Gotong Royong


Had the privilege of bringing this author around the Gardens. We exchanged books that we wrote and of course she got the shorter end of the deal.

My, this was one of those books you don’t want to finish so fast, so as I was reading it, I kept eyeing the remaining pages with anguish that it wasn’t many times thicker. Do books come with different speeds? Why did I read the 236 pages in such a short time? It was such an enjoyable book, like kachang that once you started eating is very hard to stop.

I was transported in time to a kampung in Potong Pasir set in the 1960’s mainly where the author lived and grew up as a child. Little things like how her mum cooked nasi lemak and how she described the smells but yet could not have the satisfaction of eating it because it was meant to be sold off as a means to make ends meet really gave the book the “dramatic arc” the author had mentioned about writing to me.

You also get a glimpse of the political history of Singapore as the stories and struggles of kampung life she writes weave the kampung peoples’ lives with Singapore’s independence and how aspects of their lives are affected by the riots, konfrontasi, elections and separation from Malaya. Tan Howe Liang’s sporting achievements are featured especially in the last chapter “The Lion must learn to roar again, 1965”.

Not only did I appreciate water running from taps, books that litter my home and flushing toilets after reading her book but the greatest take-away from the book was mostly about soul, the kampung spirit, friendship where no one is afraid or inhibited to lend a hand or to share in burdens and joy. The paperback is light in the hands but you can feel its weight in its words and stories.


Sungei Buloh in December – great time to go!

One of the nicest time to be in Sungei Buloh is in December.  This December is no exception but it has been extra nice as the weather has become mild yet cool.  The star attraction, of course, are the migratory birds.  Its fun looking at them, taking pictures and listening to their calls.  Sungei Buloh is well equipped with posters, guidebooks and drawings that you can almost learn what you see without a guide.  But you need to be patient.  The bird hide is such a lovely place to sit and stare at wildlife; especially at this time of the year when it is cool.


Here are some egrets and storks (Milky stork perhaps).  The white in front of the brown and green is just so lovely to look at.


Some nice waders (they look like the Common Greenshank)  See this guide from the Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve website to differentiate the waders.

I thought my kids would be interested in the waders but the Malayan monitor lizards were more exciting for them.  These lazy lounging lizards are easily encountered along the trails and even at the entrance of the reserve.



They spot another one sliding – what an adventure!  Will these monitor lizards eat them up, they wonder.  Matt forgets that he wants to go to eat ice-cream.


“I have got my eye on you…” thought the largish lizard.  The size of this makes everyone think its a crocodile.  Nice.


A feeling of excitement as the kids circumnavigate the reptilian threat.


These lizards aren’t sleepy all they time. When they manage to rouse, they can engage in fights among themselves, clawing each others’ back in the process.


This is the first time I see the Cymbidium flowering.  What a lovely wild orchid, unaltered from hybridization by man.  It looks naturally beautiful.


This is an Orb Web spider.  This one is almost 4-5 cm long from head to the end of the abdomen.



Above it are probably males or they might just be spiders hanging out on the web for scraps of food.  Its always a nice thing to tell kids that the males become snacks for the female spiders after they kiss.


The flowers hang down but the fruits face up.  Its interesting to note that the Simpoh Ayer turns its stalk after the fruit is ripe.  All the better for the pollen to fall on the bee and the fruits to be visible to birds I guess.


It starts to rain but what a good time to get a coffee at the cafe that overlooks the pond.  Buy fish food for a dollar and get the pesky kids out of your hair for the moment.  Matt sticks out his hand to feel the pitter patter of the rain drops.  I used to do that when I was a kid, these days I just rather drink a coffee and stare into the rain.




The rain stops and we get ready to leave.  By the pond is a Sonneratia alba tree. (you can tell which species it is of three species from this excellent website).  Apparently, the flowers of the Sonneratia attract the bats that pollinate the durian flowers.  So more Sonneratia more durian!  Also, this particular Sonneratia is the host trees for fireflies in Malaysia (Not sure if there are any at Sg Buloh though).  More of this wonderful tree from Ria Tan’s work.  Anyway, this tree with its persistent red stigma made me feel more Christmasy then the whole Orchard road waste of electricity light up.




A salak palm, once thought to be lost to Singapore…


This is Salacca affinis. It was thought to be extinct but I accidentally stumbled onto it while taking pictures of rattans. This local salak is a relative of the scaly buah salak that is eaten.

