SINGAPORE - Dr Shawn Lum came to South-east Asia to trace the roots of a tree. He ended up staying in Singapore for 25 years, spreading his own roots and saving forests here.
Five years ago, he became president of the island's oldest, largest and most vocal environmental non-profit, the Nature Society (Singapore). Since then, the American botanist and National Institute of Education (NIE) lecturer, a long-time Singapore permanent resident, has shunned vociferous protests. Instead, he has been quietly nudging more people outdoors to appreciate nature.
The Nature Society used to make waves for its watchdog advocacy work. These included successfully staving off plans to develop part of Peirce Reservoir forest into a golf course in 1992, persuading the Government to set aside Sungei Buloh as a mangrove and bird sanctuary in 1993, and agitating for the preservation of Chek Jawa, a unique marine habitat on Pulau Ubin in 2001.
But Dr Lum has since returned the organisation to its original role as a hobby - rather than lobby - group, propagating the pleasures of looking at birds, plants and butterflies. He has increased the frequency of guided nature walks, conducted more conservation surveys than ever before and linked up with schools, statutory boards and companies to promote nature appreciation.
The 50-year-old is like a placid lake in the tempestuous world of global environmental activism, often led by strident lobbyists. But still waters run deep. His goals, it emerges, are no less lofty. And he is steadily advancing towards them with gentlemanly charm in his signature Hawaiian shirts.
It's just his approach that is different. He works single-mindedly, churning out exhaustive studies and cultivating international links. He works collaboratively with others, be they shrill-voiced members, other non-profit organisations with competing agendas, or policymakers in a hurry.
For example, he recently accepted the Land Transport Authority's invitation to help craft the terms of an environmental impact assessment tender for the proposed Cross-Island MRT Line, which is likely to cut through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. In July, the Nature Society released a position paper arguing the new line would compromise the sustainability of the reserve.
Doesn't he fear being co-opted, rubber-stamping official policies?
He admits frankly that his organisation grappled with the possibility that working with the public agency would compromise its "ability to take an independent stand". Ultimately, he says they concluded: "We still disagree. But rather than a face-off, it's a positive development that we can sit down together in a convivial atmosphere at the inception, where there's a chance that the outcome might be better."