Introduction Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Wild Animals and Birds (Amendment) Bill (Bill No. 15/2020)
Mr. Speaker, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a Second time.”
My Journey to Today’s Bill
Sir, my journey in amending the Wild Animals and Birds Act (WABA) started more than 14 years ago, before I became a member of this House. On 13 March 2006, the media published my letter in which I said, “It would seem that there is much ambiguity in the Wild Animals and Birds Act and perhaps it is time to improve and amend the law to make it a more effective tool in the protection of wild animals.”
In the past 14 years, we have focused on strengthening other animal-related legislation, including the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act (ESA), the Animals and Birds Act (ABA) and the Parks and Trees Act (PTA).
The WABA has not been substantially amended since 1965. I’m glad that it is now time to amend this Act and align it with other animal-related legislation that we have already strengthened.
A Bill from the People
Sir, I’m happy to introduce this Bill on behalf of the people and the animals. This is a Bill drafted by the people, based on feedback and suggestions from the people.
This journey and this Bill has been made possible by the work of the Wild Animal Legislation Review Committee (WALRC). I’m proud to chair this committee of passionate individuals.
Feels like it was just yesterday but we held our first meeting in February 2018, more than 2 years ago.
In the process of developing our recommendations, we recognised that different segments of society hold different views about wildlife protection and human-wildlife co-existence.
Interest in animal welfare and nature conservation is growing, and many regard the preservation of wildlife as a matter of critical importance.
But there are others who are less comfortable with wildlife, or who are primarily concerned about wildlife matters only as they relate to public health and safety.
We tried our best to capture as many of these views as possible.
We started with the composition of the committee itself, which comprises a wide cross-section of society. We not only have representatives from the nature and animal welfare community, but also from the Singapore Pest Management Association, the Pet Enterprise and Traders Association of Singapore, the Singapore Buddhist Federation, the academic and legal community, and the Nee Soon East Youth Network.
To supplement the committee’s passion and expertise, we also conducted extensive public consultations. Our goal was to hear from the people themselves and to gauge the level of public support for our proposals.
The first public consultation was a face-to-face session in May 2018. It was followed by an online session on REACH from June to July 2018. We received over a thousand responses in our online session.
We took extra time to consult groups that had particular interests in some of the proposals. We held consultations with pest control companies in June 2018 and with religious organisations in June 2019.
Our final face-to-face public consultation was held in August 2019. There, we shared the proposed amendments and also explained why we did not proceed with some of the earlier proposed amendments.
In January 2020, we met with the MND GPC members to obtain their feedback on the proposed amendments.
Finally, this month, we published a post-consultation summary on REACH and on my Facebook page.
This two-year journey of public consultations has taught me and the other committee members a great deal. Through sharing and, more importantly, listening, we have reached a set of proposed amendments that, I believe, strengthen the protection, preservation and management of wildlife for the purposes of maintaining a healthy ecosystem and safeguarding public safety and health.
The Bill will amend the Wild Animals and Birds Act by, first, renaming it to the Wildlife Act. From WABA to WA, I think we now have a piece of law with the coolest name.
With that, I will now outline the key features of WA.
Prohibitions on Feeding of Wildlife
Sir, let me first declare my interest as the Chief Executive of ACRES.
In the past 19 years, I’ve worked closely with NParks and previously the AVA. We have worked hand-in-hand to protect animals in Singapore and safeguard their welfare and public safety.
I saw firsthand the gaps and how it was affecting our wildlife, public safety and the work of our NParks and AVA officers and NGOs.
The feeding and release of wildlife is a good example.
Sir, some years ago, we received reports of a person feeding a monkey in our park. Feeding wild animals in our parks is illegal and we advised her to stop, especially as the monkey had turned aggressive and started attacking other park visitors.
NParks issued her with a warning letter. However, instead of stopping, she started feeding the monkey at the apartments beside the park where it was not illegal to feed wild animals. The Parks and Trees Act does not cover areas outside the parks or nature reserves.
There was little NParks or ACRES could do to stop the feeding. She continued feeding the monkey. Soon, residents started to complain and we eventually had to remove the wild monkey.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case and the feeding of wildlife happens regularly. Too regularly.
