Wetlands advocate

Harban Singh walking a suspended bridge at
Mt Mulu National Park, Sarawak
Zealous advocate for our Wetlands

I was born at the foothills of Bukit Cina in Malacca, the sixth child in a family of ten children.  Since young, I wanted to be a radio disc-jockey (DJ) and dreamt of becoming a nature park manager in my later years.  I remember the thrill of being among the 10 short-listed people out of 400 candidates who were interviewed at Rediffusion but I was ultimately not selected for the job.

I made my father happy when I agreed to go to teachers training college but the only thing I enjoyed there was playing hockey and being cheered on by the girls. 

So in 1983, I started my career in Human Resource Management as a pioneer staff with General Electric (USA) based in Muar and later at their operations in Kota Tinggi.  I worked with several Multi National Corporations and garnered wide experience in HR development including organizational development, setting systems, training, safety and sports organization.

Harban Singh takes visitors around the mangrove forest
in Tanjung Piai National Park as a nature guide
In 1986, I joined the Malaysia Nature Society (MNS) and discovered my passion for the environment as I started working as an Endau-Rompin nature park volunteer.  

I was a MNS Council Member since 2008 and traveled widely with the MNS and on my own to nature parks and heritage sites in Europe and USA.  In Asia, I had many adventures in Japan, Taiwan and Nepal including trekking the Himalayas, Karakoram in Pakistan and climbing Mount Kinabalu twice. 

Some of the best landscapes I’ve ever seen were during the five times I scaled Gunung Tahan, our nation’s highest peak.  

Harban Singh with daughter, Karen, at the summit of
Gunung Tahan in 2006
My training and experience as a fire-fighter, diver, life saver and first-aider came in very handy when I was group leader for four of these climbs.  My last climb in 2006 was particularly precious because my teenage daughter, Karen Kaur, completed the climb with me.

In 2004, my dream was fulfilled when I joined Johor National Parks Corporation as Ramsar Park Manager to manage three of Johor’s Ramsar wetland parks.  Malaysia has six Ramsar parks, with three or 50% of the nation’s Ramsar sites in Johor. 

My task was to manage the natural habitats and implement conservation while promoting tourism through training, education and research activities.  I also implemented other relevant plans to ensure that the Ramsar obligations are met to preserve the biodiversity of the mangrove ecosystems and ensure that advancement is achieved in harmony with the community livelihoods, nature and the environment. 

After the 2004 tragic Asian tsunami, mangroves became better understood by the general public and were recognized as vital natural ecosystems because besides protecting the coastline from erosion and surge storms, their massive root systems are efficient at dissipating wave energy.  When I was doing my Wetlands Management course with the Netherlands based UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in 2007, I was shocked to discover that there was no module on mangroves.  This was an opportunity for me to specialize in mangroves because they are predominantly found in South East Asia.

Harban Singh, teaching children the importance of
wetlands to the health of our environment
Today mangroves are the “crown jewels” of Iskandar Malaysia because potential investors in Johor are keen to know how our environment is being preserved while development is rapidly progressing. 

They are interested in sustainability and often visit our Ramsar sites for an eco-tour to enjoy key attractions like village homestays and the fisherman’s livelihood.  I had the privilege to be the official guide with distinguished guests like professors from local and foreign universities including Harvard University, USA, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Cuba and the Korean Ambassador to Singapore.

I believe more can be done for ecotourism in Johor especially in packaging tours to a niche market of eco-tourists and researchers.  The tours should involve the indigenous people, like the Jakun in the Endau-Rompin National Park, for cultural demos and promoting their interesting handicrafts like woven baskets and wood-based products.  The tourism ministry can partner with MNS and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to create a blueprint for tour packages that include nature guide, porters and even a cook.

Holidays for Harban Singh always includes
plenty of outdoor adventure
I moved to Pontian after living in Kota Tinggi for 10 years but I was very sad to see the forested land along the river, that once provided a variety of ecosystem services, had been developed into a new town.  Known as the riparian zone, this area also supported important wildlife habitats.  With seasons of heavy rain and high tides, the river burst its banks and thousands of people suffered when the town was affected by massive floods in 2006, 2007 and 2011 because now there is no riparian zone to absorb the excess water. 

Recently I compiled a guidebook as a reference point for tour guides, teachers and students entitled, “A pictorial guide to Tanjung Piai Johor National Park,” to increase the awareness and appreciation of our world-class mangroves in Johor. 

This is a step towards educating the public in the four components of Natural Resource Management with Education through Communication, Education and Public Awareness (CEPA), Conservation, Research and Ecotourism.  

I strongly encourage everyone to be aware of their role in natural resource management and I echo Charles Darwin who once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Harban Singh, 56, is a professional trainer who is passionate about the preservation of our wetlands.

This interview was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 8 June 2011

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