Hidden sentinels who guard Singapore’s biodiversitySunday Spotlight: The changing face of the Singapore dollar Growing a national garden, one plant at a timeClowning in Singapore not just for laughs The Big Read: JC mergers - Schools to make way, but memories and bonds stay

SINGAPORE — On a regular dive trip to Pulau Hantu, all her friends were excited about seeing a dirty-green frogfish for the first time, but Ms Toh Chay Hoon just could not spot the 12cm-long ambush predator no matter how hard she tried.

Her friends had to point it out to her eventually.

The 40-year-old senior executive’s eye for minute marine creatures though, has stood her in good stead as a volunteer with the National Parks Board (NParks): She has discovered a new species of coral mimic crab and about 10 new records of sea slugs in Singapore’s waters over the years.

The 0.4cm cream-coloured spotted crab, which she accidentally discovered while on the lookout for sea slugs, was found to be an undescribed species that was previously found only in the Philippines.

Her supervisor at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Professor Peter Ng, named the crab Nursia tohae — after her last name Toh. It was in recognition of Ms Toh’s “knack for finding small and interesting species during her many beach-combing trips”, wrote Prof Ng in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology supplement.

Little known to many, volunteers like Ms Toh have been doing important work, on top of their day jobs, that adds to the rich biodiversity and contributes to conservation efforts in Singapore.

Their work comes in many forms, from the discovery and sightings of flora and fauna, guiding at nature reserves and parks, bird-watching to the surveying of Singapore’s shores.

Last month, NParks announced that over 500 species of marine and terrestrial animals, plants and insects have been newly discovered or rediscovered by their staff, researchers and volunteers in the past five years.

Volunteers have contributed to NParks’ work since 1993. Today, more than 25,000 have participated in a wide range of activities, such as the citizen science programmes, which allow the public to participate and collaborate in scientific research.

While the coral mimic crab she discovered was a new species, Ms Toh’s main passion is in nudibranch or sea slugs. In the Singapore Biodiversity Records, about 10 species, ranging in size from 0.2cm to 5cm, were identified and recorded by her.

Ms Toh’s love for sea slugs began when she started volunteering as a guide at Chek Jawa in 2003. Back then, she did not even know what sea slugs were. But after setting her eyes on the species’ colourful forms, she started reading up on them.

She also picked up diving so she could scour for sea slugs underwater — an activity on which she spends about 12 hours each month now.

Whenever she spots a species that looks unfamiliar, Ms Toh takes pictures of it and later verifies it against a reference book she keeps at home. If they have never been seen here before, she would contribute her sightings to the Singapore Biodiversity Records.

“There (wasn’t) a moment where I thought of giving up (on) volunteering because every time we go out, we look forward to finding stuff on our shores, and hopefully something new,” said Ms Toh, who has been guiding and searching for sea slugs for 13 years. 

KEEPING TABS ON SPECIES AND HABITATS

But contributing to Singapore’s biodiversity is not always about discovering new species or recording first sightings in Singapore.

As bird-watcher George Cheah, 58, said when people ask if his work involves finding new species of birds: “Let’s try to keep the existing species alive first.”

Armed with a pair of binoculars, his fisherman’s hat, a clipboard and a plastic folder containing information about 30 common birds here, the vice-principal of a secondary school in the east spends two weekends in April and November — the breeding and migratory seasons respectively — as part of NParks’ Garden Bird Watch.

For about two hours in the morning during these periods, he would be at places such as East Coast Park and HortPark to identify, count and record the number of different bird species he sees.

The data collected can shed light on bird populations and where they are found around Singapore, which is useful information for better park management and conservation measures as well.

While others might think this is a small role to play, the father of two  girls finds his task meaningful in the larger picture of conservation as the authorities can keep track of the bird species and their habitat changes, for instance. If there are noticeable changes to population numbers, for example, volunteers like him would be the ones to sound the alarm bells and get the authorities to look into it, he noted.

Mr Cheah only started bird-watching last year — he decided it was time to “get back into nature” — but he can now identify some of the birds by their calls.

At the start, he had no problems spotting common birds, such as the rock pigeon and mynahs, out in the open. But things were different when it came to birds in trees. 

“It was really difficult. They were so well-camouflaged that unless they called out, sang or moved, it wasn’t easy to spot them,” he added.

Ms Ria Tan, 61, is another volunteer who chips in by keeping watch over Singapore’s shores. She has been spending about 100 days a year combing through various shores during the spring low tides, at times looking out for coral bleaching or mass fish deaths.

The founder of nature site www.wildsingapore.com, the former civil servant is well-known among marine enthusiasts and professionals alike. 

