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Bird Society of Singapore: A credible alternative to the Nature Society’s Bird Group

on 11th December 2023

Bird Society of Singapore

On 27th August 2023 the Bird Society of Singapore (https://birdsociety.sg/about-us/) (formally known as Singapore Bird Project) was launched (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFWzX875lZw) with Keita Sin as President, Movin Nyanasengeran as Vice-President, Goh Cheng Teng as Treasurer and Adrian Silas Tay as Secretary. Keita and Movin are not newcomers to bird watching. They were members of the Nature Society (Singapore) Bird Group Records Committee (BGRC) since 2016, that is, until they were suddenly removed from their posts together with Sandra Chia and Dillen Ng on March 2021. No reasons were given as to why they were removed. Repeated attempts by the Nature Society (Singapore) Exco to communicate with the Records Committee’s Chairman Lim Kim Seng were ignored. Although disciplinary action could be taken under the constitution of the Nature Society (Singapore) for their behaviour, the then President of the society Dr. Shawn Lum (https://besgroup.org/2022/11/03/i-have-yet-to-renew-my-nature-society-singapores-membership/) fought shy of doing so.

Launching of the Bird Society of Singapore

This is the first case of the Bird Group expelling talents. However, there were a number of cases in the past where the Bird Group’s intrigues resulted in talents and activity groups moving out of the Nature Society. In 2007 certain leaders of the Bird Group insisted on being included as co-authors of the document An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Singapore. The data were collected over a few years by ornithologists Wang Luan Keng and Dr. CJ Hails. The problem was solved when Luan Keng left the group and joined up with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHMuseum) where the manuscript was published in The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology ( https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/app/uploads/2017/04/s15rbz001-179.pdf) with the original authors intact. In this particular case the LKCNHMuseum benefitted while the Nature Society lost a talented ornithologist (WLK) and the prestige of a scientific document published under the name of the Nature Society.

An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Singapore

Another example involved the expelling of the Bird Ecology Study Group (BESG) (https://besgroup.org/). For a long time, the Bird Group was encouraged to not only view birds but also study their behaviour, especially by eminent Malaysian birder, the late Slim Sreedharn (https://besgroup.org/2023/08/30/70034/). However, this was ignored, so much so that the Bird Ecology Study Group was formed in 2005. Unfortunately, when Dr. Shawn Lum became President of the Nature Society (Singapore), the Bird Group pressured him to force BESG to either join up with the Bird Group or remove the word “Bird” from the name of the activity group. Well, BESG also moved to the LKCNHMuseum.

The Bird Ecology Study Group

I can understand why Kim Seng, Kim Keang and BG Chair Tan Gim Cheong are embarrassed to reveal the reasons talented volunteers were removed from the Bird Group. For one, the volunteers are more qualified in terms of their knowledge on birds than the leaders of the group. After all, Keita and Movin are both registered with the Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore: Keita for his Master of Science, Movin for his Doctor of Philosophy in ornithology. The former is researching on evolutionary problems relating to birds while the latter’s interest is how biogeography influences regional bird diversity. They would then be accepted as ornithologists, no more as birdwatchers. The only birder currently with the Bird Group with such a qualification is Dr. Yong Ding Li (https://besgroup.org/2007/12/31/yong-ding-li-a-birder-to-watch/). Will there be room for three qualified ornithologists among the small cluster of leaders who are mere recreational birdwatchers?

Keita Sin (left) and Movin Nyanasengeran (right)

The leaders of the Bird Group on the other hand are ageing amateur birdwatchers. For more than two decades they had been caged among themselves, seldom, if ever interacting with birdwatchers more qualified or more knowledgeable than themselves. This has led to the same activities being offered to the group’s members, like annual bird race, raptor watch and bird counts, all introduced by the late Dr. Clive Briffett ( https://besgroup.org/2011/11/10/a-tribute-to-clive-briffett-birdwatcher-and-conservationist/) who started the group in 1986.

