Detouring around a hornet’s (Vespa affinis) nest in Mandai Besar mangrove

On a recce of Mandai mangrove and mudflats, I rounded a corner and froze. A hornet’s nest, holy cow! From my position I briefed my companions about the recommended reaction if they swarmed.

When I was in the army, a platoon-mate inadvertently disturbed a nest up a tree. That sent us scurrying and lobbing smoke grenades in a flash! These insects, however, were calm, so Joelle, Weiting and I chatted a bit while “Iceling” observed us somewhat nervously, wondering what to make of my “holy cow!” exclamation earlier. Her first trip to the tropics and all that. I had nly warned her about snakes, broken glass and mangrove whiprays, but the bit about moving slowly evidently covered scenarios like this!

After we had observed the hornets for some time, I decided a wide detour was appropriate since the soft ground could transmit vibrations to the nest – it was hanging off a fairly young tree. I could still remember my platoon-mate’s swollen neck when he returned from the hospital. Well, at least he didn’t need to do any more trench digging that day!

Vespa affinis nest, Sg Mandai Besar
The nest and a close-up. Hopefully Weiting’s camera did a better job!

This nest is not very high up a tree and could be easily disturbed by an unsuspecting researcher., especially someone focused on something on the ground or tree dbh! My first thought was of Rick Chin Leong and Dan Friess who frequent this area (and leave their untidy trademarks all over the mangrove). So from a respectable distance, I sent the google map placemaker to the blog, tweeted Dan and later emailed them both.

I remarked to Weiting, this is why we instruct Site Captains and Organisers to walk their site in the morning before participants turn up for the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore.

Kranji 2003 - pre-cleanup inspection
Conducting the pre-coastal cleanup dawn site inspection at Kranji in 2003 (photo by Charith Pelpola).

Hornet nest in Mandai Besar - 1.436344,103.761541 - Google Maps
Click for map

The hornets appeared to be the common Vespa affinis (lesser banded hornet) as the first two abdominal segments were yellow (see Chan, 1972. The hornets of Singapore: their identification and control. Singapore Medical Journal, 13(4): 178-197.

John Lee who maintains has lovely photos such as this one below:

John Lee: Lesser banded hornets (Vespa affinis) in Singapore :: 6 -- photo sharing network

He observes that “In Singapore, it can frequently be found on the beach, staying near rotting mussels which smell bad and attract flies. … they were simply creeping into the mussel shells and hiding there to ambush the flies!”

He also says, Vespa affinis is not particularly defensive near the nest so it possible to approach for observations. Then comes a big ‘however’ – “large numbers of workers will swarm out and attack pugnaciously when the nest is disturbed. ”

Oooh. Nice that we detoured!

Mandai Besar 24 May 2012
“Ice-Ling”, Weiting and Joelle – recce over and not a single swollen neck!

Oh well, otherwise, we’d make pretty impressive exhibits during the Festival of Biodiversity – all of us will be there, so join us at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, 26-27 May 2012!

To read more about John Lee and his work, see “Hooked on Hymenopterans!” Part 1 and Part 2 by Marcus Ng. Celebrating Singapore’s Diversity, 03 Feb 2010.

So Subway is a bully, but only pays legal costs?

Subway Niche boss: Why I fought US giant,” by Bryna Sim. The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2012. He feared for employees, reputation amid ‘bullying’ tactics

It is a classic David and Goliath tale.

In the version that has just played out here, the ‘David’ is Subway Niche, a home-grown chain of five outlets selling nonya kueh, cakes and pastries, taken to court by American sandwich giant Subway for the use of the word ‘Subway’ in its name.

It has been a bruising four-year battle in court which has drained $300,000 from the savings of Mr Lim Eng Wah, the owner of Subway Niche.

He feared his hard work building up the Subway Niche name would all be lost. He feared for his 20 employees.

He could have just rolled over and let Goliath win, but Mr Lim, who is in his 50s, said he doggedly held on.

Subway’s owner, Florida-based company Doctor’s Associates, was on Wednesday ordered to pay legal costs to Mr Lim, an architect by training.

The thing that kept him going was ‘principle’, he said.

