Written: Aug 2011
Feature, published in The Nanyang Chronicle
Written: March 2011
For Short Overseas Journalism trip – Spring 2011: Sri Lanka, Wildlife conservation
Mixed results for wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka
In the wake of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, advocates of wildlife conservation seized this golden opportunity to advance the cause of wildlife conservation. But this was met with limited success.
Many locals are still indifferent to the pressing need to protect the natural environment.
Be it selling turtle eggs illegally or poaching leopards and elephants, acts of wildlife destruction still pose as a problem in the country, according to both experts and individual volunteers. This is in spite of the hype created by the state on conserving its flora and fauna
The President of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society, Ravi Corea, said that more non-governmental organizations have been established to address conservation issues.
He added that there has been a rise in animal populations over the last five years.
“Since we established our Saving Elephants by Helping People (SEHP) Project no elephant has been injured or killed at our project sites,” Mr Corea said. “From our field observations it seems the elephant population has increased.”
Sri Lanka boasts of its rich natural biodiversity, and about 14 per cent of the land has been earmarked for conservation.
But it appears that only the elephants have a more promising future.
At the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery, volunteers admit that many locals do not actively protect the turtles. Turtle eggs and products are still being sold on the black market.
Turtle eggs are believed to have medicinal value, and turtle shells are often used to make ornaments and jewellery.
As an incentive for locals to bring eggs to the hatchery instead of selling them on the market, the hatchery buys the eggs from fishermen at 10 rupees each. Volunteers bury the eggs until they hatch, and the baby turtles are cared for until they are mature enough to be released back into the sea.
But a volunteer, Ms Alison Joseph, admits that conservation work done by these organizations is not enough to have an impact on the natural environment.
Ms Joseph, 34, feels that the most important aspect of improving conservation is raising awareness among young people. Elementary school children are often given tours of the hatchery.
“I’d like to see the education of children (regarding conservation),” the British volunteer, who came to Kosgoda through a charity organization, Leo, said. She decided that coming Sri Lanka to volunteer would be a novel experience for her.
“But we need to have more local-language-speaking people to tell (the children) more about conservation,” she added. Her concerns stemmed from the fact that majority of volunteers there are usually British, while most of the children have no or little command of the English language.
Much as she felt strongly for raising awareness among children, Ms Joseph was more cynical about individual conservation efforts among adults. “Many of the local people know about how we should protect the animals, but the thing is they don’t really care,” she said. “The older people tend to be indifferent about it.”
She concluded: “For such education, it’s better to start with the young people.”
She is not the only one who sees the importance of educating the public on conservation. Efforts to raise public awareness protecting wildlife are also taken by the personnel at Yala National Park.
“Every year we have programmes for the villagers and children,” said a park ranger at Yala, Mr W.A.A.D.U. Indrajith. Programmes such as seminars aim to reduce human-elephant conflict, a prominent problem in the area.
When the elephants stray into village settlement areas for food, they create a disturbance, Mr Indrajith added. This often results in villagers acting aggressively to drive them away.
Despite being designated a wildlife sanctuary and putting in significant efforts to educate the public, Yala National Park ironically poses a threat to animal life.
To accommodate growing numbers of tourists, more jeep tracks had to be created. “The new tracks…become a problem for animals,” Mr Indrajith said. The birds often lay eggs on the ground, and these are destroyed with the laying of new tracks.
He added that overly-enthusiastic drivers also sometimes go against regulations and trail off the tracks to follow the animals, in a bid to secure more tips from tourists.
Mr Corea also accused tourism at Yala for triggering the poaching of animals – when they are meant to be protected.
“There is a flip side to the increasing number of visitors though because the poaching of…animals such as deer, sambar and wild boar increases due to the demand for game meat by the visitors to Yala and other cultural sites nearby,” he said.
Journey to the end of the world
The beauty of Nuwara Eliya (pronounced as ‘nu-rare-li-ya’), a town in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, is captured in the heart of the mountainous district. For many travelers, hiking at Horton Plains – Sri Lanka’s highest plateau – is one of the most breathtaking experiences (pun intended). If you desire adventure and an escape into a world where nature crafts one of her best art, this is the trip that you must take.
Our team hiked to the World’s End – the edge of the plateau with a sheer drop of about 3700 feet – the main attraction at Horton Plains, before heading to the famed waterfall, Baker’s Falls.