When Singapore experienced the longest mass coral bleaching incident last year, Ms Tan was one of the first to document it on her website. Bleaching occurs when the waters are too warm, forcing the corals to expel the algae called zooxanthellae living in their tissues and exposing their limestone skeleton.

She continues to share photos and her findings on how the corals are recovering from the bleaching episode as well as how the north-eastern coast is coping after they were affected by an oil spill in Johor. 

At times, dropping in on the shores feels like paying visits to a grandmother, she noted. “Some shores are really, literally dying. And we’ve seen grandma in better days, and every time we see her, she’s like declining a little bit more. But we still want to visit her,” she said.

To catch the low tides, she sets off sometimes as early as 2am to take a boat out to Singapore’s northern and southern shores, accompanied at times by other volunteers and researchers. She then has to transfer to a dinghy, before wading through knee-deep water to reach the reefs.

With a towel tied around her head and dressed in a neck gaiter, rash guard, track pants and dive booties, Ms Tan treads along the shore with her walking stick, stopping every now and then to take photos of the marine life, from hard and soft corals, small octopuses, sea anemone to sea cucumbers.

Unlike some others who splurge on long-distance holidays, Ms Tan spends her savings on visiting Singapore’s shores, paying S$10,000 to S$20,000 a year, mostly for hiring boats. But surveying the shores “is the most fun part of my life”, she said.

Despite her long volunteering experience, Ms Tan said she continues to struggle with raising problems or issues with the relevant stakeholders. “The thing about it is that people get angry, which is not what I want,” she said.

For instance, if someone is seen fishing illegally, she grapples with how she can raise the issue without turning the public against the individual who may not have done it with ill-intentions.

“It’s these kind of issues that cause me grief. I have to think about it, figure out a way to deal with it, which will not hurt people,” Ms Tan said.

“I think everybody is trying his best. Everyone has their own focus and constraints, it’s just a matter of finding a way to synergise, collaborate.”

EVERY LITTLE BIT COUNTS

Volunteering amid Singapore’s nature does not always require an individual to invest a lot of time or money.

Healthcare professional Michelle Neo, 29, who volunteers as a guide at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, said a common misconception people have is that it is a very time-consuming endeavour.

“I’m here just once a month and that is very manageable,” she said, adding that she also has the flexibility to choose when she would like to volunteer for other activities.

People also have the wrong impression that volunteer work means helping out with registration or administrative tasks, said Ms Neo, who developed an interest for plants while collecting Young Scientist badges in primary school.

“When people hear that I’m volunteering as a guide, (they) are very surprised. They wonder whether I received professional training in this area … whether I need a degree. In fact … I do not have any educational specialisation in this but it can still be done,” she added.

Nature guide Jenny Lim, 52, who has a degree in science, said she barely recalls what she learned in school because “she studied only to pass the exams”.

“I never really liked botany (that) much,” said Ms Lim, who began to develop an interest in plants only after participating in a sensory trail with her students at Pulau Ubin about seven years ago.

The senior teacher at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore Woodlands Garden now picks up new plant knowledge from fellow volunteers and NParks officers at their monthly sharing sessions or  on WhatsApp chat group with them.

The nature guide at Pulau Ubin and the Istana also applied what she has learnt by setting up a butterfly garden at her school last year. 

To attract butterflies, they grow plants such as the Seven Candlesticks, Snakeweeds, Lantana and Rose Myrtle.

What gets her goat when she is volunteering is meeting individuals who insist on releasing non-native species, such as terrapins, into the wild and do not understand why this could damage the environment.

“There are those who might not understand the idea of why it’s important to protect our own native species and not just bring in insects or plants (that are not preyed on in that area),” she said. 

“(Sometimes) it takes time for them to buy your idea, but we don’t stop telling them what is right … We (just) do what we can.”

SINGAPORE - Following years of searching, avid banknote collector Patrick Loh finally got his hands on what he described as one of his most prized possessions: A $10 dollar note issued in 1961 by the Malaya and British Borneo Board of Commissioners of Currency, and pre-dating Singapore’s independence.

“I got my first piece probably about five to six years back. I paid over S$1,000 for it,” the 47-year-old engineer said. 


(Above: Portrait of Patrick Loh, 47, an avid banknote collector. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

Mr Loh estimates that his collection of more than 1,000 banknotes is worth over S$100,000. It is kept in a safe at home. “In the event of an emergency, besides worrying about my life, the first thing in my mind would be to grab my collection before I run. It’s not so much because of the monetary value but its sentimental value,” said the father of three.

