Should S'poreans boycott Botanic Gardens exhibitions because of "Dendrobium Thein Sein"?

The panda that trampled on the true orchids

Ravi Philemon

“Earth Hour Singapore is taking place this Saturday March 28 at 8.30 pm…(and) official celebrations will be taking place at the Botanic Gardens…”, announced World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Singapore recently. 

The Online Citizen was invited to the press conference which was to be held at the Botany Centre in the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG).  But the press conference was not to be.  If there was a proper media conference as announced, a question was begging to be asked, “Why was Singapore Botanical Gardens chosen as the venue for the press conference and the multimedia presentation for the Earth Hour?”

This question begs the asking because SBG recently hosted an orchid naming ceremony for Thein Sein, the Prime Minister and the fourth-highest ranking general of the junta which rules Myanmar.  The junta is well known for its atrocities against its own people and for the curbing of social and political rights. 

A brutal indictment

In 2005, former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and South Africa’s retired Bishop Desmond M Tutu, wrote a report on Burma for the United Nations Security Council. The 2005 Havel/Tutu report was a complete indictment of the most brutal military dictatorship in the world today. The report indicated that the military kidnaps male children at an early age and trains them in the use of weapons by age eleven. It is estimated that nearly 70,000 children have been forced to join the military in this manner. The country is also the world’s leading producer of heroin and is heavily involved in drug trafficking.

In addition to the drugs and rampant child abuse, thousands of Burma villages have been systematically destroyed by the military Junta. Over 200,000 refugees have fled the country to escape the brutality of the regime. In Burma, there are no basic human rights, healthcare, education, political rights, or free speech. Atrocities like murder, rape, and forced labor are quite common.

In addition, HIV and AIDS are a major problem in the country as well. In effect, the military’s corrupt ruling Junta has succeeded in making Burma one of the poorest countries in the world.

More recently, Amnesty International reported on the Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic minority in Burma who are subjected to multiple restrictions and human rights violations by the ruling junta – among them, restriction of movement, forced labour, forced eviction and land confiscation and various forms of extortion and arbitrary taxation.

A virus amongst the bona fide

SBG has tarnished and dishonored the true VIPs after whom orchid hybrids have been named in the VIP Orchid Garden of SBG.  The orchid hybrids of bona-fide world leaders like Dendrobium Margaret Thatcher and Renantanda Akihito must have bowed their heads in shame to be placed alongside Dendrobium Thein Sein.  Dendrobium Memoria Princess Diana and Vandaenopsis Nelson Mandela, the orchid hybrids of real social and human-rights activists, must have surely felt that Dendrobium Thein Sein was actually a virus among them.

Even if the WWF does not concern itself primarily with issues of human rights abuses of any regime, should not WWF  havreconsidered using SBG as one of its main venue for its Earth Hour activities in Singapore to show its displeasure at the Botanical Gardens’ hosting of the orchid naming ceremony for Thein Sein; considering the fact that wildlife and natural resources are being abused by the ruling junta of Burma?

WWF itself has named Burma as a hot-spot for ivory and elephant trading and it had also cited that tiger and wildcats parts are often sold openly in Burma.  London-based environmental group Global Witness estimates that 1.5 million tonnes of illegally logged timber; worth at least $350 million was shipped illegally into China in 2005.

WWF Singapore has no response

The Online Citizen queried WWF International with this very same question and they replied, “Thanks for your email and interest in WWF’s Earth Hour. Unfortunately, do the huge number of events happening around the world covering Earth Hour, we are not in a position to know the specific details of the event you mention. This would have been organized by the WWF-Singapore office…” after which they indicated the contact details for WWF Singapore.

Upon querying WWF Singapore, they replied, “I understand that you had some concerns regarding the use of the Botanical Gardens? I was interested to hear about your concerns from my colleagues but unfortunately on this occasion the issue you raise re: Myanmar is not really something the WWF has a response on.”

How could WWF Singapore not have a response to such a pertinent query?  By refusing to answer a question that has a logical and precise relevance to the matter at hand, has WWF Singapore reneged on being the well-renowned environmental activist organisation that it is reputed to be?  Did Weber Shandwick, the public relations firm which touts itself as “one of the world’s leading public relations firms with an unprecedented and award-winning network across Asia Pacific, reaching from China to Australia and India to Japan”, and hired by WWF Singapore to help organise the Earth Hour events, fail to advise the latter properly on the implications of using SBG by WWF Singapore for its events? 

For over four decades the Panda logo has been a recognizable symbol of WWF and its efforts in wildlife and habitat conservation. But the Earth Hour celebration by the Panda in SBG is indeed a sad day; for it was a day when the Panda trampled on the true Orchids.

Organisations like WWF Singapore are in best position to exercise their corporate citizenry, to pressure SBG over the orchid naming issue.  Having said that, should every organisation which professes to support human rights and green issues, now avoid using SBG since Dendrobium Thein Sein in all probability may not be removed from the SBG’s VIP Orchid Gardens?  It is a decision best left to the organisations themselves. But such decisions should be done only after careful consideration of all options.  And when queried on their right in exercising these options, such organisations should not reply “we have no response”, which actually means that they have not thought through the implications.

This year SBG celebrates its 150th anniversary.  In conjunction with the celebrations SBG has organised a month long exhibition titled, “The seed that changed the world”.  Should concerned Singaporeans boycott this exhibition because of the “Orchid that tainted the Gardens?”

Cartoon of orchid from My Sketchbook.