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Factory farming seen to trigger next global pandemic: choose plant-based meat alternatives to reduce the threat

First published in South China Morning Post.

  • Experts say the next pandemic will be a bird flu, H7N9, which so far has killed 40 per cent of people infected, making it 100 times deadlier than Covid-19 virus.
  • It will start in battery chicken farms, so consuming less cheap, factory-farmed meat and eggs and eating more plant-based alternatives can help head it off.

At the online PlantFit Summit this month, 38 of the world’s health experts weighed in on how to improve our health and well-being by adopting a more plant-based diet.

Opening the summit was US doctor Dr Michael Greger, The New York Times bestselling author of How Not to Die and internationally recognised speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health. He spoke about the next killer flu, which he believes is brewing in battery chicken farms. “The leading candidate for the next pandemic after Covid-19 is a bird flu virus by the name of H7N9, which is a hundred times deadlier than Covid-19,” Greger says. “Instead of a 0.4 per cent case mortality rate [which is what we’re seeing with Covid-19], H7N9 has killed 40 per cent of the people it has infected.”

“The leading candidate for the next pandemic after Covid-19 is a bird flu virus by the name of H7N9, which is a hundred times deadlier than Covid-19.”

– Dr. Michael Greger

The first reported incidence of H7N9 was in China in March 2013. Since then, sporadic annual human infections have been reported, with China currently experiencing its sixth epidemic. During the virus’ previous and fifth epidemic, from 2016 – 2017, the World Health Organization reported 766 human infections, making it the largest H7N9 epidemic to date.

The H7N9 virus is of special concern because most patients who contract the virus experience severe respiratory illness, such as pneumonia.

Influenza AH7N9 as viewed through an electron microscope. Both filaments and spheres are observed. ©Center for Disease Control and Prevention

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Asian lineage H7N9 virus is rated by the Influenza Risk Assessment Tool as having the “greatest potential to cause a pandemic”, as well as posing the highest risk of severely impacting public health if it were to achieve sustained human-to-human transmission.

Over the past few decades, hundreds of human pathogens have emerged – a rate unheard of in human history. They all have one thing in common – they came from animals. HIV, the virus that causes Aids, originated from the butchering of primates for the bushmeat trade in Africa. Sars and Covid-19 have been linked to the exotic-animal trade, and swine flu in 2009 arose from a wet market in Asia but was, according to Greger, “largely made in the USA in industrial pig operations”.

According to the CDC, the eight genes of the H7N9 virus are closely related to bird flu viruses found in domestic ducks, wild birds and domestic poultry in Asia.

The virus likely emerged from “reassortment”, or mutation, a process where two or more influenza viruses co-infect a single host and exchange genes, producing a new strain of the virus.

Experts believe the H7N9 virus underwent multiple mutations in live-bird and poultry markets, where different species of birds are bought and sold for food. Infected birds shed bird flu virus in their saliva, mucus and faeces. Human infections with bird flu viruses can happen when enough virus gets into a person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or is inhaled.

H7N9 reassortment diagram ©Center for Disease Control and Prevention

“That’s what viruses do best – they mutate and may find the lungs and become an airborne pathogen,” explains Greger.The last time a bird flu virus jumped the species barrier and triggered a pandemic, it caused one of the worst plagues in human history – the 1918 Spanish flu,. This disease was triggered by a flu virus that bred in the crowded, stressful trench warfare conditions of World War I, and had a two per cent mortality rate, killing 50 million people.

Greger says: “We have the same trench warfare conditions today in every industrial egg operation and industrial chicken shed where the animals are confined, crowded, stressed – but by the billions, not just millions.”

Michael Greger MD believes the next pandemic is waiting in the wings of chickens. ©Dr Michael Greger

It matters how we raise animals around the world, regardless of what we choose to eat, because we are all put at risk by animal farming. “When we overcrowd thousands of animals into cramped football-field-sized sheds, beak to beak or snout to snout, atop their own waste, it’s a breeding ground for disease,” Greger says.

The overcrowding of animals in such conditions leads to stress, which cripples their immune systems. This is made worse by ammonia from their decomposing waste burning their lungs, as well as a lack of fresh air and sunlight. “Put all these factors together and you have a perfect storm environment for the emergence and spread of super strains of influenza,” he adds.

Just as eliminating the exotic-animal trade and live-animal markets may go a long way towards preventing the next coronavirus pandemic, reforming the way we raise animals for food may help forestall the next killer flu.

Companies are developing plant-based foods in response to demand for alternatives to meat as a source of protein. They are primed to expand production as more consumers turn away from cheap, factory meat products.

Such a change is happening in the dairy industry, where cow’s milk sales have fallen as consumers become aware of, and are given a choice of, non-dairy milk alternatives. Dairy produce sales fell by 22 per cent between 2006 and 2016, according to Cargill, the world’s biggest producer of animal feed. In the same period, sales of plant-based milk alternatives tripled.