Mr Loh’s interest in collecting banknotes started 30 years ago - on the day when he was given a S$20 note from the bird series as part of his pocket money as a teenager. He was immediately taken in by the intricacy of the note’s design, he recalled.

The Singapore currency turns 50 this year. It was on June 12, 1967, that the Malaya and British Borneo Board of Commissioners of Currency ceased to have currency-issuing powers, and Singapore issued its own currency. This came after Singapore and Malaysia could not agree on an arrangement for the adoption of a common currency.

Over half a century, the Singapore currency has undergone four makeovers - with orchids, birds, ships and portraits of the Republic’s first President Yusof Ishak printed on the banknotes.

In a little over 30 years - between 1967 and 1999 - the design was changed four times, providing collectors home and abroad with plenty of materials for their hobby. The latest design, the portrait series, which was introduced in 1999, is the longest-running series.

(Above: Portrait of Nat Toh, 31, an avid banknote collector. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

Mr Nat Toh’s interest in collecting Singapore banknotes started when he was in primary school, and he received his first S$10 orchid banknote from his mother. The 31-year-old oil trader has since expanded his collection to all the four series, as well as notes that were issued before Singapore became independent.

To complete his collection, which he estimates is worth more than S$50,000, Mr Toh even travelled overseas to England and Australia. “During World War II, some soldiers may have come here and then went back with some of the notes,” he said. Mr Toh said he keeps a S$10 orchid banknote in his wallet wherever he goes.

Often, the note becomes a “conversation starter” to people whom he meets as they have not seen it before, he said.
 
THROUGH THE YEARS  
Singapore’s first currency series was the orchid series, which was in circulation from 1967 to 1976. It had nine denominations, with a dominant feature of orchids in the centre of the front of each note.

The first Singapore notes to be printed carried the signature of Mr Lim Kim San. Mr Lim was Singapore’s Finance Minister between 1965 and 1967, and the inaugural chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore.

The second series was the bird series which was circulated from 1976 to 1984. The birds represented strength, independence and adaptability, depicting the values of a young Singapore, according to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) website.

The ship series was next, issued from 1984 to 1999. It paid tribute to the contributions of merchant shipping to the development of Singapore, which rose from an entrepot hub to become the busiest port in the world.


(Above: Portrait of artist Eng Siak Loy, 76, who designed the portrait banknote series. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

The portrait notes was launched on Sept 9, 1999. It featured the portrait of Singapore’s first President Yusof Ishak – who died in 1970 - honouring his contribution to the country.

There are seven denominations: S$2, S$5, S$10, S$50, S$100, S$1,000, and S$10,000. The series was designed by local artist, Mr Eng Siak Loy, who remains the first and only Singaporean to date to design an entire series for the Republic’s currency.

Some of the notes carry special features. For example, the lyrics of the Singapore national anthem is printed on the back of the S$1,000 note.

From time to time, commemorative notes and coins have been issued. For instance, in Dec 1999, to mark the coming millennium, three million commemorative S$2 notes were issued, with the prefix of the serial number replaced with a Millennium 2000 logo.

Polymer notes was introduced in the early 2000s. These notes are three to four times hardier than regular ones, according to experts. Both paper and polymer notes are in circulation today.

In July 2014, the MAS announced that it would stop printing S$10,000 notes to reduce the risk of money laundering. The notes are still legal tender.

DETERMINING A NOTE’S VALUE
So what makes a banknote more valuable than its face value? Collectors told TODAY that the value depends on factors such as rarity, age, condition, and whether a note contained a special serial number.

It is not a given that the value of a banknote rises over time, Mr Toh said. “In fact, inflation might even depreciate the value of the notes.”

He added: “The value really depends on demand and supply. For some notes the currency board may have printed a limited supply which increases their value.” 

For example, a S$5 orchid series banknote carrying the signature of Singapore’s late Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee is very rare, Mr Toh said. This is because a limited number was printed, and the value of such a note could be as high as S$1,000, he added. 


(Above: A set of replacement $50 bird series banknotes which were issued to replace damaged pieces during production. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

Banknotes with errors as well as those issued to replace damaged pieces during production are even rarer, and thus more value, collectors said.

Notes with error would usually be destroyed during the production stage. “Finding a banknote with an error is akin to striking 4D. It’s very rare,” Mr Toh said.

Mr Loh has had some Singapore banknotes with errors in his collection. These notes included some with mistakes in their serial number, or images that were misaligned. He once sold two pieces of S$100 banknotes with erroneous serial numbers for S$800 in total to another collector.


