Singapore might seem an unlikely subject for an anthology of essays on environmental conservation. After all, this is one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, with only 0.28 per cent of primary forest cover still intact. But as the essays in Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene (Ethos Books, 2020) argue, that’s precisely the point. Singapore’s rapid drive towards urbanisation is what makes it so rich in stories about the hidden costs of modern development.

The writers – students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale-NUS College – have delved deep into local culture to find those tales. In the title story, for instance, contributor Neo Xiaoyun digs into the classic dish of crab stir-fried in a tomato gravy while musing on the role food plays in building national heritage and the ecological impact of overfishing. An essay on the island’s beloved otter community turns into an examination of environmental refugees.

The anthropocene is a term some thinkers use to describe our current geological age, one marked by climate change and other catastrophes such as deforestation and plastic pollution.

I was struck by the clear-sighted way in which these young critics and environmental thinkers challenge one of Singapore’s most cherished narratives: that the city-state’s success as a business hub is the result of a visionary, against-all-odds journey from “primitiveness” to affluence and power. Founding father Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, habitually described the island as having been a “mud-flat swamp” before the colonisers came.

As contributor Fu Xiyao points out, much of that narrative is based on disparaging the past. In fact, indigenous nomadic communities, the Orang Laut, lived around Singapore’s waters for centuries. Then in the 1990s, their main settlement, Pulau Semakau, was redeveloped as a petrochemical complex and the last Orang Laut communities were relocated from their homes. Fu’s view is that climate activists must understand how Singapore has benefited from indigenous displacement and erasure if they are to build compelling movements for change.

The book also delves into alternative models, with its final essay mapping out a systematic degrowth plan for a post-carbon Singapore. It’s thought-provoking stuff, raising important questions about the way that global forces and challenges apply to the Little Red Dot’s developmental story.

By Melissa de Villiers


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