It was a race against time to reach the World’s End before the fog set in, which was estimated to be around 10am. We set off at around 5.30am from our hotel, and a van took us through a series of hairpin bends with flora and fauna dotted along the mountain countryside. Cows grazed peaceably on the hills some distance away when we passed, but our first encounter with nature trotting right up to us came in the form of an elk. It was, quite obviously, one that was used to tourists.
Before we had gotten out of our vans, the elk had eagerly leapt over the fence behind which it had been gazing forlornly at passing vehicles and came up to us, perfectly unafraid. One of our teammates fed it some grass and it licked her hand happily. The daring (and camera-friendly) elk was barely 30 centimetres away from my camera lens when I snapped away.
We broke away from our newfound friend and finally arrived at our starting point at around 7am. Besides the usual chatter of our team, it was pretty quiet around us. The other tourists mostly traveled in their small groups and were of some distance away from us. It was a vast landscape – we were all so minute in comparison to the magnitude of nature. We were surrounded by greenery, fresh air, and a distant promise of more mountainous paths and adventure.
Lagging behind a little, a few of us noticed a pretty spiderweb hanging loosely from two tufts of long grass. It was about twice the size of my palm, and spun with delicate, intricate details. The tiny spider was still hard at work, touching up its malicious creation.
The roads are rather rough and difficult, and I could feel the uneven hardened red-yellow soil beneath my sneakers. It took me a while to get used to the steep drops and rocky paths.
At least about an hour later, we finally reached the World’s End – with a spectacular view. Valleys are covered in dense vegetation and tea plantations, dotted with tiny red-roofed housing. More mountains loom over the horizon with the creeping, misty hint of a rising fog.
A local guide noticed my interest in the flora decorating the plateau, and ventured to point out the various plants to me. A small shrub with bright red flowers some distance downwards from the edge was the rhododendron. There are also buttercups, but more commonly decorating the vegetation of the plains is the Spring Gentian, a bright blue flower that is only about one to two centimeters in diameter. It is in fact an endangered species from European countries.
At the plains, much effort has been taken to preserve the natural environment – strict rules against smoking, littering and destroying any part of the flora and fauna reflected the importance of conservation in the area.
The dense vegetation gives way to a vast stretch of grasslands after departing from the World’s End. The roads are no easier at this point – I was rather fatigued by then – but the sights are equally captivating. From the distant forests, white butterflies fluttered across the grasslands towards us.
It was a continuous phenomenon, as though the forest were constantly releasing thousands and millions of these petal-winged creatures. Small streams wound along the way, around which a small collection of colourful flora would gather.
The journey to Baker’s Falls required us to venture into the depths of the forest again, and the roads were steeply uphill. We spotted a squirrel on the way, nibbling on a half-eaten apple that appeared suspiciously like the leftovers of a tourist’s snack. It was the first sign of litter that we had come across in the plains so far.
Walking (or should I say climbing) down to the Falls was no easy task – each step was at least half a metre high, and most were rather uneven. I was told that the steps did not even exist till a few years ago!
But the sight was worth the exhausting descent (and subsequent ascent).The beautiful cascade of water and its soothing crash into the freshwater stream greeted us with refreshing sprays in our faces. We ventured closer to the Falls, clamouring onto rocks on the edge of the stream.
Our way back was a more level path, passing through more grasslands and streams. By that time I was extremely exhausted – hiking nine kilometres was too much for me. We passed by some locals, some of whom were traveling with children. I wondered at their choice to travel at that time. How could they take the heat? The burning noon sun had begun to exert its power on us, and we all bought drinks from a store near the entrance of the plains to refresh ourselves.
On the homebound journey, I had much food for reflection, but one very decisive thought was that the beauty of Horton Plains is definitely worth the hike and difficult journey. After all, it has been said that Nuwara Eliya makes Cameron Highlands look like a children’s playground.
For COM221 Trend story
More youths going under the knife for beauty
For a prettier face, 23-year-old Pearlyn Koh was willing to fork out a few thousand dollars and endure the pain of a surgeon’s knife. She had gotten a nose job earlier this year.
The drama queen of a self-recorded online webcast on clicknetwork.tv confessed that vanity was her sole motivation. “I felt that if I could look prettier, then why not (go for plastic surgery)?” Ms Koh said. She spent about $3,000 to sharpen the tip of her nose in Taiwan earlier this February.
