect and identify the presence of bats, which are not only active at night, but also roost in very high places.

Through population modelling, and the analysis of overlapping geographical information system (GIS) layers, we can also better understand the complex interaction between the biological and physical environments.

As a result, NParks can now creatively design ecologically-sound management plans and adapt more appropriately to changing environmental conditions based on sound science.

Indeed, we can look forward to greater collaboration between NParks and our research community in such studies in order to better comprehend our intricate and complex ecosystems.

All of us have a part to play in biodiversity conservation. We can do this by participating in the various Citizen Science programmes organised by NParks, or simply by spreading the message to our family, friends and colleagues. 

Let me take this opportunity to thank our research collaborators, citizen scientists, and sponsors such as HSBC for your contributions.

We hope that more people will step forward and join in the effort in making our City in A Garden ever more green.

I would also like to congratulate the winners of the Singapore Garden Photographer of the Year (SGPY) 2019 photo competition. I am certain that more Singaporeans will be inspired to explore our green spaces after seeing your beautiful photographs. 

With that, I would like to thank all of you. I thank Madam President for gracing this occasion, and for lending your support to the hard work of our green community. In Singapore, we are blessed with so many species of fauna and flora that we need to protect, because it is our duty as stewards for future generations of Singaporeans, and not just for ourselves. 

I wish you all a wonderful Festival of Biodiversity. Thank you very much.