‘It had nothing to do with pride. It was simply not right. A big giant was trying to squash a small fry. I could have changed the name, but why should I give in to a bully just like that?’ he said.

He and his wife, formerly a secretary, set up Subway Niche in 1987, with him as its sole proprietor, and his wife the hand behind its wares.

For 20 years, they had peace. Then, five years ago, there came a ‘cease and desist’ letter from Doctor’s Associates, alleging that Mr Lim had infringed its registered trademark.

Mr Lim recalled being very angry at this. He said: ‘My wife and I had worked hard for so many years and established our business. We didn’t understand why Subway was suddenly doing this to us.’

For the first time in his life, he consulted a lawyer. He denied infringing Subway’s trademark and rejected the American chain’s demands.

Subway then sued to stop him from using the Subway Niche name.

The Subway trademark was registered here in 1989, although its first outlet opened here only in 1996. It said it took legal action when it became aware that Subway Niche also sold sandwiches.

Subway conceded that the Singapore company started selling sandwiches only in 2001, but High Court judge Judith Prakash pointed out that Mr Lim had started selling sandwiches and nonya kueh before Subway registered its trademarks here.

She also ruled that although Subway Niche’s trademark was similar to Subway’s, there was no real evidence that the public was likely to be confused.

Subway’s logo shows the word ‘Subway’ with arrows pointing out on either side of it; Subway Niche’s shows its name and an image of stylised train tracks entering a tunnel.

Mr Lim, who was away on a business trip when the verdict came, returned on Thursday to the good news.

Looking back, he said, the period of the legal battle was financially and emotionally draining. The couple, who have two daughters, aged 27 and 24, had many sleepless nights.

‘We were scared, worried, and angry all at the same time,’ he said, and added that the family felt as though Subway were trying to ‘drain them’.

They were uncertain that victory would be theirs; their lawyer had pegged their chances at just 50 per cent.

At one point, Mr Lim said his wife, fearing for his health and the monetary cost, wanted him to give up the fight and just let the name go.

But he told her: ‘How can we just change a name which everyone here knows, and start again from scratch?’

She never stopped worrying, but she also never once accused him of being stubborn; his daughters also backed him.

Expansion plans for the business were put on the back burner.

But now, things are sweet, and he is making up for lost time: Subway Niche opens its sixth outlet in Raffles City next month.

He said: ‘I’m proud of what we’ve been selling, and I’ve no regrets. I just hope the giant won’t come back.’

Today 34 brave hearts cleared 302kg off 250 meters of beach at Tanah Merah 7

In November last year, I called for action for the Tanah Merah coastline which we had tackled in September during ICCS. We felt more action was required for the trash load was heavy and persistent. Furthermore, oil from the Changi East Oil Spill of 2010 was persistent on the shore still.

NVPC was a partner to this effort and 15 people answered the call which was publicised by natural history blogs, Facebook pages, WildSingapore and the SG Cares portal. My team and I met them at NVPC in January 2012 and explained we were not recruiting participants for a cleanup but a team to coordinate cleanups at Tanah Merah year-round.

And then it was left to them. The volunteers organised themselves, made their call to the public to signup, conducted the all important recce and executed the task today.

It was particularly gratifying to see this carried out today, we achieved much more than a cleanup – there is a team to manage Tanah Merah now, and in partnership with NVPC, proving there are willing hands out there!

70th anniversary of WW2 – exhibitions launch at NLB

At the “Images of Internment: The Eye and Art of William Haxworth” and “ Four Days in February: Adam Park the Last Battle” exhibitions launch at Level 10 of the National Library.

Both exhibitions are held in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore. The National Library is presenting “Images of Internment: The Eye and Art of William Haxworth” which features over one hundred artworks by ex-Prisoner-of-War William Haxworth depicting life in the internment camps during World War II in Singapore. The drawings are selected from the collection of the National Archives of Singapore. Artworks by other POWs and local artists will also be featured.

“Four Days in February: Adam Park the Last Battle” is an exhibition organised by the Singapore Heritage Society and National Heritage Board, with support from the National Library of Singapore. It tells the story of Adam Park as the last line of defence before the Fall of Singapore and showcases the research findings and artefacts uncovered by the Singapore Heritage Society during its archaeological excavation in 2010 and 2011. The two exhibitions are complementary in contents and flows seamlessly in storyline and design. Both exhibitions will take place from 8 February to 24 June 2012.