Ms Koh’s decision to go for plastic surgery drew mixed responses from her family and friends. “My mum was convincing me not to go at first, but my friends were telling me to go for it, because they knew beforehand that it’s what I’ve wanted to do,” the unemployed Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate said.
She is one of many young people in Singapore who are opting to go for surgery to enhance their facial features. Most of these youths work on their noses and eyes, which are considered two of the most popular areas for plastic surgery.
The main cause for this phenomenon is the increasing vanity and affluence of Singaporeans, said Dr Georgia Lee, a doctor who provides aesthetic cosmetic treatment in Singapore. “Increasingly among young people, there’s this quest for a perfect face,” she said.
Another reason behind the increase in youths undergoing cosmetic enhancement is their increasing exposure to the media. “There’s more understanding, when people are more exposed to these treatments through the internet, TV and media,” said Dr Chua Jun Jin, a plastic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
He revealed that about 20 percent of his patients are below the age of 25. This has doubled from ten years ago.
Dr Chua added: “There’s also more acceptance (of plastic surgery) now, as there are many options for safe and effective treatments.”
For undergraduate Si Ling (not her real name), going for plastic surgery raised her self-esteem. She was born with pointy ears that stuck out on the side of her head. “I would try to hide it, but the boys would still pick on me. I got paranoid about it,” she said.
Insecurity about her ears drove the 20-year-old to undergo corrective surgery in Malaysia after her GCE ‘O’ Level examinations to make the defect less obvious. Now her ears no longer stick out unnaturally. “I am definitely more confident now,” she said.
In addition to plastic surgery, non-invasive techniques such as Botox treatment and facial fillers are also getting popular in Singapore.
Dr Lee, who specialises in such treatments, said: “These (non-invasive treatments) are becoming prominent here, but they still cannot replace surgery.” She explained that there are some procedures that definitely require surgery, such as creating a double eyelid.
She also revealed that more young people are approaching her for acne and facial scarring treatment. The number of patients below the age of 30 has doubled from two years ago.
According to anthropologist Dr Vivienne Wee, the increasing self-consciousness about their looks among youths today boils down to the problem of gender inequality.
She said that as it is still mostly women who go for plastic surgery, it is a gender issue. “This shows that there’s still gender hierarchy in Singapore, and young women feel that there’s a need to conform to a gender stereotype – as an object of desire,” she said. “Women’s lack of self esteem is the main issue here.”
Dr Wee compared Singapore to Japan and Korea, two counties where gender inequality is more pronounced and where the trend of plastic surgery is more prominent as well. “In countries like Scandinavia and Iceland, where there is more gender equality, (plastic surgery) is less of a phenomenon,” she said.
Despite increasing social pressure to possess attractive facial features, not all young people feel that they need to conform to it. Undergraduate Deborah Yue, 20, said: “For beautification purposes, I don’t see the need (to go for plastic surgery). Why do I need to be someone I’m not?”
Written: Dec 2009
For the Dennis Bloodworth Journalism Prize 2010 (Finalist)
Foreign Domestic Workers – Are we treating them right?
In recent years, issues with foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore have been frequently thrust into the limelight. Despite the decline in reported maid abuse cases, discrimination against them remains commonplace.
Cases of maid abuse and maids attacking employers often splash our local headlines.
As the demand for these domestic helpers has increased, with their number rising from about 160,000 in 2005 to 190,000 in 2009, the impact of FDWs has become of increasing importance to Singapore’s socio-economic scene.
Foreign domestic workers are often seen as inferior to their employers, Ms Bridget Lew, President of Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), asserted. “This is not an issue of welfare, but a matter of human rights,” she declared. “They are not given the rights that a local employee is given.” HOME is a local non-profit organization that advocates the rights of migrant workers and provides direct assistance to these workers.
Ms Lew elaborated that these FDWs are not given enough rest at times and are forced to work long hours. “And sometimes her male employer may be just walking about the house in his underwear but since it’s in his own house, it’s considered legal, even though it’s clearly a case of sexual harassment,” she said agitatedly.
At the HOME headquarters, I spoke to Annaliza, 25, a Filipino domestic worker who escaped from her abusive employer’s home. She has been volunteering for the organization while waiting for her application to return home to be approved by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).