“All the major meat producers – Tyson, Smithfield, Hormel, Purdue, JBS – have started innovating us out of this precarious situation by making plant-based meat alternatives,” says Greger.

Cargill, the largest private corporation in the United States, is now producing plant-based lines of sausages and chicken nuggets. The world’s largest fried chicken chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken, has started rolling out “Beyond Fried Chicken” plant-based alternatives at dozens of stores in the US in the hopes of going national. Starbucks, the largest coffee-house chain in the world, which has been offering plant-based dairy alternatives for several years now, last month introduced a line of Impossible meat-free options in Asia, including a wrap and pasta salad bowl, which can be found in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

Global fast food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, who use battery cage farming to raise their chickens, have started selling a plant-based alternative.

If more people choose these products, corporations will make more of them and the world would be at less threat.

Although doctors recommend eating whole plant foods rather than processed plant foods, Greger says that if you’re at a fast-food chain and you’re going to order something, opting for these plant-based alternatives is not only healthier than the meat option, but from a pandemic disease standpoint “poses zero risk”.

Ocean Robbins is co-author of Voices of the Food Revolution – You Can Heal Your Body and Your World – With Food.

Ocean Robbins , author of Voices of the Food Revolution and professor at Chapman University. ©Ocean Robbins.

He serves as an adjunct professor for Chapman University in Orange, California, and is the CEO of the online Food Revolution Network, which advocates for affordable and accessible healthy food for all.

Livestock gain weight faster, which increases profits, when they’re fed antibiotics with every feed, and because of this, factory farms have become breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Robbins says. He adds: “We are creating inevitable future pandemics every day when we take 80 per cent of our antibiotics and feed them to livestock.”

Echoing Greger, Robbins explains that a big way to make a difference as an individual is to eat lower on the food chain, opting instead for whole plant food options.

“You’re not going to be supporting antibiotic use in factory farms if you don’t eat the products of factory farms,” he says.

How to meditate your coronavirus fears away during lockdown, from breathing techniques to looking at nature

First published in South China Morning Post
  • Meditation enables a shift from reactive to responsive living, in which we choose what we dwell on, including our thoughts, experiences, and healing
  • Keeping calm isn’t just about traditional meditating – we can also experiment with plant-based diets, breathing techniques, gardening and painting

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced me into home confinement in central Singapore, I had a morning meditation ritual – spending up to 40 minutes in silence on my balcony and looking onto a dazzling yellow flame tree.

Now, I sit again in the evening, too. This nourishes my feelings of gratitude and compassion during these challenging times as I await the birth of my second child.

Mindfulness and meditation have interested me since my early teens, but I only began practising it daily a year ago, after a healing session with meditation and spiritual teacher Danielle Van de Velde.

Meditation enables a shift from reactive to responsive living, in which we can choose what we dwell on, including our thoughts, experiences, and healing.

“This is critical in this current situation when so much of our life experience is curbed with containment measures and we are under constant bombardment of Covid-related content,” Van de Velde, an Australian living in Singapore with 30 years of experience, says.

Danielle Van de Velde
Danielle Van de Velde is a spiritual healer and meditation teacher ©Danielle Van de Velde

The practice of drawing ourselves into present awareness, meditation creates a new state of presence and the ability to draw back to present awareness at will.

Like me, Van de Velde credits meditation for her good health, illness prevention and the ability to live intuitively. “Meditation is a lifestyle for me and a state of being, rather than an activity I engage with. It has enabled a complete shift in how I live,” she says.

Van de Velde grew up in a spiritual home and has been meditating since her childhood. “I had a hunger for understanding life and self from a very young age,” she says. This, along with her slightly rebellious nature, has led her on a journey of exploration and discoveries.

When she was in her 20s and 30s, she worked in the financial and property sectors in Australia, Europe and the United States. In her personal life, she explored healing practices and meditation techniques, and held informal meditation sessions for many groups before she became a qualified meditation teacher. Fifteen years ago, she left the corporate world to teach and support others on their inner explorations.

Most of Van de Velde’s students are experiencing high levels of stress because of their feelings of “disempowerment and uncertainty” during the pandemic. “These feelings make it easy to generate alternate reality tunnels of doom and gloom, and disconnect us from our current reality,” she says.

Sutha Atiin, a social worker in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is one of her students. She has been feeling anxious, even experiencing bouts of dizziness, as the number of Covid-19 cases, the disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to rise.

“I have children and grandchildren in Britain and Singapore, and extended family in Australia, not to mention all my family in Java,” Atiin, 62, says. “As a mother and grandmother, I worry that they will catch the virus.”

To destress, Atiin has been practising meditation in the form of pranayama, a yogic term that translates to energy or life force (prana) and breath (yama). She favours nadi sodhana, or alternate nostril breathing.