It’s also not just monkeys but a wide range of other animals, including wild boars and birds.
Sir, feeding wildlife causes at least three types of problems:
For birds in particular, outside of parks and nature reserves, our law prohibits only the feeding of pigeons, not other birds.
This gap makes it harder for us to address the root of the problem when it comes to human-wildlife conflicts.
Prohibitions on Release of Wildlife
Let me now turn to the release of wildlife. Sir, over the years, I’ve personally seen the problems that arise when animals are released back into the wild without proper safeguards.
We’ve rescued so many animals who had been released. I cannot count the number of pig-nosed turtles that have turned up dead on our shores. Many think these are marine turtles who live in the sea, but they are actually freshwater turtles. They go through a very painful death when released into the sea.
While we do our best to rescue these animals, many do not survive. The animals pay with their lives.
In my speech on the Parks and Trees (Amendment) Bill, I shared my concerns about the current legislation and proposed to prohibit the release of animals anywhere, on land or in water, in Singapore. I proposed that we should not restrict these prohibitions to only certain areas.
Specifically, I said, “Animals are not stationary and have the freedom to travel from unrestricted areas to nature reserves. Hence, I see little rationale in creating demarcations when prohibiting the release of animals.”
Sir, the release of animals poses many concerns as well.
Today, there are existing controls in the PTA on the feeding and release of wildlife in our parks and nature reserves.
The new Sections 5A and 5B in the Wildlife Act extend these by prohibiting the feeding and release of wildlife throughout Singapore, unless approved by the Director-General, Wildlife Management.
We acknowledge that the majority of people who feed or release animals do not do so for malicious reasons; in fact, it is often the opposite.
They do so out of compassion and a genuine desire to help animals. Thus, the solution cannot only be to rely on the law to regulate behaviour, but to first help them understand that the feeding and release of wildlife causes more harm than good, so they are internally motivated to change.
We consulted the relevant stakeholders, particularly religious groups, on how to achieve this. For instance, we discussed alternatives to mercy release with local Buddhist organisations.
We can build on and scale up what a Buddhist temple has practiced by inviting pet owners to get their animals blessed and animal welfare charities to stage an adoption drive for strays.
The temple’s spiritual director said, “Buying and releasing animals is actually not good for the environment, so it’s much better if we can feed and rehome strays.”
Other ideas raised were volunteering at animal shelters or tree-planting. I thank the local Buddhist community for their inputs. The WALRC will continue to work with the community on education and outreach efforts surrounding feeding and release.
Mitigating Harm from Wildlife Traps
Next amendment, wildlife traps.
One of the most common questions I’ve been asked over the past 2 decades is, “Singapore got wildlife meh”. We do. Plenty of wildlife and our biodiversity is amazing.
Our wildlife live in our parks and nature reserves where they receive protection under the PTA. But those who live outside parks and nature reserves also need similar protection as they can be targeted by poachers.
The WALRC contemplated the need for stronger controls on nets and traps outside parks and nature reserves. We were concerned about both the deliberate poaching of wildlife as well as incidental harm inflicted on wildlife caused by the inappropriate use of nets and traps.
In recent years, we have seen cases of our beloved otters being killed in traps near Changi Sailing Club and along Marina Promenade.
Currently, NParks can prosecute poachers for taking, or attempting to take, wildlife. But it is still challenging for NParks to enforce against poachers as traps are often left unattended, or may simply be abandoned.
So instead of only focusing on how to catch and prosecute people, we asked ourselves: what more can we do to mitigate the harm to the public and wildlife caused by nets and traps?
One solution to this is the new section 10A, which empowers NParks to dismantle and dispose of unattended or unauthorised traps in any place.
If the place is owned or occupied, NParks will need to give reasonable notice in writing to the owner or occupier before conducting its checks. This is meant for more routine inspections.
However, if an offence is suspected – such as if NParks receives a specific tip-off that poaching activities are being carried out on a private property – NParks will be empowered under the new section 11A and 11B to enter without notice to search for and seize the trap.
We also wanted to more strongly deter the use of snare traps. Snare traps use trigger-activated nooses to trap wildlife, often maiming or killing them in the process. These are dangerous not only to wildlife but also to humans, especially young children.