Sent from my iPhone

Michael Gumert prepping his Conservation Psychology class at LT23, NTU

We’re right next to 8 Flags in NTU, which has great significance to a Me@ner like me. I’m about to chat with Michael Gumert’s students in his Conservation Psychology class about the thinking behind actions at Chek Jawa.

During those events in 2001 early 2002, I coordinated surveys, recruitment, public education visits, submissions to government, emails with the public and host of other activities, and during each and every step, a lot of thought was put into the engagement, all of which is relevant to the Conservation Psychology class.

Working with Ria Tan of at the time was a joy because she was tuned in to every nuance and her outlook was instinctive – at her core, she has great empathy for people and the planet. That helps!


Sent from my iPhone

This search engine sucks! Instead of IDA’s “Enhanced Singapore Government Online Search”, just google.

About four years ago, all Singapore government webpages were revamped to bear a standard search tool on the top right hand corner of each site. This standardisation must have seemed like a really good idea to unleash on halpless users. What they forgot to add was the warning about the true state of affairs, namely “This search engine sucks!”

National Parks Board search engine-1

What am I talking about?

Well, this evening, I rode the Ulu Pandan Park Connector and discovered it had been reconnected with the opposite bank of the Sungei Ulu Pandan once more; very nice! In looking for the relevant NParks webpage for the park connector, I gave the site search engine a try. To my disgust the “Enhanced Singapore Government Online Search” declared that my search phrase “did not match any documents”.

Ulu Pandan Nparks webpage search

Thankfully, there is Google, so you can circumvent this idiocy by making a domain-specific search like so: ulu pandan pcn – this returns hits from within NParks webpages only (note that searches with “www” return a different, less useful result in this case).

Why can’t the government’s search engine do this?
ulu pandan pcn - Google Search

In reality, the NParks webpage for Ulu Pandan Park Connector has been sufficiently well-referenced by bloggers, twitterers and users on flickr and youtube, that it will appear right at the top of a basic google search for “ulu pandan pcn” and even with a simple “ulu pandan”, the park connector page was ranked fourth.

Just Google! – Ulu Pandan Park Connector is well referenced and turns up easily
ulu pandan pcn - Google Search

In order to get a feel of what some people think, or to view recent photos of the park connector, and for other miscellaneous information from the “crowd”, a blogsearch is always critical. Thankfully there are still some bloggers writing about their positive experiences! Such a search should be widened with the addition of the words “park connector” and canal – reading beyond the first page of results allows you some appreciation of the extent of the Ulu Pandan PCN and its users.

Blogsearch with additional keywords reveals experiences of the crowd quickly
ulu pandan pcn park connector - Google Search

Well, there is a lot more to search and we’ll leave that alone for now. Back to the original issue of sucky search engines on Singapore government webpages – on 16 March 2009, I went down to brief NParks about my perceived inadequacies of their post-revamp webpage as part of feedback for the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan; my points did include the problem with the search engine. I even brought along two relevant individuals for additional comments – the prolific blogger and Singapore’s natural history online resource provider Ria Tan of WildSingapore and Lucian Teo who designed the fast loading and intuitive MOE webpage, an example of clarity for all other government sites. NParks was certainly open to the suggestions but the only real positive outcome we heard about from the webmaster later was that the search engine’s default setting had been changed. It would now search the NParks site by default instead of the entire Singapore government portal! Well, that certainly made search results less bewildering for a user, but would the results be enlightening?

There appeared to be some helplessness about this problem since every agency and ministry around 2008 and 2009 appeared to have been be reeled in, one by one, to adopt this plague of an engine, some earlier than others.

I first noticed when I lost the ability to make effective searches on NHB and NParks webpages, but more so when members of the pubic sought help to find the Chek Jawa page to book a visit – and this went on for a few years and still does, as Ria Tan from WildSingapore too can attest. So I helped, like she did, by putting in a direct link to the relevant popup window from the NParks site on the old Chek Jawa webpage.

So who is responsible for this ineffective search tool on our government webpages?