Nodhi sadhana breathing ©Angela Jelita
Sutha Atiin practices alternate nostril breathing or nadi sodhana to help alleviate her Coronavirus anxieties. ©Angela Jelita

“The other night, I was feeling very worried,” Atiin recalls. “I practised nadi sodhana, closing the left nostril and taking a slow, deep breath from the right nostril, then closing the right nostril and breathing out slowly, releasing all the air through the left nostril.” After 20 minutes, she had returned to a relaxed state of mind.

“I also send love and compassion to others during this time, a practice that always leaves me feeling at peace,” she adds.

Meditation is good not only for the mind, but for the body, as it triggers the release of immune-boosting chemicals into the system. Gratitude, awe, wonder, loving kindness and an altruistic outlook – thinking of others before self – have all been shown to have this effect.

A review of 20 studies on meditation and the immune system published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2016 suggests the practice may help dampen inflammation, boost immunity and slow biological ageing.

Meditation is key as I prepare mentally and spiritually for my home birth without medication. When I can, I meditate outside or with a view of nature. Gazing upon an old tree is comforting and elicits peaceful feelings. Sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion, I close my eyes and focus on my in and out breaths, through my nostrils. I take in long, healing breaths and release them in a slow, steady stream.

After meditating, I feel calm and completely in the present. This helps me to let emotions come and go throughout the day without holding onto them.

After a few minutes of focused breathing, I arrive at an altered state of awareness and return to my natural breath, now slower and more at ease. I observe any thoughts or sounds that enter my mind. When a thought comes in, I visualise it going into a balloon and floating off into the sky.

After meditating, I feel calm and completely in the present. This helps me to let emotions come and go throughout the day without holding onto them.

On Mondays during the lockdown, my husband and his work colleagues have a morning conference call in which I lead them through a simple, guided meditation to help them to relax and manage stress.

With practice, it becomes easier to be able to enter a meditative state throughout the day, not only in a formal sitting. “Thankfully, the process is a quick one, as the system starts to recognise the movement inward and neural pathways form to create ‘the habit’ of meditation,” Van de Velde says. “A dedicated minimum of 10 minutes a day will yield these shifts in a relatively short amount of time.”

To maintain our sense of calm in these uncertain times, Van de Velde suggests experimenting with lighter, more plant-based diets. She also advises maintaining a meaningful connection with both nature and loved ones.

Atiin has taken up other meditative forms, including spending time gardening. “I find connecting with and looking after my garden extremely soothing,” she says. She has also picked up a paintbrush for the first time in a long time. “This form of creative expression is very healing and helps me process my emotions.”

Van de Velde believes having to stay inside during lockdowns is a golden opportunity for people to deepen their understanding of the mind-body-energy system and its capacity to heal and self-regulate. “This is perhaps the grandest invitation the world has been given to raise its game, and it only can happen one person at a time.”

Into the Heart of the Jungle

Get close to wild orangutans from the comfort of a river liveaboard that helps keep local cultures and wildlife alive.

First published in Garuda Colours inflight magazine in August 2018

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir, naturalist and environmental philosopher.

If Indonesia was a person, Borneo would be her soul. Sitting right on the Equator, this giant island has drawn explorers from all over the world for centuries, who come searching for a piece of the lost world, a land that time forgot.

Borneo belongs to three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, with Indonesia holding the largest portion, which we know as Kalimantan. The name itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Kalamanthana, meaning “burning weather island”, describing her hot and humid tropical weather.

Borneo is home to ancient rainforests, approximately 130 million years in age, making it one of the oldest in the world. These forests are home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, many endemic to this island, and some critically endangered like the Bornean orangutan.

There is money to be made from tourism and keeping the forest and local cultures alive. This is being educated to locals by social enterprise Wow Borneo, created by two British expats, Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins. These ladies converted a traditional riverboat known as a rangkan into a magnificent cruise boat that goes by the name Rahai’i Pangun. They claim to have been the first jungle cruise on the Rungan River in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, when they started operating in 2007.

Our three-day, two-night journey onboard the Rahai’i Pangun began at Palangkaraya’s river harbour. She was the largest boat docked at the harbour, and our guide Indra Setiawan helped us alight. Rahai’i Pangun is a floating wooden marvel with five air-conditioned bedrooms and an open-air dining area and living room with a large observation deck.

Departing from the harbour at 9am, we began cruising upstream in what felt like a floating dream. With a cup of local coffee in my hands, I enjoyed observing villages of wooden stilted houses on the river’s edge, and canoe-like fishing boats go by. Children waved enthusiastically at us from both sides of the river, some running alongside trying to keep up.

As man’s world started fading away, the forest world engulfed us, and all we could hear, see and smell was the river and peat forest. A couple of hornbills flew gracefully overhead, their large wings wooshing.

Within a couple of hours of relaxed cruising through forest, we reached the island of Kaja, a 25-hectare sanctuary for rehabilitated orangutans, managed by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). Kaja has dense greenery as far as the eye can see, and spotting the furry orange friends in the trees was a sight to behold.

