Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore (photo: National University of Singapore).

Om manglen på et fælles ”mareridt” og om fornuften i at samarbejde med oprindelige folk. Interview med direktør Peter Ng fra Singapores Naturhistoriske Museum

Tuesday 05 Jul 22
by Uffe Wilken

About the lack of a joint “nightmare” and why scientists should nurture indigenous collaboration more. An interview with Head of Singapore’s Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore, Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin.

Professor Peter Ng was a moderator at the Ocean Decade’s High-Level Launch in Berlin on 1 June 2021. The editor of had a conversation with the Professor about challenges and plans for the Ocean Decade in Singapore and Southeast Asia.

Q: Has Southeast Asia as a region any official programmes or Action Plans with regard to the UN’s Ocean Decade?

A: I will give you a diplomatic response: I am aware that the Arctic countries have formed a consortium of interested parties with the long term expression of managing the region in relation to climate change challenges – the melting of the ice sheet, ecosystem disruption and a lot of new commercial opportunities and so on. You have been able to organize something because the consequences of climate change in the Arctic are global – and Europe is close to it. If we look at Southeast Asia and our seas – how should I put it politely – the threats seem a bit further away.

In our part of the world, the countries exist in a much more open area – we are more dispersed. I think the headache for us will be that the threats to each of the countries are not the same. So do we have a comprehensive joint Action Plan to manage our seas – no we don’t. Not yet. The closest thing we have is what is required of us with respect to shipping, ballast water and invasive species and that sort of things. And most countries are still discussing what to do about it and how to tackle it. Here there is no major impetus to come together to manage the seas together.

Head of Singapore’s Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore, Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin (photo: Ocean Decade Conference).However, one thing we have to discuss at government level is about climate change. Each country looks at climate change very differently. Singapore can be perceived as almost zealous in this matter. We are dealing with climate change as an immediate danger so we are investing in all sorts of things like securing shorelines, flood mitigation measures and so on. We are planning for the long game – 100 years down the road. Most of our neighbours have not moved as fast as we have. We have put in billions of Singapore dollars into this challenge. It is a huge amount of money. All the ministries and government agencies are aligned to deal with this problem. Most of our neighbours have larger land areas and I suppose they are less worried because they have higher ground to retreat to. Singapore doesn’t have that option – so we are more worried. We have a lot of low-lying areas.

We are talking to all the ASEAN countries because ASEAN does have a climate change initiative. But it is still being discussed as countries progress at their own different paces. Each country will put in resources in their own way and each country is tackling its headaches in its own way. It is not so centralised. There is a tendency, though, to share data about e.g. the weather, sea levels etc. but practicalities are still being discussed. We haven’t really got our act together yet.

Q: Have the region established a kind of regional Ocean Decade organisation?

A: No. In ASEAN we have a science and tech organisation that sits down to discuss matters and climate change is one of the issues. But when they sit down to discuss each country presents what it’s going to do. That’s it. Is there an integrated process to this? Not yet. Because every individual country does what it has to do at their own pace. Singapore cannot pressure our Indonesian neighbours and friends to do it faster. The financial challenges we are talking about here are rather horrendous. The problem with all this is – even in Singapore – that sometimes when we speak to the man in the street, it is still hard for them to imagine a problem which is 50 to 100 years down the road and being so expensive.

I would expect that if you present the same “costly” solution to many people in the region, they would say “are you mad!” to spend all this money now. This is the challenge the region faces. The different marine organisations – there are several in the region – are still discussing how best to coordinate. My feeling is that we do not share the same “nightmare”. The region is very diverse – Singapore is small country, Indonesia is large; and our regional GDPs differ markedly! Each country does its own thing – we share information but we do not interfere with each other’s way of doing things. When there is common ground, we do it together either bi- or multilateral.

Q: But isn’t climate change and its local consequenses a joint challenge?

"A lot of scientists go to local communities, and we think we know what they want and what they should have. That is dumb."
Professor Peter Ng, Head of Singapore’s Natural History Museum (National University of Singapore)

A: Yes – it’s a global challenge. I agree. But humans as a species have never really behaved as “one species”. Our history is and remains a tribal one for lack of a better term. That has got us into trouble so many times. We now have a global existential nightmare in front of us. I can only hope we can come together as a species. The Ocean Decade per se is ambitious… it addresses shared challenges but getting enough countries to buy in will be difficult – there remain many funding and human resource issues. And how much of this will later be transformed into government policies? That is another matter which I am very worried about. The people that are passionate on the ground and the governments who have to implement it are very often misaligned – even here in Singapore. I see it very often. This is where the challenge will come. Its surmountable but will take time and a lot of effort.

Q: In your speech last June at the High-Level Launch of the Ocean Decade (from 1:56:43 to 2:35:28 in the YouTube video) you mentioned the importance of the connection between modern science and the indigenous people. Can you elaborate a bit on this as we are focusing mainly on Greenland on our website?

A: Indigenous people have been living in their areas for many generations. They understand the ecosystems, plants and animals that live there. Scientists want to better manage natural areas. For this, we need long term data so we can see temporal fluctuations. Your best source of long term data is indigenous people – they have lived in their areas for ages. I have been to many small islands and when I go to a place and am searching for a rare crab, locals tell me “no-no Peter… that is not the right place. Come back 3 days after full moon and then go to this place – then you will find what you want”. Now this is indigenous long term knowledge! If you want to do good science and long term management plans with good data and ideas you need to get these folks to share their knowledge. It is a short cut to do your long term studies. And you get quick results. The people are not high-tech, many are not highly educated – but if you don’t get them on your side, you are stupid.

You need the indigenous knowledge because when you engage with these folks and they share with you, you also understand what is worrying them. A lot of scientists go to local communities, and we think we know what they want and what they should have. That is dumb. If you get to understand their long term needs, sit down together with them, understand what they need, craft the plans around them, and get them involved - they will buy in. When you do marine and conservation science you have to consider this sociological component. We always regard scientists and journalists to be smart people. Yes, we are well educated, but our “smartness” may not be relevant for the village on the small island. Understand what they know, transcribe it and then implement your science.

Q: If you consider the Decade’s “mantra” The science we need for the ocean we want” what will be the top science need the region should tackle?

A: That is a hard question. There are so many science-related questions to ask – from physical oceanography to biological ones. All are important I am afraid. My mantra to my own students has always been this – “You cannot conserve what you do not know” – we need to know what other animals and plants we share our planet with – they are at our mercy (and stupidity) so we should know what they are and what they do. But to be honest, I think most of the scientists on the planet know what they (we) have to do. The science is actually the easy part. What is missing is the collective political leadership we desperately need as a species to get us there. As scientists, we all know what we HAVE to do. As a species, we just do not have the WILL and the WISDOM to do it as fast as we must. So much for Homo sapiens

Mål 4: Et forudsigeligt hav hvor samfundet forstår og kan reagere på skiftende forhold i havet.