She said that she had been illegally deployed by her agent from Prudential, and during her first month in Singapore, June 2008, she was forced to work in the agent’s own home for no salary.
Due to her homesickness, Annaliza came down with high fever three days after she was sent to her first employer. Shockingly, the employer reacted indifferently. “She didn’t believe that I was really sick,” Annaliza recalled. “I still had to go to the hospital to take care of her mother.” Her employer also deliberately hit her with a stove.
There was once when the young woman accidentally cut her own finger but her employer remained nonchalant. She said in fluent Filipino-accented English, “I asked her please could I have a bandage, because there was a lot of blood but she didn’t want to give me any, and scolded me for letting the blood flow all over the floor.”
Having had enough of the abuse, on August 2 2008, she left her employer’s home secretly and traveled to the HOME helpdesk at Lucky Plaza, after which her case was referred to MOM. She did not want to pursue the abuse cases, but merely requested to be able to return to the Philippines.
While waiting for her approval letter from MOM, she has been volunteering at HOME, as a trainer in computer literacy for other workers in the shelters. “But Annaliza’s been waiting for over a year now, and it’s still not approved,” Ms Bridget Lew said. “She just wants to go home.”
Mr John Gee, President of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), another non-profit organization that advocates the welfare of migrant workers in Singapore, said that there have been changes in public attitudes towards foreign domestic workers.
“More people are willing to speak up,” he claimed, referring to incidents of abuse. He explained that the public is also more aware that maid abuse is now more frowned upon in society, so employers who are more inclined to be abusive tend to restrain themselves.
Abuse of foreign domestic workers often stem from poor communication between employer and employee. Employers are sometimes frustrated that the FDWs cannot understand their instructions.
Mr Daniel Quek, 44, said that maids sometimes “don’t understand their workscope and are unhappy when scolded”. Mr Quek has been employing FDWs since his first son was born nearly 10 years ago and his present domestic helper is his sixth one.
However, his wife, Mrs Noorin Quek, 34, who is expecting their third child, admitted that she is planning to send back their current maid after the child is born. “I don’t think I can trust her enough with my newborn baby. Sometimes she doesn’t understand what she needs to do,” she said.
Poor communication can also arise from unreasonable employers. Annaliza revealed that her ex-employer used to give instructions that she understood perfectly, but after she had completed her task, her employer would insist that she had wanted her to carry out another different duty.
FDWs are also susceptible to exploitation due to the financial burdens they carry. According to statistics by TWC2, Singapore agencies charge FDWs between S$750 and S$2,000 for their expenses and placements. Most employers deduct this amount from their maids’ salaries. Some employers may then withhold their salaries for many months, placing the domestic workers in a vulnerable position.
The MOM blacklists an average of 300 to 400 employers each year, which includes abusive employers and those who fail to pay salaries. They are barred from hiring maids for periods of time.
A new prerequisite for FDWs coming to Singapore is that they must pass an English proficiency test. Some employers, however, feel that this requirement is not as important as practical skills a domestic helper should have, such as that of handling household electrical appliances. As many FDWs come from less developed countries, training them to use these appliances is essential.
Mr Gary Chin, the Managing Director of Nation Employment, a local FDW employment agency, said, “We give value added-ness to employers…and we do not overcharge them.” The employee training costs are absorbed by the agency.
On the issue of FDWs attacking the employers, Mr Chin felt that sometimes the maids are not “mentally prepared” for the pressure of long working hours in the employer’s home, so their violence may be the result of their repressed frustration.
Betty Chua, 50, a married full-time tutor who employs a FDW in her household, also stresses on the importance of encouraging maids. “We should not give them stress,” she emphasized in Mandarin. “Sometimes they are scared, because they are in a foreign country after all. We must guide them patiently.”
One of the most prominent factors behind the rise in employment of FDWs is the increasing number of dual-income households in Singapore. This leads to the rise in dependency on maids to take care of the children, elderly and the household chores. Now, one in six families here employs a maid.
“The input of FDWs act as subsidies to the economy,” Mr John Gee observed, emphasizing on the importance of these workers.
But Singaporeans need to recognize that this is not their only role. Domestic workers are human too. They need to be properly woven and accepted into the social fabric of Singapore.