There are 57,350 individuals of the Pongo pygmaeus orangutan species left in the wild in Kalimantan, and 14,470 of Pongo abelii, a related species in Sumatra, according to a joint report published by the Indonesian Ministry of  Environment and Forestry, the Indonesian Orangutan Forum, the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group, and other environmental groups earlier this year.

Conservation efforts have paid off, and numbers are up since the first edition of the report was published in 2004. The number of Sumatran orangutans was down to 6,600 at that time. There’s no count for the number of individuals Borneo orangutans in the first study, but the current population is slightly higher than what researchers expected for this year.

That’s in part due to sanctuaries like Kaja, where rescued animals are reintroduced into the forest to form new populations, for example after they have strayed into palm oil plantations due to the loss of their habitat.

Wow Borneo aims to show locals that through tourism, there is value in preserving the forest and the culture of the local Dayak people. It donates US$25 to BOSF per visitor onboard one of its river cruises.

Nico Hermanu, BOSF’s communications officer, later told me that Wow Borneo tours also help visitors gain a better understanding of the orangutans, beyond superficial interest. “They also get to see that this great ape live on the high canopy of trees, help disperse seeds, and maintain the quality of a forest area.”

Our boat continued upstream. Every now and then we passed illegal gold miners working on mobile gold-sifting units along the river, expelling smoke and loud noises from their engines.

“The river water is brown due to these miners churning up silt from the riverbed,” Setiawan said. “Tomorrow I will take you where the river is black – that is the true colour of the river.” He explains that as vegetation decays, the leaching of highly soluble tannins creates water that is darkly stained, resembling tea.

We traversed further upstream until we landed at Kanarakan, a traditional Dayak village. Greeted by friendly yet curious children, we were given a traditional Dayak welcome ritual. White paint made of rice porridge with pandanus leaf was smeared on our faces to cleanse our spirits and protect us. I donned my leaf headdress with pride.

A highlight was sampling betel nut, the region’s equivalent to South America’s coca leaves. An ibu (mother) sliced the orange fruits into smaller pieces and wrapped them in betel pepper leaves before handing them over to us to chew. She laughed hard as she watched our grimacing faces bite down into a foul and bitter taste. The kick you get rivals that of coffee, which explained why so many of the village elders had dark red-stained teeth and gums.

Early next morning, we departed on smaller boats to an island surrounded by the mysterious black water Setiawan had told us about. Cruising through dense jungle on either side, we felt removed from our realities. On engine-powered canoes, we were able to get much closer to the orangutans, this time spotting seven in total. They groomed and played with one another, oblivious to our curious stares.

After lunch, we continued upriver through small and windy tributaries on another motorised canoe to Bapallas Island, a 14-hectare reserve, where ten orangutans were hanging out. One in particular caught my attention. Her name is Kesi and one of her hands is a stump. She had been rescued from a palm oil plantation, where she had been attacked and mutilated by plantation workers who are often frightened of the creatures they consider pests.

Seeing these stunning animals in the wild, albeit rehabilitated and protected by rangers, is both a hopeful sight and one with a poignant reminder that our continued development threatens their survival.

Wow Borneo’s cruises create livelihoods that replace some of the common jobs found here like fishing, logging, or gold mining. Employing 20 local people, the venture provides fair wages, family health cover, insurance, as well as termination payments to its staff.

“We work with community tourism groups in each village we visit, who provide guide services, cultural events, and canoe hire for a price agreed annually,” says co-founder Thavisin. “Since we started our company, a total of US$200,000 has gone directly to the community.”

Thavisin explains that her eco-tour has helped to revive sangar, the local dance groups, which were disappearing in the region as tradition started to fade. We watched the lively and colourful traditional Dayak dances being performed to us by enthusiastic young people in Kanarakan village, an experience I will never forget. Like true tourists, we wore the yellow selendang (shawl) and joined in the festivities, although nowhere near as graceful as the locals.

Returning back to civilization after two nights sleeping in the depths of the forest was ­– like betelnut ­– a hard nut to swallow. It is heartwarming to know that the windy river of Rungan, with its sprawling jungle on either side, still exists in Central Kalimantan, and that this social enterprise is helping to preserve it. I feel as though I left a part of my soul on that sleepy river, and I would go back in a heartbeat to find it.

Suicide, depression and poverty: Indonesia’s refugees’ bleak future now there’s almost no chance of being resettled

First published in South China Morning Post print and online, 21 March 2018.

Asylum seekers who fled war to reach Indonesia have been told there is almost no chance of them being permanently settled in a third country. Many deal with depression and suicidal thoughts as they struggle to feed their children.

Hassan, 29, a native of Afghanistan, has thought about taking his own life. He has been a refugee in Indonesia for four years, and is depressed and anxious. He suffers from migraines and sometimes shakes uncontrollably. Hassan’s story is similar to many refugees in Indonesia, where at least six have committed suicide since 2016.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, provides temporary shelter to 13,800 registered refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Myanmar. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the phenomenon is relatively new in Indonesia, and the number of refugees the country hosts is dwarfed by the 150,000 sheltering in neighbouring Malaysia.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, so those seeking protection are forbidden to work and are only allowed to stay temporarily until they are resettled in a third country.

