28 March 2015

In Memory of Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)

In Memory of Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)
A Personal Tribute

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's portrait with the orchid named after him, Aranda Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore Botanic Gardens

For the first time since I penned my maiden article on this blog way back in Aug 2007, we are featuring all our butterfly photos in black-and-white in this weekend's article. It is a mark of respect for the founding Prime Minister of the Republic of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015). He passed away at the age of 91 on 23 Mar 2015.

Mr Lee was Singapore's longest serving Prime Minister, having been elected into office on 5 June 1959, in the same year that I was born, and stayed on as PM until 1990. My earliest memories of Singapore was when my dad was posted to Johor Bahru when I was just a year old, and for a period over 7 years (until we moved to another state in Malaysia), weekend trips across the Causeway to Singapore to visit my cousins were always looked forward to in anticipation.

Back in those days, we didn't need passports and there were no long queues at the checkpoints (because there were none!). My dad's Volkswagen Beetle just chugged across the Causeway, and we always recognised the landmarks like the old Yeo Hiap Seng factory in Bukit Timah Road and driving up to Newton Circus meant that we would soon be reaching my uncle's house at Norfolk Road. I had fond memories of Orchard Road, in particular, shopping at Fitzpatrick's Supermarket, CK Tang and of course, yummy ice cream were some of the simple pleasures that I always looked forward to on our family trips to Singapore.

Fitzpatrick's Supermarket in Singapore in the 1960's. Anyone remembers this building?

My early impression of Singapore was that it was more vibrant and exciting than where I lived in Johor Bahru, and the lights, glitzy buildings and modern supermarkets were always more attractive and something to look forward to. Then there was Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whom practically everyone in my era would know as the Prime Minister of Singapore, and who did good things for the common people.

After my family moved away from Johor Bahru, school took up most of my time, but like any school kid during the 60's and 70's, we fashioned our own entertainment by being outdoors, climbing trees, catching longkang fish, playing with fighting spiders and of course, in my case, chasing after and collecting butterflies, which started a lifelong hobby that lasted to this day.

Over two decades from 1960, and in particular after the separation from Malaysia in 1965, we watched Singapore from afar. Back home, tensions grew and came to a boil on 13 May 1969 with the racial riots in Malaysia. As a young 10 year old school-going boy living in Petaling Jaya, almost at the heart of the riots, it was traumatic and terrifying - listening to and reading reports of wanton killing between the Malays and Chinese in KL. The curfew kept our family at home, with doors locked and windows shut for nearly two weeks, as I saw the remaining food in the pantry dwindling and how my mom sacrificed her share of the food at each meal so that my brother and I could eat our fill.

Singapore's progress in the 70's was certainly the envy of its neighbours, and the media always attributed all these success stories to the visionary thinking of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. By the early 70's my dad was posted back to my birthplace of Penang, and I was doing my GCE O and A levels. After I received my results, I tried applying for both local and foreign universities. An offer of a scholarship from the Public Service Commission of Singapore came along, and I jumped at the chance of an opportunity to continue my tertiary education in Singapore. The sponsorship of promising students from all over Asia was a product of Mr Lee's vision and educational policy to recruit the best for Singapore.

What attracted me (and many of my friends too) most about Singapore, is its policy on meritocracy. If you did well in your studies, it doesn't matter what your skin colour is, which religion you embrace, or who your parents are. I was given an offer of a professional undergraduate course in the National University of Singapore. My applications to the local universities yielded courses like Applied Science and Arts, which I had absolutely no interest in. I recall leaving Penang in May 1979 via the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) train, choo-chooing all the way down to Tg Pagar Station in Singapore. My life in Singapore started with three weeks of orientation (called ragging in those days) in one of the University Halls of Residence.

Being active in the Dunearn Road Hostels and Sheares Hall at NUS meant contributing my time and energy. In my five years there, my stay in the hostels taught me independence, commitment, loyalty, leadership and perseverance through all sorts of adversity. The experience taught me how to work with my peers and motivate others towards a common goal - life skills that were to become very relevant in my working life.