The existing Section 9 of WABA sets out higher penalties for wildlife traps that may also harm humans, such as spring guns or pitfalls.
We have updated this provision – which is now in the new Section 7 – to include snare traps, so those who use them will also be liable to higher penalties.
Exclusion of Species
Another issue the WALRC grappled with was whether all wildlife species should be equally protected under the Act. This debate got quite interesting.
One day I received a call informing me that the people keeping ants were very angry with me. To be honest, I never knew people kept ants as pets.
But actually and technically I too keep ants as pets. My 3 little angels at home drop crumbs and food everywhere and we now have a fair number of ants living with us and lovingly fed by my daughters. I do tell my daughters ants are our friends.
I was told the people were angry as I was proposing amendments to the law that will make the keeping of ants illegal. That is not true.
Ants are invertebrates and we had a huge debate on how invertebrates should be treated under the Act.
On one hand, there are threatened invertebrates like horseshoe crabs that should be protected.
But on the other hand, it seems excessive to disallow people from killing animals like cockroaches, or trapping and keeping insects for leisure or educational purposes, such as ant-keeping or teaching kids about animal life cycles.
Let me assure everyone that we will not make the above practices illegal.
The Bill provides for a calibrated approach to be taken in cases like this. The new Section 20 empowers the Minister to exempt any person, place or wildlife, or any class of persons, places or wildlife, from any or all provisions of the Act by order in the Gazette.
This means that some activities that do not undermine the overall aim of wildlife protection could be carved out.
Using Section 20, I understand that MND will exempt pests and non-threatened invertebrates from protection against killing and trapping.
However, we should not exclude invertebrates from the Act altogether.
For example, we should not allow the unregulated import or release of dangerous or invasive invertebrates, such as the venomous bulldog ant or invasive fire ants, which could wreak havoc on our ecosystem and cause harm to the public.
There will be additional safeguards to ensure that threatened invertebrates are adequately protected. Most of these threatened invertebrates are in our parks and nature reserves, and today it is already an offence to kill or trap them under the current PTA.
The Bill additionally empowers the Minister to prescribe a new list of “protected wildlife species”. Selected threatened species, including invertebrates, can be put on this list, such that they can be protected beyond our parks and nature reserves. I will elaborate more on this later.
In summary, you can keep ants as pets and you can trap them outside of parks and nature reserves. But if you plan to import them, trap them within parks and nature reserves, or trap selected threatened invertebrates, you will need NParks’ approval.
90% of the respondents on the REACH consultation agreed with this broad approach and felt that at least threatened invertebrates should also be protected from killing, keeping or capturing without a permit throughout Singapore.
That said, we are aware that some may accidentally or unknowingly violate the rules, especially if they are less familiar with wildlife. The WALRC and NParks will work with stakeholders on public awareness campaigns, and I trust that NParks will enforce the law fairly and reasonably.
Revision of Penalties and Penalty Structures
We move on now to the question of penalties. The penalties under the current Act are far too low to deter would-be poachers and traffickers.
Illegally trading in exotic pets is only punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 under the existing Act. Some of these animals fetch much more on the black market.
Clauses 7, 9, 10 and 12 thus introduce higher penalties for all offences to bring the Wildlife Act on par with more updated animal-related legislation, namely the ABA, ESA and PTA.
Clause 7 also introduces heavier penalties for animal-related businesses that kill, trap, take or keep wildlife. This is necessary because first, these businesses are capable of causing much more harm than individual offenders, as in the case of a wildlife management company illegally killing or trapping wildlife.
Second, these businesses have a stronger duty of care towards animals.
Third, businesses are generally more financially capable of paying fines, so a higher fine quantum is needed as a stronger deterrent.
The definition of “animal-related business” is the same as the one in the ABA, which also includes animal welfare groups like ACRES.
There will also be higher penalties for repeat and recalcitrant offenders. The proposed penalty structure has two tiers, with one tier for the first convictions, and another tier for second and subsequent convictions.
We further saw a need to more strongly protect certain native threatened wildlife species, similar to how the ESA more strongly protects globally threatened species listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Take the Sunda pangolin, for example, which is both CITES-listed and native to Singapore. Poaching and selling it locally would only be liable to up to a $1,000 fine under the existing Act, whereas illegally importing a pangolin that was poached elsewhere could be penalised by up to $50,000 and/or 2 years’ imprisonment under the ESA.
