Olivia Choong is dreamy yet down-to-earth. A tree hugger, environmental advocate and eco-junkie, the girl-next-door muses about her quest to lead a green life in a city state.
“We are often surrounded by boxy items in Singapore and don’t notice the soft side of nature. People who are highly visual will see that it is all around and will appreciate its different textures.”
Born and bred in Singapore, Olivia Choong could be mistaken for a crazy neighbour who owns pet chickens in this concrete jungle. Her public persona is that of a strong, determined environmental activist who co-founded Green Drinks, a registered society aimed at connecting communities interested in pertinent environmental issues.
But Olivia is reflective and sheepish in private at times. In an hour-long interview, we dug out complex green issues that affect daily lives in the city, and discovered why Singaporeans don’t care enough about nature.
Doyenne: Why are you so active in environmental issues and what do you do?
Olivia: The thing about activism is that it is usually something that irritates you so much that you have to do something about it. Having a background in public relations, I wanted to work on community building, which was different from the corporate role I was so used to.
I came to realise that many of us are disconnected from nature. We don’t know any better until we go overseas and find that something is missing. It is also normal for city people to become disenchanted with society. Often, we come from a place of lack when you are so tired after work. We are not able to see opportunities in front of us.
So my work is built around connecting different communities with nature, and gardening is one of those entry points.
D: How would you explain your relationship with nature?
O: It is really a connection with myself. A relationship with nature gives me space to reflect about who I am and what I want in life.
We are so distracted by many things in life. We have come full circle only to realise that we just have to be our authentic selves to face the inner demons and fears.
In the mornings, I have a routine. I like to go into the garden, free the chickens, potter around, look at plants – see what is flowering and fruiting.
For now, I love looking at the eggplant, bitter gourd, and papaya grow. I also have loofah which is used as a sponge. It feels good to tend to something and see that it is growing well.
D: What is it about the garden that draws you in, a sense of calm?
O: It is nice to look at a productive garden. Anyone can start small with some herbs, which are not water-hungry and easy to maintain. For consumption purposes, you could grow microgreens. Subsequently, when you are ready, go on to experiment with other fruits, flowering plants, and root vegetables.
D: How do you remain in tune with nature when living in a bustling city like Singapore?
O: I am inspired by my green friends and benchmark myself against them to do better. I am also fortunate to be living with my parents who are big on gardening. My direct neighbours are also greenery lovers.
We are often surrounded by boxy items in Singapore and don’t notice the soft side of nature. People who are highly visual will see that it is all around and will appreciate its different textures. We can be trained to pick up the visual aesthetics of nature and start warming up to these subtle cues along the way.
D: That’s an interesting way of seeing nature.
O: I think it is also this desire to be with nature. I already had that foundation with my parents so the want to be out in nature is instantly calming for me. It is nice and cool, there is also wildlife that comes with nature – it is a beautiful experience.
I visited a rainforest cabin overseas and it was so spectacular. To be immersed in greenery and to see exotic birds everyday, this feeling is completely different from the boxy landscape of Singapore.
When I came back, I realised that many people are not appreciative enough of nature. They feel that it is fine to chop trees down and make way for more apartments when there are so many empty anyway.
D: Would you say you are an activist?
O: I used to call myself that. Then “advocate” came along, so I switched accordingly. It sounds less harsh and aggressive!
D: Compared to countries like South Korea and Byron Bay in Australia, Singapore’s recycling messages are still quite weak. Why?
O: At a consumer level, life has become so convenient that Singaporeans value time so much that we always feel like we lack of it.
Within’s Lucinda Law once told me that Singapore is such a small country that everything is not enough for us. We were trained to think we have no natural resources and that time is money. This “lacking” mentality has to do with the nature around us. When she went to New Zealand, it was just nature everywhere and she felt a sense of abundance for once.
Because Singapore doesn’t have enough nature and we are often told that we are lacking, we just don’t have this connection. So things like recycling take a backseat.
If you tell me that I have to bring my own cutlery and pay extra for packaging, forget it, because I don’t have enough time and money to do that. However, we actually do, it’s just that Singaporeans choose not to. It is about realising that things are not meant to be so convenient all the time.
All the meat that we buy is not meant to be cheap. That’s why organic food is seen as expensive, but that is how things should be done. Someone just came in with a cheap chemical solution and made meat cheaper everywhere. Do we really want “shortcut” foods that truly cost us our environment?
People don’t see that connection with nature so they just follow everyone else. It is called the social pull – when your friends do it, you do it too so you are not the outlier.
D: Because of lack, it becomes inconvenient and inaccessible for Singapore to lead a low carbon way of life?
O: Yes. People feel like they need to go out of their way to do so. If I have to recycle, I need to look for a specific bin, and Singaporeans can’t even carry their waste with them. That’s why we see a lot of litter around.
It is this lack of pride. If we view public spaces as part of our home, we will take care of them but somehow, we are missing this national pride. Even if it might seem very out of the way, the Taiwanese and Japanese don’t mind carrying their waste and depositing in the correct bins.
This disconnection is also a reflection of how Singaporeans are not self-aware. With nature, it is a spiritual thing. It helps us know more about our surroundings.
D: Do you meditate a lot?
O: I used to, but not anymore. It actually takes only 10 minutes. I have come to find that gardening is a more meditative process for me. My connection, foundation and desire to be out with nature is really strong. There is a sense of tranquility and calm when I am around it.
“Do we really want ‘shortcut’ foods that truly cost us our environment?”
D: Is it a spiritual problem that Singaporeans don’t care enough?
O: It is self-awareness. Some would brush it aside and say, “No time to think or care.” I guess we need to feel like we have hit rock bottom to tap into this consciousness.
Maybe I am self-righteous but I envision a place where everyone is respectful and nice to each other. We all have our good and bad days, but a bad day shouldn’t be an excuse for displaying bad behaviour, like littering.
D: When we compare Singapore to India and most of Africa, our level of cleanliness and green quotient is not too bad.
O: To be fair, we are pretty damn good. It’s just that in comparison to the ideal, Singapore can do better. It is also because we are small that it is easier to execute green projects as compared to vast countries like China and India.
For example, Marina Bay Sands is eco-friendly. They installed a food waste digester that turns rubbish into compost for their veggie garden. It is green and sustainable to do so.
We also have a lot of trees lining our roads. I don’t see that in French cities. When people from New York City come to visit, they can’t believe we have so many trees, which is wonderful! We do well in water security too.
D: At a consumer level, social gatherings and consumerism generate a lot of waste. How should we better manage that?
O: It is quite tricky. When it comes to consumption, a lot of emotional factors are involved in the things we do. People are used to behaving in a certain way because of the experience it brings.
Like having beer in a plastic cup at an outdoor festival and driving a car for independence and freedom – such material choices have deeply embedded emotional values, which compromise our intentions to recycle and go green. It is really difficult to break that emotional connection.
Nevertheless, someone just has to put their foot down so others can follow. For example, IKEA makes it compulsory for shoppers to bring their own bags or buy reusable ones. They make up for this by offering value for money products, so shoppers will go back despite the inconvenience.
D: For a newbie Singaporean who wants to go green, how would you get them started?
O: For starters, practise conscious consumption. Don’t follow trends and buy because it is cheap. Timeless design and good quality products go a long way.
Don’t have the mindset of filling the void with things. Make sure whatever you buy have great use. We shouldn’t surround ourselves with clutter. Also, when we eat out, don’t order more than you can eat. We do waste a lot of food!