Ironically, my first indirect encounter with Lee Kuan Yew, was during his official visit to the University in 1983. Apparently, whilst driving past my hostel, he observed and remarked that there was a tree that was planted too close to the building, and that its roots may damage the foundation. That tree happened to be outside my room's window, and whose shade and greenery I had enjoyed for a couple of years. Much to my dismay, that same tree was chopped down the very next day! I later found out that the University's Estate Office had an overzealous staff who interpreted Mr Lee's comment as an instruction to remove the tree! Such was the power of Lee Kuan Yew's words, and the actions that followed. I didn't think that he meant for the tree to be cut down, and he probably did not drive past my hostel again for some time to notice that his well-meaning comment meant the demise of a tree. What was amazing about this story? That tree was at least 50m away from the road, and he was driven past in a car, yet made that observation. Most of us would have just enjoyed the view from the car and not notice anything!

Serving an 8-year bond in the public sector after graduation gave me a first-person insight of the governance that the Lee Kuan Yew administration had designed for Singapore - clean, efficient and systematic. In the 80's, the nation-building machinery sped along at a frenetic pace. We were churning out schools at the average rate of one per month by the mid 80's. My fellow architects and I gained valuable professional experience at a rate of at least twice to thrice the speed of our contemporaries in neighbouring countries - we designed and implemented schools, hospitals, courthouses, museums, airports, bridges, prisons (!), parks, Ministry HQs, police and fire stations, universities, laboratories and many other institutional buildings too numerous to mention here. We were literally thrown into the deep end of our profession, and had to learn fast. But the Singapore spirit prevailed.

It was an exciting era, and as Singapore progressed, developed and improved its physical infrastructure, so did the economy and fortunes of its people. I could feel the pride and sense of achievement in the country, as we leapfrogged our neighbours in practically every aspect of growth and development. Less than 10 years after I stepped onto this little island in the sun, I decided that this would be home and where I would carve out my career and raise my family. I became a proud citizen in 1988. Making that decision meant a commitment and appreciation to the country that I had largely benefitted from.

Working in the Public Works Department, we had to also serve the Istana where Lee Kuan Yew spent his working hours. From my colleagues I learnt that he was a man with exacting standards and high expectations. He was also frugal, and in one example, rejected a proposal (in 1995) to change his working desk that he had used since he became PM in 1959! His comment? "What's wrong with this desk? It is still good and serves its function!"

The years went by, and like most ordinary Singaporeans, I just admired and respected Mr Lee from afar. There were a couple of times when I had the opportunity to be at the Istana, but was never courageous enough to approach him for a photograph. (We didn't have smartphones and selfies in those days)

ButterflyCircle members after a survey at Istana in 2006

The years sped past, and in 2006 I was invited to check out the Istana's butterfly biodiversity after the late Mrs Lee asked "where are the birds and butterflies at Istana grounds, despite the lush greenery?". Singapore's Garden City and City in a Garden reputation did not happen by chance. We are known as a “City in a Garden” due to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s bold vision of greening Singapore. He saw this as a means of distinguishing Singapore from other cities, especially in the region. A green city would help convince potential investors that the place was well-run.

On 16 June 1963, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was then the Prime Minister, planted a tree at Farrer Circus to start Singapore on its greening journey. Mr Lee believed that introducing greenery would reduce the harshness of Singapore’s urbanisation, beautifying the city and making Singapore a more conducive environment to live in.

And thanks to Mr Lee's greening vision, we have a lot more biodiversity in Singapore than many would have expected in a city with such intensive development.  With ButterflyCircle members, we conducted a couple of surveys, and then advised the NParks curator on how to improve the butterfly diversity in Istana. It was during that period, when I also had the pleasure of meeting Mdm Ho Ching, the PM's wife, and that initial encounter culminated in the publication "A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore" in 2010. Thank you, Ho Ching!