(Above: A $1 banknote issued in 1916, used during the straits settlements period. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY)

Currently in his collection, he has a S$5 note from the ship series which has ink smudges, and a few S$1 notes with the seal overlapping the signature, for example.

Also among his prized possessions is a 101-year-old $1 banknote issued on July 10, 1916, during the Straits Settlements period. It was passed down three generations, before it was sold to Mr Loh, who bought it for between S$300 and S$400.

The note, which remains in pristine condition, is the only one of its kind, according to Mr Loh, who visits auctions and dealers, as well as meets up with other traders to look for rare finds.
 
A THRIVING TRADE 
The business of buying and selling banknotes have been thriving over the years, given a new lease of life by the Internet. With online bidding, coin and banknote auction houses say they have seen an increase in interest. 

These days, apart from Singapore collectors, a portion of the bids come from overseas buyers, said Mr Leon Lee, 55, a partner of coin-and-banknote dealership Monetarium Singapore.

The company’s auction arm has held auctions for about two decades, running two a year in March and October.  

Another auction house, Mavin International, holds about three auctions a year. It was founded 15 years ago by banknote and coin enthusiasts, said Mr Cheung Pheichiat, 49, a co-founder. 

Auctions are usually held at hotels and each one may take an entire day or two to be completed. Depending on the interest in the items to be auctioned, around 50 to 100 people would usually attend the sessions in person, on top of those – usually a younger crowd - who would take part online, the auctioneers said. 

Recounting one of his most memorable auctions, Mr Lee recalled how a commemorative SG50 note – bearing the serial number 50AA000001 - with a face value of S$50 was recently sold for S$100,000. 

According to the MAS, the highest price paid for a single note in an auction was S$155,000, for a S$1,000 note from the portrait series bearing the serial number 2AA000001. It carried the signature of then-MAS chairman and Singapore’s second Prime Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong. 

Mr Cheung reiterated that auction activity has grown due to online bidding in recent years, which enable both local and foreign buyers to take part. Sometimes, there are even more people bidding online than in person at an auction, he said. 

Mr Toh, for one, is a fan of online trading of notes. Noting that it has drawn a new generation of collectors – he encounters young collectors on online discussions - he said he has sold some banknotes on eBay to overseas buyers from the United States and United Kingdom.  

‘NOT JUST MONEY, BUT PIECES OF ART’

With the portrait series in circulation for the almost two decades, collectors are hoping for a new series to add to their collections. They suggested portraits of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who died in 2015, as well as images of Singapore’s skyline and modern buildings.

Mr Loh cited the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore Flyer, Gardens by the Bay, and the Central Business District area as possible places to depict. “Singapore today has so many new buildings… It will be a bit boring if you stick with portraits for so long,” he said.

In particular, the collectors felt that a series featuring Mr Lee Kuan Yew would be a collector’s item, not just domestically but internationally given the former statesman’s standing. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, the MAS said it was unable to provide information on whether a new series was on the cards.  

For many of the collectors, their hobby provides a window for them to learn more about the country, including its history. 

Mr Loh said he would not part with his collection for any amount of money. He wants to leave it for his children – the youngest of whom, at 10 years old, has already shown an interest in the hobby. 

“(Banknotes) don’t appear to me as money to be spent. They are more like collectible items, pieces of art,” he said.

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SINGAPORE — With more than a century of history between them, Serangoon Junior College (JC), Tampines JC, Jurong JC and Innova JC will stop taking in students next year, as part of the biggest school merger exercise to date.

In response to falling birth rates and shrinking cohort sizes, 28 schools — including JCs for the first time — will be consolidated in 2019, the Ministry of Education announced last month.

For everyone associated with the schools, the news was not easy to take, although they understood the rationale. For some, it may have been only two years of their lives, but the time spent at their JCs made a big difference and helped shape what they would go on to become.

From students and teachers past and present, to canteen vendors and janitors, those who spoke with TODAY shared their fond memories of the schools and the values that would stay with them - long after their JCs are consigned to the history books. In this week’s Big Read, TODAY takes a close look at the four JCs, and catches up with former students, teachers and others, for a sense of what made the schools special in their eyes.

Take Mr Haniel Soh, 26, for example. Back in the days when he was a student at Serangoon JC, he was a self-confessed troublemaker - despite being a student leader. Among his long list of misdemeanours include getting his schoolmates to drink alcohol while on an overseas trip. After he got found out, he faced the wrath of his teachers and was suspended from school for a few days, but they did not remove him as house vice-captain - a simple gesture that stuck with him.