It seems it is none other than the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) who describe the “Singapore Government Metadata Standard (SGMS)” on their webpage:

“The SGMS serves to enhance the accuracy of search results obtained for searches on government-wide information and services on the Internet. Searches done through an SGMS-based search engine and user interface will provide for an integrated approach for the public to reach government e-services conveniently and effectively. The search engine known as the “Singapore Government Online Search” is available on”

Many moons ago (possibly a decade) NUS too had a unique search engine. However, it had become inferior to google, and I pointed this out to the web team then, as I am sure many others did. Today, if you use the search box on the NUS webpage, guess what is does? Why, it takes you to google and conducts a domain-specific search; how smart of them!

I’ll email IDA to ask about this – as a user, this aberration on Singapore government webpages doesn’t make sense. Especially since the button to initiate a sucky search is near the word “Excellence”.

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents”*

Shortly after midnight last night, after confirming a 6.30am ride to Changi Village with Kenneth Pinto and Kevin Lim, flashes of light burst in through the kitchen window. The storm clouds had come. It was all was gone by morning, but wet roads and young casuarinas along the Changi extent of the Eastern Coastal Park Connector spoke of a tale of a tempestuous night.

Photo by Kenneth Pinto

Photo by Kenneth Pinto


Friends from the east on Facebook chipped in immediately to verify that the winds had been very strong the previous night night:

Wu Huaying said,

“The 3+am winds at East Coast were the loudest I’ve ever heard in Singapore, like a typhoon slamming in. Many casuarinas along that stretch and at Changi Beach faint during storms with strong winds, some of the railings in your picture (top) have been replaced before after they were dented by the falling trees.”

Hidayat Amat said,

“I was outside when the strong winds started at around 3am. It blew one of those big blue recycling boxes with yellow cover from the pavement to the road beside. I thought it was light until I tried moving it as it was blocking one side of the road.”

Well, we’ve had a wet time of it. What follows in February is our driest month. The sun today was a reminder that we’ll be praying for moisture of any kind, quite soon.
*This infamous phrase is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s.

EduCampSG – my annual immersion amongst inspiring educators

I spent the afternoon at NIE, soaking in talks at EduCampSG3. Initiated by barcamp veteran @preetamrai, whom I met through Mac Meetups years ago, this is a no-frills conference which people register for through a google form, suggest talk topics using post-its on a wall and Preetam sorts out a schedule. Everyone turns up to talk, listen, discuss and meet people. It’s not complicated!


Momento from EducampSG2

Besides picking up ideas large and small, and crystalising some of your own as you speak and interact, you get to meet enthusiastic people engaged in education. I rushed down to the first educampsg, despite an impossible deadline for marking exam papers (03 Dec 2010; I presented “Using Google Maps and GDocs in the university classroom“). Earlier this year I convinced my department head I had to leave the faculty retreat a day early for the second educampsg2 (21 Apr 2011; I presented “Blogs, Walks & Talks – enhancing communication to promote learning“). This year I broke out of marking quarantine to spend the afternoon listening, and I will pay dearly for this later but its worth it!

The first talk introduced me to Teamie which I will explore with Kenneth later in the month to see if we can experiment with it for LSM1303 Animal Behaviour next semester. He started examining Teamie once I twittered. Might be fun for students and improve project design and awareness of issues. Murray’s talk about having math education catch up with reality identified many areas in parallel with the biologists.

EduCampSG3 Photos « Smarter By Sharing
Murray Bourne decries persistent tedious unreality of math education
in the face of developments like Wolfram Alpha; photo from @preetam

After shaky start, it was fun watching Sham throttle up the geek factor in his discussion about twitter use in schools and wow us. It was fun seeing how well he had embraced the tool and Adrian asked him how much sleep he had. He and @TuckSoon are hoping they’d see more educators converse on #edsg which they started using and were happy to see MOEsg use as well.

About this time I received queries from the Civetgirl about some issues with exam papers which the department’s Task Force had identified, so I was dealing with that. Still I picked up on @ashley‘s empathic “If you can’t reach them, you can’t teach them.” It’s a common refrain by educators deciding to take the plunge into facebook but he and others talked about additional tools and later I heard mention of WoW, Angry Birds and beyond Angrybirds!