As we look at what Singapore is today, and during this week of mourning by all Singaporeans for Mr Lee Kuan Yew, each of us had, at one time or another, benefitted from his vision and leadership. Singapore is by no means perfect - and no country will ever be. But it is the vision, spirit, dedication and determination of its leaders and people that make the difference. I made my decision 27 years ago to make that commitment to Singapore - a country that helped me grow and succeed in an environment of meritocracy and equality - without racial prejudice or religious bias. I am proud to be a Singaporean and be a part of Singapore's progress and success story. Majulah Singapura!

Farewell and Rest in Peace, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Thank you for Singapore. You are now reunited with the love of your life, Mdm Kwa Geok Choo in a better place. May the butterflies be with you! :)

Mr & Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, may your spirits soar above the clouds and watch over Singapore.  Rest in Peace.

Text and Photos by Khew SK

The Singapore Pledge
We, the citizens of Singapore,
pledge ourselves as one united people,
regardless of race, language or religion,
to build a democratic society
based on justice and equality
so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and
progress for our nation.

21 March 2015

Life History of the Ultra Snow Flat

Life History of the Ultra Snow Flat (Tagiades ultra)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Tagiades Hübner, 1819
Species: ultra Evans, 1932
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 37-43mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plant: Dioscorea glabra (Dioscoreaceae).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
On the upperside, the wings are dark brown. On the forewing, there is a white hyaline spot in each of spaces 4,5,6,7,8 and 11.  The forewing cell features an upper spot, which usually accompanied with a smaller lower spot. On the hindwing, there is a large white tornal area with its inner edge reaching vein 6. In this whitened area,  there are black marginal spots at the end of veins 1b, 2 3 and 4. There are additional black post-discal spots in spaces 5 and 6, lying at the edge of the whitened area. Underneath, the wings are similarly marked as per above but with the whitened area on the hindwing   extended to the basal area.

A Ultra Snow Flat perching on the underside of a leaf.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:  
This species is moderately rare in Singapore and its distribution is restricted to forested areas of the catchment reserves and in western wastelands. The adults are strong flyers and are more active in the cooler hours of the day. As is the case for the other Tagiades species, the adults have the habit of perching on the underside of a leaf between flights, and with its wings opened flat.

14 March 2015

Butterfly of the Month - March 2015

Butterfly of the Month - March 2015
The Bamboo Tree Brown (Lethe europa malaya)

The 3rd month of 2015 started quite uneventfully, with nothing out of the ordinary with regard to world news, besides the usual stuff filling our news portals daily. The weather is a lot drier now in Singapore, as the shift from the wet months of the year end gave way to rainless days and parched landscapes. Some sporadic bush fires that occurred were promptly put out by our efficient Fire Service (SCDF).

We are well into the Chinese zodiac's Year of the Goat now, as our new year celebrations ended after 15 days of feasting and tossing raw fish salad with vociferous "huat ah" during our numerous traditional "lo-hei" sessions to bring good luck for the coming year. And lucky were two punters, who won S$6M apiece in the Singapore Toto Lunar New Year Hongbao draw!

Speaking of fish, the spate of fish deaths in the waters of Singapore continues to be a mystery. It was reported that on Feb 28, a wave of plankton bloom wiped out almost all fish stock at several fish farms on the eastern coast of Singapore. The authorities said that as of early March, the bloom had killed an estimated 500 to 600 tonnes of fish after affecting 55 out of 63 fish farms along the East Johor Straits and like an invisible spectre, continues to spread within Singapore's waters. The plankton bloom is known to suck oxygen from the sea, hence killing all life in the water. Another symptom of global warming?

This month's feature butterfly is the Bamboo Tree Brown (Lethe europa malaya). The Bamboo Tree Brown primarily occurs in lowland forests where its preferred host plant, the bamboo, is cultivated. It is likely that its caterpillars may also feed on several species of Bambusa and other related types of monocotyledons in Southeast Asia.

