Singapore’s hidden heartland

October 17, 2009
Singapore Democrats

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Ben Bland
The Wall Street Journal

The car weaves along the winding country lane, cutting a narrow path through the lush tropical vegetation. As well as the occasional dog ambling sleepily down the roadside, we pass farm after farm producing everything from vegetables to goat’s milk and even crocodiles. We reach the summit of a short incline from where the gently-undulating landscape stretches out in front of us, punctuated only by farm buildings and electricity pylons.

Briefly, it’s almost possible to imagine that I’m in one of Asia’s expansive agricultural heartlands such as Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands or Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. But the frequent road signs warning people away from state land and urging trespassers not to enter “protected areas” at risk of being shot give the plot away.

Welcome to Singapore’s last remaining slice of rural life: the Kranji countryside. The Southeast Asian city-state may be better known for its banks, shopping malls and sprawling public housing estates but here, in the northwestern corner of the island, Singapore’s hardy farmers struggle on, producing 18,000 tons of vegetables, 47 million chickens, millions of eggs and 5,000 tons of fish each year.

“There’s no PAP up here — we’re not prim and proper,” quips Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), as she pokes fun at Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which has maintained a tight and, critics say, stifling grip on power since Britain granted self-rule in 1959.

“Singapore should not try to become a global city because we will bloody implode,” she continues. “We need to put aside our progress and prosperity model and look at Singapore as a country with a hinterland.”

“Back in the 1960s, all of our chickens, eggs, pigs and fish and 40% of our vegetables were grown locally,” Ms. Singh-Lim laments. “But the land here was neglected and this place almost became a lost valley because of the focus on urbanization.”

Ms. Singh-Lim believes that Singapore lost much of its “kampong spirit” as villages and farms were bulldozed and their residents moved into the towering government apartments that now house more than 80% of the population. But, as the 60-year-old sips a whiskey on the rocks at 3:30 in the afternoon in the caf&GBP 233; that adjoins Bollywood Veggies, her farm, she insists that Singapore’s countryside can still offer “solace to a weary soul.”

Back in the 1960s, Singapore was home to some 20,000 farms spread across more than 14,000 hectares of land. After 40 years of concerted economic development and industrialization, just 228 farms remain today, taking up a mere 700 hectares, or around 1% of Singapore’s land area.

Many of those farms are located in Kranji, nestled between the mangrove swamps of the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and the Tengah Air Base, one of Southeast Asia’s most important military installations.

With such a limited area available for agriculture, and land prices and wages much higher than in all the surrounding countries, it is not easy for Singapore’s farmers to turn a profit. So, as in many other rural communities in the developed world, they have turned to tourism — or what they call “agritainment” — to prop up their sagging balance sheets.

Bollywood Veggies might be the biggest producer of bananas and sugar cane in Singapore but it is not a productive farm. It brings in revenue from visitors, who come for tours of the neatly-laid out rows of fruit and vegetables or a meal at the “Poison Ivy” bistro.

“Mostly these aren’t productive farms but hobby farms,” notes William Ho, a 43-year-old quail farmer who doubles as a countryside tour guide. “If the government will assist us and finance real farming then we won’t have to rely on tourism and can become real producers.”

Not all of the Kranji farms are open to the public; the Long Kuan Hung Crocodile Farm, for example, prefers to keep its 9,000 reptiles, bred for leather and meat, behind closed doors. But for those who have taken the agritainment route, it typically provides a sizable chunk of their total income.

“About 40% of our revenue comes from farm visits and the margins are actually much higher than with farming,” admits Chang Su-Yang, marketing executive at Aero-Green Technology, which runs one of Singapore’s most hi-tech farms.

Using “aeroponic” agriculture — whereby vegetables are grown in air rather than soil and are fed through a nutrient-rich mist — the company’s 35 greenhouses churn out 20 tons to 25 tons of butterhead lettuce and other ready-to-eat salads every month, supplying 60% of the Singapore market.

The practical application of aeroponics, which minimizes the use of water, energy and human labor while almost halving the average production time, was pioneered by Singaporean horticulturalist Lee Sing Kong. It is ideally suited to crowded city-states such as Singapore where space is at a premium and overheads are high.

This innovative approach draws in 20,000 paying visitors to Aero-Green every year but the farm is still no cash cow. “People in Singapore like their salad crunchy and fresh and the demand is bigger than what we can supply but we can’t afford to expand,” explains Mr. Chang. “We could build multi-storey, stacked aeroponic farms if only we had the cash.”

It’s a refrain that I heard time and again as I meandered through the back lanes of Kranji talking to the cash-strapped farmers. But, thanks to persistent lobbying and the growing threat of a world food crisis, their prospects could finally be starting to look a little brighter.

The world has long been sleep-walking toward a food crisis, fueled by a rapidly rising population, underinvestment in agriculture and growing pressure on vital water supplies. Last year’s soaring food-price inflation may have subsided because of the global recession but, most economists agree, prices are only going one way in the longer term. Meanwhile, food security is set to become ever more important because of the increasing imbalance between supply and demand.

Sensing the possible difficulties ahead as a big importer of food, the Singapore government recently revealed plans to shore up its food supplies by diversifying its overseas food sources, enhancing its rice stockpiling system and by supporting local farming.

