Nature Society member Tony O' Dempsey on how Islam informs his conservation work and what's wrong with perpetual economic growth.

The soft-spoken Australian first came to Singapore, by way of Malaysia, over 20 years ago on geographic information system projects. He never left. In recent years, he has become better-known as an avid cataloguer of Singapore’s native flora—he recently donated his photographs to the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum—and his conservation work through the Nature Society. Here, he tells us how he came to convert to Islam and why he’s so concerned about the native forests of Singapore

I come from the ulu area west of Brisbane. My family has a farm out in the grazing lands. My grandfather owned a sawmill in Ipswich. My father was a logging supervisor. He’d go out to assess a piece of forest, whether the species of trees were of commercial value. I used to walk around with him in the bush when I was five or six years old.

I picked up bush walking as a hobby, and I spent a lot of time in the wilderness areas of southeast Queensland for recreation. What I do here in the forest is just an extension of that.

Except here you can’t get in the bush and walk for days. Here, you’re just out in the bush for a few hours.

In reasonably flat areas like Singapore, you end up with swamp forests. And swamp forests are the most fascinating habitat you could possibly encounter, because the trees take on such different forms to survive. They grow different sorts of roots some of which loop up above the ground sometimes up to 20 meters from the tree.

Everything is reduced and compressed here. You think of Singapore as a country, but it’s really just a city. The capital of Australia is Canberra, which is a city. But the capital of Singapore is Shenton Way. Everything is scaled down here. So, the nature areas are smaller.

One thing is very special about Singapore: it’s one of only two major cities in the world that has a native forest growing in the middle of it. The only other one is in South America. We call it the green heart in the Red Dot. It’s value to the nation can only increase as time goes by, we need to retain the nature reserves in good condition for future generations.

I want to keep the forest in its original state. We’ve lost so much.

Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has a lot of condominiums built right up to the boundary of the Nature Reserve. Next thing, people complain about monkeys visiting them. Well, you can expect monkeys to visit you if you build on the land that they previously foraged on and nested in.

My interest in history came from my desire to explain why a particular forest type is growing in a particular spot. You start digging, and it becomes more and more interesting—pretty soon you’ve moved away from botany and you’re into the history of Southeast Asia.

When there’s an issue, NGOs like the Nature Society can’t communicate through the media effectively. Nobody can. They’re just looking for sound bites and sensationalism. If we want our position to be public, we have to write it and publish it ourselves.

In a few years, the population of Singapore is going to be living in concrete jungles within millimeters of each other.

If you don’t look after the nature reserve, it will vanish. Your population will have all sorts of problems associated with not having recreational opportunity. That could translate into social problems.

By putting a condominium next to a nature reserve, you’re effectively forcing the ecological boundary back. With all this noise, the animals shrink back. Light spills into the nature reserve, so you no longer have day and night. You have day and twilight. Animals that rely on darkness for their timings are not sure whether to come out or not. It screws up their whole lives.

Why are we increasing the population? To increase the GDP. Can we expect to increase the GDP year on year for the rest of our lives or for the next three centuries? Can every country in the world increase their GDP at the rate that they’re currently increasing? I don’t think so because the resources of this planet will not last.

Can we offer the quality of life that will attract people to come live here, or stay here as citizens, if you’re living wall to wall, shoulder to shoulder? Do we have the recreation space we need to mitigate the tight living space?

When I went to Malaysia over 20 years ago, I encountered Muslims. You don’t encounter Muslims in my part of Australia. I found them to be very gentle, quietly spoken people. By the time I ended up in Singapore, most of my circle was Malay. It was a natural thing for me to embrace Islam.

I take my religion very seriously. I’m learning to recite Quran in Arabic. But you have to learn what it means also, so there are teachers whom I follow, and I read extensively on the subject. Islam is a religion of knowledge and truth.

Islam is not the reason I’m a conservationist, but it informs my work. In the Quran, Allah informs us, “I will make mankind the vice regent of the Earth.”

The belief in Islam is that we are second in charge here. Our job as vice regents is not to screw with the balance [of nature] but to take what we need but nothing more.