Clause 2 thus introduces “protected wildlife species” to be prescribed by the Minister. I understand that MND intends to take reference from the CITES Appendices and the Singapore Red Data Book in putting together this list of protected species.
But this is not to say that every species found in those lists will automatically be prescribed on the protected wildlife species list. I understand that MND and NParks will develop a robust selection criteria. The general principle will be that the protected wildlife species list will contain native species that are domestically threatened.
I hope that the list will be progressively refined and amended in consultation with experts and the nature community.
Clauses 7 and 9 set out that killing, trapping, taking, keeping, selling or exporting these protected species will be punishable by the highest penalties under the Act – up to $50,000 in fines and/or 2 years’ imprisonment, on par with the ESA.
Empowering NParks to Issue Wildlife-Related Directions to Developers
Sir, beyond the WALRC’s recommendations, in 2018, I raised in Parliament that there is a gap in the enforcement of certain conditions imposed on developers under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) framework.
Take for example a development project that is near a known wildlife habitat. If the developer deliberately killed a wild animal to make way for works, it would be an offence under the existing WABA.
If the animal was killed in a nature reserve, it would also be an offence under the PTA.
In addition, as part of the EIA requirements, NParks might have required the developer to install hoardings to prevent wildlife from venturing out onto the road. However, if the developer failed to do so and the wild animal walked onto a road straight into the path of an unwitting motorist, there is currently limited recourse under the law.
I’m glad to share that after discussion with MND and NParks, we have a new Section 10 that will empower the Director-General, Wildlife Management to issue directions to developers to carry out wildlife-related measures to safeguard wildlife, public health or safety, or the health of the ecosystem.
The relevant wildlife-related EIA conditions can thus be formally issued as directions, and contravention of these directions would constitute an offence punishable by up to $50,000 and/or 6 months’ imprisonment.
This would give the EIA process additional “teeth” and serve as a stronger incentive for developers to comply with EIA conditions.
Strengthening NParks’ Enforcement Powers
Finally, to ensure that the WALRC’s recommendations can be effectively implemented, we saw a need to strengthen NParks’ enforcement powers.
Clauses 10 to 15 would largely align NParks’ powers under the Wildlife Act with those under the ABA and ESA. This includes allowing NParks to direct people to pay the costs of repatriating smuggled wildlife in a way that ensures that the wildlife is properly cared for.
This is so the Government does not have to bear the costs of repairing the damage caused by smugglers, and is similar to the existing powers in the ESA, for dealing with smuggled CITES-listed species.
We also propose a new power for the court to be able to forfeit conveyances used in the commission of a convicted offence. The risk of losing their vehicles would serve as a stronger deterrent to would-be smugglers.
Nonetheless, we recognise that there must be safeguards to expanded powers. The court may not order the forfeiture of very large conveyances or aircrafts or trains used for regular passenger service to and from Singapore, as well as conveyances that were used unlawfully without the owner’s knowledge or consent.
Sir, let me end by once again thanking members of the Wild Animals Legislation Review Committee for all their hard work, for helping to draft all the proposed amendments in this Bill and for their unwavering commitment towards protecting our wildlife and nature spots in Singapore. My heartfelt thanks to:
I would also like to thank MND and NParks for their views and suggestions. NParks served as a resource panel to the WALRC. This helped us better plan out which wildlife protection outcomes would be best achieved via changes to legislation, and which could be done via other means.
We worked to ensure the proposals were practical, and could be implemented on the ground by NParks later on. MND and NParks also made some suggestions for additional amendments, some of which are also contained in this Bill.
I also want to specially thank Minister Desmond, Minister Lawrence and SPS Xueling for all their guidance and support for this Bill.
Last but certainly not least, a big thank you to members of the public for speaking up, for your thoughtful suggestions and constructive criticism. Thank you for joining us on this journey together.
Mr. Speaker, we all hope that the Wild Animals and Birds (Amendment) Bill will be an important step in strengthening wildlife protection legislation in Singapore.
Mr. Speaker, Sir, I beg to move.
Watch the speech here
Watch the response to MPs’ clarifications here