A Bamboo Tree Brown shot in Southern Thailand, where the same subspecies malaya is also found

The butterfly appears to be more often observed during the rainy season months of the year and is most active the early and late hours of the day. In rural areas, it is occasionally attracted to the lights in houses, perching on the walls under the lights until a hungry house lizard (or locally known as the chichak) comes by.

This species is surprisingly uncommon and local in Singapore, where only a small number of sightings of the butterfly has been recorded and in very localised areas. Some areas where it was seen were at the Khatib Bongsu, Sime Forest, Pulau Ubin and at the Singapore Botanic Gardens (always not far from where its host plant grows).

A Bamboo Tree Brown perching on a sign at the Bamboo Grove at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, where it is often spotted

The Bamboo Tree Brown flies in a hopping manner quite similar to the related Mycalesis and Orsotriaena species and remains close to the ground. It stops to rest on the top surfaces of leaves or twigs, with its wings folded upright. The butterfly is skittish and has a wide circle of fear and is usually difficult to approach to photograph. A lot of patience on the part of the photographer is required before a decent shot of this butterfly can be achieved.

This species usually lurks in the vicinity of shady undergrowth amongst bamboo clumps and leaf litter. Once it is disturbed and springs from the undergrowth, it is not easy to track as it flies quickly and its cryptic underside wing patterns camouflages itself when it lands amongst thick bushes and dried leaves.

Occasionally, it is attracted to tree sap and rotting fruit on the forest floor, and whilst it feeds greedily, it may be distracted and gives an observer a better chance of approaching it before it flies off again. It is very rarely seen to display the upperside of its wings.

The Bamboo Tree Brown is predominantly brown above, with females having a wider subapical band on the forewing compared to the male. The undersides bear a number of cryptic patterns with thick lilac ocelli on the forewing. There is a short "tail" at vein 4 of the hindwing.

In Singapore, it is the 2nd largest species amongst the Satyrinae found here, only slightly smaller than the Common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda leda) which is another species whose caterpillar also feeds on monocotyledons.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Antonio Giudici, Federick Ho, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Loke PF, Jonathan Soong and Anthony Wong

07 March 2015

Book Review - Butterflies of Sri Lanka

Book Review - Common Butterflies of Sri Lanka
by Himesh Dilruwan Jayasinghe

A friend from Sri Lanka, Malinga Prabhasara, recently sent me a book that was hot off the press. Titled "Common Butterflies of Sri Lanka" by Himesh Dilruwan Jayasinghe, this 175-page A5 sized book features 100 species of butterflies that are commonly found in Sri Lanka. Sponsored and published by the Ceylon Tea Services PLC the book is a project backed by the Dilmah Conservation (the famous Sri Lankan tea brand known all around the world)

Map of Sri Lanka showing major towns (left) and topographical map (right)

Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country near the south-east of India in South Asia. Sri Lanka is a republic, governed by a presidential system. The legislative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of the commercial capital, and largest city, of Colombo. It is also an important producer of tea, coffee, gemstones, coconuts, rubber, and the native cinnamon, the island contains tropical forests and diverse landscapes with a high amount of biodiversity.

Blue Tiger (Tirumala limniace) ; Joker (Biblia ilithyia) ; Ceylon Lacewing (Cethosia nietneri)

Covering a land mass of 65,525 sq km, this island nation has a population of about 21 million residents.  It is a country that is well known for its rich history and culture, having been once a colony of the Portuguese, Dutch and English at different times in the past. Lying within the Indomalaya ecozone, although the country is relatively small in size, it has the highest biodiversity density in Asia. A remarkably high proportion of the species among its flora and fauna, 27% of the 3,210 flowering plants and 22% of the mammals, are endemic.