He said: “Despite (the gravity) of the offence, the teachers gave me a second chance... they allowed me to carry on serving the school...I really appreciated that second chance they gave me. I remember how they gathered the entire cohort in the hotel lobby, scolding us...The trip was meant to be about character development and moral growth… so they were quite disappointed when they saw that we did something stupid like that.” Today, Mr Soh is a teacher himself.

Other Serangoon JC alumni were grateful to the school - which was founded in 1988 - for giving them “second, third, fourth chances”, and paid tribute to the teachers for their sacrifices and dedication including the late Ms Rosalind Gurupatham Jeyamoney, who died eight years ago. Despite battling cancer, the literature teacher continued teaching, turning up in class in a wheelchair. Said one of her former students, Mr Syafiq Rafid, 28: “Part of the reason why I’m more outspoken now, is because she got students to speak their minds ... When I went for her funeral, (looking back), it’s amazing how one person can impact your life.”

It is not just teachers who left their mark on those who passed through the school gates.

Ms Alice Lim, or “Aunty Alice” as she is affectionately known to Innova JC students, has been running a drinks stall at the school canteen since it opened its doors in 2005. Showing off a stash of handwritten notes and cards which she has received from the students all these years, the 54-year-old said she treats the students like they are her own children. She could tell when students are feeling stressed, and would provide a listening ear - sometimes with a special concoction of green tea and passion fruit in hand. She created the drink to perk up the students. “You can see it in their eyes (when they are stressed)... I can’t do much but I can lend a listening ear,” she said.

Among the four JCs, Innova JC is the youngest but its former students noted how it managed to build up a school spirit quickly, with students and teachers chipping in to design the school uniform, and write the school song, among other tasks.

For Tampines JC, its alumni told TODAY that their time at the school saw them forge deep friendships with others from different races and socio-economic backgrounds, and these remain strong today. The school was the first JC to offer the Malay Language Elective Programme. Entrepreneur Khairul Amri, 30, noted that the school has one of the “most multi-racial communities you can find in a JC”. The former students also attested to a “kampung spirit”, which is encapsulated in the Hawaiian word “Ohana” - a term often used in the school by teachers and students alike, which relates to how family members should help one another in times of need and not leave anyone behind.

While these JCs may not have attracted the most academically-inclined students, many of their alumni have gone on to make their mark in society. Jurong JC, for example, can count Members of Parliament Mr Ang Hin Kee and Mr Pritam Singh among its former students. Another well-known former student is Mandopop singer-songwriter Eric Moo, who was talent spotted while performing at a college concert in 1983. Television actor Desmond Tan, who graduated from Jurong JC in 2004, recalled how the school gave its students “a lot of space and opportunities to showcase our talents”.

The decision to merge the JCs was painful but necessary, as Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng put it - and one that Mr Ng said he had agonised over. If things had been left as they were, several JCs would only be able to fill less than half of their desired first year intakes, with some possibly struggling to fill even 200 places, he said.

Still, the strong public reaction was understandable, he added. “This decision affects us personally, as students, alumni, parents and teachers,” he said. “It is not an easy transition, but let us — students, alumni, parents and teachers — all work at it together, to honour the identities of our schools even as we make the necessary adjustments for the future.”

After the announcement, there was an outpouring of emotion from the public, as alumni groups and school administrators swung into action to make sure the schools’ heritage will not be erased. Plans are afoot to preserve memories of the schools’ identity and culture, ranging from having a digital heritage archive, commemorative events, and using social media to source for ideas on how to go about doing this.

A Year 2 student at Serangoon JC, who only gave her name as Bernice, said the news of the mergers would make her and her peers “cherish what we have all the more”. “When you think about how this school (might not be here) anymore, it really hurts your heart quite strongly. Previously, you would think that you can just visit the school anytime and reminisce about the good memories… But three or four years from now, when you walk past Kovan, the school might (not be here anymore),” she said.

Innova JC alumnus Muhd Ilham Firdaus, 28, said he will “miss everything” about his alma mater. “It gave me a second chance when I needed it,” said Mr Muhd Ilham, who was close to quitting school after failing his examination before one of his teachers encouraged him to persevere. Now a social worker, Mr Muhd Ilham plans to hold his wedding photoshoot at the JC before the campus is closed.

While she was unsure about her next step, Ms Lim said she will miss her time at Innova JC, especially the vibrant atmosphere in the canteen. “Memories are forever, I will remember the students and teachers here,” she said, as she held the cards and notes which the students gave her close to her chest.

Some others were more sanguine. Ex-Tampines JC student Choy Wai Wan, 27, who is back at his alma mater teaching theatre studies and the drama elective programme, said: “Of course I’m sad, but as drama people, we always say, the show must go on.”