Mah Bow Tan, minister for national development, wants to increase domestic food production so that Singaporean farmers can meet 30% of the local demand for eggs (up from the present 23%), 15% of the demand for fish (up from 4%) and 10% of the demand for leafy vegetables (up from 4%).

He pledged to set aside land for these types of farms over the next 20 years and said he was setting up a “Food Capability Development Fund” to support research in food production and to boost the farming industry’s development. All good news for the farmers, one may think, but many reacted cautiously, warning that it was likely to take some time before these proposals were translated into firm policy.

“Following the recent announcement it seems that the government understands that you can’t just eat money,” comments Ms. Singh-Lim. “And one thing that’s true of Singapore is that if there is the political will to do something, then it will be done.”

“But the minister of national development is interested in building flats. We need a minister of agriculture who can get the buy-in of the local farmers.”

The skepticism of the farmers is understandable given their feeling that they have regularly been sidelined by a government focused on urban development.

“My dad is one of the oldest farmers still alive, at 85,” says Mr. Ho. “We used to own lots of farms but all of my dad’s land was compulsorily acquired by the government in the name of defense, so now we have to lease back what we can.”

Yeo Lian Huat, vice-president of the KCA and at 60, another veteran Singapore farmer, tells a similar story. A graduate of Singapore’s now-defunct farm school, he used to run a pig farm before the government phased out this traditional Chinese industry in the 1970s and 1980s because of concerns about possible contamination of the water supply. Then he moved into chicken and flowers before starting a koi carp farm after realizing that there was growing demand for ornamental fish in Malaysia and Singapore.

Wearing a zebra-print shirt and shorts, Mr. Yeo speaks defiantly of the ongoing struggle to carry on farming in Singapore. “In 1996, I was the first fish farm to open to the public and the idea was to educate the market and make youngsters more interested in fish farming,” he says in Hokkien, the lingua franca of Singapore’s overwhelmingly Chinese farmers. “But there was a lot of fuss from the government. It was very skeptical about new ideas like this.”

Since coming together under the KCA banner and the irrepressible leadership of Ms. Singh-Lim, the farmers have won some important concessions from the government, giving the lie to the received wisdom among many Singaporeans that the government will reward only those who lend it their full support while cutting off those who make any kind of independent stand.

First, the KCA persuaded the government to give farmers a freer hand to build cafes and restaurants on the land, which is all leased from the state; this would allow them to attract more visitors.

Now, after much effort, the KCA has finally convinced the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to help promote the area and earlier this year it launched a successful joint marketing campaign — called Go Local — which brought in at least 10,000 extra visitors in a month. “The STB now realizes that a lot of tourists want to see the real Singapore, not just a copy of Las Vegas or Disneyland,” says Ms. Singh-Lim.

Transport links are one of the farmers’ major remaining bugbears. Several miles from the nearest station on Singapore’s efficient Mass Rapid Transit network, it is very difficult to get to the Kranji farms without a car. The farmers initially asked the transport minister for a new bus service but their request was turned down.

“So we just paid for it ourselves,” says Ms. Singh-Lim. “All of us put in what we have, with the richer farmers paying more. The camaraderie among the farmers is tremendous, it’s like an old English village.”

Having been “born rich” to one of Singapore’s biggest landowners, Ms. Singh-Lim makes an unlikely champion for the country’s farmers. After buying a plot of land in Kranji on which to build a new house she decided to help the farmers push their case to the government because “rich people must invest in their own country.”

Watching the old farmers sing Hokkien gangster songs as they down their beers at a party to celebrate the success of the Go Local campaign, it’s clear that their esprit de corps is not in doubt.

The problem, as with traditional industries anywhere in the world, is what happens when it’s time for the next generation to take over.

“Most of those willing to farm are dead or have given up and live on a housing estate,” bemoans Mr. Yeo. “This new government fund is the last chip to gamble with if you want to rekindle farming in Singapore. The government needs to move now.”

Fortunately for Mr. Yeo, his own son is an enthusiastic partner in the family business. While the pool of new farmers is dwindling, there are others willing and able to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

When she graduated from the National University of Singapore three years ago, Wan Xiao Xi, a pretty but feisty 26-year-old, decided not to climb the corporate ladder, as most bright Singaporeans do. Instead, Ms. Wan opted to join her family firm, which runs the island nation’s only frog farm, supplying meat for a peculiarly Singaporean delicacy, frog porridge.

“I had been helping my dad out on a part-time basis while I was at university so it was a very natural thing to work here full time,” she says. “Although I still have to do mundane tasks like cleaning, I’m my own boss so I’m not at anyone else’s beck and call.”

“We need to get more young people involved in farming but it’s hard to find people willing to work here because it’s so far away from the city.”

Securing the next generation of farmers will not be easy in a country where kids are rarely, if ever, seen detached from some form of electronic gadget. Ms. Singh-Lim is mindful of the scale of the challenge but, despite her criticisms of the government, is reasonably optimistic.

“There’s still hope that we can reconnect our young people with their roots,” she concludes. “We have never instilled a love for the land in our people. Loving your country is not just about defending it — you need to love it even in the good times.”

Mr. Bland is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore. He blogs at http://theasiafile.blogspot.com

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