One of the endemic species of Sri Lanka, the Jewel Four-Ring (Ypthima singala)

There are about 245 species of butterflies in Sri Lanka.  The amazing fact is that there are about 26 species that are endemic to Sri Lanka! Being classified as endemic means a species is unique to a defined geographic location, such as an island, nation, country or other defined zone, or habitat type, and occurs nowhere else in the world.

The Common Butterflies of Sri Lanka is quite logically organised, not unlike many books of this genre.  Starting with the usual foreword, preface and acknowledgements, the book has the requisite basic introduction to butterflies, covering the life history from egg to adult, adult diet, protective mechanisms, mating and so on.  There is a full checklist of the butterflies of Sri Lanka with good information about their distribution.

The useful "how to use this book" pages - featuring the keys and symbols used for each species page

The organisation of each species page contains a lot of information, starting with size - large, medium, small and tiny (with reference sizes), the status of each species based on the IUCN convention and whether it is endemic. The six butterfly families are organised taxonomically into the six known family groups.

Typical species pages featuring the families Papilionidae, Pieridae and Nymphalidae

The description on each page is detailed, covering the physical attributes of the butterfly species, their behaviour and distribution. Information on the larval food plants (what we call here as caterpillar host plants) accompanies each species. Each species page features a page-width picture of the butterfly and a smaller inset of either the female or upper/underside of the species.

The Lycaenidae page (bottom) featuring the Monkey Puzzle (Rathinda amor) a pretty hairstreak that is on my hit list!

Each species has its English common name in bold text, followed by the scientific name up to species level only. A nice feature on the page is a small map of Sri Lanka, illustrating the species' distribution on the island - more abundant, less abundant and absent and colour coded for easy reference.

Hesperiidae pages from the book

Personally, I find that the text font used is a bit thin and hard to read. Perhaps the author could have used a bolder text to make the book easier to read (particularly by the more senior members of our community). The pictures for the species are large enough to show their distinguishing features and many are of high quality.  However, the pictures could be adjusted slightly brighter, as there is a general perception of the shots being a tad dark when I flipped through the book.

Crossover between Lycaenidae and Riodinidae pages.  Sri Lanka has only one species of Riodinidae

The six families are featured one after another, without a break or separation between the families. Although the families are colour-coded, it would have been better to at least have a break between the families so that a reader is aware when one family ends and another starts. However, it is acknowledged that this may be impractical, particularly for the Riodinidae, where there is only one known species in Sri Lanka.

Featuring the endemic species of Sri Lanka - these species are found only in Sri Lanka and nowhere else

At the end of the book is a section showcasing the endemic species of Sri Lanka. It is also noteworthy that the acknowledged National Butterfly of Sri Lanka, is the Sri Lankan Birdwing (Troides darsius), an endemic species that can be found nowhere else but in Sri Lanka.

Larval host plants section showing photos of the plants featured in the species pages

The special section on larval host plants is useful as an aid to identify these plants in the field and as additional knowledge for the enthusiast to be aware of which butterfly species' caterpillars uses these plants as their host plant.

Sri Lanka's National Butterfly, the Sri Lankan Birdwing (Troides darsius), an endemic species that is found only in Sri Lanka and nowhere else in the world, a valid claim that no other country can contest!

All in all, I found the book informative and useful. Though it only features less than half of the total number of species found in Sri Lanka, I am sure the book will be useful for beginners and the amateur enthusiast who may encounter these butterflies in the field. My heartiest congratulations to the author for a job well done, and for adding new knowledge and information to our butterfly world!

Book Review by Khew SK : Photos by Malinga Prabhasara and scans of the book courtesy of the author Himesh Jayasinghe.

References : 
  • Common Butterflies of Sri Lanka, Himesh Jayasinghe, Ceylon Tea Services PLC, 2015
  • A Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Sri Lanka, H Jayasinghe, C De Alwis and S Rajapaksha, Chamitha de Alwis, 2013
Special thanks to Malinga Prabhasara for taking the extra trouble to send me the two books on Sri Lankan butterflies, and for his photos featured on this blog article