Chapter 4: Nature and the Environment as an Evolving Concern in Urban Singapore
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61 4 Nature and the Environment as an Evolving Concern in Urban Singapore Harvey Neo Introduction The concept of landscape is a useful tool for interrogating the meanings of nature and environment, as well as society’s relationship with nature. Landscapes reflect competing societal views on nature and environment (see Kong and Yeoh 1996, for a discussion on the social constructions of nature in Singapore). As Mitchell (2000: 100) points out, landscape “is a way of carefully selecting and representing the world so as to give it a particular meaning” (also refer to Chapter 1). In the Dutch landscape painting tradition that emerged in the 17th century, for example, artists mostly relied on their imagination to create scenes of nature and rural life in their drawing studios. This chapter focuses on land use changes in Singapore and their consequent conflicts (often rooted in the contestations between development and conservation) as a starting point to interrogate how nature and the environment are landscape representations that draw strength from normative ideals, broader existing social norms and dominant political ideologies. In so doing, it hopes to provoke discussions on the critical place of nature in urban Singapore. 04 C-Landscapes.indd 61 7/30/13 10:24:17 AM Harvey Neo 62 Following this introduction, I will describe briefly the different ways in which one understands and values nature. In the third section, I will use the examples of Senoko and Chek Jawa to show how the Singaporean state has historically been more partial to a “developmentalist” way of understanding and engaging with nature and environment. The fourth section highlights recent nature-society contestations, focusing on how the meanings of nature have expanded in recent years to include animal rights in the light of growing civic consciousness and political awareness amongst the Singaporean population. The chapter concludes by speculating on the likely engagement between the state and society in nature and environmental issues in the future. Values of Nature and the Nature of Values Nature is given different degrees of importance by different people. Indeed, in the first place, how nature can and should be evaluated and “priced” is highly contested too. For example, there are many environmentalists who believe that nature cannot be priced satisfactorily in monetary terms. Our perception and understanding of nature is a good example of “social construction” at work. According to geographer Sarah Whatmore (2005: 10), Social construction is a set of specific meanings that become attributed to the characteristics and identities of people and places by common social or cultural usage. Social constructs will often represent a “loaded” view of the subject, according to the sources from which, and the channels through which, ideas are circulated in society. In our context, her views suggest that a person’s understanding of nature cannot be divorced from broader social realities, as well as his or her experiences. Beyond the individual level, one can also see how society, as a collective, constructs meanings of nature that become dominant, for various reasons. Clearly, such a broad understanding of nature is not absolute, and has been challenged constantly by other groups or individuals. Whichever the meanings of nature that are socially constructed, the process of making sense of nature is dependent on how nature is “valued”. One can distinguish between two broad types of values that can be applied to nature and the environment. The first is utilitarian value (also known as instrumental value). A person who believes in utilitarianism will consider a course of action morally permissible if the outcome of the action results in overall goodness or positive value (often taking into account the opportunity 04 C-Landscapes.indd 62 7/30/13 10:24:17 AM Nature and the Environment as an Evolving Concern 63 costs of one course of action over another). Such an ethical perspective is hence also known as consequentialism because it is most concerned about the final net cost/benefit, usually measured by monetary value, of any action. This can be contrasted to the intrinsic-ethical perspective suggesting that objects can be considered of value, in and of themselves, without the need to consider the consequent cost/benefit. Such intrinsic values often challenge pure economic rationale and are concerned with principles such as heritage, aesthetics and culture (Neo 2009). Hence, the changing perspectives of nature and society in Singapore have much to do with the different ways of valuing nature and the environment in accordance to the aforementioned principles as well as, concomitantly, how their...


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