In January 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a “Refugee Decree” reiterating that they would be permitted to stay temporarily, and provided with protection until a long-term solution was found. New arrivals would no longer be held in detention centres, as is currently the case for 4,000 who are unable to fend for themselves.

Widodo’s decree was welcome news to the country’s refugee population, but in September, that ray of hope was dimmed. The UNHCR announced in a bleak information campaign that places for permanent resettlement in a third country had become so limited that most refugees in Indonesia would never be given the opportunity.

In the wake of the announcement, there have been several reported cases of refugee suicides in the country, most recently on March 2. The victim, 22-year-old Hayat, an ethnic minority Hazara from Afghanistan, had spent four years in an immigration detention centre in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province. Having fled Afghanistan at the age of 18, it was reported, he was not mentally strong enough to cope with his circumstances, and hanged himself.

22-year-old Hayat, an ethnic minority Hazara from Afghanistan, spent four years in an immigration detention centre in Medan. Having fled Afghanistan at the age of 18, he was not mentally strong enough to cope with his circumstances, and took his own life.

On January 5, another refugee from Afghanistan, tormented by depression and financial problems, took his own life, leaving behind his wife, Shafiqa Rohullah, and their three-year-old son.

“My husband was suffering from depression,” Rohullah told the Post, “and many times he kicked me out of the house and beat me and my son.”

After her husband’s suicide, Rohullah, who was seven weeks’ pregnant, approached the UNHCR for help. She waited outside the building in Jakarta, sleeping rough for four days before representatives agreed to see her. She and her son were taken in by UNHCR partner Church World Service (CWS). They now sleep on a single bed in a room with 12 other refugee women in a shelter in Manggarai, South Jakarta.

Afghan refugee Shafiqa Rohullah’s three year old son, asleep in a Church World Service shelter in Manggarai, South Jakarta. Rohullah’s husband, tormented by depression and financial problems, recently took his own life.

“My son is crying a lot,” she says. “He wants to go back home. There is no place for him to play, and there are no other kids here.” Rohullah says they are not provided with healthy food and cannot sleep comfortably. Since moving into the shelter, Rohullah’s son has contracted tuberculosis and is being treated in hospital.

The UNHCR has told refugees to either return to their home countries or get used to living in Indonesia, volunteering or studying. Factors that have led to the announcement include the Rohingya crisis and Australia’s ban on accepting refugees who registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia after July 2014.

Last year, the United States reduced its resettlement quota from 120,000 to 45,000, which has had a significant impact on resettlement of refugees from countries around the world.

Rohullah confesses that she had eloped with her husband, an act that is considered immoral in Afghanistan and often ends in lynching by angry mobs. She says they can’t return because they would not be safe, and has received threats from her own father, she says. “He said he would kill me and my son.”

Rohullah says she only wants a better future for her son. “I want to provide him with a good education. I hope he will become a good person and have freedom.”

Unable to work, refugees in Indonesia rely on friends or family members in their home countries for money to cover living expenses. Most refugees choose to live in Bogor, West Java, due to its relatively low cost of living.

Hassan has lived there for four years, currently in a shoebox flat behind his landlord’s house, open to the elements in what is reputed to be Indonesia’s wettest city.

A former journalist, he spent about US$7,000 – a small fortune – to make it to Indonesia when his work put his life in danger. His mother and four siblings are still in Afghanistan.

He volunteers four days a week, teaching English to fellow refugees at Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), another UNHCR partner organisation. The rest of his time he spends reading, writing and playing the oud – an Arabic lute.

Hassan is given 22,000 rupiah (less than US$2) a day for transport costs when he volunteers at JRS. Putting as much of this aside as he is able, he can take home about 422,000 rupiah a month, which is not enough to cover his 600,000 rupiah rent. Like most refugees in Indonesia, Hassan eats only once a day, mostly beans and rice.

Hassan suffers from depression and anxiety, and says it has worsened since the UNHCR’s September announcement.

“My family members are at risk back in Afghanistan. I’m very scared, very concerned about them,” he says. “I sometimes just want to give up,” he admits. “My family members back home are the only reason stopping me [from killing himself].”

Hassan says the UNHCR’s assessment of the refugees’ situation has been devastating for him. “It is so hard when have been waiting so long for news from the UNHCR, and they finally say you can go back to your home country. Our country is at war, and even according to the UNHCR there is nowhere safe in Afghanistan.”

Although he is well aware of how overcrowded and unsanitary the detention centres in Indonesia are, Hassan says he would still prefer to live in one because he would at least know when was going to eat and not have to rely on handouts to cover his living expenses.

However, the centres – run by the government – are not taking in any new refugees, including the families with newborns who sleep on the street outside Jakarta’s immigration centre.

Hassan says that since registering as a refugee in Indonesia, the UNHCR has offered him no help. ”I’ve written so many letters to the UNHCR for help and support, and I’ve received no single reply.”

