We cannot protect what we do not know

on conservation and the journey to love my country, inspired by a guided walk to spot reptiles

One of the promises I’ve made to myself upon returning to Singapore was to give myself a proper chance to fall in love with my own country, after spending most of my life brimming with resentment and bitterness (another story for another day).

I realised it was not fair to resent what I do not know well enough. I have not taken the time or effort to explore the pockets of Singapore I had never bothered to — the heritage trails, the nature reserves, the astounding number of museums we have for a small country.

So when Shaun spontaneously suggested we join a guided walk to spot reptiles, I readily agreed, though I have zero interest in reptiles or that it used to be impossible convincing me that going for a ten kilometre walk at 8am was a good idea.

What I do have is an infinite curiosity, as well as a new-found openness to new experiences, even if I have no prior interest in them.

For those of us who have not been to Singapore, she is an extremely built-up city that typically looks like this:

Yet upon arriving at the fringe of the nature reserve I see this:

I felt like I was in another time and space.

I have never been to MacRitchie Reservoir, or if I had, I have completely forgotten about it. This time, I have brought a renewed appreciation of nature with me, especially in this land-scarce country, so I do not take the sights I inhaled for granted.

But yet despite the point of the walk is to spot reptiles, I didn’t take many pictures of reptiles, what I was more fascinated with, was how much enthusiasm, curiosity and knowledge our people have about reptiles:

Or the man picking up litter on the way — I was staring at him the entire time, and when I picked up the courage to ask, he tells me it is part of a larger movement, and his pet peeve. At the end of the trip, I saw shoes, an in-sole, among an array of other things that shouldn’t belong to a nature reserve in the bag he was carrying:

I loved the tree-top walk, and experienced an immense gratitude for all the country is trying to do right:

I just get overwhelmed by the space I was experiencing, because it is just so difficult to come by in this city:

Most of all, I was very inspired by the guides — the evident passion they have for their cause, their love for nature, the impressive breadth of knowledge they have demonstrated, at their very young age:

They are doing all that they can for the space they love. That if we, as Singaporeans do not care enough, we stand to lose what we will never be able to replace in our lifetimes, or our children’s lifetimes — a beautiful, diverse ecological system that is home to many rare species:

The Cross Island Line (CRL), which will connect Tampines and Jurong, is depicted to pass beneath a 1 km stretch of forest near MacRitchie Reservoir…It passes through some of the most pristine ecosystems in Singapore, including old regrowth forest, two primary forest patches and four natural stream systems. — Why ‘Love MacRitchie’

I would not have been concerned if I did not take this walk on a whim. It is not that I don’t care about protecting ecological diversity, I simply didn’t know enough. In a span of four hours, I have learned more than I will ever have known about reptiles, birds and butterflies, that many species in the ecosystem depend on figs, that fungi act as an important agent to break down energy back into the ecosystem — all of that serving as a larger metaphor for how we’re inter-dependent on each other.

We cannot protect what we do not know.

Once we are exposed to new experiences, interactions, and knowledge, our consciousness is permanently changed. I am still not moved by reptiles, but I think it is only fair that the next generations get to experience and decide. I can’t stay apathetic, because now I know.

This is not just about conserving nature, it is about conserving us — our diversity and richness. We need more of us knowing different arrays of knowledge, so more of us can protect what we love, and hence as a whole, we know how to love a country, our humanity, and the world we live in. We need to know what we stand to gain or lose. Can we imagine a generation of kids only knowing what concrete looks like? What would they love? What would they be inspired by? What would they wish to protect?

What is it, of this country, are we exactly protecting? Without this knowing, this desire to protect, what are we grounded to? Are we really sure, that economic success is what that is worth protecting? Can that be loved? Is sustainable economic success possible without an underlying foundation of love for this country, a desire to invest not only our monies, but our hearts?

I grew up as a person who didn’t know what to protect, what to love. I grew up as a Singaporean who didn’t love my country because I didn’t know what of her I could possibly love. I grew up unable to appreciate art or nature for a long while because all that surrounded me was concrete and talk of economic materialism.

But now I know.

It isn’t reptiles, but I love a society that despite all her flaws, we are still able to have people who love reptiles and are doing whatever they can to protect them, I love whoever that fought for and architected that tree-top walk, I love that I met a boy today who told me he wants to be a painter, I love everybody today who tried to show me where exactly is that reptile everybody is seeing except me, simply because they wanted to share their joyful discovery.

I hope more of us will try to know what we do not know, to try to experience what we would usually dismiss. To step out of our conditioning and comfort zones to experience the world from a different angle.

Because we may surprise even ourselves, that our capacity to love and protect, may be stronger than we would ever imagine it to be, once we take that step to truly know something.

I don’t love the reptiles, but I love the people who do.


I run a little simple site that tries to demonstrate the small but wide array of interestingness Singapore has, in case you want to experience your own bit of knowing. Would love any contributions or feedback!