In part 2 of this Supper Club interview with the founder of the Animal Concerns and Research Society Louis Ng, the 35-year-old talks about the thorny nature of animal activism, how people can co-exist with animals, and how he may be open to joining politics some day.
Q: Some in civil society remain sceptical about the Government's sincerity to listen more to civil society groups. Do you think the change in attitude is really genuine?
It has to be a two way process. So I think the Government is starting to open up and the activists have to open up as well . If we always maintain our position as this, die-die this is my position, that when I talk to the minister he doesn't agree means he is not listening... they are listening but I think now we need to come to the middle ground.
If we keep strongly pushing our agenda as the only agenda, then this is not going to succeed.
Q: But do you think Acres has also benefited from the fact that, of all the issues this Government can move on, animal rights is one of the easiest? Other issues such as manpower, or the preservation of Bukit Brown, can be thornier.
I don't think so, it's a thornier issue actually because for a lot of the animal issues, we are really talking about humans changing their behaviour. For example, when dealing with monkeys, we need people to change. If you buy a residence next to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, we now want you to take steps to change your lifestyle, and that is always the hardest part.
A lot of MPs tell us that their residents say, "Why should I change, I paid millions of dollars for this house, now you want me to mesh up, lock up my bins?" Singapore is a very intolerant society now.
In terms of ministers or politicians taking a lead on animal welfare, that's a bigger step than a lot of other issues, say manpower, where you are not really calling for a lifestyle change.
Q: With Singapore's rapid urbanisation, how do you think we can strike a balance between the needs of humans and needs of animals?
If you look at the recent Population White Paper, a lot more land is going to be developed in Singapore, and obviously there is going to be a lot more human-wildlife conflict here in the coming years as the population grows.
We need to have a look at how we can co-exist with these animals, not just wild animals that Acres is focused on but also dogs and cats. Look at how other countries are doing it.
I go to Laos once a month, there are dogs walking on the street in packs... Most of us who have been to Bangkok, you see dogs everywhere. You go to Egypt and you go to the mall and there are cats walking around, you go to the market you see cats on the carpets they are selling. I ask them, "You don't mind?" No, because they are part of the community.
So as we progress this fast, we cannot forget about being a gracious society, which is not just being gracious to our neighbours and family and friends, but also to other animals.
Even where I'm living now in Jurong, we have community cats downstairs and I see kids going to pet the cats, I see people going to feed them.
You know the Bukit Batok case where all the dogs are going to be culled because one guy cannot sleep at night becaue the dogs are barking? (note: The Straits Times reported in August that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority had received complaints from four residents over the past year about stray dogs barking near Bukit Batok Street 24, with one complainant being particularly persistent. The AVA is preparing to trap the dogs.)
You mean we can't even live with a dog barking that we want all the dogs killed? And also we cannot always be saying, "The Government must solve this. The dogs are barking and I cannot sleep, I pay tax so the Government must solve it."
There needs to be more of a community approach now where people get together and do a simple survey on, do all of us agree that the dogs should stay? Work with the MPs and the grassroot leaders and come up with a solution. It's up to people to step forth and suggest solutions and then implement it as well.
Q: But living with packs of animals roaming around might be a difficult concept for Singaporeans to accept, how could you convince them?
It's a false perception that Singaporeans are not convinced. Because in all the surveys done before, Singaporeans are convinced, the overwhelming majority has said, "Look, we don't want to kill (them), we want more measures in place to prevent the culling of the animals."
But we fall into this false misconception because there is a very vocal minority. They are calling AVA, MPs and community centres repeatedly.
At the same time, we are saying we are here to do something to help animals and residents, and with that approach, residents know we are not trying to alienate their concerns. We are trying to address both and find a win-win solution.
Q: What do you do to relax in your free time?
I go for a run, exercise, go to the gym to burn up the stress. I go twice a week, at least an hour each time.
I go to the Grassroots Club to exercise, it's for grassroots leaders. I help out in Chong Pang, I'm in the CCMC (Community Club Management Committee). I had a chat with (Law and Foreign Affairs) Minister K Shanmugam. He was talking to me and he said, "Louis you can't just help animals, you have to help humans as well, why don't you come and volunteer in my area."
So I said okay, I joined the CCMC. The sad part is that I left the Youth Executive Council, I was the animal welfare and environment secretary. I left because I hit the age limit! (note: Mr Ng is 35 years old this year)
Q: How long have you been in the CCMC for?
Q: Would you ever join politics? And if so, would you join the People's Action Party?
Many people have asked me this and my reply is that I'm keeping my options open for now. I will cross that bridge when the time comes.
Q: What's your favourite animal?
My favourite has to be the monkeys. The story of Acres really started with the monkeys. When I was young I read up a lot and the turning point was Gorillas in The Mist, by Dian Fossey.
I always share this story of my mum bringing me to watch the movie about the life story of Dian Fossey, who is an American lady who went to Africa to save the gorillas. At 14, I turned to my mum and said, "Mummy when I grow up I want to be just like Dian."
Mummy freaked out because at the end of the movie, Dian got murdered by the poachers! There was all this blood everywhere and she was trying to shoot back but she put the wrong ammunition in (her gun).
I also remember the book by Roger Fouts (called Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees) that really shared the story how he taught the chimps American sign language, and how they can actually communicate with us, showing how similar they are.
Washoe, the main chimp who learnt sign language, lost her baby, and she must have felt how painful it is to lose one of your own. She had a human caregiver called Kathy who was also pregnant, and in the book, Kathy went away to give birth but had a miscarriage, and when she came back to see Washoe, Washoe signed to her, "Where's baby?"
Kathy signed, "Baby die." And Washoe signed back, "Come hug." And at 21 years old, I read that, and thought, oh my God, these chimps know how to extend compassion to humans. We humans are always arguing about why should we be extending compassion to animals, when they really know how to (already).
That's how I did my master's degree in primate conservation, to try and look into this field and see how I can help primates. Obviously I've made it into a broader scope of helping all animals, but my favourite animal has always been the monkey.
Q: What about your least favourite animal?
There really isn't one. I'm okay with anything.
I always say I'm like a housefly, if there's a question of which animal I'm most like. Even if you swat and swat, I will still always come back. I will never leave until I get what I want, then I will leave on my own.
This article was published on Oct 13, 2013 in Singapolitics.
Go to Singapolitics for more stories.