Mitra Suryono, a public information officer with the UNHCR in Jakarta, says that due to budget and staffing constraints, they can only provide assistance to the most vulnerable.

“Due to the scale of the global issue of refugees, we have limitations and can’t provide assistance to all refugees. We can help 300 to 400 of them, covering young children, under-18s, the elderly and those with disabilities,” she says.

On February 5, about 30 refugees rallied in front of Jakarta’s UNHCR building demanding the right to basic human rights, including the right to work. Signs read “We are human”, and “UNHCR please help me”.

Suryono says the agency is trying to provide working opportunities for refugees in Indonesia. “We are continuing to advocate to the government to allow activities that can derive a small income so they don’t have to depend on handouts and can take better care of themselves,” she says.

“These activities should involve local communities, and benefit both the local communities and the refugees.”

In the meantime, Hassan and his fellow refugees are doing what they can to stay positive. They often play sports together, which helps to manage anxiety and depression. For the fortunate few, refugee-led education centres like JRS provide an informal education and respite from the constant worry.

Hassan says he often shares his feelings with others in the same situation as him. “We sit together, we talk to ease our burdens … We also cry alone to release all the feelings,” he admits. “Praying helps us, too. Even after all this time, I still have my faith.”

The downsides to Singapore’s education system: streaming, stress and suicides

First published in South China Morning Post on 21 September, 2017

The country’s school system is geared towards high achievement in exams, but the emphasis on rote learning and memorisation, combined with pressure to succeed, affects children’s social skills, health and overall happiness.

Singapore’s education system is reputed for producing children who top the world rankings in standardised tests. The city state took first place in the last Pisa (global education rankings.

Hong Kong ranked ninth in the last Pisa tests, below Taiwan (fourth) and Macau (sixth).

Howard Tan, a former Singapore primary-school teacher turned private tutor, says he has encountered parents who put undue pressure on their youngsters.

“It’s too simplistic to say that the pressure comes from the system. A lot of pressure comes from parents,” he says, adding that he’s seen parents express disappointment with their children for scoring less than 90 per cent in tests. “As a teacher, I hardly push my students that way. The system necessitates that from the parents,” he says.

Tan teaches eight- and nine-year-olds, and his private tuition classes wrap up at 9pm. “I have one eight-year-old student taking multiple tuition classes from multiple tutors per subject, amounting to 11 tuition sessions a week. Does she have time for anything else?”

Tan says that when he taught physical education classes in primary school, he noticed that a number of children lacked motor skills. “In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements; they would shout because they didn’t know any better,” he says.

High student-to-teacher ratios are a big problem in Singaporean schools, Tan says, but pressure also stems from the practice of streaming – with pupils of the same year being segregated into different classes based on results and assessments in several key gateways.

Streaming is where the Singapore system differs from Hong Kong’s. However, segregation of “bright and slow” students still happens in Hong Kong, in the form of school banding.

Singapore’s compulsory education system consists of six years of primary school, four years of secondary, and between one and three years of post-secondary school. Students undergo two major exams before even leaving primary school.

At the end of primary year four, pupils are tested to determine the courses they will take in English, mathematics, mother tongue, and science. At the end of primary school, they take the Primary School Leaving Examination, which determines the stream a pupil will follow in secondary education.

There are four streams: Special, Express, Normal Academic, and Normal Technical. Special comprises about 10 per cent of pupils, and is an accelerated pathway to university. Fifty per cent make the Express track, which may lead directly to university or initially to junior college. Twenty per cent pursue the Normal track, leading to polytechnic institute, while the remainder fall into Normal Technical, which leads to a qualification at the Institute of Technical Education.

Some Singapore parents regard streaming as beneficial for children with different learning capacities. Maida Genato, who has three children at school, says: “For the slow learners, if you teach at a faster pace, they might have a hard time adjusting, whereas for fast learners, if you slow the pace they might get bored.”

Tan, however, says that with class sizes of 30 to 40 pupils, streaming will fail a lot of children.

Jamie Sisson, an education lecturer at University of South Australia, says streaming and high-stakes testing increase stress on children and parents.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning.”
– JAMIE SISSON

“[It serves] to limit opportunities for learners that later affects their opportunities in life. Humans are complex beings. It is difficult to determine at a young age what someone is capable of achieving later in life,” she says.

The Singaporean concept of kiasu – a Hokkien word meaning “afraid to lose” – may explain why parents enrol their children in extracurricular tuition in the hope they will excel in test scores.

Genato, a Filipino, says she’s noticed that her daughter’s ethnic Chinese classmates tend to be pushed harder. “It must be a cultural thing,” she adds.

Sisson says she has observed that young adults of Chinese descent, including Singaporeans, sometimes find it hard to adapt to the university’s style of teaching.

“I’m seeing students, especially from China, struggle because they’re used to memorising answers. When they come to study in Australia, they have to shift their way of thinking.”