This salak is a palm of the peat swamps and has fronds that tower above our heads. At Nee Soon Swamp Forest, there is a cousin of this palm called Eleiodoxa conferta and looks much like it that dominates the wet swampy understorey. It was this other species that really caught my eye with its beautiful spines. See this picture.

Eleiodoxa conferta

This species can form a stand in the swamp and so it was really fortunate that I stumbled onto the salak. It was one among the many other Eleiodoxa palms in the swamp. The differences between the two are not apparent at first but the key thing is the arrangement of the lamina (leaf blades) of the fronds. Eleiodoxa has a flat frond due to the arrangment of the leaflets (so basically the leafs look like that of a coconut tree). Salacca affinis has a frond with clumped leaflets are regular intervals and the leaflets at each clump fan out. The spines also can be used to differentiate the two immediately. Eleiodoxa has those strikingly beautiful spines arranged like a comb around the leaf stalk.

Nee Soon Swamp is precious – things are still being discovered/rediscovered in this highly threatened habitat by the plant and animal research groups in NUS and NParks.

More details over here – Rediscovery in Singapore of Salacca affinis Griff. (Arecaceae). Nature in Singapore, 4: 123–126. [ PDF , 300 KB]

Accessible from volume 4 of Nature in Singapore:

A very small forest, the central catchment area is…

Last week I presented some of my students’ work at the 8th Flora Malesiana conference. It was on the gene flow of some species of native plants in Singapore (which included Rhopaloblaste singaporensis) and also a short highlight on palm distribution projects that I am starting with my current JC students. The gene flow work was from Shufen’s excellent work for her Honours thesis.

In preparation for one of the slides to show where the individuals of Rhopaloblaste singaporensis was collected (with permits from NParks) for the DNA sampling, I realised how small our Central Catchment Nature Reserve is. This area would include Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Macritchie reservoir, Pierce reservoir and Nee Soon Swamp forest.


I used Google Earth to measure the width of the Catchment area and what I got was a little over 5km at some points…. And then it dawned on me also that we could easily walk round Macritchie in 1.5 hours.

So that was one of those epiphanies I got in preparation for that talk and it lingers.

When I brought 2 of my students to map the distribution of palms in Macritchie, they told me their friends had asked them “why work on the forest palms when there are so many palm species in the urban landscape, along the wayside and in the gardens”… Well, it didn’t take too long, as we began to map and identify the forest species, before they realised that the forest species are special, threatened and misunderstood.

“Did you feel the tremors?” – Part 2

I was watching Makansutra on the Asian Food Channel when suddenly I felt the TV screen with Seetoh eating his chengtng swaying. He had just mentioned that the chengtng he was eating from that shop was not sour, so the ingredients were of high quality.

I thought it was a giddy spell, as I have had one two many meetings these few days. But having experienced the swaying buildings before in March this year (see this post by me and this post by Otterman), I knew it may be another tremor. I could definitely feel the sway, so I asked the wife, wassup? She was listening to snow patrol and suddenly felt giddy and then we saw the one of our kids’ bag hanging on the doorknob sway. And then the building swayed a little again…. So we decided let’s just walk down stairs bringing the kids who thought it all fun. So before I could feel paiseh about it, I met quite a few block members hanging around the pavement and looking at the buildings. The ground floor of the flats across the junction were also gathered some people who were also looking up at the buildings.

Called Siva, because he would probably be online and being so Web2.0 savvy could check out what was happening. I remembered also that he knew where to check in real time the websites that reported earthquakes, but he didn’t answer handphone, so called Ladybug who was at a seminar/class but didn’t feel anything even though her friend later said the projector screen was shaking… Finally got Siva and he checked up the useful USGS site to tell me that it was a Sumatran earthquake measuring about 8 in magnitude. Check out his first post today about it here and the second one on how to report tremors.

Check out also Leafmonkey’s extensive and interesting perspective of Singaporean’s reactions to the tremors.

Later our upstairs neighbour recalled that she was trying to put her baby to sleep when felt the bed moving, so she listened out to see if there were anyone in the block screaming, a measure of how serious the situation was and then went back to tuck her baby into bed.

Here are some pictures at Sengkang. By this time the crowd slowly petered out.

One of the families brought down a suitcase.

By this time, the crowd was petering off and I was relaying to them Siva’s news that it was a sumatran earthquake.

extra notes

Jen said she felt giddy cos maybe she had been too busy with her flu and work

Siva said that he felt giddy cos he thought he was fighting off an infection and overworking on lectures

I said I felt giddy because I thought, that’s it, must be the many meetings I have attended this week.