EduCampSG3 Photos « Smarter By Sharing
Audience from the two rooms convene in the LT for the “lightning session”;
photo from @preetam

I eventually resolved my exam queries with Civetgirl, who was holding up the fort for me in NUS. Then came the “lightning session” in the cozy LT. At the end of it, a discussion about Service Learning by the ever energetic @seantm stimulated the crowd and just as we got into participative high gear about social issues in Singapore, it was time to give up the premises.

The educampsg3 crowd is a nurturing, enthusiastic one and its great we are a small crowd, it’s quite personal that way. Still, after educampsg2, I felt a few more should come and enjoy this, so I was determined to bring along some of my kakis.

@lekowala and @jocelynsze weren’t passive observers, they spoke! They discussed “Biophilia – Why I abandoned the syllabus and went for a walk” and “What I want to see in A level Biology“. I enjoyed their session, put together in a coherent manner and it stimulated ideas and contemplation which is a great way to prepare for Semester 2. It was relaxing watching them speak and wonderful having Jocelyne handle Q&A solo!

EduCampSG3 Photos « Smarter By Sharing
@jocelynsze speaks while @lekowala ‘relakes’ one corner and I watch
from the audience (cap); photo from @preetam

I am thankful to the crowd who gave Jocelyne a great reception. True educators, they were sincere and enthusiastic about hearing from young ones. My intern now has to field Q & A sessions at my biodiversity talks and deliver a couple of International Coastal Cleanup Singapore marine life talks next year. Yes, now she has even more inflicted on her, on top of all the other projects – but it is important for the intern to suffer. She has been looking too cheerful of late.

We talked to some bright young things, who have just finished ‘A’s – get this, an entrepreneur and his good friend – 18 years old and looking spiffy while Adrian and I looked like sloppy students in comparison. They are way ahead of where we were in terms of exposure of this sort at our age, and this bodes well for the planet.

We returned from educampsg euphoric once again. And I did my miss my social media kakis like @acroamatic, @brainopera, @metacole, @coolinsights, @lucianteo, @leafmonkey, @ramblinglib and @john_larkin

Pity I could not join the folks for dinner again, but at this time of the year, marking beckons. And it’s going to be a long night.

To echo @jaelchng, thanks a lot to @preetamrai, @seantm, @pratimaMajal and @ashley for putting together #educampSG.


You gotta love the NIE/NTU campus!

POW escapes from Singapore to India

The battle and occupation of Singapore during World War II has many facets, one of which is the internment of prisoner’s of war (POWs) both locally, in the region and in Japan. Over the years, I have read and watched more about POW internment than about POW escapes. Of the escape memoirs I encountered, the escapees headed for Australia.

This morning, I learnt about two titles which chronicle the escape of Indian officers to India instead: “3000 Miles to Freedom” and “Escape from Singapore”. David Hope, who is researching the events and personal stories concerning the Fall of Singapore, twittered about (@singapore1942) a blog post by one escapee’s son.

Krishna K Pillai’s writes about his father’s book, “3000 Miles to Freedom,” which he published, in a post entitled, “First Allied POW escape from Singapore in 1942“. Mark Pillai (RIP) was a Bombay sapper who escaped from Changi with two others and successfully made it to India! Awarded a Military Cross by Field Marshal Archibald Wavell for his gallantry, Mark Pillai passed away in 1988 and his son published the manuscript of his escape in ?2009.

3000 Miles to Freedom by Mark Pillai

“3000 Miles to Freedom” by Brig. M. M Pillai M.C. is also available at Borders Online for US$12.95 – link.

The links led me to a review by Abhimanyu Singh, “Two takes on an obscure, yet epic journey” (Express Buzz, 18 Dec 2010). He highlights another account of an escape, yet again by Indian soldiers to India. Once again it is a son who has seen to the publication of the account. In this case, however, Jasbir Singh, son of Balbir Singh, ‘put the account of his father’s rare descriptions of the escape and by reading his articles on the subject.’

Escape from Singapore” is available for US$11.66 on Amazon).

Jasbir Singh-Escape from Singapore

Needless to say, I’ve ordered both books.