Sisson advocates a democratic, student-centred pedagogy, a teaching ethos by which students play a significant role in defining course policies, materials covered, and other aspects of schooling.

“Research shows that placing high value on test scores has led to narrow views of teaching and learning,” she says. “Such practices focus on memorising facts that have been determined by others to be of worth.

“If we don’t understand how things work in the context of real life, then we don’t understand, we’re just memorising. This can limit children’s opportunities to develop skills important to being innovative problem solvers we need in the future.”

Sisson refers to a widely cited report by British-based business lecturer Sally Chan, titled The Chinese Learner – a question of style. Chan writes: “The popular view is that the stresses of learning and need to excel academically leave the Chinese student with little choice but to resort to rote learning of the essentials to pass the examinations … Such learning modes are believed to dominate classroom behaviour for Chinese students in Hong Kong, China and Southeast Asia.”

Although primary-school children in Singapore spend an uncommon amount of time dealing with homework and extracurricular tuition, the benefits are questionable.

“There is hard evidence proving that below high school, homework does not have a positive impact on learning,” Sisson says, citing the example of Finland, which takes a holistic approach to education. Finnish students have little or no homework, and there is no private tuition culture in the country.

Finland came sixth in the latest Pisa rankings, and its schools produce young adults who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers.

“In preschool … they need to socialise and learn conflict resolution with other kids. Many of the children I taught didn’t know how to deal with disagreements.”
– HOWARD TAN

Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven years old, and there is only one standardised test, administered in the final year of high school. School holidays are longer. Finland ranked fifth in the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report; Singapore ranked 26th.

Last year, Singapore’s Ministry of Education announced that a new scoring system would come into effect in 2021, claiming it will reduce stress by encouraging pupils to focus on their own learning rather that competition with their classmates.

Currently, a student’s Primary School Leaving Examination aggregate is the sum of T-scores from all four subjects taken. T-scores indicate how well a pupil has performed relative to peers in the subjects. From 2021, pupils’ scores will no longer be benchmarked against their classmates’, the ministry says, admitting: “The way that the T-score is calculated may have also created unhealthy competition among our young children.”

Roy Ngerng is a Singaporean activist, who in 2014 was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on his sociopolitical blog, in comments about the city state’s pension fund. In an article titled ““New” PSLE Education Scoring System: Does it Change Anything?” Ngerng concludes that the change “still puts excessive focus on academic results”, and that students will actually find it harder to obtain higher scores.

Ngerng suggests that “healing” the system would require a combination of reducing class sizes and the administrative workload of teachers so they can focus on the development of each child, which would in turn reduce stress levels.

He also suggests a reduction in school hours. This would give teachers room for more creative activities to develop children’s critical thinking skills, he says.

Singapore’s Green Spaces

First published in ‘Colours‘ Garuda Indonesia’s inflight magazine, April 2017 edition. 

In Singapore, you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from a public garden. To celebrate Earth Day, Colours visits one of the world’s greenest cities to explore and soak up Mother Nature in Singapore’s many outdoor spaces.

Singapore is certainly unique: a bustling city-state of 5.78 million people with languages emitted from its streets ranging from Mandarin to Tamil, Malay to English. The country’s first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, introduced the ‘Garden City’ movement in the mid-1960s, an ideology that has been manifested today in the plethora of green spaces that can be found across this bustling metropolis.

Named the ‘Second Greenest in the World’ by the World Cities Culture Forum, incredibly nearly half of Singapore’s land area is dedicated to parks and gardens. Deciding which ones to visit can be quite a daunting task, so I decided to take some local residents’ advice.

“I guess it depends where in Singapore you live,” says Lina, an expat originally from the Netherlands who has been living in the city for two years. “I live on Robertson Quay and I attend boot camp in the park three mornings a week.” She tells me her favourite outdoor space is Fort Canning due to its close proximity to home, its hills and many steps – perfect for those hardcore workouts she loves so much.

For local resident Byron Lim, it’s the MacRitchie Reservoir, located further north. “You’d either have to drive or take the MRT to Marymount, but it’s worth it once you’re there because you really feel like you’re away from it all – and the kids love it,” he tells me over coffee on the lively Orchard Road. “Just don’t feed the monkeys!” he laughs.

Clearly, the expression ‘each to their own’ applies when attempting to narrow down the city’s must-see green spaces. So, with a general overview of where to go, I strapped on my walking shoes and headed out to explore the great outdoors.

 The Futuristic Garden

Gardens by the Bay is arguably Singapore’s most iconic outdoor space. Situated right by Marina Bay, what separates it from the rest is that it may be the only park that is even better enjoyed by moonlight. This revolutionary downtown garden is watched over by 18 towering 25–50m-tall ‘supertrees’ – architectural marvels creeping in plants that provide respite from the tropical sun during the day and light up like an electronic music video at night. Embedded with the environmentally sustainable function of photovoltaic cells that harvest the sun’s energy, these trees stand as a testament to what Singapore is capable of. Walking through its magnificent grounds on a Saturday night, I was awestruck by mankind’s ability to seamlessly blend the futuristic with Mother Earth.