The old leaders controlling the Bird Group also have problems with volunteers showing initiative. Keita and Movin were planning to review Singapore’s old bird records. Being attached to the LKCNHMuseum, they have easy access to the historical records of local birds as well as the preserved bird specimens. They had also lined up a list of local and overseas ornithologists to assist as advisors. The outcome of such a review will invariably expose errors, especially in the face of new research over the years. What if errors in identifications, e.t.c involving any of the current Bird Group leaders are detected? Will the ageing amateur birdwatchers be willing to accept their errors? Personally, I am not sure. Kim Seng who claims to be the local expert in bird identification has been Chairman of the Records Committee for many years. It is well known among local birdwatchers that no new bird records will ever see the light of day without his approval (https://besgroup.org/2009/05/16/k-c-tsang-to-be-able-to-see-not-merely-look/). And it is rumoured that he needs to see the birds himself before he will accept them as new local species.

The Sunday Times, August 20, 1978

Now how do I claim to know the above? Well, I had been dealing with this group for 17 years, first when I was the Secretary of the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch) (1978-1990), then as Founding President (1990-1995) of an independent Nature Society (Singapore). During these years I had regular dealings with the group, led by Kim Keang and Kim Seng, who retained their leadership year in and year out. It was only recently that Gim Cheong took over as Chairman. However, the old leaders still make the final decision.

Webinar on the Bird Society of Singapore

On 15th March 2022, about five months before the launching of the Singapore Bird Society, the LKCNHMuseum released a webinar on the Singapore Birds Project (https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/education/online-resources/singapore-birds-project/), a name that was to become the Bird Society of Singapore. This webinar introduced Keita and Movin, the President and Vice-President of the yet to be launched newly-minted bird society and its future plans on bird research and various other activities. And less than three months after the Bird Society of Singapore was launched, the Singapore Straits Times released a podcast (https://www.razor.tv/podcast/s1e1-a-visit-to-kranji-marshes-rise-of-invasive-birds-in-singapore/4800266888001/5799) on A Visit to Kranji Marshes: Rise of invasive birds in Singapore (https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/a-visit-to-kranji-marshes-rise-of-invasive-birds-in-singapore). This podcast again features the two leaders. As far as I can recollect, Bird Group never received such publicity. Obviously, Keita’s and Movin’s reputations were well known then.

Podcast on A Visit to the Kranji Marshes

The expelling of talent by the Nature Society’s Bird Group is the beginning of the decline of this group. Now how do I know? Since 1940 when the Nature Society was first formed, volunteers were always forthcoming. Now suddenly the Bird Group has to bribe “volunteers” with $50 per day to assist in nature-related projects like bird count and raptor watch. Now where did all the nature volunteers go, you may ask? Can it be that they are all at the activities organised by the new Bird Society of Singapore?

Bird Society of Singapore’s activity: Raptor Watch

At the 4th September 2023 launching of the book Peace with Nature: 50 Inspiring Essays on Nature and the Environment, I was pleasantly surprised to notice Bird Group’s contribution was only by Dr. Yong Ding Li. His essay is on Protecting Migratory Birds in Singapore and the Flyway, a topic of his recent work with BirdLife International. The chapter Birds of Singapore was authored by Morten Strange and Bee Choo Strange, both of whom are not with the Bird Group. Can it be that just looking at birds and listing them in checklists, e.t.c. is outdated? Incidentally, the book was initiated by the society’s Patron Prof. Tommy Koh.

Peace With Nature

With the formation of an assertive and scientifically savvy group of leaders in the newly formed Bird Society of Singapore, we now have a credible alternative to the Nature Society (Singapore)’s Bird Group. And as long as the Bird Group continues to just list birds, the Nature Society (Singapore) will lack scientific credibility in its bird activities. And it will be difficult to grow the society with its reputation of expelling talents.

YC Wee
2nd December 2023

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

2 Responses

  1. I was at the BirdSoc launch 27 August 2023 and I wish all the Committee members, members and supporters the best of luck going forward. Your website is truly an amazing resource!!? With the Nature Society (S) still officially BirdLife International partner, this leaves the question how Cambridge will deal with a new situation: A credible and properly run ornithological society outside of the BirdLIfe network. The Oriental Bird Club must be wondering too what happened to their Singapore rep. Time will tell I suppose.

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