There was laughter to my left: a group of tourists had claimed a piece of green under the supertrees, passing time with their favourite drink poured into plastic cups and snacks brought from outside the grounds. Some seemed deeply engrossed in conversation, barely taking notice of the light-and-sound show unfolding in the supertrees above. I walked through the crowd and made myself comfortable on a large rock, taking in the performance, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at the magnificent display of colours and music.

The Colonial Garden

The Singapore Botanic Gardens were established in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society and serve as the city’s more traditional park compared to Gardens by the Bay. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, the gardens reflect an English landscape style so expansive in size that you need several days to navigate its entirety.

My visit started at the Visitor Centre and Nparks HQ, from where I strolled down to the Symphony Lake, home of turtles and large monitor lizards, as well as the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage. Slightly further along, at a large stretch of open grass called the Palm Gardens, other visitors had set up camp for the afternoon, lying out on the green enjoying a picnic and a game of Frisbee or football. This appeared to be one of the gardens’ busiest spots, and those in search of quieter corners could easily continue walking to one of the many other lawns on site.

Those with a penchant for orchids may want to stop by the National Orchid Garden, home to the largest display of orchids in the world. With a S$5 (US$3.50) entrance fee for tourists and just S$1 (US$0.70) for senior citizens and students, there is plenty to discover inside, including the VIP Orchid Garden, where new orchid strains are crossbred and dedicated to important visitors from around the world. On my visit, the Barack and Michelle Obama orchid was the proud centrepiece in the main building: a curious pygmy orchid made up of soft purples and yellows.

If, like me, you forgot to pack your own picnic, there are several cafés in the gardens that can replenish you, and Halia Provisions will be able to stock you up with picnic necessities. With a strong local iced black coffee in hand, I sat on a bench and watched park-goers stroll by, the birds swoop overhead, and the leaves in the thousands of trees rustle in the cool afternoon breeze.

The Beach Garden

A local’s favourite weekend spot – and for good reason – the East Coast Park spans over 15km of scenic coastline, within an area of 185 hectares. I took a trip on a Sunday afternoon and opted for two wheels as my means of transportation, renting a bicycle from the park for S$5. Cruising along the shoreline, I felt so far removed from Singapore’s hustle and understood why people come here regularly for a quick escape. Runners, in-line skaters and other cyclists passed me by as I took my time gliding along the boardwalk, soaking up the gentle afternoon breeze and warm sunshine. Out on the sand and under the coconut trees, scores of families and friends gathered to enjoy an afternoon bite and soak up the relaxing ambience a day at the beach never fails to provide. In the water, people were causing a ruckus on jet-skis, while dozens of tankers busied the horizon – the sole reminder that I was still in Singapore.

The Historic Garden

Right in the heart of Singapore, Fort Canning is as steep in history as it is in steps. Sitting at 60m, this hill once served as the headquarters for the Far East Command Centre and the British Army Barracks. Today, the park, which spans 18 hectares, is a history buff’s playground, home to sites such as Raffles House, the Fort Gate and the underground bunker known as the Battlebox. A sally port, a small door leading in and out of the fort, which allowed defenders to enter and exit undetected when under siege, still stands within the gardens and is a haunting reminder of the war.

Fort Canning stands as a living, breathing outdoor museum in the city, although non-history nerds are just as sure to find something to enjoy such as yoga, exercise boot camps, music festivals and heritage walks. Although guided walks are available at most of the parks (typically on weekends), the Singaporean government has also prepared a useful feature called DIY Trail Guides, which intrepid park-goers can easily download from www.nparks.gov.sg. I myself wasn’t done exploring, and was off to see what those cheeky monkeys at MacRitchie Reservoir Park were up to.

Five Senses: Taste

Singaporeans are proud of their rich and diverse street-food culture, housed in the many hawker centres that dot the city. In the East Coast Park, make sure to stop by the popular East Coast Lagoon Food Village. Here, you can find local delicacies ranging from barbecue pork noodles to satay, of course not forgetting the variety of seafood dishes, which won’t cost you a pretty penny

Five Senses: Sound

Singapore never sleeps, and it can be hard to find somewhere to sit in silence.

Within Fort Canning Park lies a space for you to be still and calm your mind. The Meditation Site by Han Sai Por is a row of natural wood benches in a tranquil space, surrounded by greenery and protected from the sun by lofty trees. Here,

I sat with my thoughts and the sound of birdsong for half an hour – a great way to reboot and rejuvenate before returning to the city’s dynamic street life.

Five Senses: Sight

To experience the true spectrum the orchid species has to offer, within the Orchid Gardens at Singapore’s Botanic Gardens awaits the Mist House. Here, I was blown away by the most remarkable exhibition of orchids I have ever seen, ranging from the classic to the downright dramatic. Even if you’re not a fan of these distinctive flowers, you are likely to come away from this greenhouse with a newfound respect for them.